I’d like to invite you to give some thought to a particular problem. Why are our responses to the ethical problems of the present time so singularly ineffective and anemic? I’ve asked myself many times, why is this so? I think of one reason, at least, and I’d like to suggest that to you tonight.

Our ethical approaches are uprooted from their religious roots. They are cut off from their religious sources. A great task before us is, therefore, to reroot our ethics in religion.

What do I mean by that? I’m not talking about the religions, but about Religion. This Religion which underlies all the different religions — from which all the different religions spring — is the religion of the heart. But we must clarify what we mean by “heart.” Rightly understood, the heart stands for the whole human person, for the innermost center of our being, for our totality, not for any part of our selves. I am appealing here, and will be appealing all along, to your experience. Only if what I am saying is true in your experience, is it true for you. It might be true for me, but if it isn’t true in your experience, then it is irrelevant to you. Please, keep checking what I offer you against your own experience. I suppose that we all share the experience of moments on which Religion hinges.  I speak of experience, not of teachings we have learned in church, at school, or at home.  Religion hinges on experience.

Religion does not start out with the notion of God. It starts with a personal experience, the overwhelming experience of ultimate belonging.

The Religious key experience varies greatly from person to person. Yet, there is something that is always there:  a sense of overwhelming belonging. Now, this is shorthand for something that needs to be developed and explored and explained.  But I hope it will serve as a pointer towards the roots of your own innermost personal religiousness. Does your religiousness not somehow hinge on an experience that you have had? And was it not in some way or other the experience of belonging, an overwhelming sense of belonging? And I am not specifying it any further. For some profoundly religious persons, the term “God” has no meaning. Why push them to use that term? Religion does not start out with the notion of God. It starts with a personal experience, the overwhelming experience of ultimate belonging. Now, some of us feel comfortable, more or less, in calling that ultimate reality to which we belong God. Others have exactly the same experience, but do not feel comfortable calling it God. Personally, I’m never quite sure whether I do or do not feel comfortable with the term God. I think rather not, because it is too easily misunderstood. But I do belong to a tradition that gives the name God to that reality, and so speaking out of this tradition, I can conveniently also call it God.

Implicitly, religious belonging is a limitless belonging. It is not even restricted to humans. It is open to animals, to plants, to this planet, to the whole universe

Now, what do we do with that experience? What do we do with that innermost religious experience of our heart, that awareness of ultimate belonging? Regardless of whether you belong to this or that religious tradition or whether you belong to none of them, you always do three things with that experience; you cannot help it. You do something with your emotions. Because the experience is of the heart, that is of the whole person, certainly the intellect, the will, and the emotions are involved in it. They can’t help doing something with that experience.  The intellect interprets it. You cannot help that, even if you say, “In my personal religion that deepest religious experience cannot be interpreted.” That is an interpretation. By denying that it can be interpreted, you are interpreting it in a negative sense. That would be quite valid and sufficient, but most people and all religious traditions go further. And so we get doctrine. We must prevent it from becoming dogmatic. That is a different matter. But we do have doctrine, dogma, in the widest sense. We do have intellectual interpretation of our primal religious experience.

The second thing we do with it is to accept, in some form, our belonging. Our will does that. But, our intellect often imposes limits. We experience limitless belonging. But then we don’t allow ourselves to act upon it. We act, for instance, as if we belonged only to those who hold the same dogmas we hold. Implicitly, religious belonging is a limitless belonging. It is not even restricted to humans. It is open to animals, to plants, to this planet, to the whole universe. It is completely open, implicitly. This is now where ethics enter the picture. Our will does something with our experience of ultimate belonging, and that is where morality has its roots. If we belong, we must draw out the consequences. And so ethics is part of religion. An important one, but still only a relatively small one. We must remind ourselves of that because most of the religious traditions with which we are familiar here in the West are over-ethical, are moralistic. Morals sometimes seem to have swallowed up their religious matrix. Then, all that you hear in sermons is dos and don’ts. But nobody is particularly attracted to dos and don’ts. We may take them in stride, but only if we have reasons. And religious reasons are the only ones strong enough. If you are honest with yourself, you will admit that you are willing to accept your ethics as the moral implications of your religious experience of belonging.

