Monotheism & Ethics: Historical and Contemporary Intersections Among Judaism, Christianity and Islam
MONOTHEISM AND ETHICS – Book Sample
INTRODUCTION – MONOTHEISM AND ETHICS: A WORTHY AND TIMELY TOPIC
Abrahamic faiths is a valid designation that captures much of the essence of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, especially their shared afffirmation of a single God. Outbursts of pugnacious particularism, motivated by political agendas, often backed by force of arms, cannot nullify this—as indeed, philosophically inclined monotheists firmly believe that the Truth is unassailable, whatever artillery may be leveled against it.
The essays in this volume aim to test the assumption that monotheism is the key factor that shapes the religion’s ethic; consequentially, religions that are monotheistic will, eoipso, share common ethical values, guidelines and frameworks. Monotheism can be philosophically, theologically, historically, and culturally complex, and terminological clarity can be elusive. We may well wonder if we will be able to get our project off of the ground.
On the other hand, there are manifest theoretical and historical grounds for maintaining that a monotheistic ethic exists. Most, but not all, of the papers that make up this volume, widely diverse as they are with regard to topic and approach, argue that such an ethic does exist, and attempt to get a handle on it. Narrowing our focus to the Abrahamic faiths—Judaism, Christianity, and Islam—makes the case stronger; the long-term historical interactions between these faith communities, as well as the significant body of shared revelation (however diffferently interpreted) that is foundational to all three, ought to facilitate—in practice, it did and does facilitate—the articulation of a common ethic.
Nonetheless, the Abraha- mic faiths absorb ethical principles from without. Indeed, the philosophical underpinning of the ethicists in these traditions is drawn mostly from Hellenistic thinkers, especially Plato and Aristotle, two names that feature prominently in many of the essays in this book.
Significantly, those two luminaries are now often labeled pagan mono- theists; a neologism, to be sure, but one which, I aver, would have been recognizable and acceptable to al-Fārābī, Maimonides, or Thomas Aquinas.
Moreover, all three faiths had some significant interaction with Zoro- astrianism, a religion which reified good and evil in a manner that led to a dualism soundly rejected by the Abrahamic faiths, but which may none- theless be dubbed monotheistic (or perhaps henotheistic) insofar as only the Good force is deified. Useful comparisons can be made with India as well, though in that case the actual historical interaction was minimal.
Not a few people would smirk at the very attempt to explore so deeply the connections between monotheism and ethics. Lenn Goodman opens the volume with a vigorous justification for the enterprise, despite the many obstacles at arriving at a consensus. Moral insights are enriched by spiritual intuitions, and the teachings of religion are aided by the reasoning of ethicists. Monotheism and ethics require each other, neither can be reduced to the other, nor is the one hostile to the other.
Their relationship is best characterized by the Platonic concept of the unity of virtues—the virtues reinforce each other, but each remains distinct.
Goodman’s argument rests on the idea of God as paramount value con- cept. Monotheism is not just the belief in a single God, but rather the decision to see “in God’s unity the unity of all that is afffirmative—beauty and truth, life and creativity”. The ethical imperative of monotheism is thus the boundless command for all of us, humans though we are, to pursue God’s perfection, and to bring out in ourselves all the good, and all the holiness, that we can.
So let us proceed. In order to carry out this project, we perhaps ought first to define monotheism in theory and then examine how it shapes, informs, motivates, and characterizes ethical attitudes and practices in discrete traditions and communities. William Scott Green reviews the issues and answers clearly and thoroughly, negotiating between the philosophical analysis that finds it diffficult if not impossible to identify any intrinsic, organic connection between monotheism and a particular ethic, and the sense of the actors—the millions of adherents to the Abrahamic religions, including many intellectuals and communal leaders—that such a connection exists, that it is firm, that it is the prime motivating force behind their effforts to lead an ethical life, and, most importantly for this book, that this ethic, in its basic principles and in many details as well, is shared by other Abrahamic traditions—all the while maintaining a theo- logical and votive distance from those faiths.
However, experts in both monotheistic and non-monotheistic religions have argued, each on the basis of appropriate sources, that they all reward behavior that is beneficial to others. Therefore, altruism, one of the most esteemed ethical traits, is a secular rather than a religious value. Studies on reciprocity (the “Golden Rule”) lead to similar conclusions. Green cautions that theological convictions and theistic constructions may well be secondary causes for the development of a religion’s ethic and that evolu- tionary, cognitive, and social factors may provide a more comprehensive explanation for the pro-social aspects of world religions.
