religion


Yesterday's overarching theme was: Religion und Säkularität in der Moderne (Religion and secularism in the modern world). The theme of the second day of the symposium in Cadenabbia is: Religion im Spiegel der Öffentlichkeit. The contributions are very academic and intense – inevitable, given that the contributors are university academics.

The first paper this morning was given in English by Professor Gabriel Motzkin, Director of the Van Leer Institute in Jerusalem, on the theme of Die Suche nach Gott: Zwischen Fundamentalismus und Säkularismus. His starting point was that fundamentalism is possible only where there are texts – text-based communities then use other texts to discuss (and understand) the base text. Fundamentalism replaces the world/nature with a text, this differentiating it from secularism. Therefore, the conflict between fundamentalism and secularism has essentially to do with the possibility or admissability of authoritative texts. Motzkin went on to discuss how human beings “create God”, but concluded that secularists end up with more problems here than the fundamentalists who go beyond mere human agency in the world. This was fast and furious and the ensuing discussion was rich, but it rested on a contentious assumption about terminology and (as I questioned) a confusion between 'secularism'/'atheism' and 'fundamentalism'/'theism'.

The second paper, by Dr Ahmad Milad Karimi (lecturer at the Westfälische Wilhelms-Universität in Münster), addressed the theme: Die Suche nach Gott: Zwischen westlichem und islamischen Denken. This one was in German and I didn't follow some of the complexity of terminology or argument – again, I need the text. However, the key discussion was around problems of transcendence and immanence in a context in which there is a contested assumption about revelation and/or experience.

We then moved on to Gott als Chiffre in der modernen Welt (Professor Dr Traugott Jähnichen from the Ruhr-Universität in Bochum). He basically addressed the problems and legitimacy of 'God language' in political discourse, ranging from John Locke through the (failed) preamble Lisbon Treaty to the statement that we still haven't found a form of discourse that will compensate adequately for that represented by God-talk. Speech about God (which the church must not give away) (a) imposes limits to hubris, (b) owns up to fallibility and leads to the taking of responsibility, and (c) engenders humility.

Spiritualität ohne Gott saw Professor Dr Thomas Schärtl (Universität Augsburg) define – from a philosophical perspective – both 'spirituality' (“the way in which an individual sees/commits himself to the totality of existence within the framework of meaning”) and 'religion' (“how the finite stands in relation to eternity”). He went on to offer diagnostic elements for understanding what shapes spirituality, citing such phenomena as emancipation, immanentism, expansion of choices/options, and consumerism, before looking at Christian concepts such as sin, grace and salvation.

Thinking ahead to my paper tomorrow, I am concerned about two matters that impact on how we address these concerns in the world beyond the academic/conceptual: (a) the context in Europe of common philosophical assumptions about 'neutrality' in the public square, and (b) the need for translation in a pluralist society from the language of one worldview/praxis to those of others.

I need lunch…

 

I was tempted to call this post 'Let's do the Como-tion', but I resisted. Just. I bet you are glad.

I came on from Finland early Sunday morning and flew to Milan where I joined the Germans coming in from Berlin and we were driven to Villa La Collina in Cadenabbia, overlooking Lake Como. Having not slept a wink last night, I found the lectures and discussions today quite hard going. Even chatting at dinner was a strain.

This villa is the conference centre (Accademia) of the Konrad Adenauer Stiftung. Konrad Adenauer was the remarkable first Chancellor of Germany after the Second World War, taking up office in 1949. His Stiftung (foundation) does some really excellent work on the relation between society, religion, culture and politics (among other research and other themes). This one is titled: Der öffentliche Raum in Europa und seine religiös kulturelle Prägung.

The first day (having arrived at 2pm, we started on the work at 3.30pm) tackled the theme: Religion und Säkularität in der Moderne. The first paper was by Professor Marcia Pally of New York University and she presented a paper (in English) on Covenant: Rebalancing the fractures and freedoms of Modernity. Basically, it was about the essential relatedness of human beings (although quoting Moltmann on 'relatedness' without reference to 'creation' is a bit weird) and the essential nature of relationality to human flourishing (my term).

