Stephen Chan: The famous Dutch the­olo­gian Hans Küng once con­vened a par­lia­ment of the world’s reli­gions to come up with a com­mon eth­ic, think­ing that a com­mon eth­ic was pos­si­ble amongst all of the dif­fer­ent con­fes­sion­al enti­ties of the world. And indeed they man­aged to achieve a com­mon eth­ic. But when it came to sign­ing off the doc­u­ment that they had labo­ri­ous­ly com­posed, there were all kinds of prob­lems. The Islamic del­e­ga­tion want­ed to pref­ace the dec­la­ra­tion with the words In the name of God the mer­ci­ful.” They didn’t want to men­tion the name of God. They didn’t want to pos­sess, as it were, any kind of sole author­ship of this doc­u­ment, but because the for­mu­la­tion is one which is very famil­iar from the Koran, oth­er reli­gious groups objected.

And then when final­ly they came up with a for­mu­la­tion, which still involved the name of God, the Buddhist del­e­ga­tion object­ed because many of their mem­bers did not nec­es­sar­i­ly believe in a cre­ator God. It’s pos­si­ble to be a com­plete the athe­is­tic Buddhist, for instance, but still very reli­gious in terms of your athe­ism. After many addi­tion­al weeks of labor­ing over these pref­ac­to­ry words, final­ly a com­mon eth­ic was agreed.

Then Hans Küng tried anoth­er exer­cise. He got the German politi­cian Helmut Schmidt to con­vene a sec­u­lar pan­el to see what a sec­u­lar code of ethics would look like. And then they com­pared what came up with the sec­u­lar group and what came out of the par­lia­ment of the world’s reli­gions. And Hans Küng felt tri­umphant that there was not only an ecu­meni­cal­ism, but some­thing in terms of ethics that tran­scend­ed the divides between those who were reli­gious and those who were not.

The only prob­lem is that the code of ethics that result­ed, although it reads very well, is very much a com­mon ethics. That is there’s a cer­tain com­mon­al­i­ty which is estab­lished on a cer­tain gen­er­al­i­ty. Everyone agrees, for instance, that one should help the sick, the wound­ed, and the dying. But if we take the case of triage, you have doc­tors work­ing in a field hos­pi­tal. People are stream­ing in from some war zone seek­ing for help. A pesti­len­tial zone, for instance. The doc­tors only have enough med­i­cine to treat one in three peo­ple. How do you make the deci­sion as to which of those peo­ple beg­ging for help you do not treat?

Doctors say that they will treat those who’ve got the great­est chance of sur­vival. If you can tell who has the great­est chance of sur­vival, well and good. But at the same time it means leav­ing a lot of peo­ple to die with­out any pos­si­bil­i­ty even of hop­ing for recov­ery, for their own survival.

What hap­pens, how­ev­er, if one third of those have got a chance of sur­viv­ing but you don’t have enough med­i­cine for all of them? Well, on what basis does selec­tiv­i­ty then take? There’s a com­mon­al­i­ty there. They have a chance of recov­ery. But not every­body can be treat­ed. Do you start choos­ing on arbi­trary grounds? On ran­dom grounds? Do you start choos­ing from those who are your own? Those who are of your own nation­al­i­ty? Those who are of your own eth­nic­i­ty? Those who are of your own religion?

At what stage does con­tin­gency inter­vene in mat­ters of ecu­meni­cal com­mon­al­i­ty? At what stage does con­tin­gency over­come the imple­men­ta­tion of com­pas­sion? And these are issues not dealt with in ecu­meni­cal debate. And this issue of con­tin­gency, what if con­tin­gency is found­ed on trau­ma? All kinds of trau­mas that are out­side the scope of reli­gion, or which are blessed by reli­gion, think­ing that has no choice but to par­tic­i­pate in what may become atrocity?

For instance the Catholic church has very very high moral sta­tus. It has very high moral teach­ings. And yet in the geno­cide of Rwanda, Catholic priests were involved in encour­ag­ing the geno­cide. Even the geno­cide of Tutsi peo­ple who were them­selves Catholic, in this case eth­nic­i­ty tak­ing pride of place over reli­gion. So even if you estab­lish an ecu­meni­cal­ism, con­tin­gency issues and con­di­tions of great trau­ma can over­come your iden­ti­fi­ca­tion of God through your reli­gious foundation—it obvi­ates it. 

And if this trau­ma becomes so great, it can do one of two things. In our con­sid­er­a­tion, it can either over­come your reli­gious foun­da­tion, or it can ampli­fy it in a cer­tain way in which the enact­ment of atroc­i­ty in the name of reli­gion becomes greater than the teach­ings of com­pas­sion with­in that reli­gion. This is some­thing not only able to be asso­ci­at­ed with Islamic sui­cide bombers, for instance, but also with Christian mar­tyrs, to do with those who are zealots who are pre­pared to sac­ri­fice them­selves in what we would call a deon­to­log­i­cal way, in any reli­gion. After all, the will­ing­ness of Jesus to go to the cross was a deon­to­log­i­cal act. It did him­self harm. It was will­ful self-harm on behalf of a belief. The extent to which this harms oth­ers is real­ly the extent of the real debate as to whether or not a deon­to­log­i­cal approach should be adopt­ed to study­ing the nature of trau­ma and why peo­ple under­take a deon­to­log­i­cal action so that they’re able to express what is a fun­da­men­tal belief to themselves.

But in fact the arche­type of all of this can be found in Greek mythol­o­gy. It can be found in the great play of Antigone and how she refus­es to leave her broth­er, who is a trai­tor to the city of Thebes, unburied. He’s led a rebel­lion against his native city. It’s failed. He dies in bat­tle. The regent of the city Creon for­bids the fall­en trai­tor to be buried. Let the birds of the air eat his bones.”

The sis­ter, Antigone, refus­es to obey the regent. And she’s impelled by what the French psy­cho­an­a­lyt­ic philoso­pher Jacques Lacan called ate,” the Greek term for a fren­zy. She is over­come by a fren­zy on behalf of a nor­ma­tive impulse, towards a nor­ma­tive belief, in a nor­ma­tive con­di­tion, that it is unnat­ur­al, unspir­i­tu­al, unprin­ci­pled, and uneth­i­cal to leave the dead unburied. And she’s pre­pared to sac­ri­fice her­self, in what Creon regards as a mad­ness, for the sake of being able to bury her brother. 

This idea of fren­zy, when it’s brought to spir­i­tu­al and reli­gious beliefs, over­comes all attempts at ratio­nal decon­struc­tion analy­sis, and philo­soph­i­cal inves­ti­ga­tion of reli­gion, and over­comes all kinds of endeav­ors at ecu­meni­cal union and ecu­meni­cal com­mon­al­i­ty. So that when we talk in very high-minded and I think desir­able terms of a hermeneu­tics of reli­gious engage­ment, seek­ing for the inter­nal truth of a reli­gious teach­ing, using hermeneu­tics in the sense that Gadamer used it, for instance, that there was a clair­voy­ant lumi­nos­i­ty that could be deci­phered almost by poet­ic means in the spir­i­tu­al teach­ings of any great faith. This is all very well, very good, and very ele­vat­ed. But does it answer the prob­lems of ecu­meni­cal­ism when it is con­front­ed by trau­ma in today’s world?

Further Reference

Religion and World Politics course information


Help Support Open Transcripts

If you found this useful or interesting, please consider supporting the project monthly at Patreon or once via Square Cash, or even just sharing the link. Thanks.