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  • The Movement for a Global Ethic
  • Leonard Swidler

I. What the Global Ethic Is and Is Not

The "Global Ethic" is the articulation of the basic principles of right and wrong, which in fact are found to be affirmed by all major—and not so major—religions and ethical systems of the world, past and present. It does not go beyond the existing commonalities. However, this de facto existing broad basic agreement on ethical principles unfortunately is largely unknown by most religious and ethical practitioners. If they were consciously aware of this commonality, it would provide a broad basis for serious dialogue and collaboration among the adherents of the religions and ethical systems. Lacking that awareness, far too often different religions and ethical systems foster destructive rather than constructive relations. Hence, it is vital to foster a conscious knowledge of the de facto existing "Global Ethic."

II. Beginning of the Movement for a Global Ethic

The movement for a Global Ethic was launched in 1991. Whence the idea of a movement for a "Universal Declaration of a Global Ethic"? New ideas and new movements do not usually just precipitate in isolated fashion out of thin air. When integrating forces—to continue the image a little further—gather below the level of discernibility, they can suddenly precipitate, like the "quality of mercy, which droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven upon the place beneath."1 The greatest and bloodiest splintering of Christendom began in 1517 with the Protestant Reformation in Germany, creating huge divisive forces. Serendipitously—or providentially—it was also in Germany,2 [End Page 1] just after World War I (1914–18), that the massive "Copernican Turn" of the Catholic Church away from "damnation to dialogue"3 began, which led to Catholicism's radical commitment to interreligious dialogue at Vatican Council II (1962–65). As the first line of dividing ramparts were slowly dismantled and gradually replaced with bridges of dialogue, some of the pioneers in this new, breathtaking dialogue began to focus beyond "doctrine, which divides, to action, which unites." It was at this point that Hans Küng—the German Swiss Catholic theologian, a youthful, exciting Alpine climber not only of his homeland Swiss Alps but, even more excitingly, of divisive doctrines—turned his attention to action, to ethics.

In 1990, Küng—a friend of mine and my wife Arlene Anderson Swidler since my doctoral student days at the University of Tübingen in 1959—sent to me in Tokyo, where Arlene and I were teaching at Temple University Japan, a copy of his new book Projekt Weltethos.4 I grew very enthusiastic when I read it between semesters in 1990–91. Let Küng tell the next steps:

A pragmatic American, Professor Swidler of the Religion Department of Temple University, Philadelphia, and editor of the Journal of Ecumenical Studies [of which Küng has been an Associate Editor since its inception in 1964], then composed an appeal in which among other things he called for the prompt composition of a declaration on a global ethic. Having become somewhat sceptical [sic] after my experiences with numerous actions and appeals of this kind, I personally responded at first in a somewhat restrained way, but in the end decided to become the first signatory to Swidler's appeal [emphasis added], after making some corrections. I also sought out some signatories in Europe. The key sentences from this declaration run: 'Such efforts should concentrate on drawing together the research and reflection on Global Ethic and related matters into a "Universal Declaration on a Global Ethos" which would then be circulated to the various forums of all the religions and ethical groups for appropriate revisions—with a view to eventual adoption by all the religions and ethical groups of the world. Such a "Universal [End Page 2] Declaration of a World Ethic" could then serve a function similar to the 1948 "Universal Declaration of Human Rights" of the United Nations—a kind of standard that all will be expected to live up to . . . The "Universal Declaration of Global Ethos" would in a major way bring to bear the moral and spiritual resources of all the religions and ethical groups on...


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