The second paper was by Professor Dr Rolf Schieder (Humboldt-Universität, Berlin) and titled: Spiritualität und Glaube – und die Kirchen? Empirische Befunde in Europa. This was really a interesting survey of research into 'religion' (commitment and expression) and 'spirituality' in Europe – referencing the differences between neighbouring European countries in some surprising ways ('religious' getting a higher rating than 'spiritual' in Germany, but the opposite being the case in France). The ensuing discussion led to some difference of opinion about how optimistic we should be about the future of the church in Germany, given the cultural as well as 'spiritual' contribution it might make.

A long, sleepless and intense day ended with a superb paper given by the Speaker of the German Parliament (Bundestagspräsident), Professor Dr Norbert Lammert, on Kunst, Politik und Öffentlichkeit (Art, polotics and public space). He basically posed a fundamental question: how do you measure the soul of a society? He went on to consider truth, democracy, culture and the need for a [written] Constitution (which, of course, we do not have in the United Kingdom). He stated that culture is not an ornament of society, but is fundamental to society… and that although art has a claim on the State, the State has no claim on art or culture. The discussion was fascinating and detailed, but I was struggling to keep my concentration because of extreme tiredness… and will need to re-read the paper more slowly. (The paper will be published along with others in due course.)

Enough for now.

 

Sometimes I (and others) feel like we are banging a drum that just irritates people who have an ideological reason for not wanting to listen to any critique of religious illiteracy.

So, I was delighted to see in today's Independent a report of Aaqil Ahmed's comments on the same theme. The following illustrates the problem well:

If you tried to make The Life of Brian today it would fall flat on its face because the vast majority of the audience would not get most of the jokes. They don’t have the knowledge,” Ahmed said. He questioned whether modern audiences would appreciate that the “great joke about the Sermon on the Mount” in the 1979 Python film, where a woman asks “What’s so special about the cheesemakers?”, was a reference to Jesus’s words “Blessed are the peacemakers” from the Bible.

Good on you, Aaqil. Hopefully, you will be listened to.

 

I didn’t want to see news pictures of a soldier being murdered in Woolwich this week. I didn’t want to see film of violent brutality and, whilst being aware of the dilemma for news organisations and the moral questions about ‘facing reality’, was not sure that the coverage should have been so graphic. Try seeing it through the eyes of his family. It feels voyeuristic.

That said, however, while trying to flip over one photo in a newspaper, I noticed the road sign close to where the soldier’s body lay. It said: ‘signals timing changed’. Despite it referring to the traffic lights, it seemed perversely apposite.

Much of the reporting of this appalling crime rests on iconic images and language. This is what makes it so powerful: it creates associations in the mind of the viewer, not all of which might be healthy. Debate continues to rage over the radicalisation of young Muslim men in England – and a study of media articles between 2000-08 found only 2% framed Muslims positively. Just as newspapers’ use of ‘invasion’ to describe the arrival of around 150,000 Germans in London for last night’s Champions League Final between Germany and Bayern Munich (that’s a little joke for the Germans), so do images of and language about Muslims shape the way we see them.

Yes, the Muslim communities in England face some challenges – including addressing the poisonous rhetoric of some powerful preachers. But, they will not be helped by the perpetuation of purely negative associations.

I was at the Meissen Delegation Visit in Leicester this last few days. This brought a group of German bishops and church leaders to engage with us on how we do interfaith work in a multicultural city like Leicester. (Curiously, the English delegation, which I did not choose, served up three bishops – Bradford, Woolwich and Pontefract – who all served their time in the Diocese of Leicester.) Events in Woolwich, coupled with the long-planned visit of the Archbishop of Canterbury to the Meissen group, brought a brutal relevance to our discussions and debates. In our discussions with Hindus, Sikhs and Muslims, we found no ducking the hard questions, no hiding behind a victim mentality, and only a little hiding the particular behind the general. We met openness and generosity.

