Sunday, May 27, 2007

Archbishop Rowan Williams in Singapore

The archbishop was in Singapore earlier this month. A few of us were blessed to attend his public lecture "Christianity: Public Religion and the Common Good" on the 12th May. After the lecture, there was a Q&A session open to the floor. What follows is some lenghty quotes from the lecture.

In the lecture, he stated by drafting the historical background of how did we came to where we are:

...After a period of savage religious wars, there was a strong and understandable desire to avoid further conflict over religion, and a deep suspicion of religious authority as oppressive and irrational. Many intellectuals believed that moral behaviour, combined with a vague reverence for a supernatural creator, was something that all reasonable people were capable of grasping and putting into practice; they did not need revelation from heaven, or religious institutions with priests and sacred books to tell them what they could work out for themselves...

As the modern age developed, a further element came to play a part in this. The idea of human rights became increasingly powerful. For many if not most who thought about it, this meant that each human individual was born with an intrinsic claim to be treated with respect, possessed of a natural dignity and liberty which should be recognised by the law... A reasonable and fair society would be one in which each person’s freedom to choose and to pursue their happiness was respected and each person was protected from being seriously disadvantaged by someone else exercising their freedom. This became an important aspect of modern capitalism, with its goal of increasing every individual’s range of personal choices.

...the ideal society appears as one in which the government as a whole does not promote the values of any one philosophy or religion, except to affirm universal human rights to free choice; it does not give public recognition or support or privilege to any religious body, though it allows religions to exist as private associations, so long as they do not threaten the way in which society overall carries on its business.

Having the background painted, the archbishop gave the reason of his lecture before providing some observation of the problems facing our current era were being highlighted:

In this lecture, I want to look at some of the unanswered questions in my own context, and to ask whether these questions have anything to suggest about the relation in other contexts between religious institutions and society or law. As I do this, I shall be speaking primarily about Christianity; this is not because similar questions don’t arise in relation to other faiths, but because it is my own faith and, historically, the faith of my own culture – but also because there are areas where it raises what I believe to be some highly distinctive issues that other faiths do not so clearly deal with.
When our culture is so full of the language of relative values and so obsessed with consumerist patterns of behaviour, where is it that people get the motivation to act for the sake of others or simply to value things that are not of immediate economic use?

...our age is one in which the spirit of volunteering is less in evidence. What is more, if society has no moral orientation by which to guide younger citizens, what will fill the gap? As stable patterns of family life are undermined by the same short-term consumerism that prevails in economics, as people become less and less willing or psychologically able to make the long-term and unconditional commitments of marriage and parenting, we cannot assume that children will grow up with clear moral priorities. And the effect, as recent studies in the UK have shown with alarming clarity... generation of young people who are often bored and unhappy in a new and worrying way, vulnerable to mental illness as never before.

...we are more aware of the clash of competing rights, the risks of individualism, the assumption that I can always enforce what I believe is due to me. We are beginning to see that these things create a society that is aggressive and suspicious, where trust is in short supply...

To be relatively fair, the archbishop explores another alternative (that is Islam) and gave his reason why he thinks that Islam is inadequate to provide the solution for these identified problems:

Traditional Muslims can and do argue that the muddle and fragmentation of western societies indicates that only Islam is able to weld a cohesive society together in our present chaos. But it is not as though there is a single clear system of Islamic government that can be persuasively presented to the world; and the difficulties Muslim legal scholars often have about the limits to freedom of public religious diversity leave a question about how much of our understanding of human rights is compatible with a strict Islamic legal system. If Muslims are right, at least some of our assumptions about human rights may be wrong.

But what the dialogue with Islam has done is to remind people in our Western world that not everyone in the world simply takes for granted the same ‘rational’ and secular basis for social life.

His own take on these problems (the gist of the lecture):

I want to suggest two areas in which Christian faith makes a proposal of potentially central importance about the nature of the world we live in, in the hope that this may stir up some proper discussion of the limits of secular thinking in social administration and policy and may open up our social context to some wider and more lifegiving forces. This is not an attempt to force Christian faith on anyone or to suggest that it should be backed by law; it is just to suggest that without some of these elements being taken completely seriously by governments of whatever complexion, our developed economies will never secure anything like justice or stability.

Here is the first of these principles. Christianity teaches that each person is created by God with a distinct calling and capacity. For the Christian believer, human dignity – and therefore any notion of human rights – depends upon the recognition that every person is related to God before they are related to anything or anyone else; that God has defined who they are and who they can be by his own eternal purpose, which cannot be altered by any force or circumstance in this world...

