Review: Comparative Religious Ethics: Everyday Decisions for Our Everyday Lives

[1] Our world is much ‘smaller’ and more interconnected than it used to be. Advances in transportation technologies have led to great increases in global migration, bringing ‘distant’ persons and groups into our communities. And advances in telecommunication and media technologies have laid open for us the lives, cultures and traditions of many who remain physically distant. One result of this is an increased awareness of, and interest in, religious traditions other than our own – including (or perhaps especially, in recent history) the moral systems and codes of those religious traditions. It is no surprise, then, that the academic discipline we call comparative religious ethics has grown enormously over the past few decades.

[2] As one might expect, a comparative stance in the study of religious ethics has yielded a variety of methods or approaches for that enterprise. Some scholars seek to compare major forms of moral reasoning and moral justification within (or across) religious traditions. Others seek to describe, compare and contrast the moral worldviews and ethical principles or ideals of various traditions, based upon sacred texts and received patterns of thought within those traditions. Yet others will examine and compare religious narratives and thought systems of moral leaders among major religions, or approach comparative religious ethics as a basis for enabling and facilitating interreligious dialogue. In contrast to these, Christine Gudorf’s approach in Comparative Religious Ethics: Everyday Decisions for our Everyday Lives is to focus on the practical and the experiential in an attempt to “lift up values, meanings, and interpretations from religions and also from ‘secular’ thought (most of which has been influenced by the dominant religion of the culture) that are relevant to the most basic interests and activities of contemporary human beings in North America.” In seeking to identify and apply moral wisdom relevant to contemporary experience from many religious traditions, she does not try to convince her readers of the truth of any one tradition’s teachings or of any single code or system of religious ethics.

[3] This approach is guided both by the author’s understanding of her target audience and by her own assumptions about the content and sources of her subject matter. First of all, her book is directed toward an audience of “seeker-skeptics” – that is, persons (e.g., contemporary North American college students) who see themselves as ‘spiritual’ but not ‘religious,’ who believe there is value and wisdom to be gleaned in the study of religious traditions and phenomena, yet who are yearning for greater religious autonomy than they have seen in past religious structures and who do not believe that any one religious tradition “has enough of the answers to justify submitting themselves to the authority of that religion.” While skeptical of unique claims to truth or authority from particular faith traditions, seeker-skeptics are very much willing to “test varied religious teachings within the structures of their everyday lives,” to search for and weigh the relevance of those teachings in their own personal and corporate experiences of human work life, family life, sexuality, roles of food and dress, etc. Gudorf argues that such a quest for relevance has been more difficult for academic Religious Studies to address meaningfully in the past due to the discipline’s dominant methodological focus on historical, theological and textual study of religions. However, contemporary shifts toward the social scientific study of religious belief and practice around the world allow for greater experience-based examination of “real” religion (as actually practiced by participants) as opposed to “ideal” religion (reflecting “the experience of persons in the far-distant scriptural past interpreted today by small elites”). This shift both recognizes and enables the seeker-skeptic’s quest for experientially-relevant meaning and value from across religious traditions.

[4] Further, however, Gudorf suggests that relevance to our personal and corporate experience is the appropriate starting-point and prism for the study of comparative religious ethics because it has been precisely a shared sense of experiential relevance that has given rise to ‘religions’ and religiously-based moral codes to begin with. Human experience “has always grounded the establishment of religion,” and it was through human experience that values were “discovered and lifted up.” Religions did not, then, invent basic human values, but rather “built upon them.” And while rituals and belief systems of various world religions may seem quite different, Gudorf writes, their ethical systems have much more in common because the members of different world religions “often had very similar life experiences.” The real differences that do exist among religious moral traditions, then, are “largely the result of the different cultural, historical, geographical, and even climatological contexts in which those religions developed” which gave rise to different prioritizations among commonly-held values in differing situations. Thus, the approach she takes in this volume is to examine various aspects of everyday life and our moral decisions about them, “looking to isolate the ethical problems felt by living persons today, the concerns that world religions have had ethical discourse about in these areas of life, and areas of overlap between the two.”

