FROM CATHOLIC ETHICS TO COMPARATIVE ETHICS

I was interviewed and hired as Assistant Professor in Religious Studies at Temple University in 1968 in view of my specialization in Christian ethics and Catholic moral theology. After studies at the Catholic University of America, I had earned a doctorate in moral theology at the Lateran University’s new special institute in Rome for the reform of moral theology, the Academia Alfonsiana. My friends and classmates there included the now well-known Charles Curran. Among our mentors were Francis Xavier Rhynne Murphy, Domenico Capone, and Bernhard Haering.

Inspired by Haering’s fascination with the power of mass suggestion, especially during the time of the Third Reich, I began to realize that the Nazis’ horrific physical atrocities against Jews and others were linked to their astounding emotional and ideological manipulations of European populations, including intellectual and religious elites. While doing doctoral research near Dachau in the summer of 1961, l was deeply moved while reading William Shirer’s Rise and Fall of the Third Reich, especially his documentation about Goebbels’s and Hitler’s use of mass suggestion.

After I returned to teach moral theology at Conception Abbey in Missouri in 1962, which at that time included several hundred seminary collegians and theology students, I was able to convince Bernhard Haering to teach courses there in the summer of 1962. During that and subsequent tours, other academic institutions in the U.S., which eventually included Temple University) also took advantage of his considerable charisma and talents.

From 1962-1968 my interests in the suffocation of critical thought and feeling by the power of ideologies and mass

indoctrination had to yield to competing needs to discuss church reform before, during, and after the Second Vatican Council. After I first spoke out publicly (National Catholic Reporter, 1964) that religious dialogue include moral subjects like the morality of artificial birth control, some bishops, including John Cardinal Cody, became upset with my statements [see pp. XX for details of when Archbishop Cody also became disturbed with the action of Patrick Burke]. At the same time, others at Conception Abbey and Seminary were so focused on additional disputes about homosexuality, celibacy, and sexuality in general, that I was scarcely able to draw attention to issues that I thought were more important, such as war and peace, global poverty, or the function and impact of propaganda within and beyond religious institutions.

After I joined Ignatius Hunt, Thomas Merton, and others on the board of the “National Association for Pastoral Renewal” to promote discussion about the merits of optional celibacy, my esteemed role model, Bernhard Haering, wrote me with displeasure that such dia-logue was premature. Few then realized that such turmoil in our limi-ted milieu reflected wider and necessary debates about the democra-tization of laity with clergy and of women with men in the church; or much larger cultural debates about war and peace, poverty, justice, liberation ethics, sexual ethics, and the interaction of religions in general.

Amid these competing currents and my own personal need to move beyond a celibate and monastic way of life, I asked and receiv-ed dispensation to marry canonically within the Catholic Church. I thought I would then become more free from matters of religious reform to reexamine social democratization and related moral issues from a broader context of the ideological mindsets and propagandas which had continued to distort these issues. With that background I inquired about positions at a few universities, like Temple, where I hoped that I could merge my specialization in religious ethics with a focus on mass media and propaganda. Luckily my inquiry about such interdisciplinary interests was forwarded by Temple’s Vice President for Academic Affairs to the Department of Religion where I was hired in 1968.

I taught graduate and undergraduate courses at Temple’s Depart-ments of Religion (1968-1982, 1985-1986), and Management (1977-1981). Major themes in my courses focused on comparative religious ethics, ethics and communications, and ethics in business and the professions. With an eye to interreligious dialogue, however, the Department of Religion had encouraged my teaching and research in comparative ethics rather than in ethics and communications.

My wife, Sheila Hindery, scholar and most compelling of colleagues, increasingly desired to live near her parents and brothers and sisters where she grew up in southern California and the South-west. To that end, after I took early retirement from Temple in June 1986, I taught courses in religion, ethics, and professional ethics at CSUN and ASU. My family and I were thereby able to live near and interact with Sheila’s parents and family before her parents and two siblings died from various illnesses. Although I missed the inter-religious and occasional interdisciplinary dialogue I had shared at Temple, my graduate teaching in professional ethics at California State University at Northridge’s Masters in Public Administration program enabled me to reactivate my earlier interest in the power of propaganda and the mass media. After retiring from teaching in 1997, I wrote a book, published several articles, and set up a website about topics related to propaganda, indoctrination, ideologies, and self-deception, subjects which fascinate me more now than they did during my doctoral studies in Europe. My article, “Comparative Ethics, Ideologies, and Critical Thought,” published in the June 2008 issue of the Journal of Religious Ethics 36.2, 214-231 provides an updated summary of my work on “Comparative Ethics, Ideologies, and Critical Thought.”

