Robert Sellers writes that one thing unites the world’s religions: their ethical teachings.
He shows how they share commitments to compassion, the Golden Rule, interdependence and so on. I tend to agree but want to probe further. Is there something that grounds these ethical similarities?
It is certainly not a shared conception of the divine or final destiny. Sellers, following Stephen Prothero, rightly recognizes that there are too many significant differences between the world’s religions to say that they are different paths up the same mountain.
Nevertheless, it seems to me that the world’s major religious traditions share the conviction that to live a good, wise, flourishing or enlightened life requires that we decenter the self. Different traditions teach this in different ways, but they all point us in that direction.
In Judaism, the Shema enjoins love of God with one’s whole being. The prophets remind those in power that they have obligations to the vulnerable. Proverbs says that awe and reverence of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.
In Christianity, Jesus says that we must lose our lives in order to save them. In the Lord’s prayer, we learn that it is God’s kingdom we should desire, not our own. The apostle Paul talks about being crucified with Christ and becoming new creatures.
In Islam, the “Five-Pillars” (acknowledgment that there is only one God, prayer, charity, fasting and pilgrimage) and shariah (better understood as “right way” rather than law) orient life around God, not one’s own will.
In Hinduism, the teaching Atman is Brahman suggests that the notion of a separate self is illusory. Instead, the reality is that the self is of the essence of the divine.
In Buddhism, this notion is taken further in the notion of anatta: no self, no ego. What we call the self is really a conventional way of referring to aggregates (skandhas) of matter, sensations, perceptions, thoughts and consciousness. The self is not an eternal, unchanging, permanent thing.
Of course, more needs to be said about how different traditions have significantly different conceptions of what a self is. Eastern notions are especially hard for westerners to grasp, for we have been raised to think of an enduring self.
Moreover, we need to be cautious when we talk about decentering the self. Valerie Saiving Goldstein long ago pointed out that an ethic of self-sacrifice advocated by the privileged and powerful too easily can oppress the vulnerable by telling them they should sacrifice on behalf of the ruling class.
We, therefore, need to lean into and live with a creative tension in which we balance a recognition of the value of the self with the recognition that the self is not of ultimate importance.
Again, perhaps the different religions seek to teach us this.
In Judaism, Adam may be dust of the earth, but Adam is also the breath of God.
Jesus, who says we must deny ourselves, also says to love our neighbor as we love ourselves.
Hinduism does not say the Atman is nothing; Atman is instead Brahman.
Buddhism does not deny the reality of the skandhas, only the ego and reminds us of our interdependence with the rest of nature.
Perhaps, it is Daoism’s yin and yang that best helps us visualize this creative tension. The symbol depicts two opposing, but ever evolving complementary principles that contain something of the other within them.
There is value to the self. But the well-being of the self is not the highest good.
Professor of religion in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences at Mercer University in Macon, Georgia. He is the author of Wisdom Calls: The Moral Story of the Hebrew Bible (Nurturing Faith Books, 2017) and Faithful Innovation: The Rule of God and a Christian Practical Wisdom.