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?
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