Talking or Shouting? Religion and Public Space
31st Corbishley Memorial Lecture, London – 27th November 2008
(written text of the lecture prepared by Professor Sardar)
Ladies and gentlemen, I feel honoured to be invited to deliver this year’s Corbishley Lecture. I must begin by taking issue with my assigned subject. Far from talking or shouting, it seems to me organised religion is in retreat in Britain’s public space, reduced to a muffled whisper if not exactly a dying whimper. This may seem a strange judgement from a member of a faith most associated in the public mind with bangs! However, I am clear in my own mind that bomb o grams of perverted faith are political acts. They are political acts of desperation which testify to the failure of the Muslim mainstream to join a relevant conversation of faiths. In this Muslims are part of a more general collective failure whose result is the marginalisation of the true purpose and activity of religion in the public domain of British society. As people of all faiths conjointly and alike none of us are succeeding in raising our voices to talk and educate the public sufficiently or appropriately in the meaning of our faiths. The void this creates is only too evident. As the entire world was seduced by the ethics of ‘Greed is Good’ where was our duty of care? Were we talking, indeed shouting, of camels and the eyes of needles? Or, as I would say, shouting about the need to purify wealth by delivery of social justice and real resources to the poor. As the globalised economy reaps what has been sown where are our voices demanding that the first priority is the option for the poor and detailing what in conscience must be done to protect the least of those in dire straits? We have a great deal we ought to be shouting about – but we are not even whispering because we have no secure handhold on the public domain. We have ceded our place, and that is a common predicament for all religions, all people of faith here and now in Britain.
My concern then is with the mainstream, not extremism. I believe the most secure route to eradication of the seduction of the extreme is ministering to the God shaped void in the daily lives of the mass of the population. Our task is to become relevant to the issues, concerns and circumstances of the society in which we co-exist, asserting the need for an acknowledged role for faith, whatever that faith maybe, in the public life of our society. This challenge raises its own questions. What part in the activity of the faithful, or even the mildly interested, should religion fulfil in public life? What does society gain, what has society lost by the retreat of religion from public life? What can and should religion contribute to the life of society? Are the religious a reliable, safe pair of hands to be entrusted with a role in public life? In what ways can and should the religious and various faith communities contribute to public life in Britain? Of course, we also have to confront the elephant in the room. How can religion occupy a place in the public space of a multi-faith and genuinely multi-cultural society? If our only answer to the last question is, in effect, to throw in the towel and agree to remain as quiet as church mice for fear of something worse, then we the religious are the architects of our absence in the public space.
As people of faith we have much to talk about together. We live together at a time when our social fabric is unravelling and unprepared to confront the hardships that await us. Generations have grown up knowing only ever expanding material horizons. These generations have been abandoned to the untender mercilessness of a system of values which equates human worth with what material goods we have and display. We live in a consumer culture where personal identity is shaped by the advertising glitz that gives a lifestyle profile to the brand names of the products, goods and services one selects and owns. The xyz alphabet of the me generations must now face hard choices not only of economic recession but of saving the planet from our history of extravagance, finding solutions for the obscenity of entrenched national and global poverty and inequality that blights the lives and confounds the hopes and opportunities of billions at home as well as abroad. Then there is an abundance of moral and ethical conundrums we have accumulated through the exponential growth in our knowledge and ability to manipulate the processes of the life of humans, animals, plants and the very substance of our planet. With knowledge we have amassed accompanying ignorance not least of how to reason in conscience with the difference between what can be done and what should or ought to be done, whether our power to know and to do is applied for true betterment of the human condition or contributes to debasing our humane capacities and indeed could even end by making us less human. It is not merely nurturing the development of and concern for conscience which is the proper duty of religion. Our religions are in many ways the last bastions of the language and terms in which to reason with and think through the dilemmas that become ever more common in our daily lives. What do generations bred to endless possibilities know of sacrifice, endurance, acceptance, self denial, duty of care and prudential considerations? These are our issues. It is our responsibility to present them as positive contributions to sustainable humanity so that those who have no religious formation are not conned by the ethos of the marketplace or left with the erroneous impression that all we have to offer them are joyless ‘thou shalt nots’. We cannot leave unchallenged the dominant philosophy of our time that all life amounts to is individual and personal satisfaction, the fulfilment of self. We have to offer alternatives to all whose journeys of personal indulgence leave them asking ‘is that all there is?’
