Interfaith Insight - 2021
“Can we be good without God?”
This was the title of an article in the Atlantic magazine in 1989. Written over 30 years ago by Glenn Tinder, a professor of political science emeritus at the University of Massachusetts at Boston, much of it sounds like it could have been written today.
Tinder worried that the spiritual center of Western politics is being lost, along with the principle of personal dignity. Without a religious understanding of sin, he writes, “It is difficult for secular reformers to reconcile the sense of the dignity of individuals with a recognition of the selfishness and perversity of individuals.” Thus, he contends, the secular reformers “fail to see how human beings actually behave or to understand the difficulties and complexities of reform.”
He sees the importance of maintaining hope. Tinder continues, “I suggest, however, that the main task facing political goodness in our time is that of maintaining responsible hope. Responsible hope is hesitant because it is cognizant of the discouraging actualities of collective life; it is radical because it measures those actualities against the highest standards of imagination and faith. Whether so paradoxical a stance can be sustained without transcendental connections—without God—is doubtful.”
In facing needed reform, America has left us with, he writes, “stubborn injustices and widespread cynicism; conservatism has come to stand for an illogical combination of market economics and truculent nationalism. Most of the human race lives in crushing poverty, and the privileged minority in societies where industrial abundance undergirds a preoccupation with material comfort.” Tinder continues, “If the great causes and movements all have failed, and unqualified political commitments have become impossible, why not, as Paul asked, eat and drink, since tomorrow we die? This is a question that secular reason should take far more seriously than it ever has. The absorption of Americans in the pleasures of buying and consuming, of mass entertainment and sports, suggests an Epicurean response to our historical trials. The dangers—erosion of the grounds of political health and impairment of personal being—are evident.”
In Rabbi Jonathan Sacks’ book Morality: Restoring the Common Good in Divided Times, he finds hope not only in religious commitment but also in the compassion and care within families, including primates and other species. Reciprocal altruism also developed in our evolutionary history because we need groups to survive. This leads to early concepts of what we now call the “Golden Rule.” For Sacks, the development of religions enabled large societies to share a moral structure reinforced with symbols, rituals, and narratives that could bind together a community.
Sacks concludes his chapter on the role of religion in maintaining morality as follows, “So religion has something to add to the conversation and to society…It builds communities. It aids law-abidingness. And it helps us think long term…The religious mindset awakens us to transcendence. It redeems our solitude. It breaks the carapace of selfhood and opens us to others and to the world.”
Rabbi Donniel Hartman, president of the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem and frequent speaker at the Kaufman Institute events, notes that justice predates many of the religions of the West and Middle East. The three religious traditions all look back to Abraham as the father of their faith traditions. Abraham is chosen by God “so that he will direct his children and his household after him to keep the way of the Lord by doing what is right and just.” (Genesis 18:19) This was 500 years before Moses received the law and more than 2,000 years before Christianity and Islam. The ethical principle, doing what is right and just” is recognized by God and precedes religious law, ritual and doctrine.
When the great rabbi Hillel was asked to summarize the Torah, he did not quote scripture or the law but appealed to a basic moral principle: “What is hateful to you, do not do to others.” This “Golden Rule” is at the base of all religious practices and is a powerful constraint on the temptation to manipulate our own self-interest by claiming it is God’s command.
If you want a scriptural passage that makes the same point, you can’t go wrong with what the Hebrew prophet Micah said: “He has shown you, O mortal, what is good. And what does the Lord require of you? Only to do justice and love mercy and walk humbly before God.” (Micah 6:8)
As we seek a deeper understanding and commitment to morality, let us affirm these vital aspects from our human dignity, our faith, and our religious teachings.