Why Be Good?
Home Submit Respond Email
Back Next

ISSN 1481-0794

Select the article you wish to read

Why Be Good?

Secularization and Moral Hope

The Holocaust as a Paradigm for Empathy

Biblical Texts--Past and Future Meanings

Yorkminster Park Lectures

Book Reviews

Why Be Good? The Shirley Bentall Lectures, May 15-16, 1995

McMaster Divinity College, Hamilton, Ontario

Introduction: Core Values, Common Space

J. E. Bellous

The Shirley Bentall Lectures, 1995, introduced the theme of public morality from the perspective of our responsibility to do two things: to educate the young in core moral values and to create a public space in which ethics is discussed in a way that encourages ethical life to flourish. The conferenceCthe theme of which was "Why Be Good?"Cbrought together scholars from a variety of intellectual backgrounds and personal perspectives to discuss some of the core values that would be helpful to include in a public discussion of ethics. As one model for such discussion, presenters articulated their position, heard one other out, and then identified values that support public life. The design of the lectures was shaped by the belief that we need to understand our own commitments more deeply, hear other views more sympathetically, and find common values to ground and strengthen the social bonds that make public life possible.

"Why Be Good?" is a question motivated by concern for our ability and willingness to live together effectively in pluralistic social contexts at the end of the twentieth century and on into the next. If it is fair to characterize pre-modern Europe as unified by a common public space that was dominated by Christianity, and if we are right to describe modernity as a reaction against that dominance, we now find ourselves in a new predicament. Tensions between secular and religious world views break into conflict when they are brought out into the open. The solution to the Church=s domination over public life, proposed by secular theorists throughout modernity, was that religious belief should be private only. But as Jose Casanova (1994) points out, modern secularism has failed to keep religion at home.

Casanova describes the de-privatization of religion as a social phenomenon beginning in the 1980s and extending into the present time. During the last two decades, religion not only refused to stay home, it split into various factions and fundamentalisms and returned to center stage. Contrary to the predictions of such theorists as Emile Durkheim and Max Weber, religion has survived the onslaught of the modern world.1 But from a secular perspective, religion appears (in the 1990s) to be a complicating factor in any attempt to mark off a common space for pluralistic ethical discussion. And this is for two reasons. The first is that religion is thought of as being so closely connected with conflict that it seems impossible to talk about religion at all without fighting about it. The second reason can be found in secular theory itself, particularly in its penchant for being derisive of religious belief. As Casanova notes, secularization theory postulates either the eventual decline of religion or the inevitable marginalization of religion.2 In other words, has secularism assumed the demise of religion as a logical outcome of its own rise to power as an organizing principle for public life. With the re-entry of religion into the public world, Casanova suggests that the old secularization theory, grounded on the eradication of religion from public discourse, can no longer be supported. Either secularization theory must be discarded, or else it must be revised to account for the current vitality of religious traditions and the prevalent focus on spiritual life. Casanova=s careful and complex analysis of secularization theory is well worth reading.3

The Shirley Bentall Lectures were one attempt to describe a public sphere that is inclusive of religious beliefs as well as of secular concerns about the ethical life. In my view, in order to move forward responsibly into the twenty-first century, we need ways of thinking about public morality that prize important religious as well as non-religious values. To accomplish this aim, or at least to work in that direction, secular theory needs to be more accommodating of viable and valuable contributions from religion and to acknowledge its prejudices about faith. In turn, religious traditions need to appreciate the contribution they make to public life and to work with secular interests in order to benefit society as a whole. In short, Christianity needs to speak with a confident voice in public conversation without trying to dominate by dismissing those who differ from that tradition.

The following three papers consider some of the questions and possibilities that arise when both secular (atheistic) and religious traditions try to talk about morality. Kenneth Strike’s essay, Why Be Good? Reflections on Community, Moral Education and Justice, analyzes two patterns for thinking about public morality, personified as "Instrumentalist" and "Facilitator." "Instrumentalist’s" perspective comes from the language of economics and organizational theory. "Facilitator’s" views are related to client-centered therapy. Strike points out that neither of these positions on the ethical life takes account of what he calls an extensive ‘communal language.’ This omission occurs because both "Facilitator" and "Instrumentalist" consider moral questions to be individualistic: What is good is essentially what is good for individuals. To "Instrumentalist" and "Facilitator" alike, moral questions should be decided individually (for our selves and by our selves). In Strike’s example, "Instrumentalist" and "Facilitator" are both teachers and, although they treat moral decision-making as an individual task, they hold their views quite strongly and try to persuade students to care for other people and to esteem educational values (such as an appreciation of good literature). But as Strike suggests, educational values are hard to promote in the absence of a common language in which the elements of >good literature’ are identified. Using this example, he argues that we cannot make sense of ethics without sometimes using communal languages that actually narrate core values and unite them meaningfully. Further, in order to use communal languages effectively, the young need to be initiated into them. It is, as he says, our initiation into communal traditions and practices that makes us ethical beings.