Before considering the complex challenges we, as people of faith, face I want to begin with some commonplace details. According to all measures British society still considers this to be a Christian country. True, church attendance has been in long gradual decline. Yet a majority of British people consider themselves Christian irrespective of whether they participate in formal organised acts of worship or not. Of the 92% of British people who answered the voluntary religious affiliation question on the 2001 census nearly three quarters (72%) declared themselves to be Christian as opposed to 16% who stated they had no religion. The no religion category included atheists, agnostics, heathens and self proclaimed Jedi. And I would make the point that the general presumption that minority non Christian religions fare better in maintaining the affiliation, attendance and practise of their adherents, is a generosity too far. The truth requires unpicking the distinction between cultural identity, faithful practise and informed educated participation in the fellowship of an interpretive community. The distinction is a complicated manoeuvre, but one which would reveal a situation comparable to that among the generality of the Christian population. There are comparable numbers of what might be termed latent Muslims, Hindus or Buddhists as there are latent, or should that be residual, Christians. To presume that all those who self identify as believers know the meaning and potential of what they claim to believe in is, we should all accept, a gross overstatement.
My point, however, is that the figures for self identification with religion endure while the public acknowledgement of religion gets further and further marginalised. When I was a lad the Sunday morning television programmes for Asians – all geared to encouraging us, especially women, to learn English – were always followed by a televised act of Christian worship, which I understand were allocated proportionally among the various denominations over the course of each year. The Radio Times reserved two front covers per year, one of which was invariably Easter, for religious imagery and plugging religious programmes. Radio 4 broadcast a daily act of worship to all permutations of band widths or frequencies and audiences. As I understand it, according to the original charter of the BBC there were only three persons who had to be employed by the corporation and one of them was the head of religious programmes! Good Friday saw a reserved place for a televised act of observance between noon and 3pm. It reflected the fact that I can even remember a time when banks closed between noon and 3pm on Good Friday. Christmas stamps used to reflect the nativity story, rather than Santa appearing to poo down a chimney. Television schedules gave prominence on Christmas Day itself to acts of worship and a number of programmes with explicit religious themes. These are just a few of the signs and symbols that occur to me whose disappearance represents the retreat of religious observance from the public space. They are harbingers and consequences of a general shift in the temper of society.
The process which gradually but ineffably has carried religious observance to the margins is a product of radical secularisation. A great deal of the spiritual, over the course of centuries, was transferred to temporal control without noticeable effect on public acknowledgement of the importance of organised religion. But for some time now we have passed the point of critical mass. Secularisation has become synonymous with something quite distinct: secularism. Secularism is an organised philosophy even when not an outright ideology. It has claimed the centre ground because it has persuaded many of its superior ability to serve the real needs of society. Allegedly, it is the neutral, dispassionate and disinterested outlook which alone is capable of maintaining a peaceful conversation between all the competing voices, factions, interest groups, ideas and ideologies contending in the public space of an increasingly complex and heterogeneous society. What fits secularism for a dominant role is its trademark: doubt, perpetual doubt that debunks, over turns and interrogates all grand narratives claiming to explain the human condition. The clear implication of secularism is that conviction, convincement of almost any kind, is the product of a closed, unreasoning and potentially irrational, not to say fanatical, mind and hence by implication bad and most certainly a limited and inferior outlook.
The consequence is a severe God problem in society. God has become the great unmentionable. For the faithful, God is an absolute reality, whether found through mystery and clouds of unknowing or revealed in lucid clarity. This defies the uncertainty principle that is the essential feature of secularism. Religion in any and all its manifestations can be only a subject for scrutiny, interrogation and tests of justification and legitimacy but never simple affirmation or mere acceptance. Under such a dispensation religion is best understood and treated as a quaint personal and private predilection. Its claims on the public space are at best traditional, purely ornamental and ceremonial, getting a polite indulgence on the margins for a few high days and holidays but not given routine prominence, the kind of educative exposure that would unduly impact on popular consciousness. So Songs of Praise endures, because God can be allowed to have a few good tunes. For the rest religious programming becomes comfy sofa magazine shows of unbearable niceness and a complete absence of anything challenging or argumentative, let alone disturbing to the conscience of the times and virtually never mentioning God. Alternatively, it may appear in investigative trawls through the perverse and perversions advanced in the name of religion by the extremes. The perception grows in society that true and authentic expression of religion is to be found among the extremists, making the plaintive whimpers of the mainstream ever harder to hear and more subject to equivocation and outright incomprehension.
