It is amazing how undramatic drama can be.

Astana pyramidThis morning we left the hotel in buses to begin the work of the Congress of Leaders of World and Traditional Religions. The giant pyramid was only completed the day before the last Congress in September 2006 and it was set in wasteland behind the new presidential palace. Now it is surrounded by large buildings and vast landscaping. It all looks a bit strikingly odd, but you can’t deny the ambition that is seeing this city grow so fast.

We arrived at the conference centre in the pyramid to discover that we were to be addressed at some point by the President of Israeland Nobel Peace Prize Winner, Shimon Peres. I learned that this had caused some tensions, but the President of Kazakhstan opened proceedings with a much more political speech than we have had in the past. But he noted the ‘importance of this Congress in its unique role in post-Soviet space’ – in other words, the context out of which Kazakhstan has come and from which it is trying to grow has to be understood before criticism is levelled about some of the weaknesses of the place.

Astana congress hall 2Nazarbayev toured the world’s trouble spots and elicited the challenges faced by the world community. He criticised the capitalist culture that had created the ‘illusion of wealth without labour’, identified the gap between rich and poor and drew attention to Kazakhstan’s brave initiative in unilaterally disposing of its inherited nuclear weapons. It was a wide-ranging speech aimed at stressing the non-negotiable importance of religion and spirituality to politics and economics. Unfortunately, the interpreting was not great and some non-Russian speakers were left with some gaps.

Astana congress hall 4But that’s when the trouble began. The first speech of general greeting issued from Sheikh Dr Abdullah bin Abdul Mohsin Al-Turki, Secretary General of the Muslim World League. Even Shimon Peres applauded him and thanked him for the positive nature of his speech. But when Peres was invited to speak the Iranian delegation walked out of the room. Most people didn’t notice that they had gone. When Peres finished, they returned to their places and remained while the Chief Rabbis of Israel contributed later in the proceedings. No Muslims applauded Peres – perhaps because he offered for Israel to meet Arab leaders at a place of their choice (Kazakhstan?) to discuss progress in relations.

My notes of subsequent speeches (two hours of them) do not make for edifying or enlightening reading. But the significant thing here has to be the considerable achievement by the Kazakhs in getting these people in the same room as each other and enabling them to listen to each other – despite the discomfort such listening provokes. At one point I wrote in my notebook: ‘Every speech covers the same ground – God made you, so be nice to each other.’ Perhaps a little unkind, but that is how it sounded.

Astana congress hall 5

Some speakers did a good job in locating this religious stuff into the wider world of poverty, HIV/Aids, economic struggle, education, media and the Millennium Development Goals. Particularly good were Sergei Ordzhonikidze (Under-Secretary General of the UN), Kjell Magne Bondevik (former Prime minister of Norway and, before entering politics, an ordained Lutheran pastor) and Dr Ishmael Noko (General Secretary of the Lutheran World Federation) who pointed the Congress delegates firmly toward action, engagement with the grassroots and reform of the Congress culture for the future.

Astana photographersAfter lunch downstairs (followed by the inevitable ‘family photo’ – I took one of the media photographing us…), we went into the main plenary session in which delegates were asked to address the theme of ‘the role of religious leaders in building a world of tolerance, mutual respect and cooperation’. I am not sure most speakers got us beyond the usual platitudes and there is a clear discrepancy between the words used here and the realities we know about on the ground. It is easy for a speaker to call for a culture of mercy when we know Christians are persecuted in his own country, for example.

Astana congress hall 7But this is surely the point. It is in this context of open speech that the contradictions and hypocrisies are identified. After all, it is usually only when there is an interlocutor that we begin to spot our own hypocrisies and inconsistencies. Bondevik was good here in urging religious/Christian groups not just to lobby politicians on their pet subjects, but to explain why they think the way they do – in other words, to explain the theological, philosophical and ethical basis for the position they hold and wish to urge upon the particular politicians. Good advice, I think.

(Bondevik also made the point conveniently forgotten by opponents of religion and often not emphasised by religious people that although there are examples in every religion/culture of conflict and tension, there are also long histories of support, mutual assistance, cooperation and reconciliation.)

There followed lots of speeches that contained lots of buzz words and yet some good points also emerged form under the verbiage. For example, (a) that the younger generation is impatient with inter-faith talking shops dominated by elderly men (Sam Kobia of the World Council of Churches); (b) there can no longer be a form of security that looks to ‘my own interest’ in defiance or ignorance of the security of my neighbour/enemy (William Ventley who also repeated the line that ‘no fence can be high enough to protect us from the needs of others…’) and (c) that Rowan Williams’s poetry is needed by the world.

Yes, that is what was said! Professor Dr Mohamed Taher (a very nice and good man), who teaches at the Islamic College in Tripoli, Libya, met the Archbishop of Canterbury three months ago in Tripoli and asked if he could translate five of the Archbishop’s poems. He now uses them in his teaching and concluded his speech today saying ‘all human beings need to hear what Dr Williams is saying’. Clearly, we have an Archbishop who must be free to reach into the wider world and not be solely preoccupied with keeping the Church happy.

My speech was aimed at challenging the language/words religious leaders use not only at congresses such as this one, but when they are back in their local communities. I’ll post the speech later when I have written out what I actually said.

