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