From Creed to Conscience and The Constitution of South AfricaMartin Prozesky
Director: Unilever Ethics Centre
University of Natal, Pietermaritzburg, South Africa
I. From Creed to Conscience
1. Liberating ConscienceA Personal Story
What happens when that Christian nurture and the convictions it generates come up against a growing recognition that the ethical problems of your religion are not just marginal but central and inherent? What happens to your inherited belief that there is a God who is perfectly good and who in Christ personally and exclusively summoned your faith-community into being, when your exploration of the world of non-theistic and atheistic experiences reveals them to be spheres of great intellectual, spiritual and moral power in their own right?
And what happens when all of this takes place amidst apartheid with a very strong conviction that you have to play your part to help remove that evil system from the face of the earth, joining the many others who took that step before you, however small that part may be?
This paper is one person's answer to those questions. And in a nutshell the answer is this: creed bows to conscience; theology bows to ethics; prayer bows to praxis. And then ethical praxis begins to recreate forms of faith consistent with its values.
Around the age of 30, Christian creed and conscience were a harmonious unity for me, and it seemed clear that the moral values of that faith were what South Africa needed most. Today I see the selfsame Christianity in which I was nurtured as arguably our greatest moral and spiritual liability, as I shall explain later in this paper.
Why the change? How did it happen? Whyto vary a famous expression by the philosopher Immanuel Kantdid I find it necessary to deny creed in order to make room for conscience? What was it that liberated ethical values from their doctrinal prison for me? Let me mention the main liberating factors.
2. Liberating Factors
Another factor that in my student years encouraged this way of experiencing Christianity was the dictum attributed to William Temple, that "moral progress means enlarging the circle of your concern." From that has come a belief that the ethical quest has to be a quest for the greatest possible inclusivity. Learning about Albert Schweitzer's reverence for life ethic added a further inspiration to move in that direction. While I had no wish ever to become a doctor, I was deeply impressed by the stories of the world's most famous Christian missionary serving Christ as a healer and writer whose active concern was not just for black people but for all living things. And as with William Temple, here too the result was a continued sense that creed and conscience were a harmonious whole. Little did I know just how inexorably the ethics would unravel the doctrine and the ritual that were then central to my existence!
What triggered that process was my exposure to religious pluralism. This too went back to my boyhood because of my good fortune to grow up in a place with a large Jewish community in which I was to find my best friend. Student life brought me into contact for the first time with Hindu and Buddhist friends, and when we moved to what is now Zimbabwe to take up a lecturing position, this exposure underwent a major intensification. It was there that I experienced my first sustained contact with black African people as equals, in the form of the Shona people. Apartheid South Africa had successfully prevented anything like that from happening. It was no small thing for a white South African like me to experience acceptance and friendship by black Zimbabweans in the early 1970s, just as their own armed struggle against racist domination got going in earnest, rather than being stereotyped and shunned as a typical white racist.
When you experience great goodness of life in people whose culture never drew on the Bible and had little or no awareness of Jesus or the church, and if you are at all like me, you are on your way out of exclusivist, credal Christianity, and above all out of its traditional, orthodox doctrine of salvation.
The next stage in this undermining of what I found myself able to believe was an encounter with secularistic wortld-views, starting with Marxism. It is important to understand that the white-dominated, racist but explicitly theistic regime that then held sway in South Africa was obsessively opposed to these atheistic world-views and did all they could to make an accurate grasp of them very difficult. Their literature and all known communists were banned or driven into exile. So it was only in the rather less fanatically anti-secularist climate of what was then called Rhodesia that I was able to get to grips with what Karl Marx and the Marxists really stood for. So commenced a process that grew into an extensive study of western, non-theistic interpretations of reality coupled with increasing, if generally covert, contact withpeople whose lives were based on them.
Thus there opened to my awareness a reality others had long known but I, blinkered by my theism and by the apartheid state, had notthe reality of morally exemplary lives based on secular humanism or Marxism, lives that were without exception at least as strongly opposed to racism as any of the heroic Christians known to me, such as Desmond Tutu. In South Africa virtually all the perpetrators of apartheid were God-fearing theists, most of them Christians, while those were struggledsome of them at the costs of their livesagainst that crime against humanity were of many religions and none.