In terms of the purpose for the Shirley Bentall Lectures, Strike’s description of communal languages is important for two reasons. Communal languages have structured our core public values and we need to understand these languages, notably religious communal languages, in order to make sense of what we value publicly. As well, in order to prize what individuals hold dear, we need to include their communal languages in public discourse. To leave a way of life (or communal language) out of school culture, for example, is to exclude voices that speak it. That is, religion must play an important part in public conversations about what makes life good. But a problem arises with respect to religious common languages in that they tend to describe human beings as essentially spiritual, i.e., they assume humanity has a spiritual dimension. And it is at this point that Strike is farthest from the central position in Eamonn Callan’s essay, Secularism and Moral Hope. Callan asks a hard question: To what extent are shared moral hopes possible when some people, as he does, subscribe to a secularized interpretation of morality while others conceive of morality in ways that are permeated with religious concepts and aspirations? While he does not address the question directly, Callan is keenly aware of the problem that all human beings are defined as spiritual by religious communal languages even though he chooses not to see himself in this light. The problem of essentializing a spiritual aspect of human being was raised by Sigmund Freud in his influential essay, Civilization and its Discontents (1930). In that essay, Freud disputed the idea that human beings have a spiritual dimension, as an essential aspect of their humanity. The question of whether human beings are spiritual, if they are fully human, cannot be ignored, even though it is not openly discussed in the papers that follow. Rather, there are two views of human beings at work in these essays, one that assumes spirituality is essential to human being and one view that assumes spirituality is not essential. This question is central to our freedom to share in a common, public conversation and deserves more attention than can be given here.

Despite the difficulties of disagreeing on the essential >nature’ of human beings, a careful reading of Callan’s essay will reveal his concern to uncover a common space for ethical conversation. He envisions the creation of a common space grounded not on a set of rules or rights that apply to everyone, but on what he calls "a certain affective concord" established through giving each other our "true and best reasons" for what we believe and practice. As with Strike, Callan’s argument is persuasive and helpful. Even if we cannot agree that all human beings are indeed only fully human if they possess and exercise a spiritual dimension, we could proceed on the basis of giving each other our true and best reasons for the positions that we hold. Callan is clear that public, ethical conversation of this sort is fragile and requires our deepest commitment to the common good.

Callan and Strike are in agreement about a number of issues because both are educational philosophers shaped by Western liberal tradition. Irwin Zeplowitz is also familiar with liberal tradition and brings his Jewish perspective, or communal language (to use Strike’s term), to the conversation. If Callan proposes that the social world might possibly be held together by an affective concord, Zeplowitz provides a vivid account of what goes wrong when some people are excluded from the protection of civil minded social attachments. In his essay, The Holocaust as a Paradigm of Empathy, Zeplowitz allows us to sense some of the sorrow of those who suffered during the Second World War merely because they were Jewish (or Gypsies or homosexuals). It is important to note that, just as Strike identified the weakness of moral individualism in theory, Zeplowitz provides us with an historical example of evil exacted against members of a particular group. Individualistic moral approaches offer little help in understanding or counteracting systematic social harm carried out against members of such a group, merely because they are members of that group. In asking questions about the Holocaust, Zeplowitz describes the reality of evil and the problem of discerning which is more characteristic of human beings, goodness or evil. He provides us with important reasons to strengthen our social competence with respect to Callan=s idea of affective concord. His essay is passionate and accessible, and provides a persuasive, pastoral call to exercise humane responsibility for one another’s well being.

All three papers identify the need to be ecological with core human capacities for wisdom, empathy, justice and hope. In addition, all the papers mark off the need for a common, symbolic space with which a substantial number of social actors can identify. A common space needs to include traditional values and communal aspirations as well as protecting many of the gains made for individualism throughout modernity. That is, individualism must be valued for its benefits to people, but the context for personal fulfillment must be rethought to include public responsibility.

This is a particularly good historical moment for Christianity and the Church to converse with others in the common public space. Christianity has made singular and lasting contributions to the idea of the individual. In addition, our churches are often sites in which significant cultural, social and personal differences are held together in communal accord because of the vitality of Christ in our midst. In order to take full advantage of this moment, Christians need spiritual, practical and intellectual insight, as well as empathy and compassion, to be effective conversational partners in these discussions.


  1. Jose Casanova, Public Religions in the Modern World (Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 1994), 18.
  2. Public Religions, especially 19-39.
  3. Public Religions, 19-39. Also see Irving Hexham and Karla Poewe, New Religions and Global Cultures (Oxford and Boulder, Colorado: Westview Press, 1997) and Roland Robertson, Religion and Global Order.