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An Heroic Opening Gambit

Reflections on the Global Ethic 

An Heroic Opening Gambit

by William E. Swing

I am indebted to TIO for the invitation to look back and rehearse what happened in my life as a result of the Global Ethic and to look forward to imagine what utility or relevance the Global Ethic might play in the life of the world going forward.

On a Personal Level

Rev. William E. Swing – Photo:    URI

Rev. William E. Swing – Photo: URI

On Tuesday afternoon, April 2, 1996, I had just presented a paper in Oxford on “The Coming United Religions.” It would be mild to say I failed in gaining backers. Afterwards, a young doctoral student from Germany, Joseph Boehle, came up to me and asked, “Would you like to have a conversation with Dr. Hans Küng?” I was momentarily taken aback by his question. Of course I would, but what would be the prospects of that? Nevertheless, Joseph went to work, and on Friday, April 19, my wife Mary and I sat in a tiny, bright purple Opel car in front of the home of Professor Dr. Hans Küng, in Tubingen, Germany.

Little did I know then, as I walked to his door, that I was about to meet someone who would change the course of my life and, at the same time, become a lifelong friend. Through the years we have corresponded, and at Christmas we have always sent cards to each other, although, of late, he has been too frail to do more than sign his name.

Three years earlier, on a February night in 1993 in San Francisco, I made a commitment to God to be a willing catalyst for the creation of a United Religions, even though I was utterly ignorant of the interfaith world and had no workable model of what a United Religions would be or do, or how it would emerge. At the same time, Hans Küng was strenuously constructing a Global Ethic that aspired to be an outgrowth of the highest yearning of all the religions. We were working in similar vineyards, and on the April afternoon 22 years ago we became fellow laborers.


On that same trip in Europe, I made a stop at the World Council of Churches in Geneva, Switzerland. Its leaders had more than a few reservations about the “global” nature of the Global Ethic: “Take the Global Ethic. It is advertised as being global, but did it emerge from a global process? Or was it mainly the product of a Western Christian man sitting in a room by himself? What exactly is common among the religions regarding ethics? The Declaration is ponderous, Germanic! And just because a few religious celebrities showed up at the Parliament of World Religions in 1993, how does their endorsement represent the official and real religions of the world?”


In 1998, I wrote a little book entitled, The Coming United Religions. In it, I assert that a Declaration of anything global must, first of all, come from a permanent global body. An ethic is something derivative. The global body comes first. The ethic must be produced and endorsed by this global body if it is to have any authenticity. A global ethic hurriedly entertained at a conference for a few days by predominantly unauthorized “delegates” lacks credibility.


I believe the Global Ethic had two chief benefits. First, it took the field of ethics out of the clutch of religious scholars and put it in the hands of ordinary believers.

Second, it quietly announced the opening day of the season for religious and spiritual grassroots people to operate both inside and outside traditional boundaries. Thousands of times throughout my life I have heard religious believers say something to the effect of, “I think that down deep, all religions are about the same thing, that is, honoring the Divine and being a caring citizen.” What I hear them saying in this is that there is an invisible global ethic or spiritual kinship at the center of life regardless of religious affiliation.

The Global Ethic and the United Religions Initiative (URI)

Photo:    URI

Photo: URI

Towards a Global Ethic – An Initial Declaration was in the air during the three years United Religions Initiative deliberated the concepts and words of the URI Charter. Two direct carry-overs between the two were, “We practice equitable participation of women and men in all aspects of URI,” (Principle 6) and “We act from sound ecological practices to protect and preserve the Earth for both present and future generations” (Principle 10). Both documents also share a strong doctrine of humanness. Gathering together on occasion as people of all religions, indigenous traditions, and spiritual expressions, we can never get started if we first have to adhere to one understanding of the Divine. But if we share a sense of human dignity, we can function in respect and get to work.

I often think that in the life-giving aspects of interfaith work, each one of us is bungling forward incrementally composing an ever truer global ethic. So I thank Hans Küng for his heroic opening gambit and for the powerful word “towards” in the document’s name: “Towards a Global Ethic – An Initial Declaration”!