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.