Rowan Williams gave a Lecture at the Building Bridges Conference in Singapore on Thursday 6th December 2007. This is my summary.
The argument is that the Enlightenment brought upon religious faiths their own restrictions, often ignored, not to opt for a will to power. Faiths have a quality that, even if their argument is defeated, that the transcendent continues them on, so that there is no defeat - and therefore they can opt for peace not power. However, when the Enlightenment rationality was caught up in its own limitations via coupling with biological determinism, nationalism, Marxism, Freudianism, and postmodernism, then it lost its universal nature. However, if everything is relative, then a defeat of the argument means it can never return. Thus the temptation to power.
The continuation of religious differences shows that people keep to their robust positions, but under pressure they can do so and will not be lost. This robust defence shows that there are values that are maintained. Those transcendent values also suggest that failure might be more in keeping than the consequence of maintenance by force.
The paradox is that without force and without universal reason (that can justify force) religious difference held and maintained enhances social cohesion through negotiation. Difference maintained means a common security - and we enhance society by maintaining the right of the other faith to exist and be in that negotiation.
The communities can look for these values of being in the world space, not producing a tempting global ethic (there are protocols and statements about what is believed to be essential in defending each other), and not a signle religious tradition can organise a programme in public life (but they can make statements of witness against those values when non-religious rationality presses for certain kinds of change).
What is common is a pragmatic approach about values and the right of each community to practice its faith and engage in the freedom to debate and negotiate - never settling the matter between themselves.
Social unity is not created by marginalising religious traditions or leaving behind the most strongly held or distinctive principles, or that secular principles are superior.
Diverse religious values even stand against even a liberal state absolutism. They have a stake in the state's moral direction; they have to persuade a public in a democratic society as they have no overall rights of their own.
Social values and priorities are not timeless, and religions demonstrate that they have a history. Religious diversity presents several histories, and in discovering these there is a heritage to be shared at points in history as they intersect.
No religious system answers every human question. Looking back we see a kaleidoscope of human perceptions and social cohesion involved adjustments, some in huge tension. Religious diversity stimulates towards a more inclusive history for social cohesion. The UK is rethinking its history as its religious diversity has grown in a largely secular social environment. It sees how Islam passed on intellectual thought to Christianity and it responded. Rabbi Jonathan Sacks has called it building a home together and the dignity of difference. It is not about a utopia or about reasonable people ending up with the same view. It's about fullness, resources, and non-negotiable transcendent principles, that human unity is in relation to the sacred (what the Jewish and Christians call the image of God). Marginalise religion and you marginalise the human subject.
Whilst not saying how dialogue should happen, honest and careful interfaith dialogue is for the ultimate good of society. No beliefs are compromised at all and yet to acknowledge the conviction of your truth is still to respect the depth and richness of what they have received as truth - and no one has received the truth as God knows it. The relationship between the passionately committed to their own truth is a gift giving a plural society hope for coherence, justice and peace.
I hope this is a fair and sufficiently accurate summary.
The core of this is an argument about social cohesion and having it because of religious cohesion via diversity of packages. The old Durkheim style argument was of having one set of values shared by all to have a cohesive society. Linked to religious diversity are transcendent values, though of course no one can describe what they are except from within each religious tradition committed to their defence. Transcendent values mean that an argument pointing to them can never be truly lost, as they (being transcendent) will return the argument. Thus failure can be more peaceable, itself pointing to a transcendent value or values.
If those transcendent non-negotiable values can be found, then there is of course a global ethic. Hans Kung used to address the global ethic. It is a religious version of the secular high modernist argument of Habermas, that beyond all the material and sectional interests that skew thought, purely disinterested rational thinkers will still come to agree on core values. If we do not, it is because we cannot find these pure rational values, or cannot find these transcendent values.
