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.


Here is the text of my address (minus the opening stuff and greetings from the Archbishop of Canterbury, whom I represent) to the opening plenary session of the Congress of Leaders of World and Traditional Religions in Astana on Wednesday 30 May. Please note that it wasn’t delivered in a vacuum, but in a particular context and for a particular audience. This means it was using particular language to be heard by a wide range of people and, for many of them, through interpreters.

The importance of inter-religious dialogue grows by the day and does not diminish. We live in a a world of considerable challenge and complexity, one in which the euphoria of immediate freedom from tyranny soon becomes tempered by the realism of having to create a new polity and a new social contract. The so-called Arab Spring has been observed with serious interest and concern in a Europe that now finds itself under enormous economic, financial, political and social pressure. Africa boils – conflict erupting along too many religious and cultural-historical fault lines. The world does not stand still. It is easier to break down the old than to build up something new.

Yet, under all this lies a question that is all-too-easily ignored. What is the world view that informs the value systems and priorities of those who wield power in our world? There is a common assumption that ‘my’ assumptions about the world and human meaning are somehow neutral, whereas the assumptions of others are somehow ‘loaded’. This so-called ‘myth of neutrality’ is hard to displace or challenge – especially when represented in western media that assume religion to be a problem (an aberration) and not part of the solution.

Christians believe that every human being is made in the image of God – the imago Dei. All other arguments inevitably come back to this fundamental point – one that questions any world view that allows persecution, violence, oppression or killing as legitimate ways of exercising power over others. Any concept of justice or human dignity must be rooted in something more real than some simplistic notion of ‘reality'; for Christians the demand for justice is rooted in and derived from this basic understanding of every person having been made uniquely in God’s image and, therefore, having infinite value.

The corollary of this, of course, is that every human being becomes accountable – not only to God who has created us, but also to others who bear the imago Dei and are, therefore, in relationship with each other. And it is this common humanity that underlies any further consideration of religious identity, historical grievance, perception of religious truth or exercise of power.

To return for a moment to what I called the ‘myth of neutrality’, we cannot simply claim that human beings matter simply because they exist. As we know, a fundamental tenet of ethics is that ‘you can’t get an ought from an is’. And it is here – where one of the world’s deepest fault lines lies – that religious leaders have a unique responsibility: to challenge the uncritical prejudices and assumptions that drive some of those value systems and behaviours in ways that dehumanise other people and dress ‘power’ in the colours of unattributable ‘rights’ or selfish ‘freedoms’.

In other words, what is it that enables me to say that human beings matter… and are mutually accountable for their individual and social behaviour? And, to press the point, on what foundation is my (or our) demand for justice and freedom built?

At this Congress we will be listening to many voices. It will be important to dig beneath the surface of what is being said… in order that we might understand why it is being said. After all, the first rule of communication is this: it is not what you think you are saying that matters; rather, it is what is heard that matters more. (We should note that we are suing the same words to mean very different things around this table – for example, we speak of the rights of women, but mean very different things. We need to see through the lens and hear through the ears of those unlike us…)

Religious leaders have a profound responsibility to go beyond the rhetoric of their own community and listen to that rhetoric through the ears of those who come from somewhere else and see through a different lens. Taking seriously the injunction in all our faith communities that we must not misrepresent each other (“Do not bear false witness against your neighbour”, as the ninth Commandment puts it), this responsibility extends to (a) interpreting each other within our own faith communities, (b) exercising authority in articulating and exemplifying a rooted commitment to mutual respect and generous love, and (c) standing on the fault lines between communities that find generosity too demanding and resort too quickly to conflict and alienation.

This is not merely notional. This is why it has to be earthed in consideration of what this means for mutual sustainable development on an overcrowded small planet, how different cultures (grown from diverse histories) should co-exist on this small planet (multiculturalism), how we are to challenge the abuse of women across our societies (and allow women to speak for themselves), and how (and on what anthropological or theological basis) we enable our young people to shape today’s world which will be the world their children will inherit.

As religious leaders from all over the world, we have a unique opportunity not only to speak and listen to each other – making our points and vindicating our presence here – but also to offer the world a model of how good leaders need constantly to be learning. We need to be open to challenge and scrutiny, seeking to understand better why people see God and the world in the way they do, curious about how the world looks when seen through the eyes of someone different. This is not about becoming bland or uncritical; rather, it demands serious engagement with each other and not mere polite rhetoric.

I am grateful for the opportunity to participate in this event – this complex conversation – and look forward to an informative, instructive and challenging Congress. I pray that we will return from here more strongly motivated to live differently, speak differently and lead differently in order that genuine peace might prevail and the image of God in every human being be taken seriously as a starting point for any rhetoric or behaviour.