In Zimbabwe, as it is now called, my work in what we termed Comparative Religion, done in the context of growing friendships with Shona people and with Buddhist colleagues, saw the start of what became my first book. In it I tried to construct a naturalistic explanation of the world's religions. Work on this continued after we somewhat reluctantly returned to South Africa in 1977 because I had refused to undergo conscription into the white Rhodesian army as it vainly tried to counter the chimurengu or resistance struggle, by forcea struggle which some of own students had joined, suddenly disappearing from their classes, some of them never to return to their liberated homeland, their young and promising lives sacrificed to the passion for freedom and justice.
That first book was based partly on the idea that the various religions (and all secular world-views as well) are at heart ways of valuing reality and of relating of others and the world on the basis of those fundamental values. It had become clear that none of our world-views is able to explain the existence of the others adequately, so that we needed a new explanatory logic. And since even an elementary knowledge of the world's religions is enough to show that belief in the existence of a God is not a defining characteristic of either religion or ethics, I sought the explanation for religion in nature and in human nature. I also wanted to argue that what apartheid deemed irredeemably separate and inferior, namely world-views other than that of white, Christian South African, could in fact be shown to be the branches of a single treeChristianity too. This was, for me, even more an ethical statement than an academic one.
I sent John Hick an article-length early version of this theory, and during his time in South Africa in 1980 as a visiting professor at my university he encouraged me to turn it into a book, which I did. It appeared in 1984 in London under the title Religion and Ultimate Well-Being: An Explanatory Theory. My conclusion in that book was that the whole of religion can quite adequately be explained in naturalistic termsthat religion would have emerged on this planet exactly as it did if there were no deity causing it to emerge by acts of revelation or incarnation of the kind posited by theistic believers. This conclusion ended my ability to retain membership of the faith in which in had been nurtured. Who can find inspiration and meaning amidst beliefs and rituals that have lost all credibility as vehicles of truth?
Given these experiences, it will be clear just how timely the work of Lloyd Geering and Don Cupitt was for me. John Hick alerted me to the former. He had received a review copy, as I recall, of Faith's New Age while with us at the University of Natal in 1980, and urged me to read it. This I did, discovering there a brilliantly coherent and richly informed account of a radical shift in our view of reality towards what I sometimes think of as a post-theistic paradigm. Meeting Lloyd a few years later added a personal dimension to his influence which has been one of the great privileges of my life.
It was also John Hick who encouraged me to meet Don Cupitt. When Hick came to South Africa, The Myth of God Incarnate had just appeared. Cupitt's key work, so far as I am concerned, was not his chapter in that book but Taking Leave of God, a year or two later. After reading it I sought him out and found in him another mentor who greatly encouraged my own radicalism. As with Lloyd Geering, this affected both my philosophical and my ethical orientation. I have avidly read all his books since then, with a special fondness for Solar Ethics.
In the early 80s an opportunity to leave the apartheid state came our way. In the event, problematic personal circumstances led to the exceedingly difficult decision to stay. For us the decision to remain in South Africa implied an intensified duty to use every scholarly and personal opportunity to resist apartheid. Since my field was Religious Studies, that amounted to a methodological policy of turning the subject into something explicitly critical and reconstructive, and not just descriptive, comparative and phemonenological, much to the consternation of some of my northern hemisphere colleagues in that discipline. It was unthinkable not to place the following question at the top of the Religious Studies agenda: is religion really the force for good that believers assume it to be, and if it isn't, how should it be changed? And given our South African context, this in practice meant posing and answering a more specific question: Is Christianity really the force for good that Christians think it is?
Normative questions like these require credible norms. What were they? I explored this question and came to the conclusion, in a number of publications, that there were two: cognitive and ethical. Does Christianityorthodox, credal Christianitypass the most rigorous tests for truth, and does it pass the most demanding tests for moral quality, tests such as fairness, justice and maximum inclusivity?
3. Christianity Under Ethical Evaluation
The opportunity to state my findings came in the form of a conference hosted by my department in 1985 on the theme of Salvation, at which Lloyd Geering was the keynote speaker. My paper there was later published as a chapter in a collection of essays I edited under the title Christianity Amidst Apartheid, with a memorable afterword by Desmond Tutu. As that chapter is crucial to my journey from creed to conscience and the constitution of the new South Africa, I must briefly summarize its ideas. They were based on the claim that what is morally noblest in Christianity is the example and message of perfect love given by Jesus of Nazareth. This is the norm by which to judge everything else in that religion. Whatemerges from that judgement is that the heart of orthodox church teaching, its doctrines of salvation and incarnation, is logically and above all morally incompatible with that norm.
