Donot­dis­count the­p­owerof faith

Re­li­gion has a spe­cial role to play in a glob­alised world, says the for­mer prime min­is­ter

The Jewish Chronicle - - COMMENT&ANALYSIS - TONY BLAIR

LET ME SUM­MARISE my ar­gu­ment to you. Un­der the mo­men­tum of glob­al­i­sa­tion the world is open­ing up, and at an as­ton­ish­ing speed. Old bound­aries of cul­ture, iden­tity and even na­tion­hood are fall­ing. The 21st cen­tury world is be­com­ing ever more in­ter­de­pen­dent. In this world, re­li­gious faith, cru­cial to so many peo­ple’s cul­ture and iden­tity, can play a pos­i­tive or a neg­a­tive role. Ei­ther pos­i­tively it will en­cour­age peace­ful co-ex­is­tence by peo­ple of faith com­ing to­gether in re­spect, un­der­stand­ing and tol­er­ance, re­tain­ing their dis­tinc­tive iden­tity but liv­ing hap­pily with those who do not share that iden­tity. Or it will work against such co-ex­is­tence by defin­ing peo­ple by dif­fer­ence, those of one faith in op­po­si­tion to oth­ers of a dif­fer­ent faith.

In this con­text, in­ter­faith ac­tion and en­counter are vi­tal. They sym­bol­ise peace­ful co-ex­is­tence.

That is my pri­mary ar­gu­ment. It is di­rected to peo­ple who have re­li­gious faith and those who have none.

How­ever, I will go fur­ther and ar­gue that re­li­gious faith is a good thing in it­self. Far from be­ing a re­ac­tionary force, it has a ma­jor part to play in shap­ing the val­ues which guide the mod­ern world, and can and should be a force for progress. But it has to be res­cued on the one hand from the ex­trem­ist and ex­clu­sion­ary ten­dency within re­li­gion to­day; and on the other from the dan­ger that re­li­gious faith is seen as an in­ter­est­ing part of his­tory and tra­di­tion but with noth­ing to say about the con­tem­po­rary hu­man con­di­tion. I see faith and rea­son, faith and progress, as in al­liance, not con­tention.

One of the odd­est ques­tions I get asked in in­ter­views (and I get asked a lot of odd ques­tions) is: is faith im­por­tant to your pol­i­tics? It is like ask­ing some­one whether their health is im­por­tant to them or their fam­ily. If you are some­one “of faith”, it is the fo­cal point of be­lief in your life. There is no con­ceiv­able way that it wouldn’t af­fect your pol­i­tics.

But there is a rea­son why my for­mer press sec­re­tary, Alastair Camp­bell, once fa­mously said: “We don’t do God”. In our cul­ture, here in Bri­tain and in many other parts of Europe, to ad­mit to hav­ing faith leads to a whole se­ries of sup­po­si­tions, none of which are very help­ful to the prac­tis­ing politi­cian.

First, you may be con­sid­ered weird. Nor­mal peo­ple aren’t sup­posed to “do God”.

Sec­ond, there is an as­sump­tion that be­fore you take a de­ci­sion, you en­gage in some slightly cultish in­ter­ac­tion with your re­li­gion — “So, God, tell me what you think of City Acad­e­mies or Health Ser­vice Re­form or nu­clear power” — ie peo­ple as­sume that your re­li­gion makes you act, as a leader, at the prompt­ings of an in­scrutable de­ity, free from rea­son rather than in ac­cor­dance with it.

Third, you want to im­pose your re­li­gious faith on oth­ers.

Fourth, you are pre­tend­ing to be bet­ter than the next per­son.

And fi­nally and worst of all, that you are some­how mes­sian­i­cally try­ing to co-opt God to be­stow a divine le­git­i­macy on your pol­i­tics.

So when Alastair said it, he didn’t mean politi­cians shouldn’t have faith; just that it was al­ways a packet of trou­ble to talk about it.

