OCTOBER 24, 2001
The Intellectual's Responsibility and the Ambiguity of the Religions of the Book, part II: A Shared Pattern of Moral Conviction
-- William Schweiker
In response to the events of the eleventh of September, the University of Chicago has sponsored a series of lectures and discussions titled "9/11: Its Causes and Consequences." The following issue of Sightings is the second in a series of three adapted from an address, "The Intellectual's Responsibility and the Ambiguity of the Religions of the Book," delivered at the second of these gatherings by William Schweiker, Professor of Theological Ethics, at the University of Chicago Divinity School
It is very important to realize that there are good grounds for the reflexive interaction and mutual learning among the cultures and traditions of Islam, Christianity, and Judaism. In spite of the rhetoric of the "clash of civilizations," they actually share a lot. Not only do they share some of the same lineage; they are "Religions of the Book" as Muslims first put it. They also have a shared pattern of moral conviction. This pattern is part of their profundity and their ambiguity.
To be sure there are massive differences among these religions and also within each of these religions. There are many kinds of Jews and Muslims and Christians; obviously these are different religions each claiming some "religious" superiority. But granting all of that, there are still some commonalities of "moral conviction" that come to light when we see these traditions together rather than setting them against one another. Though I cannot claim expertise in Islam or Judaism, let me note what I discern to be shared elements within the moral outlooks of the Religions of the Book.
First, all three of these traditions are versions of what contemporary moral theorists call moral realism. This means that Muslims, Jews, and Christians do not believe that standards for good and evil, right and wrong, are simply and solely human inventions. Despite what the modern Western intellectual world has argued -- from David Hume to Friedrich Nietzsche, from Sigmund Freud to Michel Foucault -- and despite what relativists around the world might claim, these traditions hold that true moral standards are rooted in the nature of things, specifically in the will of the divine. This means that for Christians and Muslims and Jews the point of our lives if we are to be good people is to live in conformity with that moral order and in doing so our lives will be fulfilled. That is why Muslim's speak of submission to Allah; it is why Jews speak of obedience to God; it is why Christians focus on discipleship to Christ. By conformity to the will of God, the real moral order of things, life is right and rich. This is a radical claim in our present situation. It explains the moral passion of believers in each tradition. The claims of justice are not a matter of political expedience; they are about living in conformity with what is most real, most true. I believe that it is this point about moral realism and the moral passion it ignites that is must profoundly misunderstood by policy makers, social critics, and cultural commentators.
The moral realism of these traditions brings us to a second point, one about moral knowledge. We can ask, How is that one knows the will of Allah or the purposes of God? Here is where matters get difficult and where the intellectual's responsibility in the face of ambiguity comes in.
Questions of moral epistemology are fantastically complex. There are differences within and between these traditions on the sources and character of moral knowledge, but there is also some commonality. The commonality is that each tradition, by and large, insists that there are two irreducible sources of valid moral knowledge: the decisive revelation of God's will, the moral order, and the careful application of the human intellect to moral matters. The traditions differ from each other in terms of what is the decisive revelation of God. While Muslims see Jews and Christians as People of the Book, nevertheless, it is the Qur'an and the example of Muhammad that is decisive. While Jews recognize kinship with Christians and Muslims, it is nevertheless, Torah -- written, oral, and eternal -- that is decisive for knowing the will of God. While Christians acknowledge a kinship with these other monotheistic religions, the decisive revelation for knowing the will of the One God is Jesus as the Christ. In a word, these are different religions and this bears on their moral teachings.
On exactly this point about moral knowledge we also uncover differences within each of these traditions. There have been long and often difficult debates and struggles within each tradition about the degree to which human, critical intelligence can validly grasp what is morally authoritative, and be used rightly to address moral problems. There are those in each tradition who argue that human reason is so distorted or so feeble or so impotent that we cannot, ever, make valid moral judgments about how to live rightly. Given that we must utterly submit all thinking to those who can claim rightly to interpret the decisive revelation of God's will. Those outside of the religious community who lack this revelation and authoritative teaching are cast in darkness, bereft of moral wisdom.
Within Islam, this means, as I understand it, that Imams and Mullah's have then sole power legally in the interpretation of the text and tradition. Within ultra orthodox Judaism, as I understand it, this means that certain rabbis or rabbinic councils must make virtually all determinations about the legality of moral decisions. Within ultraconservative Roman Catholicism, as I understand it, this means that one must submit to the infallible teaching of the papacy and magisterium. Within fundamentalist Protestantism, as I understand it, this means an attack on all human inquiry and the demand for complete submission to a literal reading of the bible. These kinds of "revelationalism," if I can call it that, are the backbone of fanatical and authoritarian movements around the world and within each of these traditions.
It is vitally important to realize that there are other aspects of each of these traditions, aspects that insist that while the human mind is fallible and too often distorted, we can and must and may think about how best to lead our lives, we must interpret our sacred texts and traditions, we must bear the burden of responsibility. And those outside of the traditions might have a degree of moral insight that even the faithful need (cf. Plato, Socrates, Aristotle in the ancient world.) And this more humane or "rationalist" strand in each tradition makes -- some times explicitly, most of the time implicitly -- the further claim that when one interprets tradition, one must interpret them in the direction of what is most humane, most conducive to a way of acting and relating that respects and enhances the integrity of life. This strand in each tradition is measured, not fanatical; it seeks a reasoned account of faith, not the authoritarian imposition of belief.
What do these matters about moral knowledge mean? I am suggesting that from claims about dual sources of moral knowledge (reason and revelation) there flows in each of these traditions the possibility of extreme authoritarianism, and also the possibility of a capacious and humane account of moral conscience and its search for what is good and right. That is part of the ambiguity of religion. And it has profound implications for how the moral lives of those outside the community are seen and how they are then to be treated.