This has been playing on my mind while waiting for flights today. I read a piece in the Wall Street Journal about the SPD (German Socialist opposition party) celebrating its 150th anniversary in Leipzig last Thursday in the surprising presence of Angela Merkel. The party is struggling ahead of the forthcoming general election in September this year and the commentators suggest that the problem lies in the lack of a clear alternative narrative for Germany’s future in the light of the current economic and fiscal challenges across Europe. So, they look to the past – and it’s reassuring glories – in the absence of a vision that might drive them into creating a different future.

The SPD is not alone in this. It sometimes feels as if Europe is paralysed. The sterile and increasingly febrile debate about Europe in the UK offers no escape. If Europe needs a new narrative – one that relies less on the dynamics derived from twentieth century wars and seeks to create a new narrative that will fire up a new generation of people who see something worth building – then so does England. Muddling through crisis after crisis, reacting to the stimulus provided by a cacophony of voices, lurching between ideological intuitions, making statements about terrorism and ‘our way of life’ – none of this can replace the need for leadership that knows who we are, what we are about and where we are going. As Jeremy Paxman once pointed out in his book The English, we don’t know who we are and, so, cannot know who we want to become.

Reactions to Lee Rigby’s murder have demonstrated again that we have no guiding narrative any longer. As Philip Blond argued on BBC Radio 4 this morning, a culture that obsesses about rights without a fundamental (I use the word advisedly) or radical (again, I use the word advisedly) anthropology that knows why it thinks people matter will simply end up as a victim to the loudest or most powerful ideological competitor. It is the lack of such an anthropology that is the problem.

To cut a long argument short, England’s Christian amnesia has left us with just this problem. The church has not helped promote the memory (partly by complaining about all the wrong things), but it will not have to go far to recover its basic driving narrative and hold it out as one worth recovering for the future. Why? Because at least we know why people matter, why morality matters, why loving your neighbour is not a mere option for the romantic, why losing your life is the only way to gain it, why the common good is worth serving, why “no man is an island, entire of itself”, and why failure is not the end.

The signals timing keeps changing. I think we need to pay attention to how it is changing and what it is saying.

A soldier is attacked in Woolwich and brutally murdered. The men who did it seem determined to be caught. Seeing the footage, they look familiar – speaking with the same deluded dysfunctionality that is not uncommon in some inner-urban areas. Criminal.

But, why is this being deemed a terrorist attack? If someone did something similar whilst shouting about being Jesus, would it be seen as criminal or terrorist? And would the EDL response – to attack mosques – be paralleled by attacks on churches by angry atheists? And would anyone try to legitimise or explain it, rather than simply condemn it outright?

The labels we attach, the language we use and the framework within which we understand such phenomena are shaped by the unarticulated assumptions we bring. Does anyone seriously think these guys are motivated by Islam any more than the Provisional IRA or the UDA were motivated by a rational reading of the Gospels?

In a week framed by Muslims taking responsibility for crimes such as child sexual exploitation in their own communities and the appalling murder of this soldier in Woolwich, it might be worth pausing to examine the assumptions behind the language and the judgements of those politicians and reporters who are doing their best to articulate what this attack represents – and to question whether another narrative might be more appropriate. At a time such as this we need wisdom.

In the meantime, behind the horror, we pray for the family of the murdered soldier, the people who witnessed this dreadful, violent crime, and those now dealing with it both socially and politically.

I came to London today to sit on a panel at the Christian Solidarity Worldwide annual conference in Westminster. Other panelists were Ruth Gledhill (Times Religion Correspondent), John Coles (New Wine) and Fiona Bruce (MP for Congleton), and it was chaired by Steve Clifford (General Director of the Evangelical Alliance). It was surprisingly good fun and stimulatingly lively.

My main point was to encourage greater confidence by religious people – Christians in particular – in occupying the space they have… and not to react to everything 'offensive' in victim mode. Ruth Gledhill articulately explained the role of journalists and editors, castigated religious people for not getting 'good news' stories into the press, and told them to use the clout they already have for raising concerns about issues of religious freedom. I concurred, noting that Christians need to look first in the mirror when moaning about failures to tell our stories – asking ourselves who is to blame for this. (Earlier Os Guinness had noted that the primary casualty of religious bad news was the failure of Christians to love one another in public.)

