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  • Christianity and Human Rights: Influences and Issues
  • John D’Arcy May
Christianity and human rights: Influences and issues. Edited by Frances S. AdeneyArvind Sharma. Albany: State University of New York Press, 2007. xi + 228 pp.

The existence of the “Universal Declaration of Human Rights by the World’s Religions” (UDHRWR) deserves to be more widely known, and this book not only reproduces the text, drawn up for a conference in Montreal to mark the fiftieth anniversary of the UN’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UNUDHR, 1948), but offers a point-by-point comparison of the two documents by Frances Adeney and a series of papers that illuminate the issues raised by such declarations from very different points of view. The premise of the whole undertaking is that religious perspectives were not adequately represented in the UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights, though even this is questioned by some of the contributors. The UDHRWR explicitly mentions the right to change one’s religion, asserting in article 18 (1): “There shall be no compulsion in religion. It is a matter of choice,” and it includes “the rights of nature and the earth” (art. 29 [1]; see also 24 [2]). Article 12 (4 and 5) also asserts the duty and the corresponding right of not denigrating the religions of others. Article 16 (5) mentions monasticism as an institution worthy of protection alongside marriage. [End Page 172]

In an extremely detailed examination of the work of the Third Committee, which brought the original UN document to the floor of the General Assembly, Sumner B. Twiss finds abundant evidence that religious issues were debated at great length, with great respect, and from a wide range of cultural and religious backgrounds. The committee included representatives of Christian, Confucian, Marxist, Hindu, Buddhist, and Muslim traditions, and Twiss claims that it is a mistake to regard the document they produced as either Western or secular in intent. The question of the relationship between rights and duties was thoroughly debated, as were the social dimensions of both and the underlying theological and ideological issues. Although religious terminology was eventually omitted, this was agreed in an atmosphere of exemplary tolerance and mutual understanding. Twiss concludes: “The UDHRWR is redressing a nonexistent problem presumably posed by the UDHR” (p. 69).

Nevertheless, in the present context of the desecularization or resacralization of the world, a more explicit treatment of religious aspects of human rights seems appropriate, and the papers collected here raise problems that are still with us. Frances Adeney introduces several of them: the distinction between public and private spheres, the relative weighting given to creation and sin, and the relationship between rights and duties. The specifically Christian contribution to the debate, in her view, is the insistence on the universality of human rights derived from the biblical conception of the human as the “image of God,” so that “Christians through the ages have assigned a transcendent worth to human beings” (p. 20). The dimension of community is signaled by the extension of the covenant from ethnic group to faith community, thus linking the covenant family of God to the unity of humankind. Whether this link is strong enough to secure the universality of human rights, however, remains an open question.

The Christian ethicist Max Stackhouse counterposes to this the “profound individualism” implicit in human rights thinking: it is this, rather than abstract or absolute universals, that lays the basis for civil society and, in its Christian variants, “provides the safest havens for non-Christian religions to flourish without political control” (p. 49). It is the rights of each individual, not of communitarian entities, that are to be respected. The religions tend to be particularistic, but this does not mean that the sources of human rights thinking are necessarily secular humanist. Stackhouse leaves us with two very significant questions: “. . . whether we can form a global civil society that does not have a theologically based inner moral architecture,” and whether “human rights principles become more effective without attention to their roots and justifying ultimate legitimations” (p. 50). Terry Muck also confronts us with the tensions between universality and cultural specificity, the individual and the communal, arguing that religions all...