Shaping the Wisdom, Sharing the Dream
The Reverend Canon Dr. Vincent Strudwick*
Sunday 2 September 2012
‘Ill fares the land: to hastening ills a prey
Where wealth accumulates, and men decay’
These words of Oliver Goldsmith, written in 1770, resonate all too easily in the Globalised world in which we find ourselves, as we gather for this conference on the 10th occasion under Kamran Mofid’s leadership with the Globalisation for the Common Good Initiative.
Coming from many traditions, and bringing the wisdom of those traditions with us, we also come sharing a dream that the new global society of which we are a part, may be shaped for the common good.
This year, we meet in UK, where every working day in the House of Lords – the Upper chamber of our Parliament, clinging precariously to its life – begins its business with a prayer by the Anglican bishop in attendance, that their deliberations may be: ‘for the peace and tranquillity of the realm, and the uniting and knitting together of all persons and estates within the same.’
We come from different countries and cultures, as well as different religions, and globalisation presents itself differently in each; but common to us all I believe is the perception that the market state has replaced the nation state, and market values, or lack of them, threaten to de-humanise our global society and the well being of its members.
The ‘economy’ has taken over.
In a book published a decade ago in 2002, Philip Bobbitt 1characterised the world formerly of ‘nation states’ as a globalised world of ‘market states’, whose values were less the remnants of the former dominant faith community – in the west, the Christian meta-narrative - but increasingly reflected the sole value of maximising choice as the primary ‘good’.
The Market State, he argues, is indifferent to race, gender and ethnicity, but it is also indifferent to the norms of justice or any particular set of moral values. As Giles Fraser2 has written: ‘Since Adam Smith, many have come to regard the pursuit of self interest within the market place as a legitimate driver for the common good’; yet we have seen increasingly (in UK since Big Bang, the de-regulation of the financial markets a quarter of a century ago) that without being part of any meta-narrative of goals, self interested choice leads easily to corruption, and the common good becomes victim to the greed and selfishness of ’the few’ , to the detriment of ‘the many’. The past year, the past summer, has provided us with example upon example of this.
Yet, the Archbishop of Canterbury has recently reminded us that: ‘Economy’ is simply the Greek word for ‘housekeeping’. He goes on to say: ‘Economics is primarily about the decisions we make to create a habitat that we can actually live in. We are still haunted by the dogma that the economic world, ‘economic realities’, economic motivations and so on, belong in a completely different frame of reference from the sort of human decisions we usually make and from considerations of how we build a place to live in. And to speak about a place to live in, a habitat, reminds us too that we look for an environment that is stable, ‘sustainable’ in the popular jargon, a home that we can reasonably expect will be an asset for the next generation.
Economics understood in abstraction from all this, is not just an academic error, it actually dismantles the walls of the home. Appealing to the ‘market’ as an independent authority, unconnected with human decisions about ‘housekeeping’, has meant in many contexts over the last few decades, a ruinous legacy for heavily indebted countries, large scale and costly social disruption even in developed economies, and most recently the extraordinary phenomena of a financial trading world in which the marketing of toxic debt became the driver of money making – until the bluffs were all called at the same time.’ 3
I have quoted that in full because I think it brings into focus where many of us come from; and I do so in the words of a speaker from my own tradition, because that is from where we all set out; our own faith commitment, its inspiration, wisdom and our experience of it.
However, in my tradition we have not until recently brought the wisdom of our tradition in ‘the economy’ into play in this area with any force or conviction, but have seemed pre-occupied with questions of sexual morality.
As a priest of the Church of England I frequently officiate at marriages.
Sometimes I remind the couple that if they were getting married in England during, say, the 15th century, they would have made promises ‘to be faithful at bed and board’. ‘Board’ was the old word for ‘table’ (which still survives in names like the ‘Boarding House’.
The bed is the symbol of personal morality; the table is the place where the couple relate to society – the symbol of hospitality and sharing, where the couple relate to family, the community and the stranger. I am sad to say that my tradition has been reticent in teaching this part of our heritage; though the Archbishop is seeking to redress this omission.
But I am aware increasingly that we must learn to listen to other traditions; to each other, for as I wrote in my abstract, we need each other if we are to create a habitat we all can live in; a table around which we all may sit.
In the globalised world of the twenty first century, we need to develop a framework of public ‘goods’.
It is a risky business, but here, in this initiative of ‘Globalisation for the Common Good’ we have the opportunity to do so, and to ‘pass over’ into each others experience, gain from the wisdom of other traditions and beliefs, and engage in the task of building a culture of trust together, so we may influence public life.
Let me explain what I mean by ‘passing over’.
I owe the concept to a friend of mine, who I met in the USA when teaching for the Graduate Theological Foundation of Indiana in the mid 1990’s.
Ewert Cousins was born in 1927 and died in 2009. He was a professor of theology at Fordham where he taught for forty years. In this role he was a pioneer in inter-religious dialogue and brought together Christians, Hindus, Muslims, Jews and Buddhists at gatherings round the globe. He was the General Editor of the 25 volume series ‘World Spirituality: An Encyclopaedic History of the Religious Quest’.