All of the above considerations—which are selective and speculative more than compre- hensive—show that approaching the “distinctiveness of a monotheistic ethic” is a daunting, complex, and demanding scholarly task.
But what if there were no religion? What if we were to dispense with the deity? Would there then be no morality? No, says William Wainwright, morality would not collapse; but that does not mean that there are no deep connections binding together ethics and monotheism. To support this claim, Wainwright deploys two arguments.
The first begins with the recognition of God’s absolute sovereignty. If indeed God’s sovereignty is unlimited, then it must cover moral truths as well; in other words, the divine will cannot be limited by any independent moral standard.
Thus there are good reasons for “identifying moral facts with divine Commands”. But does this imply that even commands that seem to our moral intuition to be gratuitous and cruel would be morally obligatory? No! But we must admit that at least some commands would necessarily be issued by God to beings like us. (For a diffferent perspective on this question, see the paper of Aladdin Yaqub in this volume.)
Ralph Cudworth raises a diffferent objection: the obligation to obey God’s will must be grounded outside the divine will, in some “natural jus- tice or equity”. Wainwright surveys the solutions known to him, none of which is completely satisfactory. His own suggestion is to see the author- ity of divine commands as something intrinsic, not requiring any addi- tional obligation to obey them.
The second tack is philosophical and leads to the assertion that anyone who believes that moral facts are objective has good reason to be a the- ist. Here Wainwright, much like Goodman, and others in this volume and elsewhere, finds that the connection between monotheism and ethics is most comfortable within a Platonist view of the world.
Do symbols play any role here? Is there a symbol that will rally monotheists, organizing them into a distinct community with shared ethical values? This aspect of the problem is discussed by Eugene Garver. He approaches the topic by way of the movement in the mid-twentieth century USA to post copies or erect replicas of the Ten Commandments in public places.
The program was initiated by E.J. Ruegemer, a juvenile court judge in the state of Minnesota and chair of a commission on “Youth Guidance” of the Fraternal Order of Eagles, whose motto is “People Helping People”. But the Ten Commandments prove to be an odd choice, because, unlike sym- bols such as the American flag or the crucifix, the Ten Commandments are a written text, whose precise meaning has been a matter of debate for millennia.
The religious and political diffficulties are clear enough; Garver proposes to see if there is a moral problem as well. Precisely because the Ten Commandments are open to a variety of interpretations (or even numbering, for that matter), they prove to be suitable as a symbol for Judeo-Christian morality.
For there is no Judeo-Christian religion or community; as such, Judeo-Christianity appears to be an empty concept. However, there is some moral tradition shared by most Jews and Christians, and likely acceptable to members of other faiths as well.
The price for inclusiveness is necessarily a good dose of shallowness, but many of us will agree that it is a price worth paying. Garver concludes that the Ten Commandments prove to be “well-adapted to a particular moment of American civil religion and the relation of morality to monotheism”.
Of course, even if one can show that there is a universally accepted ethical foundation which would, at the very least, require all monotheists to behave morally towards each other, this does not mean that it actu- ally happens in practice.
Christians and Muslims have over the centuries had the political and military capacity to display their intolerance towards members of the other Abrahamic religions. Jews have been disenfran- chised for the greater part of the past two millennia, but, as Menachem Kellner passionately argues, some of them have resisted the implications, and obligations, of a universalist monotheistic ethic. Moses Maimonides is a towering figure in Jewish thought, whose legal pronouncements have penetrated far more deeply into the economy of Jewish values than his more recondite philosophical remarks.
In his great law code, Maimonides unambiguously proclaims that every human who refrains from vanities and devotes his life to knowing and worshiping God, “is as consecrated as the Holy of Holies” of the Temple. Kellner finds that this pronouncement yields to a particularist interpretation even on the part of some educated Jews.
Not only the belief in one God, but the belief in a Creator God, binds together the Abrahamic faiths. Belief in a Creator God has significant implications for monotheistic ethics, as we learn from the essays of Joseph Boyle and Michael Fagenblat. Humans, says Joseph Boyle, have “an irreducible interest in creating and maintaining themselves in some appropriate and harmonious relationship with the deity”.
Our relation- ship to God ought to include the element of service; but how is God to be served? Boyle proposes that the conception of God as the one Being Who freely creates everything—the conception that lies at the very heart of the Abrahamic faiths—is an important specification for the notion of serving God and a cardinal commonality linking together those who believe in
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