Wednesday, 1 April 2009

Interview with the Archbishop

The Archbishop of Canterbury was interviewed by Dr. Wilf Sutton for Social Theology magazine, and the interview will be heard on national radio in Australia later this month.

Archbishop, thank you for coming to this interview and explaining some elements of recent lectures, about which I would like to try to tease out some themes. In your most recent lectures, would you say there has been an ethical theme emerging?

Yes I would. These matters are quite complex. In the most recent lecture on the environment, the ethical theme of non-pillaging of the land we occupy parallels the non-pillaging of the wider economy, and negatively we have a wilful forgetfulness about the limitation to the capacity of what confronts us, and the unravelling that can take place when we do forget that we are not masters of what we see.

You had some particular phraseology about this?

I suggested a radical change of heart, a conversion; another kind of 'redemption', which frees us from the trap of an egotism that obscures judgement.

An egotism that obscures judgment. But you also said about rationality not being a wholly detached capacity, examining the phenomena of the world from a distance.

Yes, I was examining the connections that are made in Buddhism, for example, that language that might express a more forthright detachment: here I was saying we negotiate within the physical world: rationality is like a roadmap.

But this intelligence you promote, this rationality of the roadmap, is surely, precisely, what a Buddhist means by awareness: intelligence, clear rational thought and skillful engagement with the world.

Yes I am sure it does, though these terms are open to, well, engagement I think. I suppose there is a slightly greater emphasis on the material, and thus redemptive, an openness to grace.

There is surely the transitory, however: not redeeming something fixed. You referred to The Denial of Death, where Ernst Becker identified the basic pathology of the human mind as the fantasy of being 'self-created'. This relates to a Buddhist theme surely of attachment and the denial of transition, of transience.

Yes it does. Our engagement with the environment does indeed need to run more successfully as would along Buddhist lines, obviously I was paralleling that, and there are the sources in the Pali texts and Sutras; there is clearly no incompatibility here according to the logic of the explanation, though I did refer to redemption and grace.

Pride linked this and the economy: not greed but pride. Pride is a much more inner human condition is it not? Greed is like an outburst. Pride is something that must be tackled inwardly.

Indeed, which would be the purpose of prayer and meditation.

Not that this is something world leaders are asked to do, Archbishop?

Well we address the G20 in a more practical light; we ask them not to forget - again, not to forget - the Millennium Development Goals. A number of us have emphasised these and their importance, very much for example the Presiding Bishop of The Episcopal Church, Katherine Jefferts Schori.

Let's go back to September 2007, and a lecture when you reminded us about when Hindus and Muslims came together in South Africa to oppose racism: Haji Habib in the audience said non-violent resistance to race laws should be in the name of Allah, and Gandhi joined Christ’s prohibition against retaliation with his own Hindu heritage producing soul power, Satyagraha. Again this is the ethic of the oppressed. But it was also an ethic to rise above political calculation - a focus here that links with the more recent lectures.

Yes, in this case of course, a majority confronting power, something imposed as it were from the outside but resisted with a much higher power, identified by Hindu, Muslim and also Christian sources in this case.

The G20 presumably then is all about, still, political calculation and economic detail.

Yes, we look constantly for the higher ethic that we say comes from God, or (in the case of Buddhism) the Dharma, that is to drive us, but obviously we must use intelligence or awareness with skill and negotiate actual roadways.

You said: "Gandhi’s own conversion to a consistent philosophy of non-violence was, he tells us in My Experiments with Truth (p.195), greatly assisted by an insight that brought together legal training with his study of the Gita. 'I understood the Gita teaching of non-possession to mean that those who desired salvation should act like the trustee, who, though having control over great possessions, regards not an iota of them as his own.’" We get here, in this lecture, the idea of renting again, that it is not our land but God's land.

Indeed. Here Gandhi was reflecting on the emphasis in the Bhagavad-Gita about detachment: again, we think we are in control but we are not, and we do not control our own destiny and the conditions of living. The divine imperative, I said, was to act along with the truth, the truth that Gandhi found in the Bhagavad Gita. It's about who we really are, and not fantasies about control.

Indeed you said, "Hence we are trustees: we own nothing absolutely, but are commissioned to communicate to others in spiritual and in directly practical ways the assurance that God has given us."

Indeed so. I'm pleased to see that my lectures do have a consistent theme. I recall saying that resistance is not to gain power, not about the ego again.

So this nicely unites us with the Buddhist theme earlier.

Yes it does. In this case, with Hindu insight, Gandhi says to his audience, a serious commitment to God and truth is a stance of renunciation in order to get to truth. This is an important Hindu insight, and Christian too. You are here rightly reducing that style of life and routine that leads to anxiety.

Which relates again to the world economy: an economy that encourages possession and growth - acquisition - and intensifies anxiety.