Of course, the other media angle is simply that religious groups often simply want to 'get their message over' – which is hopeless in the new world of social media in which 'interconnectivity' and 'interactivity' are the key features of discourse. We now engage in a conversation and not in a monologue. The message emerges from the conversation and its mode.

It is always a little difficult to deal briefly and concisely with complicated issues. However, I did describe the contemporary conflict of 'freedoms' as a 'crisis of liberalism': that once we claim equality and equal validity of any opinion (including the right to be offended, etc.), it becomes hard to deal with conflicts in rights/freedoms. We are left with having to establish hierarchies of value or rights, and this is problematic. In other words, if my freedom compromises your freedom, who judges which is to have priority – and against which criteria?

I also sat there recalling silently on the eve of Remembrance Day that more religious people died in non-religious conflicts in the twentieth century than in all previous nineteen centuries put together.

Anyway, I had to leave afterwards and missed the people who were to reflect on cases of religious persecution around the world. (Of course, we had agreed earlier that 'marginalization' and the 'religious illiteracy' of media people and politicians do not constitute 'persecution'.)

And my Fantasy League team is doing rubbish today…

Having got back from Kazakhstan last Friday and spent Saturday and Sunday with family, I am now (supposed to be) on holiday and am in Brussels. I’ll explain in the next post. However, lack of wifi in Kazakhstan mean that I couldn’t do the usual business of blogging as I went along. So, here’s the last of this batch.

The Congress ended with an ‘Appeal’ which will not be widely read in the West. It still assumes that people do what their faith leaders tell them to do – which is a misguided assumption. Nevertheless, the engagement with each other can produce conversations of value and forge relationships that can be of benefit more widely. The event also provides an excellent opportunity to speak face to face with government leaders about matters of international concern – and this is an opportunity I took in relation to Kazakhstan’s unnecessary and restrictive new Religious Law. I am now following this up with a letter which will set out concerns in detail.

Anyway, back to the Congress itself. I was unable to give a speech at a Panel Session on ‘youth’ as the organisers had arranged for me to be in three places at the same time. I cannot trilocate. So, one of my English colleagues stepped in and pretended to be me. I gather he did an excellent job at condensing our ideas into a coherent and stimulating contribution to proceedings. But, here is the bulk (minus the usual greeting stuff) of what I would have said – just for the record and to give an idea of how direct we can be in introducing ideas that aren’t earth-shattering in the UK, but might be challenging elsewhere. (The complaining I heard about new media and how young people need to be taken away from computers and educated to accept the authority of their elders helped me realise how hopelessly out of touch some religious leaders can be – wishing the world could be now as it used to be…)

… Young people are not ‘the future’, they are ‘the present’ – the ‘now’. I will come back to this later. However, before doing so, we need to recognise that the themes before us in this Congress run along the fault lines of our global societies in the early decades of the twenty first century.

Sustainable development poses a massive challenge to a world in which some people prosper at the expense of those who have little – assumptions about inevitable universal economic growth have been called into question by the financial crashes since 2008. But sustainable development assumes sustainable societies that are sustained by values that are themselves sustainable in the longer term.

When people from diverse cultures live alongside each other we refer to multiculturalism. Allowing cultures to thrive is a rich gift, but in Europe serious questions are being asked about whether a blind acceptance of multiculturalism as a virtue has hindered integration of communities in a common society.

In many parts of the world traditional understandings of the role of women are being questioned. The trafficking and abuse of women by men is a serious and appallingly common feature of our world. An uncomfortable fact of life is that while men talk and fight, women get on with keeping families together, raising children, making society work, making local economies work and shaping communities.

