Religion and Ethics

… it is the relationship of the individual soul to God and the fulfilment of its spiritual destiny that is the ultimate aim of the laws of religion.1

At some point recently it dawned on my attention that most of the world considers religion as primarily a system of ethics. That is, religion is about what a person should or shouldn’t do in order to become a better person.

This would seem to be the ostensible focus of the Christian church, whose doctrine is sometimes entirely concerned with the salvation of the individual believer. Although “doing good” may mean having faith rather than performing good deeds, all the same it regards the actions of the individual, and how those actions transform one’s life.

But it is my opinion that religion is very different from ethics, and in fact is not at all an ethical system.

In ethics, according to my understanding, virtue is a state of being in which the good has taken root in a person’s life; the good is attracted by certain behaviors, called virtuous, and by aligning ourselves with those behaviors, we reach the culmination of our human nature.

Since these behaviors are the primary focus of ethics, good behavior will constitute success, and bad behavior, failure. So that if we are not acting according to our ethical guidelines, we are in a state of failure to some degree; and likewise, anyone who does act in such a way, has succeeded.

Now, religion definitely prescribes a set of laws for the believers to follow, and in this I can see a correlation to ethics. But most religionists understand that it’s not just about what you do. In fact, parts of the Christian church have taken this to an extreme, whereby they claim that faith alone offers salvation.

In the Bahá’í Writings, it is also stated that behavior alone is not sufficient. Bahá’u’lláh begins His book of laws by stating:

Whoso achieveth this duty [of recognizing the Manifestation] hath attained unto all good; and whoso is deprived thereof hath gone astray, though he be the author of every righteous deed.2

Yet immediately after this sentence He commands our obedience, and claims that recognition of Him is not acceptable without such obedience.

So there is an interplay here between our mystical relationship with God, and what appears to be an ethical system of conduct for the believers to follow. But herein lie also many snares, since each half of the scenario is sometimes considered separately: am I succeeding in life because I am nearer to God? But how can this be if my behavior is not in line with the Teachings? Conversely, am I succeeding because I act properly? But how can this be if my heart feels empty?

Our failure to behave with complete propriety (which is the lot of us all, I’m afraid) can become a source of anxiety, because one half of Bahá’u’lláh’s prescription seems to indicate that our lives, and our love for God, is unacceptable to the extent that we fail in our behavior.

This is the ethical view: that virtue consists wholly in acting rightly. Since this idea comes from Aristotle, it’s understandable that we find it at the core of our Western perspective. So indivorcible is it, in fact, that we regularly fall into the trap of considering religion as equivalent to a system of ethics.

I run into this in people’s choice of prayers, or their favorite quotes. Next time, when someone shares something from the Writings with you, what kind do they choose? Bahá’u’lláh revealed in many voices, one of which is the lawgiver. What voice do they commonly pick as their favorite? The ethical “mode” would prefer the lawgiver, since it makes religious life clear and definite. But how often do they choose the truth-seeker, or the mystic? These are much less clear with regard to what one should “do”, and yet they are no less valid.

At one time We spoke in the language of the lawgiver; at another in that of the truth-seeker and the mystic, and yet Our supreme purpose and highest wish hath always been to disclose the glory and sublimity of this station. God, verily, is a sufficient witness!3

The image that came to mind to describe the difference between ethics and religion is that of looking for treasure on a treasure map. A map gives certain directions in order for you to find your goal. It says: at this juncture turn left, and here, turn right; but when you’re here, don’t turn left, as that will lead you astray.

When we think of following the directions on a map, do we consider that “ethical”? It’s a bit different from saying “you should do this” or “you should do that.” Instead, directions take the shape of “you should do this to find the treasure” or “you should do that if you want to reach your goal.”

Sometimes these directions are not spatial. For example, we know that we shouldn’t drink alcohol if we want to drive a car. The reason is not that abstaining from alcohol is more virtuous, but that if we want to drive safely, we shouldn’t impair our coordination and reflexes. (Which is not to say that drinking alcohol is ever OK, but ethically the reason for refraining is that the effects are undesirable in the long run, and not due to anything intrinisically terrible about alcohol itself). This is not an ethical mandate, but a practical one, in view of achieving our goal.

Which comes to my conclusion: I believe that religion is not about us and our behavior. It is about the Glory of God, and how we can achieve nearness to Him; in the same way as a treasure map, the Kitáb-i-Aqdas is not an ethical text, but a guidebook for discovering this treasure.

O ye peoples of the world! Know assuredly that My commandments are the lamps of My loving providence among My servants, and the keys of My mercy for My creatures.4

Perhaps these are lamps to find our way through the night, and keys to unlock the doors of His mystery? Each image implies movement toward something else. Also, when we search for treasure, success is measured not by how well we behave, but in our nearness to the objective.

O Son of Man! Sorrow not save that thou art far from Us. Rejoice not save that thou art drawing near and returning unto Us.5

Correct behavior is necessary, then, not for its own sake – which is the mode of an ethical system – but simply because it is what we must do in order to unearth those faculties within us which will allow us to ascend home. If that world is spirit, and we are still of the earth, how can we return?

O Son of Desire! Give ear unto this: Never shall mortal eye recognize the everlasting Beauty, nor the lifeless heart delight in aught but in the withered bloom. For like seeketh like, and taketh pleasure in the company of its kind.6

We become spiritual, not in order to “achieve” anything, but so that we can discern the signposts leading home. For example, all of us speak at least one language. Did we learn our mother tongue because we saw it as a virtuous thing to do, or simply because we needed it to function in this world? Similarly, I believe that the development of our spiritual capacities is much like exercising our infant wings, so that one day we may become strong enough to fly heavenward.

In conclusion, religion is not ethics: religion is about God. The laws of God weren’t given us for their own sake, but rather as keys to unlock the spiritual potentialities of our being, so that we might relate to the world in which He abides. If we choose not to pursue them, who is at a loss? If we do achieve them, who is at a gain? There is no loss and gain; either we are advancing toward God, or we are becoming more and more embroiled in this world. At the end, His is the beautiful life; I think that far from being a burdensome thing ridden with guilt, and a sense of failure, religion should be considered as a door opening up to a world we’ve never seen. The mystery, and the excitement, is what lies beyond…

Make not your deeds as snares wherewith to entrap the object of your aspiration, and deprive not yourselves of this Ultimate Objective for which have ever yearned all such as have drawn nigh unto God. Say: The very life of all deeds is My good pleasure, and all things depend upon Mine acceptance. Read ye the Tablets that ye may know what hath been purposed in the Books of God, the All-Glorious, the Ever-Bounteous. He who attaineth to My love hath title to a throne of gold, to sit thereon in honour over all the world; he who is deprived thereof, though he sit upon the dust, that dust would seek refuge with God, the Lord of all Religions.7

  1. Universal House of Justice, Introduction to the Kitáb-i-Aqdas, pp. 2-3

  2. Bahá’u’lláh, Kitáb-i-Aqdas, 1st paragraph

  3. Bahá’u’lláh, Epistle to the Son of the Wolf, p. 15

  4. Bahá’u’lláh, Kitáb-i-Aqdas, 3rd paragraph

  5. Bahá’u’lláh, Hidden Words, Arabic 35

  6. Bahá’u’lláh, Hidden Words, Persian 10

  7. Bahá’u’lláh, Kitáb-i-Aqdas, Paragraph 36