And un­der­ly­ing it all, cer­tainly, is the no­tion that re­li­gion is di­vi­sive, ir­ra­tional and harm­ful. That is why for years, it was as­sumed that as hu­man­ity pro­gressed in­tel­lec­tu­ally and ma­tured morally, so re­li­gion would de­cline.

Even 10 years ago, re­li­gion was still be­ing writ­ten off as a force in the world. For over 200 years, the view had grown that ad­vanced men and women no longer needed re­li­gion. It was a view rooted in the new think­ing of the En­light­en­ment. It was a view re­in­forced by sci­en­tific dis­cov­er­ies which chal­lenged tra­di­tional re­li­gious un­der­stand­ings of the na­ture of the world. A view un­der­pinned by a be­lief in the in­evitable progress of all hu­mankind, but es­pe­cially those branches of hu­mankind who hap­pened to live in the West. It was a view which in­creas­ingly con­fined re­li­gion to the private sphere. And it was a view which lasted a long time. As late as 2000, the Econ­o­mist mag­a­zine pub­lished the so-called obit­u­ary of God in its mil­len­nium is­sue.

But in fact at no time since the En­light­en­ment has re­li­gion ever gone away. It has al­ways been at the very core of life for mil­lions of peo­ple, the foun­da­tion of their ex­is­tence, the mo­tive for their be­hav­iour, the thing which gives sense to their lives and pur­pose to their jour­neys — which makes life more than just a spar­row’s flight through a lighted hall from one dark­ness to an­other, in that mem­o­rable im­age of the Ven­er­a­ble Bede. In the last few years we have been re­minded of the great power of re­li­gion.

We have seen its great power for good, for ex­am­ple in the Ju­bilee cam­paign, that great mass move­ment which did so much to help the poor of the world.

And in the last 10 years we have also been sharply re­minded, in acts of ter­ror com­mit­ted in the name of faith, that we ig­nore the power of re­li­gion at our peril.

But let us also re­call for a mo­ment the evils of the 20th cen­tury done in the fur­ther­ance of po­lit­i­cal ide­ol­ogy; fas­cism and the Holo­caust; com­mu­nism and the mil­lions of Stalin’s vic­tims. And re­call how the heroic de­fi­ance of those evils was of­ten led by men and women of faith.

Add to that the rich tra­di­tion of re­li­gion as a force for good in his­tory.

Only last year we cel­e­brated the 200th an­niver­sary of the abo­li­tion of the slave trade. Of course we need to re­mem­ber that plenty of peo­ple of be­lief will­ingly en­gaged in the slave trade and en­joyed its prof­its. But we also need to re­call that many of the lead­ers of the abo­li­tion move­ment came from the evan­gel­i­cal Clapham sect or the So­ci­ety of Friends. We need to re­call the role of Chris­tian and Jewish groups in in­sti­gat­ing the Geno­cide Con­ven­tion in 1948.

We can think of the great hu­man­i­tar­ian en­ter­prises which bring re­lief to those who are suf­fer­ing — the Red Cross, the Red Cres­cent or Is­lamic Re­lief, Cafod and Chris­tian Aid, Hindu Aid and Sewa In­ter­na­tional, World Jewish Re­lief and Khalsa Aid — all the char­i­ties which draw in­spi­ra­tion from the teach­ings of the dif­fer­ent faiths.

And of course all th­ese bod­ies draw on the tra­di­tions which the great world faiths have of so­cial jus­tice — the moral im­per­a­tive of help­ing the poor, the op­pressed, the dis­pos­sessed, the weak and the pow­er­less.

Think of Gandhi; of the rad­i­cal and brave lib­er­a­tion priests of South Amer­ica; of those that spoke out in the time of apartheid; of those that in their thou­sands and hun­dreds of thou­sands work in the poor­est, most dis­ease-rid­den, con­flict rav­aged parts of Africa this day and ev­ery day.

Think of women re­li­gious fight­ing the traf­fick­ing of women and chil­dren around the world.