There is a third aspect. Our emotions also do something with the experience of ultimate belonging. They celebrate it. We celebrate that experience in various ways, and that leads to ritual. Don’t think only of the rituals of the great religious traditions. Even in your own, personal religion you may have rituals about which you never told anybody. You’ve never shared them. They are your own. But they are genuine rituals. And if, as children, we refrained religiously from stepping on the cracks in the sidewalk, that had, quite possibly, something to do with our primordial religious experience. It may have been part of our ritual. Adults have sometimes complicated rituals, hardly distinguishable from miniature psychotic episodes. We all need rituals. Unless they are given to us by a religious tradition, we have to make them up for ourselves.

Thus, the primordial religious experience of ultimate belonging will find its expression in doctrine, in morals, and in ritual. We have to prevent dogma from becoming dogmatic. We have to prevent morals from becoming moralistic. And we have to prevent ritual from becoming ritualistic.  How do we do that?

In healthy religion, morals, dogma, and ritual remain rooted in authority of the heart. And remember, the heart stands for the whole person. In doctrine the intellect deals with the religious experience. That is important, but there is more to us than our intellect. The heart alone encompasses the wholeness of our religious response. If you put doctrine always under the judgment of your heart, you will prevent your religion from becoming dogmatic in a negative sense. If you always refer your ethical convictions back to the heart, you will prevent your religion from becoming moralistic. If you refer your rituals constantly back to your heart and to its primordial experience of ultimate belonging, you will prevent your religion from becoming ritualistic. It always has to be the whole person that stands behind the religious response, not only your intellect, not only your will, not only your emotions.

The moment I accept responsibility for recognizing authority in my own heart, my religion comes of age.

The basic question is, “Where does your ultimate religious authority reside?”  And if your answer is, for example, “In the Bible,” then you have to ask yourself, “And who tells me that the Bible has authority for me?” For other people the ultimate authority resides in the Koran or in other sacred scriptures. Who gives the Bible authority over me? Is it not my own heart that freely (and authoritatively) recognizes authority and so validates it? If we continue questioning, we come to the insight that our ultimate religious authority resides within each one of us. I say it resides there. I’m not saying that each one of us is the ultimate religious authority. That would be nonsense. But my ultimate religious authority is also “within,” or else I could never recognize it “out there.” The heart “recognizes” authority in a threefold sense of the word. The intellect recognizes authority in the sense of identifying it as such. The will recognizes authority in the sense of acknowledging its claims. The emotions recognize authority in the sense of appreciating that it deserves to be honored. Only when intellect, will, and emotions, each play their part, is the recognition of authority wholehearted. The moment I accept responsibility for recognizing authority in my own heart, my religion comes of age. At that moment I pass from irresponsible religion to responsible religion. This passage has far-reaching consequences.

Now, I would like to point out some of these consequences in connection with two terms which in our Western tradition have been important for ethics:  love and obedience.

The biblical concept of love makes sense in light of our ultimate belonging. In our basic religious experience, we become aware that we belong to all. And we say, “yes,” to that belonging. Love in the biblical sense means that “yes,” including all its consequences. Unless we take love in that sense, we get entangled in contradictions. Think, for instance, of the command to love your neighbor. In the sense in which we normally speak of love, it implies at least preferential desire, if not passionate attraction. But can you really love your neighbor with preferential desire, let alone with passionate attraction: We’re talking about the neighbor that lives next door to you. It is impossible. Besides, can anybody command you to have preferential desire? Is attraction subject to any commands? It makes no sense whatsoever. But, that somebody says: You have experienced ultimate belonging; now say “yes” to that experience and draw the consequences — that makes perfectly good sense.

The Bible does not say: “Love your neighbor as you love yourself.” It says:  “Love your neighbor as yourself.” That means, love your neighbor as (being) yourself.  In your true self you are one with your neighbor. And at the moment of your primordial religious experience, you know that this is true. Nobody has to tell you.  And so the commandment simply means, “Say yes to that experience and act accordingly.” But if you think that you have to “love your neighbor like you love yourself,” then you have to first imagine that you are somebody else. Then you have to love that somebody else who is really yourself, as you would love somebody else. And finally you have to try to love somebody else who is really somebody else the way you would love yourself if you were somebody else. It is an impossible act of mental acrobatics. In contrast, there is nothing more natural than the insight that your neighbor is yourself. You have experienced it; now act accordingly. It is in this sense that we can reroot ethics in religion.

