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The Power and Urgency of the Golden Rule

Written by Dr. Joseph Prabhu
April 10, 2019

This letter was originally shared on the Southern California Committee for a Parliament of the World’s Religions Newsletter on April 6th.

The Golden Rule is a maxim that is found in one form or another in most of the world’s major religions and cultures. That is why in 1993, 143 religious leaders spanning the world’s major faiths endorsed the Rule as part of the landmark document that came out of Chicago Parliament of the World’s Religions, called “Declaration Toward a Global Ethic.” That universal ethic was recently upheld and supplemented[1] in the seventh Parliament of Religions in Toronto in November 2018.
In its positive and directive form, the Rule enjoins us to treat and act towards others as we would want others to treat and act towards us. One can analyze the basic thrust of the Rule at many different levels. At the mos[t basic level, the Rule directs us to go beyond self-centeredness or selfishness to think about others and their preferences as fellow-human subjects. In Martin Buber’s famous distinction, others should be regarded as a “Thou” and not an “It,” as other selves, and not as objects of our manipulation. This is no small matter, as any parent knows in teaching a child to go beyond its narcissism and self-regard in order to think about others.
At a deeper level, the Rule asks us to develop a certain empathy with these other selves, so that we can build relationships of trust and dependability with them. Once again, this is a significant and challenging task, and a task that is the kingpin and foundation of building community. The respect for others as other selves allows us then to have and maintain an ethic of reciprocity.
The Rule and the associated ethic of reciprocity have a fruitful application to interreligious dialogue. The rule then becomes: do not view and judge another religion by the standards and norms of your own. Rather, attempt to see the “other” religion from the eyes of its own religious practitioners. In other words, see the other religious devotee as a fellow religious seeker, who approaches the Divine along different paths than your own.
One can see at once that this calls for both humility and generosity: humility in recognizing that one’s own religion is only one way of seeking the Divine among others and not the only way. It calls also for generosity of spirit in that one has to attempt to go beyond one’s own tradition to enter sympathetically into the perspective of the other. This stance by no means precludes critical judgement, but such judgement presupposes deep understanding, and understanding in turn requires us to go beyond self. Only when mutual understanding is achieved can there be authentic and meaningful dialogue.
The importance of such trust and dialogue is keenly felt in times like ours of fear and suspicion of the other, nativism and exclusion, and the consequent breakdown of community. Dialogue as outlined above is the essential precondition for the building of community, and dialogue in turn presupposes trust. So the building of community starts with creating and nurturing relationships of trust.
The Golden Rule, thus, has fundamental importance in personal, social, and interreligious spheres.
With thanks,
Dr. Joseph Prabhu

[1] The Parliament’s Global Ethic was expanded to include the 5th Directive at the 2018 Parliament of the World’s Religions. []