Religious Ethics in Daily Life
The following notes are essentially inspired by and developed as part commentary on the views of Rabbi Marc Gellman and Monsignor Thomas Hartman from their article on Religious Ethics in Daily Life in Religion For Dummies. (Available on the Net) Readers should check the original article for themselves if they want to be assured that I do not misrepresent Gellman and Hartman.
Gellman and Hartman see religious ethics as being in effect the moral principles that are sufficiently accepted by members of the religions to be thought to set the standard for what is and what isn’t acceptable behaviour. They note that some of the principles like the “golden rule” are surprisingly similar from one religion to the next. Having encountered a relatively large number who see a religion like Christianity as being exclusive in the teachings of Jesus I would like to add when specific historical examples from the followers of other faiths are considered there are plenty of examples from other faiths who appear to demonstrate the same or even better ethical standards. Those who exemplify their faith’s ethical ideals are typically thought to be representing the ancient wisdom of their religion, and their example is often a key part of the traditions and teaching of each major religion.
Although it is obvious on reflection, I suspect we overlook those around us and look for our saints amongst our leaders and it is true that down through the ages great religious leaders automatically win respect. There would be few who would not recognize the special qualities in Mahatma Ghandi, Francis of Assisi, Archbishop Desmond Tutu, Mother Teresa and their equivalents in other religions. Yet many of the personal virtues, and in particular: honesty, concern for neighbours, humility, gratitude, and a persona which conveys hope and a concern for justice are also found with the quiet achievers amongst the laity.
One caution I would offer. While there is no doubt that fine examples of those living out their faith because this is the real world we also need to acknowledge that for most of those attempting to live their principles, whether they are leaders or those merely humbly doing their best to follow their ideals, very few are considered as faultless in every respect. On the other hand it seems to me all society benefits from those seeking to develop those virtues living out those principles in community.
The golden rule: A universal principle?
Treat others as you want to be treated. Sound familiar? It is so widely valued as an aphorism it is often assumed to be an exclusive insight of our own religion. Popularly known in the West as the “golden rule”, this rule encourages people to begin to understand that their own thoughts about resentments, about unkindness and conversely, pleasures from unexpected kindness are shared by others. The golden rule serves as a reminder that what we see as hurting us is just as likely to hurt others. Putting it the other way, what restores us would be just as helpful in restoring others.
In nearly all the world’s religions, personal morality begins with this same simple concept: Treat others as you would like to be treated. As such, the golden rule is perhaps the most basic of the personal virtues.
The different faiths all have their own version of this universal message. Gellman and Hartman (see above) have extracted the following:
• “Not one of you is a believer until he desires for his brother what he desires for himself” (40 Hadith of an-Nawawi 13, Islam).
• “Wound not others, do no one injury by thought or deed, utter no word to pain thy fellow creatures” (The Law Code of Manu, Hinduism).
• “Do not do to others what you would not like yourself” (The Analects 12:2, Confucianism).
• “If you do not wish to be mistreated by others, do not mistreat anyone yourself” (Counsels of Adurbad 92, Zoroastrianism).
• “We obtain salvation by loving our fellow man and God” (Granth Japji 21, Sikhism).
• “Having made oneself the example, one should neither slay nor cause to slay. . . . As I am, so are other beings; thus let one not strike another, nor get another struck. That is the meaning” (Dhammapada, Buddhism).
• “One should not behave towards others in a way which is disagreeable to oneself. This is the essence of morality. All other activities are due to selfish desire” (Anusansana Parva 113.8, Hinduism).
• “Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself” (Leviticus 19:18, Judaism).
• “Therefore, all things whatsoever ye would that men should do to you, do ye even so to them.” (Matthew 7:12, Christianity).
My own observation by way of commentary is that to wish to apply the golden rule or its equivalents still leaves us with the task of finding new ways to meet contemporary situations. In practice it is not always immediately obvious how best to apply the Golden Rule because when we try to discover what is best for others we find it difficult when we do not share their local mind-set and perceived history.
Try formulating an answer to any or all of the following and if you feel you can, leave your answer in the comments box below:
Is it an application of the Golden rule to stop local farmers from burning tropical forests to establish better income by growing palm oil?
Is it applying the Golden rule to destroy towns sheltering ISIS fighters (and in the process add to the refugee problems?) If it comes to that should we also ask that nations involved in the bombing also be involved with the care of the refugees and commited to the subsequent re-build.
Is it the Golden rule to insist that Jehovah’s Witnesses allow their children to have blood transfusions in the course of hospital operations when they believe that it endangers their eternal future?
Should the Golden rule allow for conscription into the armed services when our nation is at war in a foreign region?
Does the Golden rule help us decide when limited Government resources should be diverted from health, education and social welfare and into overseas aid?