The result is not only an absence of religion in the public space but also the growth of a profound religious illiteracy that spreads like a virus through society. Fewer and fewer people become acquainted with what religion actually says and does. Religious education by the faithful is something children must be shielded from because it is tantamount to brainwashing, a foreclosure of choice. Though how one learns anything without education is a question best not asked. And why education in the doubt of secularism, or its curriculum surrogate comparative religion, is not merely another form of indoctrination that prejudices the capacity for belief and commitment is again a question that dares not state its case. We exist in a climate where all religions must struggle against the tide of inquisition which usually focuses on monumentally irrelevant questions and miss the salient points of what genuinely matters to people of faith. Self description, self portrayal by the faithful becomes more and more difficult further compounding the rise of general religious illiteracy. We end with a situation where those who do not believe assume the right to define what is authentic in religion and therefore who and what is typical, representative of religions belief and believers. While this is an acute problem for minority non Christian religions, and I speak as one of the sorest afflicted, it is by no means exclusive to us. I would suggest it now affects what passes for common knowledge of Christianity itself.
Society has accumulated both a distorted and reductive idea of what constitutes religion, any religion. It has only a minimal understanding of the beliefs, practise and contemporary interpretations of any and all religions. And all religions are best known through their least appealing historic failures. Religion has gone beyond being what believers say and do in the name of religion, the sociological reformulation of the comparative religion explanation. It has become identified by the very worst believers have ever done to themselves and others in history. In which case it is little wonder we are not exactly welcome in the public space – for none of us, or only the most select few, can claim to be without taint, to be entirely innocent of grievous faults, always to have lived up to our best calling either in the practise of our own faith or in relations with those of other faiths.
The generalities of the conception of religion, any religion, at large in Britain today present us with a bleak and depressing picture. Before we can consider what is to be done we need to take stock of what is left of the presence of religion in the public space. The reductive redoubt falls into two categories: religion is ritual; religion on its best behaviour is about niceness, a vague, non specific woolly sense of some sorts of moral and ethical parameters.
Ritual is the most obvious relic of religion and not surprisingly has come to be seen not only as what religion is about but as the prism through which it is best understood. Ritual observance is about high days and holidays and the rites of passage of human existence: the occasions marking birth, marriage and death. Individually this is how people make the significance of major events in their lives memorable, utilising the facility of formal religion as an integral part of the opportunity for ‘a bit of do’. I am not one of those who spurn this kind of encounter. I would argue it can be one of the few occasions when religious out-reach is possible. And there is another face of such ritualised religious observance I find myself supporting more and more. It seems to me grand state occasions, which integrate or revolve around acts of religious observance have become increasingly important in the bleak landscape we face. I think of things like the funeral of the late Queen Mother – vicariously the memorialising and laying to rest we would all like to give to a beloved grandmother and expressed through the solemnity of religion where we hear the words that signify what belief is about, even if we do not necessarily grasp the fullness of their meaning. Ritual is not redundant, ritual is important as occasion for collective shared meaning if we can learn how to use it constructively. I remember, for example, being in Malaysia at the time of the Dunblane school atrocity when a gunman shot and killed children in their primary school. I was deeply impressed and moved to find that BBC World Service television broadcast the entirety of a church service from Dunblane. One could pick out other such instances. True we can complain such instances are reductive, religion is not solely about celebration or consolation. However, both are significant starting points, points of entry on public consciousness. If state occasions and public memorials are the only time we get to acknowledge the existence of something beyond the material, so be it. Our challenge is how we find a way to go further.
