Rowan Williams on why social cohesion needs religion

Press release from Canterbury. An excerpt:

The Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr Rowan Williams has given a wide-ranging lecture today in Singapore, at the Building Bridges Conference. In his lecture Dr Williams discusses the position of the “absolute truths” of faith over and above political power, and how this plays out in a society where several faiths co-exist…. Dr Williams argues strongly against the idea that religious diversity is at odds with social cohesion, but conversely, that it can help strengthen social harmony – if governments are willing to listen to the views of the faith communities….

The full text of the lecture can be found here.

For some excerpts from his address click “read more.”

The British press has largely ignored the Building Bridges Conference. Ironically a major story today involves the death threats against a British Imam’s daughter because she converted to Christianity.

One wonders whether the analysis can be turned and applied upon the Anglican Communion. Can those who hold what they believe are irreconcilable truth claims to others co-exist in the communion? Can that diversity create cohesion in the communion? Are those who hold conflicting beliefs about the truth secure enough in their beliefs to stay in communion with the other? And can our perception of truth change or must it stay the same as what someone says has always been the mind of God?


EXCERPTS from the lecture:

To believe in an absolute religious truth is to believe that the object of my belief is not vulnerable to the contingencies of human history: God’s mind and character cannot be changed by what happens here in the world. And the logic of this is that an apparent defeat in the world for my belief cannot be the end of the story; God does not fail because I fail to persuade others or because my community fails to win some kind of power. Now if I believe for a moment that my failure or our failure is a failure or defeat for God, then my temptation will be to seek for any means possible to avoid such an outcome; and that way lies terrorism and religious war and persecution. The idea that any action, however extreme or disruptive or even murderous, is justified if it averts failure or defeat for my belief is not really consistent with the conviction that my failure is not God’s. Indeed, it reveals a fundamental lack of conviction in the eternity and sufficiency of the object of faith. In plain English, religious violence suggests religious insecurity.

Despite Jesus’ words in John’s gospel, Christianity has been promoted and defended at the point of the sword and legally supported by extreme sanctions; despite the Quranic axiom, Islam has been supported in the same way, with extreme penalties for abandoning it and civil disabilities for those outside the faith.

The reality of religious plurality in a society declares, as we have already seen, that some human groups hold to their convictions with an absolute loyalty, believing they are true and thus non-negotiable. If they thought otherwise about these convictions, they might be involved in negotiations about merging or uniting in some way; there would be no ground for holding on to a distinct identity. Yet they do hold to their claims to truthfulness, and so declare to the society around that certain things are not liable to be changed simply because of to changes in fashion or political theory or political convenience. The lasting plurality of religious convictions is itself a mark of the seriousness of the convictions involved. Some things are too important to compromise. But if a religious community is as serious as it ought to be about its beliefs, this refusal to compromise is accompanied by the confidence that, whether or not these particular beliefs prevail in any society, they will still be true, and that therefore we do not have to be consumed with anxiety about their survival.

And if that is the case, we can see how religious plurality may serve the cause of social unity, paradoxically but genuinely. If we are prohibited from claiming that social harmony can be established by uncontrolled coercive power – that is, if we are obliged to make a case for the legitimacy of any social order – but are also prohibited from solving the problem by a simple appeal to universal reason, we are left with a model of politics which is always to do with negotiation and the struggle for mutual understanding.

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