Monday, March 9, 2009

Religious Ethics in the 'Now'

A constant regard to God in all our actions and enjoyments, will give a new beauty to every virtue, by making it an act of gratitude and love to him; and increase our pleasure in every enjoyment, as it will appear an evidence of his goodness; it will give a diviner purity and simplicity of heart, to conceive all our virtuous dispositions as implanted by God in our hearts, and all our beneficent offices as our proper work, and the natural duties of that station we hold in our universe, and the services that we owe.
[Francis Hutcheson, A System of Moral Philosophy (Hildesheim, 1969), 216]

In this sentiment articulated by a leading member of the Scottish Enlightenment, we remember that the Enlightenment itself was not essentially inimical to deism and indeed to theistically grounded systems of morality. However, nowadays when the Enlightenment is evoked, it is the radical Enlightenment with its pronounced atheism and Promethean vision of humanity that is at the forefront of the ethical debate; the moral self is an autonomous self, a concept attributed to Immanuel Kant. It is for humans to develop a system of morals through agreement that be rationally justified and universalised.
Teaching religious ethics, or any aspect of religion and spirituality, in the disenchanted and de-sacralised sphere of the contemporary metropolitan university is a difficult and frustrating task. One cannot assume the basic contours and narratives of the Judaeo-Christian tradition that once informed European and American societies. Nor can one assume that students have the slightest conception of the belief systems, phenomenal practice and meaning of religious faith and ritual. One cannot even assume that one’s students have a clear, historically contextualised notion of morality, the moral self and moral agency. The ‘now’ culture is which we live affects academia as well: it is rare indeed to find a philosophy department that takes the history of philosophy seriously as an intellectual pursuit that is central to informing the framework of their contemporary concerns.