 

Religious Dialogue, Other Departments,

New Hires, Early Teaching

 

Much of the early and subsequent developments within Tem-ple’s Department of Religion can be viewed as a window or microcosm for what was going on in other colleges and universi-ties. Temple’s Department of Religion led important academic ven-tures into a discipline variously referred to by phrases like “com-parative religious studies” or “interreligious dialogue.”[1] Wary that comparative attempts might require enormous labor and risks, or im-ply assumptions of superiority, some of the Department’s faculty sought dialogue less directly than others. Scholarly exchanges ranged from bold and explicit efforts to learn and compare structures of religious traditions to mere tolerance for juxtaposed research, inter-action by osmosis, or wishful thinking.

Motives also varied. In a landmark article for The Humanist, for example, the Department’s initial Chairperson, Bernard Phillips, evaluated religious traditions in terms of their proximity to personal experience. For Phillips religions shared a common Tao or Zen (flow). Zen meant not merely a species or apex of one religion such as Buddhism, but the core of religions and of human life in general. Others, like Isma’il al Faruqi, remained convinced that their traditions, in his case Islam, possessed a fullness of wisdom which other religions only reflected or absorbed in lesser degrees. Paul van Buren, who was minimally impressed by the historical accuracy of Muslim claims, early on appeared to compare traditions from more detached historical perspectives.

Beyond the framework of motives for comparative study, Leonard Swidler sought scholarly conversations in which dialogue was visibly interactive and in which scholars could perceive their own traditions more clearly and fully in the light of other traditions. In the spirit of Joachim Wach’s phrase, “Wer kennt eine religion, kennt keine,” (Whoever knows only one tradition, knows none), declarations about one’s own tradition were to be stated clearly and honestly, with an eye for commonalities as well as differences, and with a scholarly openness to other religious perspectives.

Whatever departmental differences existed about ideals and motives for comparative studies theoretically, practical approaches were similarly varied. They ranged from comparison and dialogue by mere juxtaposition to explicit jousting at faculty forums. Some students were directed by their mentors to use comparative methods and dialogue far less explicitly than others. If any structural comparisons or dialogue were to occur, they were often left to the ingenuity of individual students.

Other departments at Temple University were as unaware of the use of comparative methodology in the Department of Religion as they were in their own disciplines, such as philosophy, or anthropology. Jacob Gruber, the Chair of Anthropology at Temple from the 1960s, challenged the Religion Department’s raison d’etre, its right to exist within academe. Gruber may have feared, and perhaps projected, that some religious faculty confused study about religions with the study and advocacy of religions, that they fell short of scholarly objectivity and methods, and that they threatened the separation of religion and the state in a secular university.

Gruber’s anxiety exemplified similar worries among scholars of other disciplines, not only at Temple but at other academic settings. Scholars reacted defensively in the measure that they felt insecure about their own scholarly objectivity and methods. Yet at the same time, they probably realized that departments of religious studies were not the only academic locations where advocacies functioned ideologically rather than scientifically, or were sometimes tolerated with uncritical complacence.

As I concluded in a recent article, “Advocacy in Academe: Academic vs. Confessional Theology,”[2] it is not only religious studies or theology which have sometimes “misfired in confessional or proselytizing modes, but any or all theories which have functioned ideologically—from existentialism to postmodernism, from Marxist and other socialist models of production and allocation to capitalist models of so-called free market.” Academics become ideologists to the degree they propose their assertions narrowly and infallibly. They “represent not inquiry, but indoctrination. If they substitute emotional intensity for evidence and logical deduction, they become not professors of learning, but proponents of propaganda.”