And in the West, for ex­am­ple, we owe an in­cal­cu­la­ble debt to the Ju­daeo-Chris­tian tra­di­tion in terms of our con­cepts of hu­man worth and dig­nity, law and democ­racy.

Re­flect on the work done by churches, mosques, syn­a­gogues and tem­ples in care for the sick or the el­derly or the so­cially ex­cluded.

Such work is self­less, of­ten un­re­marked upon in so­ci­ety, of­ten dra­matic in lift­ing in­di­vid­ual hu­man an­guish and suf­fer­ing.

For all th­ese ac­tors faith is not some­thing in­ci­den­tal to their ac­tions. It is the well­spring of them, the font, the ori­gin, the thing that makes th­ese peo­ple who they are and do what they do.

To them their faith is re­alised in ac­tion: in com­mit­ment to oth­ers; in car­ing; in com­pas­sion; in an all-em­brac­ing feel­ing of sol­i­dar­ity. They be­lieve they act as in­stru­ments of God’s love when they per­form such ac­tions.

But en­acted love of neigh­bour is one as­pect only of what peo­ple think the faith com­mu­ni­ties rep­re­sent. Re­li­gion can present two other faces to the world. One face is that of re­li­gion as ex­trem­ism. There is no point in duck­ing this is­sue. Re­li­gious faith can give rise to ex­trem­ism. It is most ob­vi­ously as­so­ci­ated with ex­trem­ism in the name of Is­lam through the ac­tiv­i­ties of al Qaida and oth­ers. But we shouldn’t kid our­selves. Even if by far most re­li­gious peo­ple are not prone to the use of ter­ror, at least not nowa­days, there are ex­trem­ists in vir­tu­ally ev­ery re­li­gion. And even where there is not ex­trem­ism ex­pressed in vio- lence there is ex­trem­ism ex­pressed in the idea that a per­son’s iden­tity is to be found not merely in their re­li­gious faith, but in their faith as a means of ex­clud­ing the other per­son who does not share it.

Let me be clear. I am not say­ing that it is ex­treme to be­lieve your re­li­gious faith is the only true faith. Most peo­ple of faith do that. It doesn’t stop them re­spect­ing those of a dif­fer­ent faith or in­deed of no faith. We should re­spect hu­man­ists too and cel­e­brate the good ac­tions they do.

Faith is prob­lem­atic when it be­comes a way of den­i­grat­ing those who do not share it, as some­how lesser hu­man be­ings. Faith as a means of ex­clu­sion. God in this con­nec­tion be­comes not uni­ver­sal but par­ti­san, faith not a means of reach­ing out in friend­ship but a means of cre­at­ing or defin­ing en­e­mies. Miroslav Volf in his book Ex­clu­sion and Em­brace de­scribes the dif­fer­ence bril­liantly.

When those who are not of faith see such a face pre­sented as re­li­gion, they turn away from it, un­der­stand­ably re­pelled.

An ad­junct to such a form of re­li­gious faith is a re­fusal to coun­te­nance sci­en­tific dis­cov­ery if it ap­pears in­con­ve­nient to an as­pect of or­gan­ised re­li­gion. Af­ter what hap­pened to Galileo, it is easy to see why some later sci­en­tists tended to think re­li­gious be­lief and sci­en­tific en­deav­our could not co-ex­ist.

Yet for most peo­ple of faith, re­li­gious be­lief is quintessen­tially about truth. So, science and faith, rea­son and faith should never be seen as op­po­sites but as bed­fel­lows. Some­times, as with those whose faith led them to de­nounce the false science around race and ge­net­ics, it is faith that can lead science. The seek­ing af­ter knowl­edge is a pow­er­ful mo­tor force in many faiths, not least in the Ko­ran where peo­ple are ex­horted to ac­quire knowl­edge, some­thing which for cen­turies put Is­lamic coun­tries, not Chris­tian ones, at the fore­front of sci­en­tific ad­vance.

