Hans Küng, Religion, and a Global Ethic

By: David Hollenbach

April 23, 2021

Hans Küng and the Global Ethic

In recent years, the place of religion in world affairs has become an increasingly important focus in reflection on international politics. Hans Küng has been a very important contributor to these recent discussions, particularly through his reflections on the contributions of religion to the development of a global ethic—a shared body of moral norms and virtues that should shape the interaction of nations and people around the world. If such a global ethic can be identified, it will increase our hope for peace and justice, while the lack of such an ethic could make it likely that we are headed for a clash of civilizations.

Küng and the 1993 Parliament of the World’s Religions, in which he played a major role, produced the Declaration Toward a Global Ethic. This declaration was signed by leaders from many of the world's religions. The declaration affirms that “a common set of core values is found in the teachings of all the religions, and that these form the basis of a global ethic.” Küng backed up this claim principally by noting that a version of the Golden Rule can be found in the teachings of all the world religions, including the Confucian (“What you yourself do not want, do not do to another person”), the Jewish (“Do not do to others what you would not want them to do to you”), the Christian (“Whatever you want people to do to you, do also to them”), and the Islamic (“None of you is a believer as long as he does not wish his brother what he wishes himself”). 

If such a global ethic can be identified, it will increase our hope for peace and justice, while the lack of such an ethic could make it likely that we are headed for a clash of civilizations.

 On the basis of this appeal to the Golden Rule, the declaration then declares, “We must treat others as we wish others to treat us” and that this requires “a commitment to respect life and dignity, individuality and diversity, so that every person is treated humanely, without exception.” This approach was cited with approval by a report In Search of Global Ethical Standards prepared by a council of former heads of state chaired by Helmut Schmidt. 

The Golden Rule in various forms is indeed found in most if not all of the world's major religious traditions. It stresses the reciprocity of moral obligation and one's reciprocal duties toward all other human beings. 

It is also clear, however, that the religious traditions in which the Golden Rule appears contain teachings that sometimes limit its reciprocity to co-members of the community formed by that tradition. To know what reciprocal concern among neighbors means in practice, therefore, means one must answer the question put to Jesus regarding the commandment to love one's neighbor as one self, namely, “Who is my neighbor?” 

The religious traditions in which the Golden Rule appears contain teachings that sometimes limit its reciprocity to co-members of the community formed by that tradition.

In Christianity, Jesus answered this question in the parable of the Good Samaritan, in which a Jew who had been robbed and left injured at the side of the road was aided by a non-Jew—a Samaritan who was an outsider and even seen as an adversary by members of the Jewish community (Luke 10:25–37). The parable thus interprets the Golden Rule in the universalist manner that Küng's global ethic calls for. At the same time, the New Testament also sometimes teaches preferential concern for fellow Christians. In Judaism, “Love your neighbor as yourself” meant “Love your fellow Israelite as yourself” (Leviticus 19:18). But the Hebrew Scriptures declare that compassion and justice are due also to strangers outside the Jewish community. While the command to “love your neighbor as yourself” appears once in the Hebrew Bible, the command to “love the stranger” appears no fewer than 36 times (for example, in Exodus 23:9, Leviticus 19:33–34, and many other places). Similarly, the undoubted universalism of Islam has sometimes been taken by Muslims to call for the incorporation of all people into the Islamic ummah rather than as a call to universal tolerance for those who are different. 

The point here is not to reject Küng's effort to show that world religions can become part of a consensus on a universal global ethic. Rather, it is to point out that religious traditions are internally complex and can be interpreted in multiple ways. These interpretations can lead them to develop in diverse directions. I agree with Küng and the parliament in their efforts to help the world religions come to support an ethic that will address today’s global realities in positive ways. But showing why the traditions should be interpreted in a way that supports such an ethic requires more than showing that diverse traditions all contain versions of the Golden Rule. It requires theological exploration of how the distinctive and potentially divisive elements of each tradition relate to the proposed global ethic. 

The development of a global ethic is indeed possible. But careful reflection on the relation between the religiously distinctive elements of the major traditions and the proposed global ethic is needed.

For example, how does the Jewish conviction that God made a special covenant with the people of Israel relate to the universality of a proposed global ethic? Or what does the Christian belief that Jesus Christ is Lord of the universe imply about Christian attitudes to non-Christians? Or what does the Muslim belief that there is no God but Allah and that Muhammad is Allah’s final and definitive prophet imply about those who have not proclaimed the Shahada and given testimony to their surrender to Allah? 

In my view, the development of a global ethic is indeed possible. But careful reflection on the relation between the religiously distinctive elements of the major traditions and the proposed global ethic is needed. This is a properly theological task. That Küng recognized this is evident from the fact that after proposing a global ethic based on the Golden Rule, he undertook book-length studies of Judaism, of Islam, and of the relation of Christianity to other world religions. These books make a start on the kind of theological analysis we need. But if we are to move forward, we need a lot more study of these theological issues and much more reflection on how to pursue a global ethic in practical ways.

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