I confess to not understanding much of the contemporary debate over the relationship between ethics and religion. Most of the criticisms I read of “religion” are simply echoes of disputes that have been taking place within theological circles for centuries.
If a person criticizes Christians for irrationally believing that the earth was created in six 24-hour days, well, there are many Catholics and Protestants who would agree, beginning with St. Augustine. If someone points out that people who go to church do bad things, that’s hardly news. Jesus, after all, said he came “not to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance.” (A more pertinent criticism would be that churches have too many “good” people in them.)
Broad criticisms miss the mark because there is no consensus on what constitutes true ethics or true religion. To get to the interesting debate, you have to address particular ideas, but once you get down to particular ideas, you can’t draw general conclusions about “ethics” and “religion.” You are instead immersed in the consideration of “this ethical principle,” “this religious doctrine,” and so on.
That’s why I largely avoid the general debate and continue to look for wisdom wherever it can be found, whether those sources be religious or not, and whether they come from my own tradition or not.
Let me share an example. At this time of year I struggle, as many do, with the proper attitude to take toward shopping. Not wanting to succumb to the consumer frenzy that characterizes events such as Black Friday but wanting at the same time to be a grateful participant in the rituals of gift-giving and receiving by which we demonstrate our love and concern for one another, I look for ways of making sense of my ambivalence toward the holidays.
Then I recall this passage from Centesimus Annus, a Roman Catholic encyclical written in 1991 by Pope John Paul II:
“It is not wrong to want to live better; what is wrong is a style of life which is presumed to be better when it is directed toward ‘having’ rather than ‘being,’ and which wants to have more, not in order to be more but in order to spend life in enjoyment as an end in itself. It is therefore necessary to create lifestyles in which the quest for truth, beauty, goodness and communion with others for the sake of common growth are the factors which determine consumer choices, savings and investments.”
I find the pope’s words challenging and edifying. He articulates in a concise fashion what the problem is and points a way out of that problem. And the words acquire even greater significance in the context of the rest of the document, which goes on to describe the pervasiveness of soul-sickness, the human inclination to satisfy the thirst for meaning by acquiring possessions, which is not only ultimately unsatisfying but also detrimental to relationships and destructive to the environment.
The passage is “ethical” in its focus because it says something about how to live, and it is also “religious” in that it proceeds from a conception of human life as having a God-given purpose. I take the words seriously because they seem to me authoritative. Not in the sense that I must believe them (because I am not Catholic), but in the sense that they seem to be true (which is the highest kind of authority, the kind Matthew attributed to Jesus).
Does this mean that ethics is dependent upon religion? No, of course not. But I have to admit that my own understanding of ethics is frequently enhanced by reading people whose words are informed by a transcendent vision of the world. Such words help to pull me out of my narrow, self-interested focus and to look upward and outward toward the good for all. And that seems to me like a good thing.
The Ethical Life is a series of reflections on the ways ethical thinking influences our actions, emotions and relationships. Richard Kyte is the director of the D.B. Reinhart Institute for Ethics in Leadership at Viterbo University.