Between Universalism and Relativism

Book cover
Conscience Across Bordersby By Vernon RulandUniv. of San Francisco. 201p $15.95

To its “cultured despisers” (Schleiermacher’s felicitous term), Christianity might well seem occupied with turning guile into guilt. In Conscience Across Borders, Vernon Ruland, S.J., who teaches at the University of San Francisco, has written a bracing rejoinder to those who think Christian ethics is little more than a chronicle of divine “Thou shalt nots!” Drawing upon his expertise in psychology, ethics and world religions, Ruland seeks a via media between a disenchanted rationalism (or the agnostic pieties of postmodernism) and an uncritical invocation of divine-command ethics. For Ruland, conscientious moral decision must reflect an “ethics of loyal scrutiny,” enriched by the many sources of moral—and religious—wisdom.

An engaging story of a moral dilemma in his childhood sets the stage for an inquiry into the “anatomy of sound moral choice.” In subsequent chapters, Ruland explores what he calls the ways of religious wisdom, bringing the resources of interreligious understanding to bear on such varied issues as ecological degradation, human rights and personal moral development. A virtue of his inquiry, indeed, is its weaving together of the seemingly disparate ethical strands of personal virtue, social criticism and ecological responsibility.


The anthropological bias of much rights talk, for instance, jibes poorly with an “earth-centered” ethics, while neither emphasis fits particularly well with the primacy of virtue in communitarian ethics. Ruland’s appeal to a “God-centered ecology” permits him to avoid such reductionist extremes, in which creation is pitted against itself. Natural ecology, the author says, must not be opposed to social ecology; nor are human rights (both “negative” civil-political liberties and “positive” economic, social and cultural rights) inimical to the cultivation of virtue. As the poet Gerard Manley Hopkins says, the “world is charged with the grandeur of God,” of which our own grandeur, or dignity, is but a part.

And the God invoked in the recesses of conscience is not the exclusive property of Christians. Other religious traditions or ways bear distinctive witness to a grandeur that none exhaust: it “gathers to a greatness” in our global palaver—an interreligious conversation borne not only in doctrinal dispute, but in the family resemblance of spiritual and ethical practices. Ruland shows how, for instance, Native American respect for the interdependence of creation converges with a Buddhist view of “interexistence or an evolving independence” and the creation narratives of the Abrahamic traditions, which link “environmental disaster” to “profound moral alienation.”

The richness of the Christian path or way is epitomized by the sage monk Zossima in Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov: “Every blade of grass, every insect, ant, and golden bee, all so marvelously know their path.... Christ has been with them here even before us.... The Word is for all. All creation, every leaf is striving toward the Lord, singing glory to God, weeping to Christ, even unconsciously.” Such judicious citations, drawn from a wellspring of stories, poems and parables, enliven Ruland’s argument, reminding us that religious wisdom is far more than the propositional content of creed or theology. The heart, after all, has its reasons, but they are reasons, however intricate and subtle, and can be grasped as such in “an overlapping ethics of virtue, social character, and story.” As Ruland concludes, the “most effective apologia for any practical moral choice is therefore this effort to verify its coherence with the major roles, narratives, and values that shape each unique moral life.”

One of the tricks of painting on such a large canvas is avoiding excessively broad brush strokes, and here, too, Ruland succeeds admirably, though I would register a few minor caveats. His discussion of “Primal Ways” is perhaps too capacious; the appellation “primal” readily recalls what the African writer Okot p’Bitek once called the “myth of the primitive” in Western scholarship, i.e., the genealogical bias of interpreting such ways as “primitive” stages in the evolution of the “great” world religions. In appealing to human rights, which he regards as “just one means to attain” the end of human dignity, moreover, Ruland raises a set of complex questions that are only partially resolved. How, for example, do we reconcile the conscientious self-determination of moral agents with the collective self-determination of discrete social groups or peoples, e.g., traditional societies that may forbid women full participation in decision making?

I wonder whether an instrumental conception of human rights will finally suffice to unravel such disputes, since the sense or meaning of dignity is not fixed but depends, in part, upon its consequences. Heirs of the liberal philosophic tradition, for instance, may favor a thin conception of dignity, enjoining only noninterference with civil-political liberties. Ruland’s defense of a broader, more inclusive set of rights (as found in Roman Catholic social teaching) may depend, then, upon a richer conception of agency as a mediating term. Here the recent writings of Amartya Sen and Martha Nussbaum might prove particularly congenial. Yet these are minor quibbles about a splendid work. Ruland offers what he proposes: an “ethics of loyal scrutiny” that deserves a wide and appreciative readership.

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10 years 7 months ago
an example of conscience across borders: bush sending aid to the earthquake victims in china, he will borrow $ from the chinese gov. and send it on to those blighters who will see that it doesnt get to the people who need it.


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