If religion as ritual is a reductive relic, the growth of the presentation of religion as niceness is what I would term a disaster. It is little more than a placebo for a society that no longer either understands what religion is or knows how to cope with what religion should or ought to be. All those dread magazine programmes which are about the nice things religious people do but run a mile from engaging with why, what these actions signify and how they have meaning and implications for the whole of one’s outlook on life the universe and everything are a sad reflection of what vestigial religion has become. On the one hand it suggests that religion pertains to morality in the broadest sense without ever seriously engaging with why or how such moral behaviour derives from or relates to religion. And, of course, niceness precludes asking any kind of tough questions to disturb the composure of the religious, the latently religious or the openly non religious.
Religion as moral reflection is the Thought for the Day factor. It is the fiendish challenge to be engaging, personable, relevant, pithy and profound in less than four minutes. The considerable constraints of the medium mean a general acceptance that mention of God is, by and large, a switch off for the audience. The thought that occurs to me is while this vestigial and truncated nod in the direction of religion testifies to a thirst for moral consideration, what is actually offered to the audience is morality without context. For people of faith moral reflection is rooted in its only proper context, the belief we are all answerable to a power far beyond the human. It is God consciousness alone which makes moral imperatives important in our individual and social life. Being witty and wise, a good raconteur, may make the population think more kindly of the religious on a daily basis. It does not amount to a bridgehead for spreading education and understanding of the content and meaning of any particular faith. The rotation of multifaith voices which is now the order of the days makes its contribution to the identikit interchangeable world religion gloss that is little different from the new age eclectic make your own religion for your own personal world philosophy. The message gets us little further than the proposition: be nice and be good if you can, should circumstances permit. Most of the thoughts I hear on such daily outings leave me with an enduring feeling of sadness and remorse, however wise and apposite their content.
I would suggest this prevalence of niceness is a feature of another problem, the real dilemma we need to consider. The placebo effect is a function of what society considers the intractable problems of how to placate the greatest number in what is now a multi faith rather than just a multi denominational society. It is that very British response of being polite. It seeks out the lowest common denominator by which everyone seems to have some mention while leaving all the big issues determinedly ignored. I happened upon an instance recently which illustrates the point. On a Sunday morning magazine programme I watched a film report in which one nice white English family was despatched to spend one day sharing the Ramadan fast with an equally nice Muslim family. The two families clearly had never met before, a certain reticence and stiffness was evident all round. Other than the fact that Muslims do not eat – though even the exact specifics of this rather significant element managed to be glossed over – we learnt little apart from the fact the children of the white family did not fancy the idea much. Virtually nothing of what it means to fast, not I agree a very visual subject, was included. And no sooner had they arrived than the white family departed laden with packages of cooked food – what that has to do with fasting not being explained either. This, I am sure, is what the producers of the programme considered doing their bit for cross cultural understanding: let niceness prevail and we will somehow muddle through. Let me state clearly I am of the opinion it is precisely what will not do at all.
It seems to me we are toying with the thin edge of the wedge that is the American solution. In a country awash with religion Americans have a public space where all religions can participate and be noticed –within caveats and reason – but only on the basis of being minimised. So, one can publicly wish people ‘happy holidays’ but for goodness sake don’t mention Christmas. Thus the entire basis from which Christianity derives can only be privately understood and represented in the public space only in the secularised form of a mass excuse for questionable un-Christian consumer excess. American houses are dressed up, illuminated with Santas, reindeer, snowmen, helpful elves and even the occasional angel doing who knows what damage to the global environment all for the sake of a religious celebration. Meanwhile people dedicated to secularism under the guise of the separation of church and state determine that display of nativity scenes in public spaces will cause offence to non Christians and should not be permitted. It is not only a Martian who would find it impossible to understand what’s going on. Put me down as totally befuddled! The cultural influence of America is such that similar lunacy is on the rise here in Britain.
And so, at last we need to consider the elephant question. Is it really the case that Muslim, Hindu or Sikh are or would be affronted by public display of nativity scenes? Or indeed would they be offended by more robust and abundant public reference to and acknowledgement of Christian worship and observance. My assessment, from all I know and have experienced, is certainly not. It would be taken as an encouraging sign by minorities that religion matters and would invariably lead to pleas for ‘me too’ – and that is the elephant we need to hunt down. What afflicts religion in the public space in Britain begins with what afflicts Christianity in a Christian country. The dilemmas of the public space have not been created by the arrival of non Christian faiths – that is an excuse, a rationalisation after the fact. But while Christianity is in retreat in the public space there is no hope that the question of how the public space can should or ought to be made available to minorities, to non Christian faiths will be sensibly discussed let alone resolved. All faiths, therefore, face a common shared dilemma. For the public space is important in establishing balance, setting benchmarks that affect the teaching of what religion is, what it requires and most importantly what it neither requires nor permits among its followers. The public space is vital for the self representation of religions to ensure there can be informed public debate about how we construct an equitable, just and honourable mutually respectful society that is good for welcomes and includes the best contributions of all its citizens. I would argue we all have a great deal to gain from mutual support in finding answers to problems that already do and will continue to affect us all, though perhaps in different ways.