At a time when many of my Christian friends and colleagues in South Africa were joining forces to declare apartheid a heresy, I found myself driven to the much more radical conclusion that Christian orthodoxy is itself a heresy, a moral heresy, because it makes claims that are ethically repugnant and logically self-contradictory. It tells us there is an all-powerful God of perfect goodness, who then acts to save a mortally imperilled world in a way that cannot be just or fair to most of his beloved children because he places the means of salvation out of reach of them for no fault of theirs.
If Jesus is indeed God incarnate and the only saviour, and if we must believe this or belong to his church in order to be saved, then there cannot be a God who is perfectly good and all-powerful. Alternatively, if there is such a God, then Jesus cannot be the only saviour, the Bible cannot be the only or main sacred book, nor the church the only gateway to or ark of salvation. Either way, orthodox, traditional Christianity cannot be true. Its central claims are self-referentially incoherent, to use Alvin Plantinga's splendid phrase. Worse, they are morally abominable. They set forth a claim about salvation and the structures to effect it that are manifestly unjust to most of humanitythe non-Christian majority.
Seen this way, orthodox, traditional Christianity emerges as much more like the apartheid state than like the work of an everlastingly loving, heavenly Father and of his incarnate Son. Like the apartheid state, the church creates a favoured elite, those who have access to the greatest benefit of alleternal lifemostly because of an accident of birth. Christians who buy into this then emerge by analogy as the racist, white South Africans of the religious world. By defending their status they compromise themselves ethically. And just like the apartheid state, orthodox, traditional Christianity creates an excluded and unjustly disadvantaged majorityall the people of other faiths or none. They are the black South Africans of the religious world. Worst of all, this travesty of justice is passed off in traditional, orthodox Christianity as the work of a perfect deity. It seemed inescapable to me that by so doing, the faith I had been raised in was encoding into its very heart an ethical problem of the same kind that made apartheid so hatefulgross discrimination.
Apartheid therefore provided me with a chilling metaphor of the verdict I was driven to reach about the moral status of Christianityorthodox, theistic, incarnational Christianity: the metaphor of Christian deicidethe moral horror from which it cannot recover ethical and spiritual credibility, where its belief in God dies. The very evil that made apartheid a crime against humanitygross injustice on the basis of something nobody can help or change, namely their skin colouremerged as an inherent part of Christian salvational orthodoxy and thus of the religion itself, because of gross injustice towards the human majority which is born outside any real chance of coming to faith in Christ.
For me, then, the very conscience that I owed to my early Christian nurturenamely that injustice is deeply wrong, and that all people deserve to be treated equally, caringly and fairlymeant the absolute end of any faith in orthodox, traditional Christian doctrine. I had reached much the same conclusion in my first book on philosophical and factual grounds. Now I had reached it far more powerfully on ethical grounds.
It was therefore with open arms that we welcomed the new wave of feminist religious and ethical thinking that began to engage people like me from the mid-1980s onward. What I had seen on the basis of religious pluralisminjustice towards people of other faithsfeminists like Rosemary Radford Ruether and Ursula King were seeing on the basis of injustice towards women, the difference being that my sympathies were more with the position of radical, post-ecclesiastical feminism than with the kind that found it possible to continue inside the church..
The other main contention that I made in that chapter on Christianity amidst apartheid was that the task ahead was now one of building ethically strong foundations for life after apartheid. That certainly meant radical changes would be necessary not just politically but also to the place of religion in the new South Africa, above all to the place of the Christianity whose own inherent and grave moral problems had been so effective in giving birth to apartheid.
Yes, apartheid was a heresybut so is the belief-structure that fathered it.
II. Connecting Conscience to the Constitution
Within the country's exceptional and long-standing diversity of faiths, the Christian religion has the largest following by far, a following now estimated to be around 70% of the population. It cannot be emphasized enough just how powerful Christianity was (and is) in South Africa. Coming to the country in 1652 from Protestant Europe as the religion of the whites, and thus of those who imposed themselves by force on the African populations, this is a tradition of belief and practice that had enjoyed over three centuries of massive power and influence during which to shape South Africa, exercising a virtual monopoly over access to legislation, wealth, education and the media. Despite all that, or because of all that, as I would argue, the main result was the apartheid state, forcing us into separate and unequal pockets of existence and alienating us from one another.