Early critics of Religious Studies at Temple were partly correct. Some scholars of religion obviously promoted their own traditions.  Claude Welch, a professor of Religious Studies at the Uni-versity of Pennsylvania, criticized the Temple Religion Department’s attempt to offer courses taught by scholars who had experienced the traditions about which they taught. This attempt he labeled ‘‘the zoo principle.” His phrase did not necessarily lampoon the hypothesis that scholars function better if they have experienced from within the traditions which they describe externally. Rather it disclosed a wari-ness that experience, authentic or alleged, might be offered as a sub-stitute for scholarship. Today his concern lives on in many universities. Then and now, this anxiety could be circumvented by heeding three caveats.

First, experiential familiarity with a given tradition is neither a necessary nor a sufficient condition for scholarship, although it may enhance it, and although, from a given religion’s perspective, it may probe the tradition with greater wisdom. Second, the basic objective in academic discourse is neither to promote specific traditions positively, nor to evaluate them negatively, but to display them in the context of competing points of view. Third, even explicit and impassioned advocacy of religious traditions, religion, or agnosticism is compatible with scholarly fairness, if it occurs within contexts of critical thought, which allow interaction between opposing points of view. Isma’il al Faruqi, for example, used to promote vigorously the superiority of Islam over other traditions, sometimes irritating his colleagues at departmental meetings and forums. Coupled with his congenial personality and wit, however, his forceful advocacy did not wither opposing points of view. Instead it nourished them. Paradoxically, Al Faruqi’s blunt declarations fostered comparative study and discussion arguably more than it impeded them.

In the Department’s early years, new hires seemed to be acquired not only in terms of what Welch called the Zoo principle, that is, as scholars who had experienced the background of traditions about which they taught. They were also selected in terms of how well known they were and how gainfully they might attract future students, if not funding itself. Enormous risks lie ahead for academe, the more funding holds sway as a motive for the development of programs, departments, or affiliated centers and institutions. The acceptance of funding may entail hidden obligations.

 

Departments of Religious Studies, and Other Questions

 

During my early experience teaching at Temple, the vision and scholarship of several colleagues impressed me, especially Paul Van Buren, Bernard Phillips, Leonard Swidler, Maurice Friedmann, Isma’il al Faruqi, and (a few years later) Norbert Samuelson. Among visiting professors Hasan Hanafi and Surama Dasgupta stood out for their scholarship and their enterprise. Working with them collegially, was not only a privilege, but an exciting venture.

In my efforts to take comparative religious studies seriously, I attended one or more classes taught by each of my colleagues in the 1970s. My dream was to complete or complement comparative religious studies by integrating them with comparative religious ethics. In my view religious ethics comprised a terrain of social issues where both religions and their scholars could encounter and learn from one another most directly and fruitfully. On the ethical land-scape, scholars as well as practitioners could more effectively measure the practical impact and differences of various traditions. The scholarly works of Hans Küng on global ethics eventually be-came the most known arena where such practical dialogue has occur-red. Amid competing visions of globalization, corporate hegemony, and social and environmental respect for indigenous peoples every-where, much work in comparative ethics obviously remains.

My research in comparative religious ethics was important to me. After extensive research in several Asian countries, I felt fortunMate to produce the first book (and numerous articles for various journals) which dealt with this new discipline—not only method-logically, but substantively.[3]

However, as I indicated at the beginning of these pages, my primary dream was to revisit issues discussed in comparative religion and comparative religious ethics from two further perspectives which were not only interreligious, but a) methodologically interdisciplinary, and b) substantively reformulated from the perspective of propaganda versus authentic advocacy and critical thought. With the exception of an article I wrote about Propagandas in the Church (Critic, May-June, 1970, pp.39-43), I had put my work in this direction on hold twice, first to assist discussions about religious reform in the 1960s, and later to help develop the field of comparative religious ethics.

Eventually, after my retirement from teaching at ASU in 1997, I was able to produce a book I had long dreamed about writing: Indoctrination and Self-deception or Free and Critical Thought? Although Mellen Books’ expensive pricing has made my book accessible to only a few, I have sought to expand further attention to issues I developed there by discussing them in articles published in the CSSR Bulletin (above), the Humanist, March-April 2003, “The Anatomy of Propaganda in Religious Terrorism,” and in papers accessible at my website (Propaganda and Critical Thought) (www.propagandaandcriticalthought.com/). These papers deal more concretely with issues about propaganda in religions, propaganda in departments of religious studies, and propaganda in other disciplines in academe.