But all of this comes together when we take a look at the future of our young people. The world in which I grew up is not the same world my own children have grown into. And this means that my children – now aged 30, 28 and 24 – look at the world through a different lens. For example:

  • The nuclear threat of my childhood has been replaced by a profound concern for the environment, the creation, the tiny planet we all inhabit. Concern for the future of the planet, for sustainable development and for justice is a powerful and non-negotiable starting point for millions of young people.
  • This owes something to the development of ubiquitous media, and especially in the last few years, of social media. The world is now connected in ways that were unimaginable even ten years ago. You can go into an African or South American jungle and find people without roads and transport, but everyone seems to have a mobile phone and an email address. Go into a cafe in an obscure town in a developing country and young people are sitting at computer screens updating their Facebook status. Electronic media – in their mere infancy when I was already working as a professional linguist – have by now revolutionised the world, creating new and surprising ways for people to relate, converse and plan together.

However, even though there is a massive uptake of older people using new technologies and the Internet, these older generations (that is, my generation) tend to see such technologies as a means of communicating or working, but not, as millions of young people do, part of their natural DNA. Social media are integral ways of communicating and relating for millions of young people – something most of us, even if we are adept at electronic media, cannot comprehend. Our children obtain their worldview-shaping perceptions and information about the world from these new ways of communicating. The days when our young people only knew a limited number of people in, or just beyond, their immediate geographical habitat have now gone. Children have ‘friends’ across the globe in communities completely alien to their own. (And it is significant that whereas some governments used to try to shut down inconvenient voices during elections or times of social unrest by closing newspapers or broadcasters, now they aim to shut down Twitter, Facebook and other social media outlets.)

These two phenomena are clearly connected. The world our children are growing into is considerably smaller than the one most of us grew up in. News is instant, information is infinitely accessible (although ‘information’ is not to be confused with ‘knowledge’ and ‘knowledge’ should not be mistaken for ‘wisdom’), and what happens in a small forest in the Amazon becomes a motivating challenge for people living in London or Bradford. To ignore the revolutionary power of social media is simply to bury our heads in the sand of wilful ignorance. Trying to pretend that the world continues to be what it has always been will not change the fact that these developments have changed the way in which our young people organise, buy in to politics and protest, view authority and power, and suspect institutions.

This provides a radical challenge to religious leaders – and to politicians who need better to understand the place and role of religion as a motivator of people and a shaper of cultural identity. In the western world morality has frequently become disconnected from questions of ‘truth’ and is shaped by mere pragmatism – a worrying development for many reasons. But, complaining about it will not change anything. It is the responsibility of my generation to learn to look though the eyes of our young people and understand why they see what they see in the way they see it.

Crucial to this is the place of schools and education. One of the challenges faced by children of some of our religious communities in Britain is that of ‘compartmentalisation’. This is where children are taught by their religious institutions or communities to see the world in one way, whilst then being taught a different approach in school. For example, a scientific account of evolution is worked with in the classroom, but a non-scientific ‘belief’ held in the mosque or church. Such compartmentalism cannot be sustained by people who grow up to realise that there is only one reality, that something is true because it is true and not because we would like to believe it is true.

Perhaps this is why some observers predict a collapse in religious commitment by many young people where their experience of the world is rejected by religious authorities that occupy a different reality. (And, just for the record, I see no contradiction between accounts of why the world is the way it is and how the world came to be the way it is; we must just be careful not to confuse ‘why’ and ‘how’ questions.)

The hearts and minds of our young people will no longer be won by appeals to authority or loyalty, but by capturing the imagination of people who take the world seriously. Too often fundamentalists thrive because they know how to appeal to these base commitments in young people who want to shape the world differently. They see our failures, our conflicts and fragmentations, and are not impressed.

So, in conclusion, I want – as a Christian leader, committed to the truth of God in Jesus Christ – to encourage us to take young people seriously… on their own terms, knowing that our refusal or inability to hear their voice or look though their eyes or hear through their ears will not change what they say, what they see or how they hear. Religion that is confident will embrace the challenges that our young people bring – not simply conceding every inch of ground, but taking seriously the critique of what is and the potential for what might become.

The Hebrew prophet spoke of young men dreaming dreams. That is a dangerous thing to encourage. But, if the prophet sees here through God’s eyes, then religious leaders might need to wake up to both the reality and the potential.

 

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