This means that whenever I face another human being, I face a mystery. There is a level of their life, their existence, where I cannot go and which I cannot control, because it exists in relation to God alone... The reverence I owe to every human person is connected with the reverence I owe to God’s creative Word which brings them into being and keeps them in being... The Christian will have the same commitment to human rights and human dignity; but they will have it because of this underlying reverence, not because of some legal entitlement.

It means therefore that a human person is worth extravagant and lasting commitment. A human being deserves complete attention and care whether rich or poor, whether they will live for a day or for six decades. It is typical of Christian practice, for example, that the dying receive expensive care, that those who do not have productive mental capacities as we usually understand them are treasured – and that children and even the unborn are regarded with respect. And it is also typical of Christian practice when it is vital and energetic that people feel able to make the lifelong commitment of marriage to each other – because the beloved person will never be completely understood or ‘captured’, even in decades of relationship... Our crisis in sexual morality in the developed world is not just about a failure to keep rules, but about a loss of the sense of personal mystery and the calling to explore someone else’s mysteriousness for a lifetime.

It means that no-one’s value is ever measured simply by how successful or how productive they are. There will always be something precious that does not need to be proved by success. There will always be something that escapes what society thinks and expects...

These are ideas which people of many faiths can share and work on together in society. But there is an extra element brought by Christianity to the analysis of a good society, and this is the second point I want to underline. The New Testament describes what happens when human beings are brought into relationship with Jesus Christ by faith as a community in which everyone’s gifts are set free for the service of others. The community that most perfectly represents what God wants to see in the human world is one where the resources of each person are offered for every other, whether those resources are financial or spiritual or intellectual or administrative.

The Christian vision is not therefore one in which the person’s choice is overridden by a religiously backed public authority – which is why Christianity has a mixed history of relation with political power. It has always been a complex balance. When churches have directly tried to exercise political power, they have often compromised their real character as communities of free mutual giving and service; but when they have retreated in the face of power, they have risked betraying their distinctiveness. Christians are called, it seems, to live out the vision of relationships in the Body of Christ without fear of conflict with the rest of society; because sometimes that living out of these relationships can be unpopular with society. They are not called to impose their vision on the whole of society. If they have a role in the political realm, it is that they will argue that the voice of faith should be heard clearly in the decision-making processes of society. If they fail in this attempt, they may still be able to live with integrity. To pick up a phrase used recently in a meeting of European Christian leaders, the churches do not campaign for political control (which would undermine their appeal to the value of personal freedom) but for public visibility – for the capacity to argue for and defend their vision in the public sphere, to try and persuade both government and individuals of the possibility of a more morally serious way of ordering public life.

But the greatest influence that can be exercised by Christian groups in a complex modern democracy is simply in the messages given by various sorts of behaviour which embody the radical respect I have been talking about. Voluntary activity which conveys this message will have the potential, over a period, to shift what society takes for granted...

...Christianity has asked not for licence for its leaders to control society, but for a proper hearing of its concerns and – ideally – a willingness on the part of political leaders to show self-critical honesty and, where appropriate, repentance... It is not that the state and the laws of society must represent in all respects the commands of the gospel; it is rather that the state will become a sterile and oppressive thing unless it is continually engaged in conversation with those who speak for the gospel.

With that he concludes:

This is more than just an affirmation of human rights, more than a commitment to abstract justice. Christians are called to see others and especially others in profound need from the perspective of an eternal and unflinching, unalterable love. So far from Christianity threatening to undermine humanity’s freedom and dignity, as some of the Enlightenment’s legacy suggests, it establishes that dignity on the strongest possible basis. If the story of the Bible tells us how deeply God has loved what he has made, the Christian knows that the world in which he or she lives makes the alarming claim to be seen as worthy of that kind of love. We hope and pray that we as believers can respond to this by the strength of God’s Holy Spirit; and we proclaim this vision as the firmest possible ground for hope in any imaginable human society, eastern or western, past, present or to come.

Excellent lecture! Political theology in simple words! Theology is not as 'cheem' (Hokkien slang: difficult) as we all thought. After the program, i approached the giant, shook his gigantic hand and asked humbly for permission for a shot with him to which he courteously agreed. Here is it:

Full transcript of the lecture and the Q&A session.

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