Some of us, deeply and painfully aware of this reality, realised that it was vitally important to ensure that when democracy came to our country, there had to be an end to the structures that gave so much power to the very religion that had failed us so dreadfully by helping to create the apartheid state. That state had taught us was that there is often a dangerous complacency abroad about the moral value of religion, especially the most widely followed religion in a given society. In our case this was of course Christianity.
The moral principles that seemed central to the task of redefining the place of religion in a democratic society were those that were most obviously missing in the apartheid state and inthe kind of religion that supported it: humaneness, equality and maximum inclusivity, which for me at any rate came to be fundamental. This led to the conviction that the best thing about Jesushis all-embracing lovemeant that Christianity had to lose its favoured status in the just and humane order of the South African future, after apartheid. For me, the key target therefore became the constitutional status of religion in the new South Africa, and I began a process of public campaigning that the only morally defensible arrangement would be a secular state with freedom and equality for all forms of belief, including non-religious ones.
The campaign began with articles in leading newspapers and a radio interview in Johannesburg with a highly popular station. Here now is the text of the first of these articles, published in 1990 in Durban's Sunday Tribune:
"The Nationalist Government (which had since 1948 created the apartheid state) for a long time looked like the Dutch Reformed Church in Parliament. Will things be any better in a future South Africa if the ruling party is the Methodist Church or the South African Council of Churches in Parliament? For our own good we need to debate the place of religion in the post-apartheid era. I will argue that both politics and religion will benefit if we transform South Africa into a constitutionally secular society.The really significant step, in retrospect, was sending this article to the local branch of the ANC, the party headed by Nelson Mandela after it was unbanned and he was released from prison. This enabled the argument for a secular state to reach people who would play the decisive role in defining South Africa's democratic constitution.
Thus some of us moved into academic activism, earning great opposition from conservative Christians in South Africa. Revealingly, vigorous support came from our Muslims, Jews, Hindus, liberal Christians, as well as from secularistic people. Happily for us, the campaign was taken up and supported by the the African National Congress (ANC), so that South Africa now has a democratic constitution, adopted in 1996, which has put an end to the unethical, erstwhile, legal hegemony of Christianity or any other belief-system. Only in the non-justiciable preamble is there what I regard as a lapse in the form of a theistic invocation at the end, which our Constitutional Court has defended on the grounds that in this context the word God is not discriminatory because it is used to create a certain atmosphere of solemnity, not foster a particular belief.
For us in South Africa the basic legal battle for an ethically sound society is thus over, but the educational, ethical and spiritual struggle to make those legal and constitutional principles work has just begun. For me personally, the experience has involved a departure from religion and a move into what is perhaps best, if somewhat clumsily, called ethico-spirituality, and inmy work it has involved a move from Religious Studies into Ethics Studies, mostly with a sense of feeling the way ahead in the dark and being without a map for the journey ahead. This attempt to put belief into practice has involved the setting up of a new structure in my university, an Ethics Centre dedicated to promoting social transformation through ethics education both on and off campus. Generous funding has come from the Unilever Foundation, so this new structure is now called the Unilever Ethics Centre, focussing on comparative and applied ethics, not philosophical ethics. Significantly, I have had more approaches for applied ethics workshops, talks, lectures and the like, on campus and especially off campus, in the past two years since we were launched, than in the preceding 20 years of work in Religious Studies.
Looking back over these events, it would not be an exaggeration to say that the experiences described in this lecture have totally transformed my understanding of religion and ethics and the relationship between them, engendering a conviction that the great challenge before us now, in a country with too much religion and too little ethics, is to find a way towards forms of faith that are rich in conscience and to forms of ethics that transcend their long captivity to the kinds of religion that let us down so badly. To this theme of the convergence of the ethical and the spiritual I want now to turn in the final section of this lecture, in which I would like to offer some ideas which I first aired at a conference on spirituality in Bristol in May 2000.
