The Golden Rule and Secular Ethics
Your excellency Madam Ambassador, Your eminence Tulku Dakpa Rinpoche, distinguished speakers and international guests, honoured participants of the seminar.
Let me first express my sincere thanks to my friend, Tulku Dakpa Rinpoche, for his kind invitation extended to me to visit Danakosha Ling and to participate in this important event. I am very grateful for the opportunity as a Bishop of the Evangelical Lutheran Church to address the seminar. Truly, what would be more appropriate for people of different faiths to discuss than what is common for them? As representatives of different religious families, we recognize together the common challenges in our world. We have common interests in working for peace in the world, for justice in our societies and for the wellbeing of all. It is an inevitable task of the religious people to find ways for joint actions in order to transform their communities and the world. After all, we all inhabit the same cities, the same countries and the same, one and only world.
The topic for this seminar is ’secular ethics’. It indicates that even religious people need to study matters of common interest from a secular point of view and not solely from the vantage point of their faith. I assume that by choosing the phrase ’secular’ it is attempted to map some principles for moral decision-making without referring to any religious motivation. Thus, the seminar aims at ethics based on human experience, no matter in what kind of religion or cultural background they might originally be rooted in.
If something is good, right, justified, and better than something else by its own very nature and not because of its background or its context, it should be good for all people, and consequently, it should be the aim of all people. If something is to be considered better than something else, its goodness should not be made dependent on culture or religion, but it should be understood to be good and be agreed on and even be committed to by everybody.
This should apply even to the religions themselves: if they claim to represent and announce the truth for all humankind, they should not be dependent on any local or particular culture but instead, be universal by their teachings. When the religions spread and grow out from their original region or from their cultural context to other parts of the world, they should be able to adapt themselves in every culture and to mirror the characteristics of all contexts. If this applies to the religious practices or even contents of faith, how much more it should apply to the ethical teachings of the religions! At the same time it means that such ethical teachings should not have any particularly religious foundation at all, but be secular by their nature.
No divine revelation or an illumination by deities of any kind should be needed to understand and agree on ethics common to all human beings. Such ethics should be natural to all, despite of cultural or religious differences. Ideally, all religions in the world should be able to give a common witness on what is right and wrong. This applies not only to the religious communities themselves and among religious people, but also with all people of good will, be they with or without any religion, or even opponents of any faith.
To find a universal, secular foundation for ethics, however, is an age-old philosophical problem from ancient to modern times, studied by great philosophers like Plato and Aristotle in the antiquities or by Immanuel Kant in the Enlightenment. This is not to say these philosophers were not religious people themselves. On the contrary, they did speak about gods or deities and referred to them as origins of anything that is good, right and justified. But they realized that ethical discernment is common to all human beings and that it not only can but also has to be done by human reasoning with no religious strings attached.
The word ’secular’ is derived from the latin saeculum, meaning ’a lifetime’, ’a century’ or just ’a long era’. It has several detailed meanings depending on the context, but they always concern time; time in a measurable sense, usually a very long time but nevertheless a time, the time we live as human beings, distinguished from ‘the eternity’. In the course of history, the word has become to mean ‘something not connected with religion’. In this sense, it is used as an opposite to ’sacral’; something that is not consecrated or set apart for sacred purposes, but is earthly and not heavenly, or worldly and not divine.
Another Latin word taken into a somewhat similar use is ’profane’. Literally, it means something in front of, or outside of a temple, pro fanum. Thus, what is profane has no religious dimension – other than perhaps keeping decisively distance to religious services, which, of course, is a relation to religion, though a negative one. At least in my ears, ’profane’ carries a slightly anti-religious connotation. Maybe it is a fair term to balance the attitude of anyone who stays too long in a temple, fanum, and turns into a fanaticus.
What is secular is not necessarily opposed to what is religious. For example, a state must adopt secular legislation but it shall not affirm a profane or an anti-religious legislation. On the contrary, the state shall by law grant the freedom of belief, secure the safety of religious communities and protect people of all faiths.
If secular means something concerning the time we are living, it follows that all ethics is secular, also the ethics followed by religious people. All ethics aims at good living and is for the benefit of all. Ethics is not for serving something or somebody beyond the time; it serves people in this time. It is there not for what is eternal but for what is temporal, not for the life after death but for the life before death. In this sense, secular is not something contrarious to religion; it is even a dimension of religious life. What is secular, does not take place outside of religious realm, but instead, all religions are active also in the secular realm. For the Christians, the eternal God is also the Lord over the secular.
In the Holy Bible this is expressed by referring to time, though time without an end, in Latin the saeculum: in many places of the Scriptures, God is said to reign for ever and ever, in saeculum et saeculum saeculorum and shall thus be honoured in saecula saeculorum (Dan. 7:18; Hebr. 1:8; Rom. 16:27), through all times and beyond time.