Teaching at Temple in the 1960s and 1970s brought not only financial hardship to some of us newer faculty, but, because Temple was so popular with graduate students, a heavy share of work in multiple doctoral committees and other departmental committees. Many of the senior faculty bore their share of such work graciously. Others, like visiting, traveling, or commuting faculty, whom Bernard Phillips referred to as prima donnas, left much to their colleagues. What made it all seem worthwhile was the palpable excitement which could be sensed in a department where ideas from many cultures and traditions collided in bursts of synergy.

Religious studies at Temple University in the 1960s and 1970s functioned as an exciting instance and microcosm of the kind of cross-cultural and cross-disciplinary study in which academics dream to participate, where ideas from disparate cultures and traditions collide and explode with the energy of new paradigms. By the 1960s, politically and culturally, faculties of state universities in the United States had matured sufficiently to recognize that teaching about religions was not the same as the teaching of religions. With luck and hard work, the faculty at Temple’s Department of Religion developed a blueprint for how other departments might reach similar evolution in paradigms.

With appreciation for sharing collegially at the Department of Religion, I would like to conclude these recollections with excerpts paraphrased from my article, Advocacy in Academe: Academic versus Confessional Theology (CSSR Bulletin, Vol. 32,1, Feb. 2003, pp. 18-19). My years of academic adventure at Temple served as the furnace where these ideas were first fueled. Having nurtured and seasoned them gratefully, I give them back in the following lines.

Economic and political ideologies, like confessional theologies, “have no place in any academic discipline, department, or program, unless they appropriate scientific methods, e.g., a) by disclosing presuppositions; and b) by testing assumptions, arguments, and conclusions against competing positions.” Yet the scientific spirit is not dispassionate. Scientific endeavors invigorated by passion “may actually work more efficiently and productively than proposals which are emotionally bloodless or anemic.

Why should anemia reign in academe? If emotional expressions stimulate the desire for learning, why should ideas not be shouted from the rooftops?” When positions are expounded both freely and fairly and with scientific openness to opposing perspectives, they can ring with passion. They can also “eradicate the drudgery of religious and other ideologies in academe, which cloak enslavement to self-deception and indoctrination.” This liberation of critical thought emerges not only as academically and “socially productive, but ultimately as an adventure exciting in itself.”

Concluding lines of my article cited above, “Comparative Ethics, Ideologies, and Critical Thought,” summarize two thematic interests I have tried to promote: 1) uncovering ideological assumptions, and 2) preserving freedom from outside impositions in comparative thought.  My initial publications offered descriptively structural categories to facilitate comparison, such as ethical validation, central ethos, or the interplay between individuals and institutions. Now with an eye to the normative, I add: may tensions abide, not to be smothered by prematurely irenic attempts, but also not to be prolonged by neglecting pragmatic approaches and scientific collaborations with other specialists. Comparative ethics evolves not only by way of planning ahead, but also through improvisation in the doing. Excessive optimism should be avoided, either that consensus will prevail or that it will be heeded in practice.   Nevertheless, striving in that direction remains the best option.   I repeat and rephrase my adaptation in 1970 of T.S. Eliot’s celebrated line: Unless we sprint to counter the impact of ideologies which smother critical thought and comparison, this is the way our time may end, “not with a bang, but a whimper.”

 

[1] See Leonard Swidler, “The Study of Religion and Interreligious Dialogue” Journal of Ecumenical Studies, 45, 3 (Summer, 2010), pp. 349-351, where the two are carefully distinguished.

[2] Roderick Hindery, “Advocacy in Academe: Academic vs. Confessional Theology,” CSSR Bulletin, 32,1 (February 2003), pp. 18-19.

[3] Roderick Hindery, Comparative Religious Ethics in Hindu and Buddhist Traditions (Roderick Hindery, Comparative  Ethics in Hindu and Buddhist Traditions: Delhi, Motilal Bararsidass, 1978, new ed., 2004).

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