Toward A Global Ethic: A Starting-Point for Interfaith Conversations

All over the world, people of goodwill—religious or not—are addressing issues like “how am I to treat my neighbor whose religion is radically different from my own?” or “when is violence justified?” Unfortunately, too often, when people with different answers try to talk to each other, they end up arguing, feeling misunderstood, or resorting to their fists. Fortunately, the Parliament of the World’s Religions’ signature document, “Towards a Global Ethic: An Initial Declaration,” or the "Global Ethic" for short, offers a starting-place and solid ground for productive conversations. This "Global Ethic" can foster the kinds of helpful exchanges that people all over the globe celebrate during World Interfaith Harmony Week.

What is this document? Some twenty-five plus years ago, Prof. Hans Küng, a Swiss Catholic theologian who played an important role in the reforms of Vatican II, concluded that if there is to be peace in the world, there must be peace between the religions. But then—Küng wanted to know—how are we to find peace between the religions? The answer, he decided, was a global ethic. Ethics with an “s” usually denotes a theory of morality or a set of abstract principles so Küng chose ethic with no “s” to denote “ethos,” or a way of life guided by certain moral commitments.

Küng was convinced that this ethos could be found in all of the world’s faith traditions. And if the traditions’ common moral ground could be identified, Küng was certain that they would be able to talk to each other instead of, as they so often do, past each other or against each other. No matter how much the religions might disagree on doctrinal matters like the divinity of Jesus or the nature of Ultimate Reality, if they agreed that hunger was unacceptable, they could work together to alleviate hunger.

Several religious leaders who were organizing an international meeting of the world’s faith traditions, not only agreed with Küng that a global ethic was needed, they asked him to develop a draft. As he set about this task, Küng decided to ground the Parliament’s Global Ethic on two sweeping moral principles which the traditions share. The first was the Golden Rule. It is harder to find in some religious traditions than might be expected, but enough traces of it can be discerned to make a case for its presence. The second was the principle that all human beings must be treated humanely.

Though Küng is closely associated with the Parliament’s Global Ethic, and rightly so, the declaration is far from his work alone. After he generated an initial draft, he invited feedback from his extensive network of religious leaders and scholars from various traditions and various regions. This feedback informed the draft that he eventually sent to the leaders of the Parliament. These leaders, in turn, sought feedback from their own international networks of religious leaders and scholars.

Based on the Golden Rule and the mandate to treat every human being humanely, the Parliament’s Global Ethic currently elaborates five ethical commitments. These document calls these commitments directives and they are described as irrevocable (because they are unchanging) and unconditional (because they apply to everyone without exception). Still, they are not intended to serve as “bonds and chains” but rather to express already shared moral orientation.

The five directives are:
1. Commitment to a culture of non-violence and respect for life
2. Commitment to a culture of solidarity and a just economic order
3. Commitment to a culture of tolerance and a life of truthfulness
4. Commitment to a culture of equal rights and partnership between men and women
5. Commitment to a culture of sustainability and care for the Earth

Notice that each directive starts with the phrase “Commitment to a culture of…” reflecting the document’s emphasis on an ethos or way of life. The Parliament’s Global Ethic elaborates each of these directives and lends them greater precision.

It goes without saying that some of the beliefs and rituals and texts of many of the world’s faith traditions don’t overlap. While the Parliament’s Global Ethic insists that differences between the religions should not prevent a public expression of the ethical commitments that they hold in common, it also actively seeks to undermine any attempt to “gloss over or ignore” differences in belief. But, just as a single set of human rights applies to everyone, the Parliament’s Global Ethic expresses a single set of responsibilities and duties for the entire human family.

The Parliament’s Global Ethic expresses the shared ethical commitments of the world’s traditions—religious or not—providing people everywhere with common ground to address critical issues and tackle tough questions. It offers not just hope for harmony between the traditions but a practical approach to achieve it.

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