The wifi was poor in Kazkahstan this week, so I was unable to post anything about the Congress of Leaders of World and Traditional Religions. A packed programme and some substantial public and private conversations didn’t leave much time or mental space for writing anyway. But, what I intended to be the first post is this:

Sitting in the Pyramid at the heart of Astana, the astonishing capital city of Kazakhstan, it is hard to concentrate. There are fifty of us around the table, discussing a pile of issues related to faith and politics. Ironic, then, that although one of the panel sessions tomorrow is to address the role of women, only one woman sits at the top table. (We will also be addressing questions of ‘youth’ – without any young people! Extraordinary.)

Two things grabbed my attention: (a) male religious leaders spoke passionately about protecting the dignity and ‘family’ role of women without once letting a woman speak for herself, and (b) given the range and variety of headgear, we could have been at a hat competition. It is certainly colourful. The Congress of Leaders of World and Traditional Religions brings together leaders and representatives of most of the world faiths: Christian (Orthodox, Roman Catholic, Anglican, Lutheran), Muslim (Iran, Saudi, India, Turkey, etc.), Hindu, Buddhist, Zoroastrian, Jewish, and so on. There are also a number of politicians from various parts of the world. It’s a mixed bag, but it’s also a colourful and somewhat random bag.

It is easy to sneer or take for granted a conference such as this. Where does all the talk get cashed out? What difference does it actually make on the ground? Who takes notice of religious leaders anyway – especially when they are elderly and fairly conservative? How do you get a common statement without it being a lowest common denominator expression of motherhood and apple pie?

Yet, a meeting of these people would never have happened twenty or thirty years ago. We take it for granted that religious leaders meet and speak together honestly. But, we easily forget that such conversations are relatively recent phenomena. To see the President of Kazakhstan sitting flanked by the Patriarch of Russia and the top man of the Muslim World League – who are flanked in turn by a Chief Rabbi from Israel and a Roman Catholic cardinal (I was a couple of places away…) – is still remarkable.

But, the questions still apply. It is well known that Kazakhstan’s international reputation for religious tolerance is currently threatened by the new Religious Law due to come into effect in October 2012. This new law is partly provoked by fears of extremism or terrorism, but is the wrong answer to the right question. It insists on a form of registration that would make it impossible for an Anglican Chaplaincy to be opened, for example. It also provides for any published materials to be vetted before distribution. It gets a bit more complicated than this, but you get theidea.

Look at the geography to understand the fear; but, extremists are not going to register under any restrictive law and this law will have two potential negative effects: (a) it won’t do what it is set up to do – control extremism – but will restrict the freedom of minority or small religious groups (especially Protestant groups such as Baptists and Lutherans), and (b) will compromise Kazakhstan’s hard-earned reputation for religious tolerance in a remarkably complex country.

Anyway, I am writing this during a Panel session on ‘multiculturalism’ while a Chinese speaker is passionately saying something very important, but without translation into English. There are other Panel sessions on ‘the role of women’ – which could get lively -, ‘youth’, and ‘sustainable development’ today and tomorrow. I did a plenary speech this morning (which I will post later) and will contribute to the session on ‘youth’ tomorrow. Before then I have to plant a tree (don’t ask) and have a big meal.

This conference can be frustrating – especially when speaker after speaker limits their speech to the blandly obvious (“it is good to talk…”) – but there are also some passionate, informed, challenging and controversial contributions. It isn’t boring.

However, as with most conferences, the real benefit comes from the networking and conversations in the margins. After all, it always comes down to relationships.

(Wifi is not available everywhere here and I can’t get pictures up yet. So, not much posting this week…)

One of the best bits in the film Lost in Translation is when Bill Murray and Scarlett Johansson end up doing karaoke in a Tokyo bar. Bill Murray belts out Elvis Costello’s What’s so funny ’bout peace, love and understanding? I love the film and I love that scene.

But it’s the song that’s running around the inside of my head just now. Driving to Manchester Airport en route to Kazakhstan for the fourth Congress of Leaders of World and Traditional Religions, I had Elvis (Costello) on CD and played that song four times so I could belt it out with him.

The Congress is also the fourth I will have attended – the first one being back in 2003 in Astana. We came back from that one with all sorts of questions and misgivings – particularly regarding some socio-political phenomena in Kazakhstan itself. I have continued to press those questions ever since, but on the basis that engagement is better than shouting from the sidelines. So, we have persisted in working with other religious leaders and their representatives from all over the world and been able to discuss all sorts of stuff that wouldn’t necessarily be discussed through ordinary diplomacy.