Let me briefly explain why the arrival of non Christian faiths is not basic to the problem. The popular image of the inability of various religious to get along with one another does not start, as a lived experience here in Britain, with Christian Muslim relations, though the history of Christian Jewish relations is a different matter, it does not begin with Christian Hindu or Christian Sikh or Christian Buddhist relations. In honesty we have to recognise it begins within Christianity itself. Intolerance, religious wars and persecution are internal to the history of Christian religion in Britain. The question of tolerance, mutual tolerance among Christian denominations is a long struggle not entirely ended. We all have a great deal to learn from that history: first how not to repeat it ever again; second how to extract from it constructive elements that can create a route map to a genuinely tolerant society where faith is mutually understood and mutually respected and where religions are collectively strengthened to portray themselves in their own terms and take on an active role in the public life.
Tolerance is a virtue, but it is far from easy. True tolerance is not being nice; it is making the difficult choice to respect and give access to beliefs and practises you are sincerely convinced should not exist. If indeed the religious can achieve this task we can truly lead the way for the rest of society. What we are seeking is not an abrogation of the identity and distinctiveness of each religion, not a melange, the all religions are the same option – clearly they are not. What I am seeking and hoping can come to pass is something much more taxing, but ultimately rewarding. I want to consider the possibility that we transcend not our distinctions but our faulty understanding and application of exclusivity. If religions can overcome this propensity and envision an inclusive public space of informed respectful mutual coexistence I believe they can lay the groundwork for what I call transmodernity.
So what is the job the religious should set as their prime target? Simply put, and with such profound complexity as the idea of ‘simple faith’, the return of a respect for sacredness as the underpinning of social values. And the commitment to social values as the necessity for ensuring human dignity, social justice, equity and the opportunity for all to fulfil their God given talents and be included in the project of bettering the condition of our society and the whole world for all people. The betterment we seek can only be found through efforts to build sustainable peace and mutual tolerance. It is our task to explain how God consciousness is what I would term the secure handhold that should lead us on this path and help us to make better choices, to assess and make judgements about how we are progressing in the right direction or not. It is no small task. But it is quintessentially the religious task. What we share, in all our diversity, is the common sense of our createdness. We are not merely sentient beings in charge of our own destiny. We are agents of a Creator beholden to the source from which we receive the great gift of life, beholden for how we use our endowments and talents, beholden for how we exercise the responsibilities of the freedom of our existence, beholden for how we treat all others who are equally created beings, beholden for how we make use of the material world into which we are born, beholden and answerable beyond this life and this world for all our actions in this life. For people of faith all things are not relative, not endlessly open to the dictates of circumstance or human fads and fancy. The questions of life, about how we live, individually and collectively, are questions of choice and accountability to be weighed and reasoned with on scales of judgement: good, better, best as compared with bad, worse, and worst selecting as best we are able the options which promote and sustain human betterment for all and the earth we share. This is meaning of religion.
The substance of agreement that unites us is considerable. However, these basic propositions come to us through diverse histories, different founding texts, and different traditions of human interpretation, both within and between different religions. We have different terminology and ways of saying what we mean on the same subject. Moreover, shared values come in different guises, analogous yet often so differently expressed, differently structured and bound into different cultural systems that the commonalities are not immediately obvious. And culture is not the meaning of religion, only its flawed man made vessel, so culture can become a byword for distorting religion into customs and practises which in effect countermand the teachings of religion and the delivery of religious values. Not everything that comes down to us through history makes finding commonality and common cause easy. The commonalities are things we have to search for through and beyond the human history which divides us into distinct identities and groupings. Values, morals and ethics are where we can meet, if we make the effort to find our common ground. Values, morals and ethics matter because they are our road map and compass bearings for living a God conscious life. They are not endlessly flexible, but they are ways of asking questions, reasoning with and determining how to negotiate the circumstances of our times in the best possible way.
