In 1990, through his book Projekt Weltethos,1 the Swiss Catholic theologian Hans Küng introduced the Global Ethic Project as a theological vision that could foster trust among people of all backgrounds and systems of belief.2 The project inspired initiatives to popularize an ethics that is rooted in all human religions and cultures and can be used as a guideline for the actions and character formation of all people. Because the Global Ethic Project aims to serve every nationality, the wisdom of all cultures informs its vision. It constantly searches for kindred spirits and related ideas found in the magnificent wealth of human heritage.
Important spiritual figures such as Confucius and Buddha are undoubtedly predecessors for Küng’s Global Ethic Project. Political leaders, such as Ashoka and Akbar; writers, such as Lessing, Schiller, and Galdos; philosophers, such as Kant and Krause; and psychologists, such as Fromm, are also likely candidates. Furthermore, mystics, such as Rumi and Meister Eckhart, and theologians, such as Thomas Aquinas and—as I will attempt to demonstrate—Ramon Llull, also belong in this tradition.
Ramon Llull (Raimundus Lullus in Latin, and Raymond Lull or Lully in English; 1232–1316) lived during a time of intense religious conflict, which he tirelessly strove to resolve in his capacities as philosopher, theologian, writer, and missionary. Llull championed a philosophy of love—the most important subject and principle of his writings—that combined the imperatives of active charity and contemplative love of God. This philosophy enabled him to recognize the holy right of people of other creeds to have their beliefs respected and taken seriously. After all, anyone who venerated God as the father of all mankind had to view everyone—including followers of other religions—as His children and to respect them accordingly.
For this reason, Llull did not believe in spreading Christianity through political and military dominance. Instead, he recommended learning foreign languages and delving into foreign literatures to acquire a deeper understanding of other religions. It was solely on this basis, he believed, that encounters on an equal footing occur. Holding this belief, Llull studied the language and philosophy of Islam so he could engage in theological discussion with Muslims, meeting them on their own ground, from the vantage point of their cultural principles. Llull did not understand truth as an entity existing outside dialogue between faiths, and he believed only open and unbiased conversation could establish binding standards and values. According to Llull, missionary work should never just be indoctrination; rather, it ought to proceed through dialogue so as not to silence one’s interlocutors but to encourage them to speak, a position echoed later in the works of Nicholas of Cusa and of Gotthold Ephraim Lessing (i.e., his “ring parable”3).
Today, Llull’s thoughts can provide valuable guidance in the search for a global ethic. To benefit from his teachings, we must first cast a glance at the historical and cultural context in which Llull’s theology and philosophy developed, at the literary methods and genres to which he had recourse, and at the theological assumptions of his thought. This background helps us reconstruct the implications of Llull’s message for our current situation, allowing us to explore how, according to Llull, humans can recognize God and His love, how they can interact adequately with this love, and how their interaction helps them lead a virtuous life. Central to this inquiry, however, is what Llull’s philosophy of love can teach us about appropriate interactions with adherents of other religions.
The commandment of love, believes Llull, unites all aspects of a person’s life into one cohesive whole. Love, after all, “is a working together of thought and action towards one end, to which in like manner the Lover’s will also moves; and this is the end, that [all] men may serve and honor his Beloved” (BLB, 230). When trying to convince others of this concept, preaching or proselytizing lacks effectiveness; rather, one must lead by example and demonstrate a life shaped by the virtues of “justice and prudence, temperance and courage” (BLB, 79). Love inspires people to perform charitable works, guided by pity and compassion. “Compassion is to suffer in spirit when faced with the suffering of others. It is the Holy Spirit, my son, who imbues man with this compassion, so that they may love and help each other” (DP XXXV, 1).
For Llull, compassion is not exclusive to particularly mild-tempered people. Quite the opposite, in fact; it is indicative of the very highest and mightiest: “As God himself felt compassion, as he became human and allowed himself to be crucified and die for reasons of compassion, who would wish to oppose compassion? Who could claim to feel no compassion at all for others or themselves?” (DP XXXV, 6).
God’s love enables His children to love themselves, which when done without compulsion, leads to mercy and charity. “It is necessarily so, my son, that you either love yourself or hate yourself. If you love yourself, you will feel compassion. If you hate yourself, you will be cruel” (DP XXXV, 9). God’s love is an offer and an exhortation that can be rejected. People will not always love, but they should. And this commandment applies to all people, in proportion to their abilities. Those of greater abilities should do more, in a material as well as a spiritual sense (DP XXII, 8).