This time we (I am leading a delegation of five from the Church of England) will address themes such as multiculturalism, the role of women, sustainable development and young people. In among these themes there will also be space to address other issues of import and concern. The important thing is to articulate such concerns in ways that will enable them to be heard. There is no value – other than the smug feeling it gives you – in saying things that don’t get heard… however ‘prophetic’ or true.

There’s nothing funny about peace, love and understanding; but they’re dead hard to work on unless we are satisfied with platitudes and sentimentalism.

Perhaps it isn’t entirely inappropriate that today is Pentecost in the Christian calendar. Before leaving for Manchester I confirmed some adults in a Keighley parish this morning and addressed a vast collection of Christians, passers-by and curious onlookers at a Pentecost celebration in Lister Park, near where we live in Bradford. It was loud, colourful and celebratory. But, it reminded me that Pentecost is not about creating a uniform church or a monochrome culture; rather, the key point about Pentecost (at least, as it was experienced by the ‘outsiders’) was that people from all over the place where enabled to hear the good news of Jesus Christ in ways they could both hear and understand.

The job of the church is to work hard at speaking different ‘languages’ to different people in order that the good news might be heard and understood by a vast diversity of people who don’t start from the same place. This is what makes communication interesting and challenging. But, if it seems to be God’s priority at Pentecost, maybe it should be ours, too.

It might even help create a little more peace, love and understanding if we start from where people actually are and speak a language they understand.

Which, I realise, is a statement of the bleeding obvious (as someone once said).


I have just been to speak to representatives of many faiths who are all involved in education in Bradford. I was offered two themes to choose from, but addressed both of them (fairly superficially) ahead of a discussion time. The first theme related to ‘religious pluralism in the lives of young people in Bradford’, the second to ‘the role of faith schools in promoting a cohesive and just society’. The following is a bit of a nit-picky skeleton of the matters we addressed, but I began with the observation that some interfaith work at international level resembles a BT commercial: ‘It’s good to talk.’ Of course, what we mean is that it is good to talk (phenomenon) as long as we don’t talk about anything (content). Fear of ‘division’ drives an agenda of ‘least potential disagreement’. However, if there is no real discussion of difference, there can be no honest relationship anyway and the whole thing is really either a farce or a fraud.

First things first: ‘religious pluralism’ simply describes a fact, a reality, a phenomenon. It is not a virtue – something to be honoured and revered and never questioned. Different people live alongside and with each other, seeing the world and living in it in different ways. ‘Pluralism’ is the word that describes this. It is essentially neutral.

Therefore, we need to go on to distinguish between two sorts of questions: (a) those about truth and how claims for any world view of way of living actually stand up, and (b) given the acknowledged differences, how we then should live together in a single society or on a single planet. In relation to our children this means we need to grow a generation that experiences life within a particular understanding of its meaning, is informed about its own (and others’) world view and how it can be lived in and with, and is acquainted with the world view, lived experience and practices of others. This assumes that we give our children an informed reference point from which to look at the world and those who see it and live in it differently.

The problem here is that our children – I really mean those who do not belong to a strong faith community – are too often assumed to know Christianity and know where they stand as a base line from which to look outwards. They are more likely to be shaped by (a) the myth of neutrality – the assumption by many in the media and academia that a secular humanist world view is neutral (and therefore privileged in public discourse) while a religious one is a bit loony (and should be kept private); (b) a pride in ignorance or scepticism – see Richard Dawkins’ pride in never having read any theology (or philosophy?); (c) an assumption that materialism is a given and that salvation comes by having stuff; (d) an assumption that we can live in the ‘now’ and take no account of a future arising from the past that has shaped the present – because there is no inherent meaning to life anyway. See the studies of last year’s rioters and how some of them see the world.

This brought us to the role of faith schools in promoting a cohesive and just society. (I refer to a piece I wrote for the Guardian in July 2011 in whcih I draw a sharp distinction between ‘faith’ schools and ‘church’ schools as the Church of England understands them.) My main point here is that (a) ‘cohesion’ is one of those words that too often describes a lowest common denominator ‘absence of tension’ in a community – a bit like ‘peace being the absence of war’ or ‘a good football season being one in which Manchester United gets relegated; and (b) justice is inadequate as a goal for human beings in society.

Now, this latter point might well be contentious if misunderstood. Experience (and history) tells us that justice by itself can easily become just ice. Fragmentation and conflict in the Balkans came about precisely because communities could not let go of historic injustices – but they saw justice for themselves as the priority over against justice for their neighbour. I maintain that we need to teach our children (with a massive dose of actual hypocrisy) that justice needs to be transcended by mercy. Mercy goes further and is much harder than justice; it recognises the injustice and the pain and refuses to be consumed by them. Too often the demand for justice simply creates a vicious circle of just ice.