[5] Having identified the book’s approach in this way – as not so much a comparison of religious ethical systems as an experience-based conversational engagement with various of those systems – Gudorf goes on to consider major alternative methods of moral reasoning and justification within those systems: virtue ethics, rule-based deontological ethics, case-based casuistry, and consequence-oriented teleological ethics. She reflects upon a number of conditions or contexts (sociological, psychological, political, even geographical) that have tended to make one or another of these methods dominant within particular religious traditions (and/or within particular historical eras) and offers contextual reasons why some traditional assumptions or ‘rules’ of religious ethical systems are being challenged in our time. She concludes that social analysis is essential for all religious ethical reflection both for understanding “the reality in which ethical obligation exists today” and for understanding and evaluating principles, rules or values that we find in religions’ moral traditions.

[6] With a stated aim of helping seeker-skeptics examine various aspects of everyday life and the moral choices and judgments we make concerning them, Gudorf then devotes individual chapters to religious considerations of moral questions regarding food and fasting/feasting; the human experience of work; body covering, appearance and identity; sexuality and marriage; interpretations, functions and obligations of ‘family’; anger and resorts to violence; and charity and responses to begging. In each chapter she is careful to address the socio-historical contexts in which religious traditions’ moral norms were formed (and/or changed), the socio-historical contexts of contemporary life in North America (and elsewhere), and the intersections or commonalities in which truths and wisdom may be sought and discerned. Given the nature of her approach, she does not attempt straightforward, down-the-line comparisons by trying to explicate, say, what each of 6 or 7 major historical religious traditions has taught about each and every one of her chosen topics. And some readers may complain that her examinations may be a bit Christianity-heavy overall and may omit important areas of insight from religious traditions not included. Yet there is only so much that any author could attempt to cover in a volume of this type. And, generally speaking, her explications of historical religious teachings certainly do provide clear bases for her contemporary-experience-engaging-historical-traditions approach (which is just as applicable within a particular religious tradition as it is in comparing traditions’ teachings).

[7] Now, this postmodern approach employs many of the tools of contemporary feminist analysis, including broad application of Feuerbach’s “hermeneutics of suspicion” in treating historical religious texts, creeds and moral codes. (For example, in a very clear and well-wrought chapter on sexuality and marriage, Gudorf begins by outlining social, political, economic and environmental factors that have led to recent reconsiderations of traditional religious teachings about sexuality. Then she moves to an exploration of those historical religious teachings themselves, after introducing them with a paragraph headed “Finding the Useful Parts” in which she addresses problems of ‘usefulness’ due to historical patriarchy, inegalitarianism and limited perspective in past religious teachings. Nonetheless, she avers, there are still “some gems to be found within religious traditions.”) Of course, when traditional sources of (presumptive) moral authority are treated subjectively and selectively in this way, some readers will no doubt question the extent to which any particular normative conclusions – i.e., “right” answers to our ethical questions – might be discerned and defended, at least among persons or groups whose formative experiences may have differed in any significant ways. For, the one source and locus of interpretive (and to that extent normative) authority left available to us is simply the prism of personal and communal experience. That experience, using the tools of the social sciences, interprets the contexts of our lives in which ethical questions are identified and raised. The same interpretive process is then applied in analyzing the social conditions and contexts in which the moral codes or systems of inherited religious traditions were originally formed and applied. Then, in interpreting past (religious traditions’) experiences in light of our own contemporary experience, we must seek not so much the identification of “right” answers as rather the identification of good ‘fits’ between our experience and the potential wisdom expressed in particular past experiences. And for some this effectively neutralizes or discounts any sense of real authority (as posited by so many religious traditions) outside of one’s own personal or shared experiences. Even so, Gudorf presents this experiential-interpretive approach as our most honest, realistic and practical form of exploration in religious ethics.

[8] Whatever one’s stance regarding sources of moral authority, however, the clarity, breadth and practical usefulness of Gudorf’s presentation will make it a valuable contribution to the discipline and to the teaching of religious ethics. Students and scholars of all hermeneutical and ethical methods will find in this volume significant “points to consider” that cannot be ignored or dismissed in religious-ethical reflection. Moreover, the book’s usefulness is enhanced by the inclusion, at the end of each topical chapter, of realistic and thought-provoking case studies as well as discussion questions and suggestions for further reading. In addition, the author has provided a clear and concise glossary of terms encountered in the study of ethics and of world religions. In sum, this book offers a valuable resource for the study of religious ethics and a helpful stimulus to group discussion of topical issues, for both university classroom and adult religious education settings.

James B. Tubbs, Jr.

James B. Tubbs, Jr. is Professor of Ethics and Religion and Chair of the Department of Religious Studies at the University of Detroit Mercy in Detroit, Michigan.