OCTOBER 26, 2001
The Intellectual's Responsibility and the Ambiguity of Religions of the Book, part III: The Dimensions of Morality and the Intellectual's Responsibility
-- 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 third in a series of three articles adapted from an address, "The Intellectual's Responsibility and the Ambiguity of the Religions of the Book," delivered at one of these gatherings by William Schweiker, Professor of Theological Ethics, at the University of Chicago Divinity School.
Having noted that each of the Religions of the Book endorses some form of moral realism and works with complex, dual sources theories of moral knowledge, I come to my third point about shared moral convictions. Namely, that each tradition has a multidimensional theory of the domain of morals. Understanding this point will help us to understand the stances taken by "revelationalists" and "rationalists" within each tradition.
As I understand it, Jews, Muslims, and Christians insist that morality has different dimensions. One dimension is about a range of goods that is important for human life not just to endure but to flourish. Among these goods are family, economic action, sexuality, social and political life, organized religions, and goods of culture. These "values" or "goods" are rooted in God's good creation; they are orders or spheres or domains of value. We should seek these goods and preserve them for others. This is why each tradition has concern for the poor, the outcast, and the destitute. It is why these traditions have profound commitments to education and social policy. It is also why, in certain expression of each traditions but decisively in Islam, there is the need to establish a political order permeated with the religious visions. Only in this way, it is believed, will the real goods of human life and the moral order of reality exist in harmony.
There is a second domain of morality not about the goods we should pursue and enhance. It is about certain obligations that bear on how we live within those spheres of goods: obligations like truth telling, fidelity, respect for property, prohibitions of murder, and the like. These obligations are intimately linked to the sphere of goods, but distinct from them. Everyone needs some measure of economic well being to survive; the idea that one will be honest in one's economic life is another matter! And this is also why each of these traditions, as versions of moral realism, holds that duties and obligations are not just matters of social convention; they are rooted in the divine will.
Given this picture of the extent of moral values and the importance of moral obligations, Jews, Christians, and Muslims have yet a third dimension to their moral visions. By living out one's moral obligations, by conforming to the will of God, one achieves a distinct kind of good, a human excellence, not definable just in terms of the sphere of goods or sets of obligation. One becomes a righteous person. Each of the traditions has long histories of saints, righteous people, who are model of how one can and may and must live the faithful life.
If we have some grasp on the complexity of each of these traditions' pictures of the domain of morality (goods, obligations, human excellence), then we can note a tension that introduces profound moral ambiguity into each of the Religions of the Book. It is an ambiguity that emerges at the intersection of claims about moral knowledge and the domain of morality. If one believes that human reason is unable to grasp the moral order of life, unable to discern in some manner, what is good and right, then the purpose of the moral life is simply adherence to one's divinely revealed obligations for the sake of being righteous. One is willing to sacrifice human goods that seem obvious to all precisely because one must simply obey a command in order to be "faithful." Conversely, if one believes -- as a faithful Christian or Muslim or Jew -- that all human beings do have some capacity to apprehend the tenure and task of the moral life, then obedience to a divinely revealed moral code is meant to serve human flourishing and the integrity of life. The purpose of life is to respect and enhance the complex domain of human goods.
I suggest, then, that how a community within any of these traditions understands the sources and validity of moral knowledge and how they construe the multiple dimensions of value will have profound affect on what living a faithful life means. For in that judgment is found, on my understanding, the difference between morally driven fanaticism and a more humane outlook on the moral task of life.
I have said something about how to understand our current situation in terms of the global reflexivity or cultural conflict and the complex structure of moral conviction found within the Religions of the Book and yet also the ambiguity within each. I have also given clues about how I want to end these reflections.
I believe and believe ardently that the current world situation and the horrific, murderous events of September 2001 are nothing less than an utterance from the midst of time of a moral demand on all of us. For too long, it seems to me, intellectuals around the world, but especially in the U.S. and Europe, have been complacent about their contribution to common life and the public good. But, in fact, all of us blessed with the chance to think and to study have a moral responsibility. First, we have the responsibility of being agents for creative reflexivity and self-definition between cultures, rather than agents aiding the devolution of the world scene into a clash of civilizations. We must exercise good will and critical intelligence to show how and in what ways the complex interactions among civilizations enriches the wild diversity of human existence on this planet and can impede our most vicious and murderous tendencies. Second, I have indicated -- in terms of claims about moral knowledge and also the dimensions of morality -- how those dedicated to a humane outlook have the responsibility to curtail the possible fanaticism of their own traditions, and bend them to their most life sustaining insights. For those of us dedicated to a tradition of faith, we have hard work to do. It is time to be about that work. We cannot do this work for others; we must, mindful of global reflexivity, undertake this labor with others.
As far as I can see there have always been people within these religious traditions dedicated to just the kind of labor I am indicating. I would call them Islamic and Jewish and Christian humanists. You might call them something else. But I think the responsibility of the intellectual in our time is to join their ranks. For we must labor to make the ambiguity of our traditions, our civilizations-- an ambiguity that lives in our own hearts and minds--into a resource for life rather than a force of destruction. That means we must start with some admission of our failings, humble about any grasp on truth and so open to learn from others, and resolute in seeking to further the goods of life.