That’s a brief and unillustrated summary of my address which was aimed at stimulating discussion and debate in a particular context. However, it also falls in a context of wider concern: events in Sudan.

The Diocese of Bradford is linked with the Anglican dioceses of Sudan where communal violence is flaring up – not as an intellectual notion, but in the burning of Christian buildings, the destruction of books and Bibles, and attacks on people. Here’s a link to this week’s events and here is a statement by the World Council of Churches that goes to the heart of the matter.

Words spoken by politicians and, sometimes, religious leaders are taken up by those more inclined to violence as sanction for action. When such words burn in the wrong people’s hearts and minds, the burning of buildings, books and people follows. Some politicians and Muslim leaders in Sudan have expressed anger at the recent attacks; we need to hear this echoed not only in Sudan, but also by religious leaders around the world – and especially by those who sit around the table at conferences saying how good it is to talk.

Why are religious institutions apparently so inherently conservative and fearful of challenge or change?


Last night I delivered a lecture on ‘Questioning faith’ in the Faith and the City series at the University of Bradford. The lecture was followed by 45 minutes of questions and discussion. A lousy cold and sore throat didn’t help, but there was some interesting questioning and challenge.


Having set the scene from events during the last couple of weeks, I went on to acknowledge what is frustrating for some people: “Religion simply will not go away. Regardless of one’s personal world view and philosophical or religious convictions, religion as a phenomenon cannot be ignored. Which is why some of us keep banging on to the BBC that they need a Religion Editor as much as they need a Business, Economics or Sport Editor. In a world of fast news and instant communication, the need for understanding and interpretation of religion as a phenomenon, a motivator of individual and corporate behaviour, and a factor in both national and global political and economic events is greater than ever before.”


Having taken a pop at the ‘myth of neutrality’ that is prevalent among many observers who usually see religion as a problem rather than a solution, I went on to “challenge also the language of victimhood that too many religious people resort to when things don’t go their way. Religious people need to keep addressing the ignorance and motivation behind the myth-builders of ‘neutrality’ (and the consequences of all this stuff) with patience, confidence and better humour than we sometimes do.”


But the main thrust of my argument had to do with the challenge of change and how religious people and institutions address this.


One of the effects of the current atmosphere – in which some religious people feel under attack, marginalised or trivialised – is that religious communities then turn in on themselves. When, in the aftermath of 9/11, many western commentators and observers expected Muslims to try to hide their distinctiveness (for fear of attack, for example) and blend in to their environment, the wearing of distinctive Muslim clothing – especially among women – increased and intensified. When British Airways sacked a woman who insisted on wearing a cross over her uniform, many Christians started wearing a cross for the first time – as if they were fighting a battle or making a point. The real point here, however, is that religious communities and their behaviour and priorities were in fact being set not by themselves, but in reaction to the world outside.


Without copying the entire text here, I will just try to pick out the salient points.


1. Faith is not that reflex that kicks in when we don’t want to face the real world, but recoil into a defensive shell that circumscribes the world view that makes us feel we have place and meaning and significance. Faith is not credulity. Faith is not a vacuous clinging to a facile myth that helps us limp through life as if it were meaningful or worth living.


2. Faith involves two things: first, clarity about the object of that faith; secondly, the courage to go out from our fundamental starting point and see what’s out there. Faith might need courage and a teasing curiosity, but it cannot grow from fear. Faith is always curious, daring, open and adventurous – because it always assumes that not everything has yet been nailed. If every question has been answered unequivocally by our faith system, then faith is the wrong word to use to describe what we think we have. Faith assumes that there is more to know, further to go. (Which is why one of the great early Christian theologians and philosophers, Anselm, described theology – or language about God and language in the light of God – as ‘faith seeking understanding.’)


3. We now face ethical questions that are new and a provoked by technological innovations. Our ethical judgements cannot be made on the basis of “it’s obvious, innit” assumptions.


4. Christianity has change at its very core. Christians together should be marked not by victimhood or fear, but by a curious, fearless, adventurous, confident and humble openness to change and learn and grow. This will mean vigorous debate, dissension, testing and disagreement.


5. So, why is it so hard for the institutions of the Christian faith to change? (And this is actually merely illustrative – it applies to any and all religious institutions.) I think we can identify three reasons in particular: (a) institutions become inherently conservative, sometimes losing sight of their fundamental raison d’etre and confusing means – the institutional forms and structures – with ends – worship of God, for instance, or the transformation of people and communities; (b) the people who run institutions find accumulated power and status hard to give up; (c) institutions take on a life in which people invest and from which people cannot divest without feeling that they are leaving the community the institution is intended to create. Put bluntly, does leaving the Roman Catholic Church mean leaving God, Christianity, the Kingdom of God or heaven behind?