The virtues of justice and prudence provide guidelines for practicing love. Justice indicates what someone deserves, and prudence shows how to best accomplish this. Accordingly, Llull gives great importance to intellectual virtues such as wisdom, prudence, and temperance: “Justice and knowledge are inextricably linked to each other. He who judges without knowledge is like a blind man in the darkness. If you wish to be just, you will do well to temper your will by referring to your memory and your understanding, for if your will overpowers your understanding, the result will be ignorance, which is always opposed to justice” (DP LV, 8).
Familiarity with moral principles alone is not a sufficient basis to make just decisions; the virtue of prudence is likewise required. After all, “prudence is the virtuous working of the will which loves that which is good and avoids that which is evil, as well as the working of the intellect, which knows how to distinguish good from evil” (DP LVI, 1). Prudence is easily defined: “Prudence is to choose the greater good or the lesser evil; prudence is to reconcile time and place as well as quality and quantity” (DP LVI, 2). Attaining and practicing this virtue, however, is much more challenging. Sound judgment and an incisive grasp of the entire situation are required in order to combine principles and practice. Prudence thus links reflection and experience: it can only thrive where both are present. Experience alone is blind; reflection on its own is meaningless. “Prudence is located between wisdom and knowledge, for wisdom allows it to love that which is good and loathe that which is evil, and knowledge allows it to recognize good and evil” (DP LVI, 4). In other words, prudence bridges the gap between theoretical and practical virtues. It is simultaneously contemplative and active—or not present at all.
Llull believes that the three Abrahamic religions and their respective holy scriptures agree on certain basic principles regarding the nature of the true, the good, and the beautiful. The three religions may differ in their forms of worship and the individual tenets of their teachings but they share certain fundamental philosophical ideas. On this basis, they can enter into interfaith dialogue. Interestingly, the convergence and divergence of these religions allow truth to be extrapolated by means of philosophical reflection. By recognizing their convergences, religions can address their divergences peacefully. Every culture grapples with particular challenges in a different way, and the prudent seeker of salvation may learn a great deal from these divergences (DP XCIII, 5).
This interaction with the spiritual wisdom of other cultures should not be mistaken for spiritual relativism. Rather, it is founded upon a firmly established Christian stance because Christianity itself provides the criteria necessary to assess the interpretations offered by other theological traditions with respect to the merits they may possess for the Christian believer’s own life. The question remains how such an established stance can be developed with the requisite depth and foundations. Not everyone, after all, can devote years to study the scriptures and spiritual life of other cultures. Despite that, most people confront, often daily, others whose values and ways of life differ considerably from their own. Llull answers this challenge by highlighting the ability of interfaith dialogue to establish mutual trust.
To convince his readers, he describes a fictitious country where a salvation-seeking Gentile encounters three wise men, each of whom represents the spiritual truth of one of the Abrahamic religions. Together, they demonstrate to the Gentile the risks of a life lacking in spiritual orientation, warning him about the dangers that could await his soul should he remain ignorant of divine love. The Gentile is willing to accept the offered spiritual lesson, but asks the three wise men, “And which of you . . . has the better religion, and which of these religions is true?”
A lengthy philosophical discourse, well worth a closer look, follows: “Each of the wise men answered, speaking one against the other, each praising his own belief and blaming the other for what he believed” (BGW I, 148). The Gentile is startled by the dispute and decides to determine the reasons for the discord among the three others: “In the end the Gentile begged the three wise men as humbly and reverently as he could that they debate before him and that each give his arguments as best he could, so that he could see which of them was on the path to salvation. The wise men answered, saying that they would gladly debate in front of him. . . . One of the wise men said: ‘How shall we organize this debate we would like to have?’” (BGW I, 149).
The wise men resolve to employ only those rationales accessible to each and all of them, and to use this philosophical foundation to illustrate and assess the advantages of their respective religions. In this way—and only in this way—could the result of the discussion be acceptable to all involved. The wise men also agreed “that none would contradict the other while he was presenting his arguments, since contradiction brings ill will to the human heart, and ill will clouds the mind’s ability to understand” (BGW I, 149–50). Only the Gentile could “seek the truth about the true religion” (BGW I, 150), because he uses no theological arguments but argues solely from the philosophical perspective shared by each religion.
With the rules of conduct established, the three wise men proceed to introduce the basics of their respective religions. All of them are keen to emphasize the extent to which each of their revelatory texts agrees with the philosophical truths about the nature of God and of divine love. The Gentile, persuaded by their argumentation, converts to a belief in a consummate being, which culminates in the commandment of love (BGW IV, 294f.). He vows to henceforth imitate divine love, which protects “the weak against the strong,” and which is always primarily concerned with those in need (BGW IV, 295). The Gentile lauds this practical implementation of God’s love through charity with special fervor: “Ah charity, lovable virtue! Whoever has and loves you is pleasing and lovable by that divine charity which eternally and infinitely loves whatever loves. . . . Alas, wretched creature that I am! In what poverty and misery are all those who neither love nor know charity! And of what use to a man’s heart are riches and blessings without charity? Sweet God, You who have enlightened and warmed me by the fire of charity, enlighten and warm with charity all those poor people lacking in charity who live in the land I come from” (BGW IV, 296).