Either there are such transcendent non-negotiable values, or there are not. The postmodern world, in undermining the sort of rationality to which Habermas held fast, also undermines those transcendent values, not just an impossibility of agreement. The transcendent values could be just one, the value to agree to differ, but that is not what Rowan Williams means when he points to pragmatic and peacemeal efforts, and that religions agree to their defence as bodies in promoting such values. Religions contain transcendent values but these are not the same as each and every religion, but are pointed towards, protected and defended by what is non-negotiable.
It is as if religious convictions operate at a second highest level, with everyone piling in their convictions at that level. They thus defend religions and their values, their contribution, as pointers to those transcendent values, by regarding those transcendent values as expressed within their own tradition.
Except Rowan Williams then undermines these convictions at a second level, by saying no one has received the truth as God knows it. In other words, he recognises and admits the second level nature of Christian or any other religious thought.
For me, the argument is undermined by the admission.
The fact is that people are not necessarily (nor should they be) committed to a religious package. What history also tells us, because they are a history, is that beliefs change. These packages do get compromised, because they did intersect and make changes. Christianity has changed, changed hugely due to the impact of the secular academic world. Rowan Williams forever wants to deny the key importance of the secular academic effect - that has stripped some of the interest and skewing from religious thought, thus allowing actual, critical, biblical study in theology departments that can go where it will whatever some Christian doctrine may state. In that the secular is not universal does not mean it is not important. If not important, why does he think that religions should pass their convictions via democracy, which is a secular approach to organising political life bound up with secular views of liberty? He seems to require religions to pass on their convictions indirectly into the body politic that organises social cohesion, via persuading people and not directly.
There is no guarantee that one religion will recognise the right of another religion to share social space. Scriptures and traditions contradict themselves on this. At their core many justify aggression and offence, never mind defence, as well as justifying peace. This has to be recognised. Islam, for example, is the organisation of a peaceable communal tribe, with no guarantee of peace outside. Christianity developed evangelising and orthodoxy that was far from being peacable to the unbeliever and the differently believing. Sections of Judaism marginalises Reform and Liberal expressions. Indeed, given religious behaviour to their own towards uniformity, why should anyone expect them to create space for others in social diversity?
The argument of liberty does inevitably involve some liberalism, even if limited in the social sphere or in restraint. There is that subtle shift to the world of convictions necessary. Jonathan Sacks affirms that Judaism is not for everyone, and never was, and so there must be difference, and that the rest do not simply just follow on those who were chosen, but have a right to their full expression; and Christianity has had to shift towards allowing others to be and stay non-Christian and for such to be valid (and not second division) - a move that many traditionalists and contemporary evangelicals simply cannot accept. That shift in Christianity is a shift towards liberalism, like it or not. Western Islamic scholars speak of a Reformation for Islam and that only with such can it adopt to being fully accepting of a plural world. In other words, there must be internal change. Some faiths like Buddhism, Jainism, Sikhism, Bahaism and Hinduism already have, built in, forms of relativity and syncretism that allow them to participate in a fully plural world. All these faiths develop liberalised, rationalised, thought-forms, as indeed has Rowan Williams with all his cultural assuptions and personal influences.
Rowan Williams basic position is that of the story, developed through history, through time. The religions develop their convictions. He delves into the detail of one, and knows that there are so many others with their details. They represent transcendent values, although the story approach never allows us to prove such (they may only be signals of transcendence). This is the world of religious relativity already, one story irreducible by another. Yes, they can be a clash of objective values, but no one can know how they can be objective when set one against another - and not finding any global values or global ethic.
The story leads to a "don't know" about transcendent values, or indeed one cohering transcendent - completely indescribable, of neither Buddhism's non-theism nor Christianity's theism, never mind anything such as a Holy Trinity or Christ's incarnation. To describe gives the transcendent a history, and brings it down a peg or two. This is why Christianity has believed in a self-limiting God revealing via Greek culture with Jewish background (ask Pope Benedict). These concepts are all historical, not eternal (then). Is this not so?