It relates to the environment too, in that we cannot have a growth that is unsupportable: another source, I think, of real anxiety and stress in the ecological system. I was saying, I recall, that Satyagraha is in the core of religious practice, and produces that non-possessive ethic of the, um, trustee in our affairs, and I think we can extend this to economic affairs. We should be able to put Satyagraha at the core of awareness and not forgetfulness in operating a new kind of economic performance.

Moving on to another lecture about that time, Archbishop, which was Building Bridges in Singapore.

December, I recall.

2007. The Enlightenment had reminded religions, as it were, not to opt for Will to Power. Peace, not power.

I argued for difference, rather as Rabbi Jonathan Sacks had done. Difference - the right of different faiths to exist - enhances negotiation. I argued against a universal reason and force. We all have our different positions...

You argued against a global ethic, against that proposed by Hans Küng.

I did. We have values drawing out of our own traditions - um, the defence of difference. Our traditions generate their own ethical stances.

But, er, have you not argued for the truth, for example, of Hindu Satyagraha, the importance of what is, in effect, the Dharma in skillful intelligence.

Yes but as truth insights with their own integrity. Each of these has a narrative, and just as Christians do, what we do is inhabit those reasonings that are also reasonable, and find sources within of resistance and awareness, as we have been discussing. We are able to talk to one another, and negotiate, in this world of difference and communities. Of course we cannot always grasp the deep insights of the Bhagavad Gita, Buddhist Sutras, the Qur'an, the Bible.

This brings me back to 2009. Very early in the year you said about revealed religion. Revelation is from a place...

Never fully perceived. Yes. If we cannot know from where revelation comes, then we will always be exploring. The truth is never fully found. Jesus, I suggested, so impacted on truth, that he must be associated with the transcendent. That's how we look at it. But revelation is not something absolute and sealed.

Jesus is associated with the transcendent but we have much we do not know? Because we don't know?

The point is revelation does not close down reasoning, intelligence, awareness if you like. Plus I wanted to give space for revelation by suggesting that natural religion is not so reliable after all. Indeed, what we don't know about the natural world is almost told to us by revelation, its insight to us is that of the unending search. I said something like Jesus is present in the mystery of revelation which we are unable to reach.

Thus we don't know, do we, about the mysterious thing called the economy.

A revelation that seals would, um, say - this is the parallel - we know all we can about the workings of the economy. We don't. We doubt about that too. We must avoid the will to power. For example, the Muslim community follows through Sharia Law important ethical principles we would do well to observe, and we see a greater space for Islamic approaches to banking that do observe what Muslims understand about usury and what Christians would do well to observe. We operate modestly, in other words, which is what Muslims understand. After all, the Prophet was a trader.

February 2008 was the date of your Sharia Law lecture. You said there that "there remains a great deal of uncertainty about what degree of accommodation the law of the land can and should give to minority communities with their own strongly entrenched legal and moral codes. As such, this is not only an issue about Islam but about other faith groups, including Orthodox Judaism..." But you said that British law is about calculation, votes: Sharia Law rests "on the conviction that it represents the mind of God,"; though it is somewhat unfinished in its precision. To pursue a theme here: that law would be for the community to solve disputes, what of community law in economic terms?

It's a combination of Muslim integrity and Islamic social thought, I think. Once again, um, well, arises the notion of Covenant, and in this case, as with others, Covenant - trust - comes before contract. Covenant is about identity and is between the people and of God. So yes I see a role for manageable economics and indeed ecological economics driven by the ethics of communities: such as the implementation of Sharia Law in particular areas within British life.

Clearly then, Archbishop, religion has something to say about our economic life, and I think we have a theme running through your lectures.

Yes, the Gita clearly gives a benchmark of truth and renunciation, the importance of less pride, reduced ego, awareness, as we see with Buddhism of course. Islam clearly provides practical, community means of being economic, and throughout all this we don't know everything: Jesus, who is associated with the transcendent, shows the importance of what we don't know - that a Will to Power is forgetting what we don't know.

Archbishop, thank you.

Yes, I appreciate you seeing how themes run through my lectures.

Anyone who thinks this was a real interview - April Fool. Rowan Williams surely never said any of these things (except where he did, or very much like them). He is nothing like, say, Kevin Thew Forrester, or Katherine Jefferts Schori, about whom the critics keep playing with the bureaucratic knocking politics of religious orthodoxy. When some Christian Church sectors keep criticising those who can engage with doubt and draw on insights and practices of other faith, remember all that about the Will to Power and all those 'in error' who would close off revelation into some sort of forgetting into self assured certainty.


cryptogram said...

I wonder whether the editor of that irony-free zone of fundamentalism, SPREAD, has picked up on this yet? If he does, this will be the new orthodoxy across Sydney, Gaffe-con and Vomit-on-Line. Poor Rowan. He really doesn't deserve it.

Pluralist (Adrian Worsfold) said...

Yes, he has a unique position in the searchlight.

I actually like the theme in his lectures, despite the point I'm also making that figures in TEC are no more heterodox than many others. The problem is that he also had an ethical element in his lectures but is not practised when it comes to him and the religious bureaucracy.