The very diversity which appears to divide us provides an important lesson. All our differences substantiate that there is more than one way to seek righteousness. At our best we all have diverse, multiple ways of organising and delivering shared values. We each have to find our own way to be relevant to the circumstances and conditions of contemporary times, to be modern. In our different ways the process of reasoning with our times to find the common ground of shared values can be a positive force. In a dialogue, or more correctly now and in Britain, a polylogue among our differences has the potential to illuminate new possibilities for us all. In our separate yet mutual efforts to be relevant we can learn from each other and come to find and apply new insights on our own understanding of our own beliefs. Living together confronted by shared circumstances we have much to learn from each other. I do not mean by this that we embark on a process of becoming each other, that we negate the differences among and between us. I mean we can find ways in which we can transcend our differences by using our religious and cultural values to enhance our capacity to live peacefully together with mutual respect and tolerance. Such transcendence places its emphasis on how we put our faith in action rather than focusing on our theological differences. I am not saying such differences become irrelevant but I am suggesting they are not insuperable obstacles to collective effort. I am certain they could, should, and ought to help us all, each in our own way, to rise to the very best that we are called to be. Instead of obstacles, we have to make them hurdles we surmount to achieve peaceful coexistence and mutual promotion of harmonious community through diverse fellowship of faiths. This is the condition I call transmodernity.
Transmodernity is a concept designed to address the positive element of self-renewal and self reformation that exists in all diverse world cultures. I should explain that initially I developed this concept to address the global problem of dominance, the dominance of perspectives derived solely from the history of western civilization. Dominance is a fact of history, but one which has had a pernicious effect on our world. It constrains non-western cultures and identities, shackles them with the slur of inferiority and in consequence deforms the possibility of a genuinely plural world, a world that liberates and includes the constructive contribution of all communities and human imagination. Dominance is a doctrine of exclusivity that insists those who do not subscribe, align themselves with and conform to its strictures are marginalized. As I have tried to make clear the dominance of our day is a secularist ascendancy which has turned its back not just on the cultural diversity but also on religious diversity within western civilisation itself. If, and I am by no means sure it has, this has been accepted by British society it ill suits the worldview and cultural formation of minority communities in Britain. It inhibits them by disorienting their commonly accepted lifeways and social antennae. It works to make genuine inclusive, full participation in British society an intractable problem. It makes difference the only function of multiculturalism. Whereas what we need to locate and bring into the mainstream is what culture, the extensive expression of religious identity, is actually for – an adaptive mechanism that enables cooperation and collaboration in mutually shared effort to make society as a whole a better place for everyone.
It is for this reason that I think we need the idea of transmodernity to help us transcend the limitations of the multiculturalism we have practised to date. Dominance is also inherent in our own religious outlooks. The missionary zeal of monotheistic religions leads to an aspiration to convert or conqueror the world. Each faith – Judaism, Christianity and Islam – not only has an exclusivist notion of truth but insists that truth is the same for everyone and at all times. Transmodernity means we transcend such conventional notions of religious truth and traditional ideas of religious dominance. I think monotheistic faiths need to move forward and recognise that each faith is true in its own terms and Truth is so complex, so Infinite, that it cannot be totally enclosed within a single religious outlook. Truth may not be contingent but it can be seen in different light, at different times, by different people, with different perspectives. There are different truths; but each truth is important and immutable for those who hold it. Everyone must be allowed to live by the worldview which seems true to them. This will be a painful realisation for certain religious communities but it is an essential step forward if the monotheistic faiths are to transcend their history of antagonism and conflict.