III. Reconnecting Faith with Conscience
Total inclusivity as an ethical norm means that moral concern must extend to everything, so that damage even to non-sentient things like mountains and rivers is seen as a matter of right and wrong, good and evil. Applied to spirituality, it means being unreservedly open to goodness, truth and beauty from any source. It means acceptance of our affinity with and relatedness to the whole of reality. Certainly it means a complete break with the idea that one faith enjoys some sort of inherent superiority with others, above all where this notion leads to a positive rejection of other faiths, a notion whose affinities with imperialistic modes of thinking and acting has been well described by Marjorie Hewitt Suchocki. (Suchocki 1987).
Next, the convergence ethic calls for a spirituality that transcends obedience. Itself a transcending of the top-down mode of moral functioning that we see in what Lloyd Geering has helped us identify as ethnic and axial ethical cultures, the convergence ethic expects the same of progressive spiritualities, precisely because its passion for a moral commonwealth of equals extends also to spirituality. There too, people have an equal right to contribute creatively to the enrichment of the soul along with all other people, walking shoulder to shoulder with them and bowing down before none.
Active concern for the well-being of all is the core value of the ethical vision I am exploring, and one of the essential, instrumental values that this requires is the best possible truth-finding, or, as some would say with postmodernism in mind, truth-making. This means that faith must be completely and bravely open to all that the human quest for knowledge, understanding and wisdom has revealed, including the need for rigorous critical scrutiny of even the most cherished beliefs. My own studies of religion have led me to conclude, sadly, that this is a much-neglected and often much-shunned duty, so that religion at times becomes the vehicle for the perpetuation of some preposterous illusions and errors. To the extent that spirituality has quite strong links for many people with religion, there is always the danger that the contagion will pass over to it. Ethical concern must be ever vigilant here.
The selfsame active concern for the well-being of all means that an ethically rich spirituality must be an inspiration that engenders active social and environmental concern, and not an alternative to it. Least of all must it be an escape from such activism. Here I must confess to a good deal of uneasiness at a pietistic tendency in some of the spirituality that I have encountered, where the heightening of personal consciousness seems to be all that is sought.
Once again, Mahatma Gandhi and Desmond Tutu are instructive embodiments of the point I am making. Greatness of soul in the former was the foundation of his political activism, not a refuge from it, while in the latter, an intense devotional practice fulfilled the same function.
What we need in addition is that concern for the well-being of all people be extended to nature as well, not in the form of a nature-mysticism that seeks no more than the enjoyment of its own dreams, but in a form that goes out to turn the dreams into reality.
If there is, as I believe, a dialectical relationship between ethics and spirituality, then the latter has its own vital contribution to make to the raising of morality to greater heights. One of them comes from the creative energy so strikingly evident in spirituality, with its ability to yield novelty and refreshment. Applying this selfsame creativity to ethics means moving away from believing that rules and codes are the proper vehicle for morality, except as provisional devices or for the young who are not yet ready for moral creativity. Every day the world produces new developments and most of them involve important ethical problems. A solidly conservative approach is not going to be able to meet them. Instead, we are going to have to experiment plentifully with goodness if the struggle for a world with a future is to be won.
Next, I think that ethicsabove all at a time like ours when great creativity is needed can only benefit from the talent that we see in spirituality for transcending particular confines and from being open to mystery and wholeness. Most of us experience a need to see our existence as having value and meaning, and this, it seems, is best achieved by seeking the most encompassing of frameworks for our lives. This takes us into metaphysics, not the weary old ones of the past but into new visions of wholeness within which moral effort can find a deeper meaning and a stronger motivation. This is of course not the same as saying that ethics needs religion, because spirituality and metaphysics need not be religious. On the contrary, it might even mean that ethics now needs to move completely beyond religionunderstood as that which ties the spirit to particulars and institutions, so blocking access to the very universality and wholeness to which spirituality tends.
Lastly, I think that spirituality can help ethics move from justice to love, from a balancing of self-actualization and the interests of others to an ability to accept self-sacrifice in order that others may flourish. There is such a thing as love of power and domination. As a result, thereare many who will oppose an ethic of planetary well-being because it threatens their privileges and self-indulgence. If South Africa taught us anything, it is that the struggle against such people cannot be won if those who wage it are unable to accept real danger to themselves, and even death. By contextualizing morality into a greater vision of reality in which self-sacrifice takes on profound value and has profound meaning, for example by linking it to the kind of cosmological moral vision developed by George Ellis, this kind of love can become much more than an act of isolated heroism or magnificent futility. It can become a fragment of the future for which we all long. (Murphey and Ellis 1996).
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