Beyond Religion: Ethics for a Whole World by Dalai Lama with Alexander Norman

Beyond Religion cover imageSummary: An attempt at devising a non-religious ethical system.

Beyond Religion is a book I would not have picked up on my own. But it was the next book chosen for a book club I am in, and the group thought it was worthwhile when it was chosen. As I have said before, book clubs are helpful to push your boundaries and to give you alternative perspectives. However, book clubs moderate interest in books, and I am not always thrilled by that result. Generally (and this may be my personality more than a universal reality), I like books I love less after a book club discussion. This seems to be because those other perspectives give me insight into why others do not like the book as much as I did. I do want that perspective because I learn about my blind spots. Sometimes, I am reluctant to encourage groups to read books I love.

At the same time, I also like books more that would otherwise hate because people’s perspectives do the inverse to show me how my biases against a book may not have taken other perspectives into account.

That being said, the group did not like Beyond Religion as much at the end as they did going in. Most of the group had not read Beyond Religion before the discussion, but a couple had. This group is made up primarily of retirement-age women, mostly, but not all of whom are Catholic. Almost all of them have at least some children who are alienated from the Catholic Church or Christianity more broadly. Part of the book’s appeal was to see how the Dalai Lama used the language of ethics to communicate with those children (or others) in terms that were not primarily Christian.

The problem with the book is that it primarily operates in terms of universal, theoretical, and not particular. The theory is necessary in books like this, but few illustrations or particulars made the book feel cold, distant, and abstract. In the last couple of chapters, there were multiple discussions of emotions and stress and suffering, and the lack of illustration of those ideas meant that either it felt like a textbook or it felt like the authors (there was a co-author) were not able to relate to the day-to-day lives of the reader.

Because the book group is made up of almost entirely women, the male bias was more noticeable to me because in discussions of emotions like anger or in calls to have understanding (grace) for others, there was no acknowledgment of how the gendered nature of anger and submission were present for almost everyone in the room. I do not want to break the privacy of the discussion, but several in the room are widows, and more than one spoke about their marriages in painful terms. And ideas like submitting to situations that cannot be changed felt like calls to tolerate abuse. In most cases, there was language about working for justice and suffering not having value in and of itself. But those limiting statements often felt inadequate to me.

There were helpful areas in the book. But like many self-help books, the people who need the self-help book are not those who tend to pick them up. People who are good at investigating their interiority can benefit from encouragement, but those who are not good at investigating their interior life also matter. It calls for everyone to investigate their interior life, and orienting efforts toward the individual interior may be inadequate to handle systemic ethical problems.

Martin Luther King Jr’s well-known quote is relevant.

“It may be true that morality cannot be legislated but behavior can be regulated. It maybe true that the law cannot change the heart but it can restrain the heartless. It may be true that the law cannot make a man love me, religion and education will have to do that, but it can restrain him from lynching me.”

From nearly the start of the book, I suspected that Miroslav Volf’s book Flourishing may have been written in direct response to Beyond Religion. Flourishing took an opposite approach to Beyond Religion. Where Beyond Religion tried to create a non-religious ethical system to work in a pluralistic world, Flourishing attempted to call religious people to return to their religious roots to understand how to work together with others to live out their religious lives in a pluralistic world. Both of those books were written before the current discussion around Christian Nationalism, but both addressed the reality of pluralism because they understood the tension of withdrawing from pluralism.

Personally, I think Volf’s approach is better, not just because of my personality and orientation, but objectively because making people move toward an entirely new ethical system is harder than returning to one that are aware of. In hindsight, I undervalued Volf’s contributions because I valued both my religious background and pluralism. However, it is now clear that many others do not. That being said, the group discussion oriented me toward the ways that pain and trauma from the religious communities of your origin may close off that path for many. Especially in the wake of revelations of sexual and spiritual abuse being such a widespread reality, some version of the thesis of Beyond Religion is probably necessary. I don’t think that this version of it is good enough to be helpful.

Beyond Religion: Ethics for a Whole World by Dalai Lama with Alexander Norman Purchase Links: Paperback, Kindle Edition, Audiobook

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