God in public

February 18, 2008

The Archbishop of Canterbury’s recent lecture addressing the relationship of Islam to public law ‘touched several raw nerves in our culture’, commented the popular evangelical Bishop of Durham, Tom Wright,  at the London School of Economics last Thursday. When that happens at the dentist, he suggested, we know it’s going to be painful but we also know we need to get things sorted out.

Wright was delivering the inaugural lecture in the ‘Law and Faith’ series which can be downloaded in full from Pete Adam’s blog site, (see www.reconciliationtalk.com). An insightful six-minute YouTube interview with the bishop after the talk, with Ruth Gledhill of The Times, can also be accessed from this site.

Here are excerpts from the opening section of the ‘Law and faith’ lecture:
Wright: Clearly there are some raw nerves being touched. Issues thought to be long dead and buried are knocking on their coffins and threatening to emerge, skeletons at the feast of contemporary secularism. Since I believe in resurrection, I am not surprised at this, but clearly many today, not least in the media, are not only surprised but shocked and alarmed.
In my judgment, we are seeing at last a late and panicky attention being given to issues that should have been part of public debate all along. As Professor John Bowker argued twenty years ago in his book Licensed Insanities (1987), the reason our leaders can’t even address the world’s problems, let alone solve them, is because none of them read Religious Studies at university.

An indication of this incapacity was the substantial debate in the House of Lords two weeks ago on the reasons for the war in Iraq, in which speaker after eloquent speaker addressed all kinds of issues but none thought to raise the question of the religious reasons why so many Americans supported George W. Bush, and the particularly religious paradox of our own Prime Minister being carried along on that tide.

The second sign of the times has come this last week, when a well-argued lecture by the Archbishop of Canterbury caused a massive media fire-storm. The Archbishop was addressing the same question as I am tonight, though from the more specific angle of the relation of Islam to public law. Three issues seem to me to be raised by the speech and its aftermath.
First, quite simply, the Archbishop didn’t say what the media said he said. His real offence is that he has presumed to challenge the media’s vice-like control on public opinion, and so is being called arrogant and patronizing by people who don’t want reasoned discourse and prefer only catchy soundbites.
The second issue raised by the Archbishop’s speech is his careful deconstruction of the Enlightenment myth of secular progress and its accompanying political discourse. He has pointed out on the one hand the religious and indeed Christian roots of the Enlightenment’s vision of justice and rights, and on the other the way in which the secularist rhetoric, growing ever more shrill these days, effectively cuts off the branch of Reason on which it claims to be sitting – as, again, we see in the media reaction. And with this deconstruction he is challenging the monopolistic idea of a secular state, in the name not of an arrogant faith elbowing its way into the public domain but as part of the inner logic of  the Christian-derived Enlightenment vision itself.
The third issue raised by the Archbishop was the more specific one of the place of Islam and its legal codes within a contemporary plural society. He was arguing against a state-sponsored and state-regulated form of multiculturalism in which only those aspects of cultures which fit in to current secular thinking are permitted, and for a recognition of ‘multiple affiliations’ within what he calls an ‘interactive pluralism’. He was not recommending parallel jurisdictions, but simply suggesting that some aspects of traditional Islamic law might find their way into the realm of permitted local options.

In addressing them, the Archbishop raised the notions of ‘human dignity as such’ and of ‘shared goods and priorities’, all the more disturbingly because he has set them within a larger universe of discourse than that of secularism. Secularism invokes the grandiose vision of the Enlightenment. But, as the Archbishop’s deconstructive argument has shown, it loses its apparent moral force by claiming too much (that it will solve all the problems of cultural plurality) and by denying the very ground (that of western Christian tradition) on which it stands.

Chaos & Tyranny
The third sign of the times to which I draw attention is another of this type, namely the decline of democracy. Contemporary western democracy is under threat, not so much from absolutist terrorism, which threatens life and limb but not systems of government, but from within. Democracy is the current western answer to the problem of how to avoid chaos without lapsing into tyranny, and vice versa. But we cannot assume that just because people are able to vote every once in a while that means that we have the balance right.

There are several signs of chaos on the one hand, the unfettered rule of multinational companies and banks being one example, and of tyranny on the other, such as the imposition of new and fierce regulations designed to stop people living out their faith. One example is the Sheffield magistrate who appealed for the right not to have to co-operate with same-sex couples adopting children, and whose appeal has been turned down.
Democracies, like all other rulers, need to be called to account, as Kofi Annan said in his retirement speech. We will only recover a sense of genuine participation, and hence the reality of democracy, when we deconstruct some of the grandiose claims that have been made or implied and rethink our social and political practices from the root up.
And part of that root, in the western world at least, comes from the Judaeo-Christian tradition.

Till next week,

Till next week,

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