Now, you may say, this is all very well. If you are of re­li­gious faith, all this may be of in­ter­est to you. But if not: Why should I care? So, there are th­ese com­pet­ing strands of vi­sion about faith in the mod­ern world. So what? Why does it mat­ter in the world be­yond the faith com­mu­ni­ties? The an­swer is this: Ac­cept the premise that faith is not in de­cline. It isn’t dis­ap­pear­ing in­evitably un­der the weight of sci­en­tific and tech­no­log­i­cal progress. It is still here with us, not just sur­viv­ing but thriv­ing.

In an era of glob­al­i­sa­tion, of po­lit­i­cal in­ter­de­pen­dence, where the world is ever more swiftly open­ing up and the cliché about a global com­mu­nity be­comes an eco­nomic, po­lit­i­cal and of­ten so­cial re­al­ity; in this new world, how re­li­gious faith de­vel­ops will have a pro­found im­pact.

The forces shap­ing the world at this mo­ment are so strong and all tend in one di­rec­tion. They are open­ing the world up. I some­times say to peo­ple that in mod­ern pol­i­tics, the di­vid­ing line is of­ten less be­tween tra­di­tional left vs right; but more about open vs closed.

Mass mi­gra­tion is chang­ing com­mu­ni­ties, even coun­tries. Peo­ple com­mu­ni­cate ideas and images in­stantly around the world, cre­at­ing im­me­di­ate po­lit­i­cal and ide­o­log­i­cal move­ments in a fer­ment of quickly de­voured in­for­ma­tion. Eco­nom­i­cally, the world sys­tem is ever more de­pen­dent on con­fi­dence, ro­bust when things seem good, ex­traor­di­nar­ily brit­tle when con­fi­dence dips. The world is in­ter­de­pen­dent to­day, eco­nom­i­cally, po­lit­i­cally, even to a de­gree ide­o­log­i­cally.

The di­vide, then, is be­tween those who see this as pos­i­tive — the open­ing up of­fer­ing op­por­tu­nity; and those who see it as threat­en­ing and wish to close it back down.

As you can see from the pres­i­den­tial race in the US, there are new ques­tions that cross tra­di­tional party lines: free trade vs pro­tec­tion; en­gage­ment in for­eign pol­icy or iso­la­tion­ism; sup­port­ing im­mi­gra­tion or op­pos­ing it. In th­ese, the is­sue is less left vs right but open vs closed. And they all de­rive from a fear that glob­al­i­sa­tion is throw­ing peo­ple, cul­tures, coun­tries to­gether but with no com­mon sense of val­ues or un­der­stand­ing of each other. The land­mark Gallup Poll, be­ing taken world-wide, demon­strates the huge cen­tral­ity of in­ter-cul­tural sen­si­tiv­ity as to how glob­al­i­sa­tion is per­ceived.

It is in this con­text that the role of faith is es­pe­cially im­por­tant, not least be­cause most reli­gions were global, even be­fore po­lit­i­cal and eco­nomic sys­tems were. If peo­ple of faith reach out to one an­other, learn to co-ex­ist, be­lieve in re­spect­ing “the other”, they can play an im­por­tant part in re­duc­ing fear and ten­sion, be­ing proud of their own dis­tinc­tive re­li­gious, and of­ten cul­tural iden­tity, but open and in amity to­wards those of a dif­fer­ent re­li­gion. Al­ter­na­tively, re­li­gious faith could be used to bol­ster, to pro­mote, to in­ten­sify the very clash of civil­i­sa­tions we seek to avoid.

This is why it mat­ters to those of dif­fer­ent faiths and those of none, to have a pow­er­ful in­ter­faith en­counter, pre­cisely be­cause such an en­counter sym­bol­ises and en­acts a world of co-ex­is­tence, not ex­clu­sion. This es­say is ex­cerpted from Tony Blair’s speech ‘Faith and Glob­al­i­sa­tion’, de­liv­ered last Thurs­day at West­min­ster Cathe­dral

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