That said, even religions teach ethics for this temporal life. In that sense, even all religiously motivated ethics is secular. Is there any kind of a ‘sacral ethics’, an ethics that would not aim at a good secular life? To push the question even further, one might ask whether the religions do exist for any other than secular reasons. This might sound a bit exaggerated. The religions teach people to lead an ethical life. Beyond that, they claim to teach also a life in eternity, but after all, how can an eternal life be lived anywhere else than in the secular, that is, in a life bound to the limits of time? And, what is more, can the moral life of a human being have a bearing on his or her eternal fate? How fair would that be? All human beings do fail at some point of their ethical discernment and action. To put it in a Christian way of speaking: can a human being earn eternal life by his or her deeds, how good and justified they ever could be? The answer is clearly no: salvation can only be achieved by grace.
Before I mix our secular topic up into a full theological confusion, let me bring forth a Christian, or particularly a Lutheran emphasis on the secular foundations of ethics. It is embedded in the so called Golden Rule, known in many religions and taught by many religious leaders. In some contexts it is expressed as ‘do not do others what you would not want to be done to yourself’. In the writings of the New Testament, Jesus Christ says basically the same, but turns the negative advice into a positive one: ‘Do to others as you would have them do to you’ (Matt. 7:12). This is based on the Biblical commandment of love: ‘Love your neighbour as yourself’ (Lev. 19:18; Matt. 5:43).
In order to understand this commandment of love one does not need any religious motivation. To love the neighbour does not require divine illumination of any kind. It only requires that one realises what it means to be a responsible human being. In his Commentary on the Epistle of St. Paul to the Galatians, the Reformer Dr. Martin Luther interprets this very eloquently:
’It is a brief statement, expressed beautifully and forcefully: ”You shall love your neighbour as yourself.” No one can find a better, surer, or more available pattern than himself; nor can there be a nobler or more profound attitude of the mind than love; nor is there a more excellent object than one’s neighbour. Therefore the pattern, the attitude, and the object are all superb. Thus if you want to know how the neighbour is to be loved and want to have an outstanding pattern of this, consider carefully how you love yourself. In need or in danger you would certainly want desperately to be loved and assisted with all the counsels, resources, and powers not only of all men but of all creation. And so you do not need any book to instruct and admonish you how you should love your neighbour, for you have the loveliest and best of books about all laws right in your own heart. You do not need any professor to tell you about this matter; merely consult your own heart, and it will give you abundant instruction that you should love your neighbour as you love yourself.’ (Lectures on Galatians 1535 [5:14], LW 27:57)
According to the Golden Rule, the basis for ethical decision-making is supposed to be present in every human being herself. It is instantly underlying every ethical discernment when one listens to his or her conscience and heeds to its witness on what is good and what is bad, what is good and what is to be avoided. Conscience is a living reminder on what is right or wrong that cannot be silenced, although it can be twisted.
On a more philosophical note, the Golden Rule seems to presuppose a concept of humanity common to everybody. It can be debated whether such a universal humanity really exists or whether it is merely a concept derived from the experience of an endless number of human individuals. As a matter of fact, this question is the same as the medieval philosophical debate between realism and nominalism. However, it seems that the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, adopted by the United Nations in 1948, is based on a concept of universal humanity.
The Universal Declaration of Human Rights as well as the subsequent European Convention on Human Rights from 1950 are not religious by their content, although they also grant the freedom of religion and conscience. The Declaration is considered universal at least in the sense that it can be adopted and implemented in every culture. It can be ratified and turned into a law in all states around the world. But on the other hand, the Declaration seems to imply the notion of ‘human dignity’ that has to be recognized as universal as well. As a concept, human dignity is closer to religious language than human rights.
Let me come back to what I said earlier on the secular legislation. A state shall recognize and ratify the Declaration and the Convention on Human Rights. Even though a state cannot prove human beings to be worthwhile, it shall approve that they are dignified. The value of human beings cannot be measured in any currency, but it nevertheless has to be acknowledged. It is a matter of conviction, maybe even an article of faith. As the societies develop, they hopefully transform into communities based on the recognition of the dignity of all. For that purpose, secular and even profane governments need to be open for religious reasoning.
Today, the notion of human dignity is tested in the European countries as hundreds of refugees are looking for safe pathways to get their foot on this continent. Week after week, we hear about desperate people sailing under harsh conditions or even drowning in the Mediterranean Sea as no European country wishes they welcome. Some European citizens even claim that these people shall not be received because they bring their different faith with them.
The good Christians should be reminded of the story of St. Paul on his way to Rome. St. Paul was about to be flogged in Jerusalem, but he told he was a citizen of the Roman Empire and must not be flogged (even those days the superpowers protected their citizens all around the world!). He applied to the Emperor and had to be taken to Rome. But his ship was wrecked in a storm and those on board were washed into the sea. They were luckily rescued on land and became received with dignity: ‘After we had reached safety, we then learned that the island was called Malta. The natives showed us unusual kindness. Since it had begun to rain and was cold, they kindled a fire and welcomed all of us around it.’ (Acts 28:1-2) This friendly reception did not happen for religious reasons. It happened because the inhabitants of the island treated their neighbour as they would have them to treat themselves. That is how human beings shall act with any one in need, according to all secular or sacral ethics.