by Drake Spaeth
Originally published on January 29, 2015 in The New Existentialists
My wife, Angie, served on the Executive Board of the Council for a Parliament of the World’s Religions from 2002 to 2010, the first Pagan to be appointed to a leadership position in that prestigious interfaith organization. I served as an Ambassador for the Parliament for their event held in Melbourne, Australia in 2009.
Though we certainly don’t speak for all contemporary Pagans, we are often asked about our religious beliefs, values, and practices in that venue. As practitioners of a religion that (to us) honors and celebrates the spirit of indigenous pre-Christian religious traditions of Europe, we frequently find ourselves unintentionally left out or marginalized by members of other faiths who assume a universality to certain values that we may not necessarily share. This pattern sometimes even engenders humorous moments as well as frustrating misunderstandings that require careful dialogue and patient persistence to resolve.
For instance, Angie, who has magnificent organizational and event planning abilities, was asked to help organize a local event that would celebrate The Golden Rule, widely regarded as the central ethic held in some form by all the world religions. To the astonishment and chagrin of the organizing committee, she demurred. While some Pagan traditions might indeed embrace this “universal ethic,” she and I both practice traditions that in fact take great exception to it as a particularly pernicious historical avenue of harm to indigenous religious traditions.
She and I do not deny that the Golden Rule, often stated as “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you,” is common in similar forms among many religious traditions. Scarboro Missions (n.d.) provides many excellent examples. For instance, Christianity says, “In everything, do to others as you would have them do to you” (Matthew 7:12). Islam states, “Not one of you truly believes until you wish for others what you wish for yourself“ (Prophet Mohammed, Hadith). Hinduism says “This is the sum of duty: Do not do unto others what would cause pain if done to you” (Mahabharata 5:1517). Buddhism says “Treat not others in ways that your yourself would find hurtful” (Udann-Varga 5.18). Judaism says, “What is hateful to you do not do to your neighbor” (Hillel, Talmud, Shabbat 31a). Zoroastrianism says, “Do not do unto others whatever is injurious to yourself” (Shayast-na-Shayast 13.29). Confucianism says, “Do not do to others what you do not want done to yourself” (Analects, 15.23). Jainism says, “One should treat all creatures in the world as one would like to be treated” (Mahavira, Sutrakritanga). The Baha’i Faith says, “Lay not on any soul a load that you would not wish to be laid upon you, and desire not for anyone the things you would not desire for yourself” (Baha’u’llah, Gleanings).
Some of these formulations overtly include the admonition against harm. In others, it seems to be more implicit. However, all of them seem to be based on one or both of two problematic assumptions. The first is that what is good for us WILL be good for the other. The second is that we know what will be harmful to them. Tragically, these two assumptions have arguably led to many instances of historical harm, through good intentions or arrogant assumption of superior knowledge. For instance, indigenous Australians are still recovering from the multigenerational trauma of having their children abducted and placed with white families and prevented from practicing their traditions or speaking their language “for their own benefit.” Native Americans tell many similar stories. Forced conversions (frequently violent) of Pagans across Europe and of indigenous tribes around the world have been justified by variations of the Golden Rule and stemmed from tragic differences in understanding of concepts of good and harm.
Dr. Milton Bennett, who holds a doctorate in intercultural communication and sociology and a master’s degree in psycholinguistics, coined the term “the Platinum Rule” that basically states “Do unto others as they would have you do unto them”(Bennett, 2013). He further shows how the Golden Rule largely comprises a stance of sympathy, while the latter aims at an aspiration toward empathy. Sympathy can ever only offer a somewhat shaky intellectual bridge of understanding, while only empathy connects hearts. Truly knowing, understanding, and embracing what others need takes time and patient, supportive listening—and a healing relationship built upon those two things.
I am gobsmacked as I consider this distinction, and the truth of it rolls in waves through my very bones. The esoteric Mystery that is touched by those who have a genuine peak or mystical experience is that of deep connectedness with others and the natural world. In good, effective psychotherapy, as in any intimate, nurturing relationship, these moments of what Martin Buber termed “I-Thou,” sacred, connected, total understanding and acceptance, happen only when genuine empathy is present, when “I believe I understand” becomes “I know, feel, and live it as you do.” In such moments, doing unto others morphs into living it with them. For this reason, techniques and treatments are simply not effective until delivered within genuine, authentic relationship stances in therapy. Carl Rogers intuitively understood the Platinum Rule all along!
Interestingly, three more examples provided on the Scarboro Missions (n.d.) website of the Golden Rule actually seem to be somewhat closer in formulation to the Platinum Rule. The “Native Spirituality” version reads, “We are as much alive as we keep the earth alive” (Chief Dan George). That version considers the earth as “other” and puts the needs of the earth in central priority. The Taoist version reads, “Regard your neighbor’s gain as your own gain, and your neighbor’s loss as your own loss” (T’ai Shan Kang Ying P’ien). Here again, the needs of the neighbor are given primacy in consideration. The Unitarian version reads, “We affirm and promote respect for the interdependent web of all existence, of which we are a part” (Unitarian Principle). This version acknowledges that we are part of a larger web that must be considered over our own needs. I will add one more that in appearance seems closer to the Platinum Rule. Pagans (though not all) endeavor to adhere to the simple ethical precept: “An it harm none, do what thou will.” With this last, the well being of others is ostensibly considered before one’s own actions, though “harm” can be surprisingly difficult to define.
I wonder if these examples that move closer to the Platinum Rule are not closer to the esoteric (inner, spiritual) heart-based core mystery of an otherwise exoteric (external religious) intellectual understanding. Our sense of genuine unity and connection with the Other is alive when spirituality is strong, whether or not within a religious framework. When that connection is dead or numb, then laws or precepts that remind us of the importance to consider others are the only means we have of attempting to transcend selfishness. However, an intellect-based attempt to do so is useless without the heart’s involvement—which prompts us to take the necessary time and expend the required energy to engage in an actual relationship and understanding before attempting to act on behalf of the needs of others. In therapy, techniques without relationship are ineffective, even harmful. In religion, attempts to be kind to others without a heart-based empathy for others can be equally ineffective, even harmful.
I am calling here for a paradigm shift, from Gold to Platinum!
Bennett, M. (2013). Overcoming the golden rule: Sympathy and empathy. In Basic concepts of intercultural communication: Paradigms, principles, and practices (2nd Edition). Boston, MA: Intercultural Press.
Scarboro Missions. (n.d.). Golden rule Interactive flash. Retrieved from https://www.scarboromissions.ca/Golden_rule/golden_rule_flash.swf