If the problem is dominance then transmodernity is arriving at a social compact which does not privilege any one standpoint including religion, secularism or liberal humanism. This will seem a troubling prospect for some. A statement of faith is the ultimate privileging of one way of viewing the world. But there are none among us who in conscience would not acknowledge that our faith includes, demands and requires a duty of care, extending the benefit of our values enacting our moral and ethical framework on behalf of all humanity whether of our faith or not. We are all called to care for humanity as a whole as they are. We are all called to care for the wellbeing of all God’s creation, human, animal, vegetable and mineral. What transmodernity asks of religion is perhaps more even than it asks of secular liberal humanism. Yet what it asks is already inherent in the faiths we profess. And that is why if the religious can make this transformation they can lead the way to a better human future for all. What transmodernity asks of us is to give to others our very best; but to offer our best according to the needs of others in such ways as they can truly receive it greatest benefit; to do what is right according to our faith and understanding not irrespective of what other people believe but irrespective of whether they believe as we do. It is a considerable distinction. And it can only be achieved by a negotiation through difference; it requires a search for consensus across and respecting our differences. It is a negotiation about how we live together in the world as people with different identities, identities derived from faith which remain distinct yet find their truest meaning in creating a peaceful, harmonious, sustainable society that is just, equitable, concerned with meeting the needs, realising the potential and including the contribution of all. In making such a society we may all be changed. My argument, however, is that we will all be changed into better representatives of our different faiths. What will change most is the society in which we live together. We can create the opportunity of remaking it more in the image and according to the dictates of faithful conscience. If we open ourselves to such a future we construct the possibility of more open futures grounded in the example of living faiths. We offer society the potential of realising the main product of transmodernity: mutually assured diversity.
In many ways I think I am asking us all to consider that religion has lost hold of its place in society by seeming to be more concerned with the claims to exclusivity and dominance of our theology, the particularities of our doctrine than with working for what we are called to bring forth as a result of faith. Instead of ‘Thy kingdom come, on earth as it is in heaven’ we have given too much attention to making my kingdom as I say it should be on the human authority of my religious interpretation. In this insistence on orthodoxy we have encouraged secularisation as the way to make the peace among and between us. Thus we jettisoned both baby and bath water! Religion has played its part in empowering a society that no longer knows the meaning of faith and struggles to define any parameters or limitations to constrain, guide and counsel individual human desires. Together we can bemoan that condition. The question before us is can we transcend our insularity to achieve a transmodern society infused with the open and shared example of living faiths?
For all the energy expended in the search for exclusivity the truth is there never have been successful monocultures. Our societies have always been diverse and complex. Culture and society have never been discrete, exclusive, static, bounded, uniform, orthodox entities. Internally all cultures and societies have always been heterogeneous, speaking with multiple voices. They have been and are interpretive communities. What I am suggesting is that we turn away from the historic fact that it is easier and less demanding to sit on pinheads defining what pure faith should be than to plunge into the complexities of the world searching conscientiously for right action and righteous workable solutions to actual human predicaments. It is certainly more difficult to take the option for society when we have to acknowledge and find consensus with people with whom we do not agree. I simply make the case society is now in such a dire state, so imperilled by the absence of faiths in the public space that we cannot in conscience stand aside, no matter how difficult we conceive the task to be.
Theory is one thing. What can and should we do in practice to revitalise our faith and usher it back into the public space of British society? Here is one thing of which I am certain. Unless Christianity in all its diversity reclaims its place in the public space there is little chance for minority non-Christian religions to advance their claims. However, defiant some voices among minorities maybe, in my experience people like me, members of minorities, feel the lack of a vibrant Christian presence in public life. We think if Britain is a Christian country it should continue to be so, demonstrably and publicly. Our concern is that we too, as minorities, are then permitted and welcomed to public notice of our high days and holidays, to express our conscientious beliefs as a motive force for engaging in British society and to be part of inclusive ritual commemoration and observance on occasions that speak to the collective identity of the Britain we can build together.