6. Religious institutions are healthy (both internally and externally) only when they develop the courage to be reflective and honest. Passion and fundamentalism might reinforce the sense of ‘rightness’ of particular individuals or communities, but they run the danger of leaving no space for self-criticism. Indeed, self-criticism within the community can be seen as a weakness, a loss or lack of faith – when, in fact, it is the very evidence of genuine faith. Fundamentalist communities lack faith in anything other than their own fear, small vision and self-righteousness.


7. An encouraging example of Muslim openness: the Muslim Institute has published the first edition of a journal called Critical Muslim. Published as a book-length quarterly magazine and website, it appears to be ambitious in presenting Muslim perspectives on major contemporary issues and ideas in the world. Most significantly, it intends to challenge ‘traditionalist, modernist, fundamentalist and apologetic versions of Islam’.


From outside Islam it is encouraging to see within the Muslim community the development of a self-critical, bold, engaging and questioning approach to what is going on in the world. This, it seems to me, is a shining example of how genuine faith compels religious people to be confident in and open to the reality of the world and the challenges it throws up for the way we see God, the world and us. In a world of serious dangers and injustices – with human suffering not the simple or sole preserve of what used to be called ‘third world countries’ – it is only a confident and self-critical, faithful approach that can take seriously the challenge of poverty, injustice, terror, economic imbalance, food imperialism, and so on.


8. Religious communities need to be bold enough to expose themselves to the critique of each other and not to be afraid of such questioning or challenge. This is not a sign of weakness, but of confidence and strength. It represents what I often call ‘a confident humility’. It occupies a space that creates a mutual accountability, a recognition that we are ‘in it together’… and with something unique to offer. It assumes that faithful and confidently humble self-critique can only come from a community that is not afraid of relationship beyond itself, is unafraid of the wider world, is hopeful about a common future, and is open to changing and being changed as ‘truth’ becomes clearer.


9. As Rowan Williams takes from Dostoyevsky, language is not neutral, human beings use language to close down or open up relationship, language is the key to and fundamental expression of freedom… and when we reach the end of ‘having something more to say’, we have constrained genuine freedom and closed down the possibility of development or coexistence.


Now, from this we might derive the imperative (for human flourishing in a good society) of human beings and human communities learning the languages of ‘the other’, not as a virtuous end in itself, or even an altruistic means of keeping a relationship going, (or even for knowing which beer to order on holiday), but as a non-negotiable and essential feature of human freedom and dignity. We have to be multilingual (in the sense of paying attention to and learning to understand what is both being said and what is being heard) in order to survive, but also in order to thrive and enable ‘the other’ to thrive in a way that guarantees mutual flourishing. In other words, language at the very least provides the space in which relationship and responsibility can grow.


As Helmut Schmidt has observed, learning the language of another people or another culture demands humility (the admission of ignorance and limited vision), careful listening (in order to hear what is really being said), playful experimentation (trying out sounds that feel strange), courage (not always being sure that we make sense, but speaking anyway), and the paying of attention (rather than the cursory hope that communication is happening if I just open my mouth and hope what comes out isn’t incomprehensible gibberish). Learning the language of an ‘other’ takes us beyond the norm according to which language is a mere defensive delineator of identity, and leads us into the unknown territory of relationship vulnerability.


What characterises interfaith dialogue is the importance of relationship and clarity of communication. Deep questioning of deep assumptions about God, the world and us can only be indulged if there is a relationship of mutual respect and trust. And such relationship-building takes time, a genuine and humble willingness to listen, and an ability on the part of all interlocutors to learn about themselves from the other. In one sense we are back to Helmut Schmidt: we need to dare to look at our own culture through the eyes of another, if we are to truly understand ourselves. This is not an easy task, but language is crucial to it.


Anyway, that’s the guts of the text – I have left out developmental stuff and all illustrations (which include Cain, Jacques Ellul, Lambeth Town Hall after 9/11, and some other stuff.

I was going to write something about the 2011 Census and the campaign by the British Humanist Association against the ‘religion’ question. But, then I got back to my office and read George Pitcher’s take on it – and he is funnier than I could be.

Read his blog post (‘The religion control freaks are telling you what to think for the 2011 Census’) and then the comments below. For contrast, have a look at Richard Littledale’s recent post.

He probably won’t thank me for it, but I’m with Pitcher.

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