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.