The three wise men, listening to these spirited words, are astonished by “how nobly he prayed.” What is more, “so great was the devotion they saw in the Gentile that in their souls their consciences made them uneasy and reminded them of the sins in which they had persevered; and all the more so when they realized that the Gentile, in so short a time, had conceived greater devotion in giving praise to God’s name than they who had known of God for a long time” (BGW IV, 299–300).
At this point of the story, there is an interesting twist. The Gentile agrees to choose one religion and make it entirely his own, “to honor and proclaim it” (BGW IV, 300). Before he can announce, however, which religion he deems closest to the philosophical concept of the ideal religion established earlier, the three wise men “most agreeably and devoutly took leave of the Gentile” (BGW IV, 300). Astonished, the Gentile asks, “Why they did not wait to hear which religion he would choose in preference to the others,” and receives the reply that “in order for each to be free to choose his own religion, they preferred not knowing which religion he would choose” (BGW IV, 300).
The wise men also profit from the encounter with the Gentile: they decide to refine their respective religions, nudging them along toward the universal ideal of the one true religion of love. They realize that while their belief systems may each have their own dogmas, practices, and claims of validity (i.e., a specific phenomenon), there is also a common principle (a theological noumenon, as it were) that inspires, corrects, and unites their religions. Subsequently, they make this noumenon of religion the object and measure of progress within their respective communities of belief.9
One of them states, “For just as we have one God, one Creator, one Lord, we should also have one faith, one religion, one sect, one manner of loving and honoring God, and we should love and help one another, and make it so that between us there be no difference or contrariety of faith or customs, which difference and contrariety cause us to be enemies with one another and to be at war” (BGW IV, 301–02). One of the others replies, however, “that people were so rooted in the faith in which they found themselves and in which they were raised by their parents and ancestors, that it was impossible to make them break away by preaching, by disputation, or by any other means man could devise” (BGW IV, 302). The third wise man deduces from their deliberations that these obstacles can only be reduced through a constant and incessant dialogue about and search for religious truth: “It is in the nature of truth to be more strongly rooted in the mind than falsehood, since truth and being are in accord as are falsehood and nonbeing” (BGW IV, 302).
This means the three religions each have the capacity to perfect themselves over time through philosophical contemplation and the eager use of the intellect. Still, the wise men caution each other, saying, “But since men are lovers of temporal possessions, and lukewarm, and of little devotion in loving God and their neighbor, they therefore care little about destroying falsehood and error” (BGW IV, 302). It is crucial, therefore, for people to strive less for temporal possessions, such as “their wealth, their possessions, their lands,” and more for spiritual objects (BGW IV, 302). No one is in a position to enforce such an approach to life, and the three wise men cannot but lead by example. They agree to meet once a day to contemplate religious questions, “until all three of us have only one faith, one religion, and until we can find some way to honor and serve one another, so that we can be in agreement” (BGW IV, 303).
One obvious difference between the Global Ethic Project and the teachings of Llull is the latter’s missionary zeal. Llull was absolutely certain that, of all religions, Christianity offered the highest truth and the best path to salvation. He believed in forced conversion for children; his texts are strewn with hints at the hope that if violence could not achieve the true conversion of all non-Christians, interfaith dialogue and its gentler means would. This insistence on the unsurpassable quality of Christianity is one of the chief differences between Llull’s position and the Global Ethic Project, which allows and encourages everyone to find his or her own path to salvation, regardless of religion (or lack thereof).
Still, the commonalities outweigh the differences. Llull very likely would have agreed to these famous phrases by Hans Küng: “There will be no peace among the nations without peace among the religions. There will be no peace among the religions without dialogue between the religions. There will be no dialogue between the religions without the investigation of the foundations of the religions.” However, Llull would have added that this foundational research had to represent a philosophical awareness of the true core—the noumenon—of religion: the commandment of love. Only through following this commandment can the multiple and conflicting phenomena of the different religions find a common point of reference through which they might find a deeper unity and consensus. Furthermore, Llull would have emphasized that no individual alone commands this point of reference; no individual fully possesses the truth such that all that remains is for that individual to convert everyone else to that belief. Rather, it resembles a vanishing point that emerges only in the convergence of all human creeds. Free interfaith dialogue, capable of learning and relearning, is the true path to a global ethic that spans across all cultural divides.