Because obedience as virtue is a listening with the heart, training in obedience is not training in conformity. Its highest goal is not to produce puppets, but prophets.

I’d like to give you one other example: obedience. Obedience is often understood as doing what somebody else tells you to do. Well, there is some reason for that.  Obedience is often learned by doing, for a time and under very special circumstances, willingly, freely, what somebody else tells you to do. This is obedience as method. But that method has a goal:  obedience as virtue. And that is obedience in the full sense. Obedience as virtue in Jewish tradition, in Christian tradition, in other great religious traditions in the world, means far more than doing what somebody else tells you to do. It means, ultimately, listening with the heart. It is an intensive form of listening, the most intensive form of listening.  The opposite of obedience is irresponsibility. One who acts irresponsibly is not listening thoroughly and is, therefore, not giving the appropriate response.

An ethics that is not rooted in the religion of the heart will not think of obedience as wholehearted, responsible listening. Obedience will simply be equated with conformity to external commands. But our heart tells us that external conformity can be irresponsible at times. We are all too apt to conform to external pressure even though our heart tells us to stand up against it. Given an unjust command, non-conformity becomes the expression of a higher obedience. Civil disobedience is a case in point. Here, “disobedience” is true obedience, rooted in the heart.

The fact is we are so prone to be submissive to authority, that all our efforts should go into teaching children to stand on their own feet against authority if necessary.

Our society has a blind spot with regard to obedience. We think that human beings find it extremely hard to submit to external authority. The opposite is true.  We all have an inordinate tendency to yield to the demands of external authority, even in flagrant violation of our own hearts’ better judgment. I remind you of the experiments by Stanley Milgram at Yale University, tests that were repeated also in Europe, South Africa, and Australia. Milgram proved conclusively that over 60 percent of an average population will torture another human being with electric shocks until the victim lies unconscious, and for no other reason but the instructions by an authority figure — in this case a psychologist, the authority in our age — who quietly insists: “The experiment requires that you continue. You have no other choice, you must go on.” Our society is convinced that submission to authority is something that comes very hard to human beings. And we act accordingly. We train children from earliest youth on, to be submissive to authority, as if this were something one has to hammer into beings. We have a blind spot there, as I said. The fact is we are so prone to be submissive to authority, that all our efforts should go into teaching children to stand on their own feet against authority if necessary. Only if we bend backwards, may we hope to overcome our congenital bent to conform to external authority. The only valid gesture for authority under these circumstances is to constantly give back authority to the grassroots. The prime task for all who wield authority is to give back authority to those who are under it.

Because obedience as virtue is a listening with the heart, training in obedience is not training in conformity. Its highest goal is not to produce puppets, but prophets. For a long time religious traditions have known that the highest obedience is the obedience of the prophet. The prophet is one who learns so thoroughly to listen that he or she hears what to say, how to speak out, within the community, but against the trend of the community. It is necessary to speak out from within because if you speak out from the outside, you are not a prophet, you’re just an outside critic. You must be part of that community, but you must also speak out. Either of the two alone would be relatively easy. It would be easy to stay in, if you could shut up. Yet, the two have to come together: to stay in and to speak out. Where these two come together, they form the cross of the prophet.  The staying in forms the vertical beam, as it were, and the speaking out forms the horizontal one.

In our innermost heart we can tap a source of power strong enough to counteract the forces that threaten this good green earth. And we need every bit of energy we can get to put it to work for the goals for which we stand here. What we can achieve is not the question. The great question is whether we will have the wisdom and courage to take the proper stance. The sincere effort to do so will give us the assurance, each one of us, that we have done what we can do. That is more important than thinking about survival. If we are too much concerned with survival, we are apt to get into the same groove in which those are who for the sake of survival, endanger the survival of us all. If instead we focus in our discussion on the rerooting of ethics in religion and of religion in our primal religiousness, it may help us clarify our stance in the face of the great peril we are confronting.

Originally published as “Religion of the Heart/Nuclear Stalemate” in NICM Journal (Vol. 8, #1, pp. 27-33).