On the symbolic level there has been progress. Prayers offered by representatives of various faith groups has become part of certain state occasions. We have established the principle of state funding for faith schools for a diversity of faiths. As the father of a son who attended a Catholic secondary school I can attest how appreciative of the ethos and unafraid of the concept members of minority communities are. But faith schools are not unalloyed benefits, nor the only possible answer. I think of a project in Liverpool to establish a mainstream state community school with an Islamic ethos. As the project unfolded, with cross party and multifaith support, it became evident that the principles of an Islamic ethos in action in our education system delivered values that won the endorsement and support of non-Muslim parents too because they expressed shared values that can coexist and serve everyone in the mainstream. It seems to me entirely healthy that state funded state schools should be required to diversify their intake. Is it really the case that I am more prepared to entrust my son to a Catholic school than other British parents would be to send their children to an Islamic or Hindu state funded school? It would be the transmodern thing to do, it would set benchmarks, standards and oversight for Islamic and other schools I am anxious should be enforced. If it is an option few can imagine, then it defines a serious problem we need to work together to address. I can tell you my son, the only Muslim in his school, won two prizes in his first year: one for the Christmas and the other for the Easter religious quiz. To live in Britain as an active and engaged British citizen I and my children must be informed and aware of the beliefs and history of religion in Britain. It has not made my son less a Muslim, but I feel, it ensures he will be a better informed, more thoughtful and conscientious Muslim who is a better partner to his non-Muslim neighbours and fellow citizens. The symbolic presence of multifaith representatives at state occasions leads me to point out that unless we reclaim Christmas and Easter and Christian festivals there is little chance we can offer public recognition to minority communities. I would like to see public recognition of Eid ul Fitr that marks the end of the fasting month of Ramadan, of Divali and Guru Nanak’s Birthday or Wesak Day (marking the birthday of the Buddha) and so on.
Acknowledging and providing public recognition of diverse celebrations of faith is a beginning. Beyond that, we need to be clearly heard on issues of poverty, human dignity and human rights, equality and good community relations, freedom and fairness. We need to stand up against structured injustice, naked greed and conspicuous consumption, the politics of corruption and class division. We need to champion the cause of the disadvantaged and the marginalised. There is no injustice out there which does not have an ethical or moral dimension and about which the religious can be complacent. We need to create the public spaces where faith groups can engage in social action for and on behalf of not only sectional communities but all of society.
To arrive at the transmodern situation we have to find ways to enable open, mutually tolerant and respectful debates among and between the diversity of voices of faith in British society. Such debate does not and cannot belong solely to religious professionals: it has to become an engagement at the level of the generality of ordinary people. To be transmodern we have to prepare the groundwork and not inhibit the interest ordinary citizens have in what makes them different so that they can discover how alike, cooperative and collegial they can be, how common the ground is in terms of basic values they share. While ultimately making Britain a society where religions and the religious talk together about what is relevant to their lives must be a task for the mass of ordinary people it is as institutional and organised religious communities we bear the responsibility of leading the way, opening the spaces.
We don’t need to shout or whisper. But we do need to talk in earnest with ourselves; and we have to assert the fact that religion has a vital part to play in shaping public debates. As people of faith we will have to try hard to be heard on a plethora of issues about the moral status and ethical action of British society. But it is time for all people of faiths to ensure that their voices are clearly heard for the cause of human betterment now and in Britain.
THE WYNDHAM PLACE CHARLEMAGNE TRUST
The Wyndham Place Charlemagne Trust was formed in 1999 by the merger of the Wyndham Place Trust (founded in 1959 to promote a concern for peace, world order and the rule of law) and the Charlemagne Institute which sought to promote study of European values and beliefs.
The Trust, which is independent of religious or cultural affiliations, exists to promote dialogue between people with a wide range of political and religious opinions and from different cultural and professional backgrounds. It aims to address European and world issues, not just from a political or economic perspective, but from the point of view of values and beliefs and to inform public opinion and to influence those who shape policy in the UK, Europe and the wider world.
Earlier titles of Corbishley lecture reports include:
Strategies for Peace
Professor C.F. von Weizsäcker
Securing the Future of Democracy
Ambassador Audrey F Glover
The Management of Intractable Conflicts
Ambassador Thorvald Stoltenberg
The United Nations: Forward or Back?
Sir Brian Urquhart KCMG MBE
Peace in the Middle East
Dr Abba Eban
Islam and the West
Prince Sadruddin Aga Khan
The Irish Settlement: What Next
John Hume MP MEP
The Council of Europe Fifty Years on – its Future
Lord Russell Johnston
Justice and Revenge: International Law after Tuesday 11th September
Geoffrey Robertson QC
Sustaining Dialogue: Multicultural Societies under Pressure
Ram Gidoomal OBE
Lord Hannay of Chiswick GCMG
UN at the Crossroads (2004)
Dame Margaret Anstee DCMG
Professor Lord Bhikhu Parekh
The Kingdom of God and this world: the Church in public life (2007)
Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O’Connor