During the mid 1990’s Ewert and I found ourselves teaching together for the Graduate Theological Foundation in the USA, and formed a friendship and working collaboration.
It was from Ewert that I learned of his journey into inter-religious dialogue in his early life, through his sojourn on the Lakota Reservation in South Dakota. Living with them, being part of the community, he wrote: ‘I found myself penetrating deeper and deeper into Lakota culture, their dramatic history and their profound spirituality’.4
That is what I mean by ‘passing over’ – a term which Cousins acknowledged as belonging to John Dunne, a professor at Notre Dame University.
Dunne writes5: ‘What seems to be occurring (in our time) is a phenomenon we might call ‘passing over’, from one culture to another, from one way of life to another, from one religion to another. Passing over is a shifting of standpoint, a going over to the standpoint of another culture, another way of life, another religion. It is followed by an equal and opposite process we might call ‘coming back’ coming back with a new insight to one’s own culture, one’s own way of life, one’s own religion.’ He concludes: ‘Passing over and coming back is the spiritual adventure of our time’
As I have said, it is a risky business; it is different to ‘learning facts’ about another religion and culture; but I suspect it is the only way to build a common culture of trust in which those of different religions, and indeed secular economists of goodwill, so we may together explore a programme for the common good which will catch the attention and the ear of those in government.
I think Kamran that you have chosen the perfect venue for such passing over to take place. This is not a ‘plush’ conference hotel where one can isolate oneself apart from the sessions. We are, perforce, together; and in our different meals and venues, have the opportunity to deepen our solidarity in the dignity of difference.
But this conference is shaped to dwell, not on difference, but on wisdom shared between our traditions, which as we ‘pass over’ we shall, I believe, learn to appreciate with greater clarity.
Represented here are many who come from organisations in dialogue and friendship from the global ‘World Congress of Faiths’, to the ‘Near Neighbours’ local inter-faith projects.
Often we need to explore and study our ‘difference’ for this is part of the reality; but here in this initiative, we are especially to focus on what wisdom we share in common.
For example, in my abstract, I quoted Archbishop Tutu on ‘Ubuntu’ and John Donne from the Christian tradition: ‘I am involved in mankind…’ His essay ends with the words ‘Ask not for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee’.6
From the time of Confucius (about 500BC) we have teaching arguing that the same rules of morality that govern the family, should govern the State, and all religious traditions seem remarkably clear on the issue. Money is an instrument to meet our needs and desires, but money itself should not shape those needs and desires, and our sense of what is good, right and true.
In Islam, morality was (and is) not only a question of personal ethics but a basis for government, and for this purpose Muslims drew on the hadith or the sayings of the Prophet after his death.
Immediately though, I think of the words of the Prophet (Peace be upon Him) ‘If one takes a life, it is as if one has taken the life of all humanity:’ and I hear John Donne echoing this in his 17th century essay.
As I say that, I know I shall see recognition in the eyes of those from other traditions – and it is precisely the insight, the stories and words from which that recognition comes, that we need to hear, share and value during this time together.
Hindu teachings stress the constant battle between corruption as a danger to the State, and the ‘virtuous’ society. In the Vedas we have this:
‘Knowing the secret of possessing wealth, the demon of vagrancy earns riches and carries it off to himself. Let both his wives – greed and luxury – bathe in the deep sea. O resplendent Lord, may he with his wives be drowned in that river of luxury.’8
To gain the context, power and insight of such quotations, to have the opportunity to ‘pass over’ and make them our own, enables us not only to return to our place enriched, but empowered to work for change together. It is for this that I plead in these opening remarks, believing that there is a way for a our faith communities to exist side by side in their diversity, nourishing their adherents, but also working together to help shape our collective wisdom in such a way that will influence the culture and ethics of public life. We have to rescue society from the moral relativism that is overtaking us, and fulfil and make real the dream that is at the heart of the initiative for Globalisation for the Common Good.
1 ‘The Shield of Achilles’ P Bobbitt 2002
2 ‘Value and Values: Perceptions of Ethics in the city Today’ 2012
3 Quoted in ‘Value and Values’ op cit
4 ‘A Spiritual Journey into the Future’ Ewaer H Cousins 2010
5 ‘The Way of All the Earth: Experiments in Truth and Religion 1978
6 ‘No Man is an Island’ John Donne
7 Qur’an 5:32
8 Rig Veda Samhita v 1-104-3
*The Reverend Canon Dr Vincent Strudwick is a Fellow of Kellogg College in the University of Oxford, and Founder-member of the Centre for the Study of Religion in Public Life based at the College.
He has taught historical theology for many years in different institutions, and was the Founding Director of the Oxford University International Summer programme held at Christ Church, Oxford since 1993.
As a Visiting Professor of the Graduate Theological Foundation of Indiana, USA, and in UK and USA with the Smithsonian Associates, among other institutions, Canon Strudwick has explored inter-faith dialogue and its practice. His publications include: ‘Winter Change to Spring: Religion, Culture and Politics in the World of the Market State’ 2007. ‘Benedict XV1 Considered: Inter-Faith Perspectives on the Modern Papacy’ (Editor) 2009.