So, that is the first day done. I’ll post separately on some of the funnier stuff. I’ll conclude this bit with the observation that it is easy to be cynical about the ‘inter-faith circus’; but the achievement here is not to be found in a single solution to all the world’s problems, but in the commitment of a large and complex group of people to sit together, listen uncomfortably and join in dialogue. We need to dispel the fantasy that if we cna only get the formula right, everything would fall into place and all problems be solved. In any relationship – especially, perhaps, when it is going well – the relationship has to be worked at: you can’t reach a point of completion, but it is always an ongoing work that demands contact, dialogue, persistence and presence – all of which are (surprisingly) characterised by this Congress.

I spent part of today working with a friend on the early stages of a book on ‘communication’ due for publication (possibly) next year. During our conversation I recalled something I had read a couple of days ago in an intriguing report by the Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR) entitled Faith in the Nation: Religion, identity and the public realm in Britain today. It was published last year and includes articles by leading religious leaders in the UK.

Cardinal Cormac Murphy O’Connor highlights the need for Christians (and other religious groups) to transcend their differences in order to counter the driving and intolerant forces of secular liberalism in Britain which proclaim as an absolute dogma that all views are acceptable in the public sphere except religious views. The Chief Rabbi, Sir Jonathan Sacks then takes this further in a gentle but incisive expose of our shallow consumerist culture. In a pithy paragraph he puts into words what many people instinctively feel, but can rarely articulate:

sacks-lambeth08“Religion is an agent of social change, the most powerful there is. Almost every other institution today offers us what we want. Religion teaches us what to want. It is the last refuge of what philosophers call second-order evaluation. It tells us that there is something beyond autonomy, rights and the satisfaction of desire. It speaks unashamedly of duty, compassion, responsibility, loyalty, obligation, the sanctity of life, the sacred bond of marriage, and the covenant of human solidarity. It tells us that our worth is not measured by how much we earn or what we buy, but by the good we do and the love we create.”

I am a fan of Jonathan Sacks. Not only is he a passionate and erudite speaker and writer, but he is also a good, honest and humble man. He was invited by the Archbishop of Canterbury to address the bishops of the Anglican Communion at last year’s Lambeth Conference in Canterbury and his speech provoked several standing ovations. I blogged (for Fulcrum) at the time and reported thus:

He began by describing politics (the State), economics (the Market) and worship (Religion) and illustrated very vividly how both State and Market operate on the basis of competition and ‘winning’. Covenant, on the other hand, has to do with both parties ‘winning’ and with creating ‘arenas of cooperation’. A contract (politics and economics) is an agreement between two parties who come together for mutual benefit (a transaction), whereas a covenant brings two parties together to share their interests (a relationship). He observed that ‘contracts benefit – covenants transform’. He developed and illustrated this from Darwin and Dawkins.

He then went on to go back to the beginning of covenant in the Ancient Near East and pointed out that given the religious/political coincidence of the relevant world view (get the gods on your side in order to guarantee your ‘gain’), the idea of a covenant between a god and people was simply absurd. And this, via an explanation of covenantal language in Hosea and Jeremiah, led to his central thesis – which is so suggestive for the Anglican Communion.

He compared the three covenants in Genesis and Exodus: Noah, Abraham and Moses (Sinai). He then posed the question: when did Israel become a nation? Deuteronomy 26 says that they became a nation while in Egypt whereas Exodus 19 says they became a nation when they left Egypt. Sacks says that both are true because they are different sorts of covenant. Egypt was a covenant of fate; Sinai was a covenant of faith. The former occurs when the people are bound together by a common suffering, fear and enemy; the latter occurs when they share dreams, aspirations, ideals and a common hope. In Egypt the people were bound by a covenant of fate, in Sinai by a covenant of faith. So, the covenant with Noah was one of fate (destruction of the world) and with Abraham and Moses was one of faith (shaping the world).

Sacks described how the covenant of fate (with Noah) was forged in desperate times of basic survival. Like the rainbow (‘the white light of God’ perceived as the spectrum of colours), this covenant bears witness to what Sacks has called ‘the dignity of difference’. He broke this down into three elements: (a) the sanctity of human life, (b) the environment and (c) respect for diversity. He expanded on each of these before noting that the Isaiah dream of the ‘wolf lying down with the lamb’ was already fulfilled in the Ark when their common predicament (survival from drowning) made their mutual cohabitation essential. Faith, said Sacks, is particular; fate is universal.

As covenants of faith begin to fall apart in contemporary society, so it is the covenant of fate that is pulling us together.

Sacks went on movingly and poignantly to describe Jewish fears of Christians for the last thousand years before the Holocaust and beyond. He then noted how Joseph (Genesis 50) worked out that even though we cannot rewrite the past, we can redeem it. In the case of Christians and Jews, he said, the past in now being redeemed (at least in the UK). He then noted how, when we marched together through London last Thursday on behalf of the world’s poorest people, we (Christians, Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, Sikhs, Hindus, etc.) did not share a faith, but we did share a common fate.

Religions, he maintained, needed to show the world how, sharing a common fate, we could live and work together – faiths bound together by a common fate. We should be a blessing to the world by walking together and emphasising the covenant of fate over the particular covenants of faith.

Now, I realise that this is only a sketch of Sacks’s thesis, but I found it powerful at the time and even more so now. Tomorrow I will be interviewing in Croydon all morning and then going into London for the afternoon session of the General Synod. I will miss the debate on Women Bishops, but will be there for the debate on the uniqueness of Christ. There will be differences of opinion in the former and differences of language (at least) in the latter. But I will hear Sacks’s powerful and compelling appeal for even those who differ on detail to remember that the world needs not only those who forge covenants of faith, but, in a fragmenting culture, those who remember (and neither minimise nor despise) the covenant of fate.