The word compassion means, “to suffer with.” Having compassion means that you can develop a sense of empathy until you believe you can sense something of another’s pain. Following Gellman and Hartman we note that in Christianity, Judaism, and Islam, traditional teaching claims showing compassion to others is how believers imitate what they see to be the infinite kindness and mercy that they believe God showers upon them. According to that traditional mind-set, although humans’ capacity for compassion and kindness isn’t limitless, as God’s is, believers strive to nurture it, even when doing so is hard, because it brings them closer to God.
By way of comment, it is clear from the lessening numbers subscribing to traditional Christianity, traditional Judaism and traditional Islam that even there not all people of compassion within those faiths still necessarily hold to this view. That other faiths like Buddhism make no reference to God suggests that compassion is not necessarily dependent on a particular attitude to a personal God.
One of the central virtues of Buddhism is karuna, or in other words understanding and identifying with the suffering of all living beings. Karuna is the reason that some people who achieve enlightenment are believed by Buddhists to return to this world as Bodhisattvas to teach others. Their compassion is so great, they return to a world that needs them. Similarly in Hinduism, compassion is called daya, and, along with self-control and acts of charity, it is part of the three central virtues in Hinduism.
SOME FURTHER QUESTIONS
Is compassion the overriding virtue when it comes to the legal system?
Should having compassion for refugees extend to allowing as many as practically possible into our communities?
Should having compassion for cancer victims extend to asking the Government to use the nation’s taxes to provide optimum treatments free of charge?
Again according to Rabbi Gellman and Monsignor Hartman in the monotheistic religions, humility is assumed to be a sign of respect for God and awareness that all blessings flow from God to whom all thanks are due. In Judaism, for example, Moses is considered virtuous primarily because of his humility. Again, given the vast spectrum of religious believers we note in passing that many would be uncertain as to what view of God is represented here by Gellman and Hartman
Followers of Christianity identify with the classic religious statement of humility in the Sermon on the Mount, “Blessed be the meek for they shall inherit the earth” (Matthew 5:5). Jesus’ point here, which other religious traditions echo, is that the secular world recognizes and rewards power and wealth, but many in the religious world believe it is in line with their teachings to lift up the ones whom the world has passed over and crushed. Humility, therefore, is not just a virtue, but also an opposite virtue from the ones that the nonreligious world prizes. Perhaps Gellman and Hartman are being somewhat idealistic in that we have all met humble people prepared to share their wealth.
In Islam (which itself means surrender), humility is a primary virtue. Muslims ae taught they should demonstrate their awareness of the greatness of God and humankind’s place in the world by observing the Five Pillars of their faith. Each pillar reinforces the proper order of the universe.
Taoism focuses believers’ thoughts on the awesome beauty and wonder of Nature. As you ponder the magnificence of Nature, you learn to respect our place relative to the stars and the seasons — a humbling experience.
Through humility, Buddhists believe they can release anger and learn to live a life free from attachments and suffering.
Should those who follow the principles of humility still accept significant titles or significant salaries?
When we consider how followers of the major faiths appear to treat their leaders, are Gellman and Hartman correct in their claims about the way the followers of the major faiths uphold humility?
Gellman and Hartman state many of the sacred Jewish, Christian, and Islamic texts and rituals include the idea of hope. In Christianity, it’s one of the three cardinal virtues (the other two being faith and love). In Islam, it’s the understanding that Allah knows all; what happens, happens for a reason, and the faithful will be rewarded in paradise and the irreligious punished in hell.
In the world’s religions, hope is made possible by human limitations. Most people don’t know the future and, because they don’t know it, they fear it. Hope reduces this fear. In religion, hope is closely linked with what comes after death.
For many Christians, the hope that sustains them is the hope for the speedy second coming of Jesus as the Christ and eternal life in Heaven. This hope sustains Christians through what they often perceive to be the immorality of the earthly kingdom.
In Zoroastrianism, Islam, and, to a lesser extent, Judaism, the hope is life or some form of existence after death. That belief in the world to come is a sustaining virtue. Knowing that death isn’t the end helps people believe that no burden is too great to bear and that they won’t be separated forever from the people they love.
Of course, monotheistic faiths aren’t the only ones that consider hope a virtue. In Buddhism, hope springs from the idea that any person can attain enlightenment.
Religious hopefulness is not the same thing as optimism. Optimism is the attitude that things are great. Religious hopefulness is actually built upon the idea that things aren’t so great, but that we don’t see the whole picture. The incompleteness of human knowing is met by the hope that the world holds more promise than we can see from our limited perspective
It seems to me that the fact that so many million followers of these different major faiths hold to different hopes, illustrates that their hopes are in the form of largely un-testable propositions. I can see that hope has an advantage over gloomy pessimism in terms of group psyche, but should hope be modified in terms of what can be tested?
QUESTION: Is a religion based hope any more than wishful thinking?