Friday, 4 April 2008

Tony Blair "Faith and Globalisation": some comments on a transcript

A transcript of Tony Blair's lecture, the first of this year's Cardinal's Lectures on Faith and Life in Britain, can be found on the website of the Archdiocese of Westminster. I believe there are several points of interest in the transcript. I am going to avoid commenting adversely on Tony Blair's previous record as a Member of Parliament and as Prime Minister (bar one quick comment) - LifeSiteNews is probably carrying the best comment of this type. I am not going to comment, either, on the aims outlined for his Foundation on inter-faith relations - perhaps someone else will comment on that for me. I am sure too that other comments could be made than mine. Fr Tim has some comments that are worth adding to mine, as has Rita.

1. Tony Blair rejects religious indifferentism, and does so explicitly.

"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 violence 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." [my emphasis]

And commenting on his Foundation, Blair insists that "It is not about losing our own distinctive faith". Where Tony Blair here uses the term "extreme" would others use, pejoratively, the term "fundamentalist"?

Now, it does not take a lot of imagination to see where this principle could be applied in contemporary British society. It is not extreme for the Catholic Church to hold to its official teaching on homosexuality, or to expect the education offered in its schools to be in accord with Catholic moral teaching, most especially with regard to sexual and marital ethics. And this should not be read as lack of respect for those who have different views on these matters.

Though it might have been nice if Tony Blair had been willing to draw the conclusion himself ... But see point 7 below, which might indicate that Tony Blair would not want to apply his principle at the level of specific beliefs.

2. Tony Blair recognises that charitable activity undertaken by religious believers is rooted in their religious faith.

Tony Blair gives a wide ranging list of religious initiatives for justice and the relief of poverty, and then observes:

"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 ... They believe that they act as instruments of God's love when they perform such actions." [Again, my emphasis.]

This is a theme more fully developed in Part II of Pope Benedict XVI's encyclical Deus Caritas Est. Christian charitable activity is not just a work of welfare that could be left to others but a living practice of God's love for others arising from the very nature of the Church; it is an essentially religious activity and not a secular one. If my memory serves me correctly, Cardinal Paul Josef Cordes of the Pontifical Institute Cor Unum has been making the point that Catholics engaged in charitable activity cannot leave their religious faith out of their commitment to charity.

Again, one can see points where this principle has consequences in contemporary Britain. Catholic charities should have the freedom to carry out their activities in ways that are in accordance with the teaching of the Church. Catholic health care facilities (and, indeed, Catholic individuals working in health care facilities) should not be forced to provide contraceptive and abortion services that conflict with Catholic teaching. Catholic adoption agencies should not be presented with the choice either to place children with gay or lesbian couples or to close down. The charitable activity of these institutions cannot be separated from their religious belief in such a way.

Again, it might have been nice for Tony Blair to draw the conclusion himself ... But, again, see point 7 below, which might indicate that Tony Blair would not want to apply his principle at the level of specific beliefs.

3. Tony Blair very usefully presents religion as a force for good in history.

Whilst recognising that there have been times, places and people where religious faith has not been for the good, Tony Blair does give a long list of examples of organisations and activities where religious believers have made a contribution for the good. One might find his inclusion of "the radical and brave liberation priests of South America" in the list a bit undiscriminating, but the reference to "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" seems to show an understanding of the sheer scale of religious engagement in charitable activity.

And, in reaction against militant secularism, he writes:

"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".

4. Tony Blair touches on the question of the relationship of faith and reason.

"I see Faith and Reason, Faith and Progress, as in alliance not contention" [Upper case as used in the transcript.]

"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."

"Faith is a living and growing belief, not stuck in one time in history, but moving with time, with reason, with knowledge, informed by scientific and technological discovery not in antithesis to it, as well as directing those discoveries toward humane ends. Faith is not something separate from our reason, still less from society around us, but integral to it, giving the use of reason purpose and society a soul, and human beings a sense of the divine"

Ifeel there are two weaknesses. The apparent equation of "reason" with "progress", and "reason" with "science" makes one wonder what Tony Blair is trying to denote by the word "reason", and this is only partly lifted when he goes on to see faith as giving purpose to the use of reason. Reason is used in fields of study other than science. And, because there is no distinction made in his comment between different religions, the fact that religions are not uniform in their ability to form a synthesis of modern science with their religious belief is skated over.

It is interesting, nevertheless, that Tony Blair felt it useful to include these references to the relationship of faith and reason. Understanding that relationship is key to establishing dialogue between religious belief and secular culture. The relationship has, again, been much more fully developed by Pope John Paul II in his encyclical Fides et Ratio, and is a repeated theme of Pope Benedict XVI. A discussion of the relation of faith and reason was, for example, what the address at the University of Regensburg was about in September 2006.

5. Tony Blair argues for a positive role of religion in the present times.

"I ... argue that religious faith is a good thing in itself, that so 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."

"Faiths can transform and humanise the impersonal forces of globalisation, and shape the values of the changing set of economic and power relationships of the early 21st century"

Again, I think this is an issue that has been addressed more fully (but on a rather smaller scale!) by Pope Benedict XVI in the address that he was due to give in January at the University La Sapienza in Rome, but was prevented from giving. As well as once again addressing questions of faith and reason, Pope Benedict makes a case for the presence of a religious voice in a secular university, explicitly arguing that

"In the face of an a-historical reason that tries to construct itself through a-historical rationality, the wisdom of humanity as such -- the wisdom of the great religious traditions -- is to be valued as a reality that cannot be with impunity thrown into the dustbin of the history of ideas."

6. Tony Blair asserts the inalienable worth of every human being.

"Faith corrects, in a necessary and vital way, the tendency humankind has to relativism. It says there are absolutes – like the inalienable worth and dignity of every human being – that can never be sacrificed."

I really do not know what to make of this in the context of Tony Blair's voting record on pro-life issues. But it is there in the transcript.

7. Tony Blair does not speak with an ecclesial sense, referring to "faith" in a way that abstracts from any specific religion or content of belief.

Throughout, Tony Blair talks about "faith", or "people of faith", and similar. He also refers to "faiths" where we might more commonly talk about different religions, though he does name the major faiths. He also makes reference to "organised religion" rather than to "churches" or "denominations" or "religions". Nowhere do I think he refers to a "church". For someone who has recently been received into the Catholic Church, I find this a bit strange, since the Catholic Church does have such a strong sense of "Church" about it. It also reflects a language typical of those who view religion as a secular phenomenon, and not a religious one - an "organised religion" is a socially occuring phenomenon, and can be studied as such, whereas to refer to a "church" would be to admit something of divine origin in that phenomenon. It might well be that it represents an adjustment to the context in which he is speaking, rather than a lack of ecclesial sense in Tony Blair's personal faith. It does, though, seem to involve a detachment of the idea of faith (as a life stance) from its content (specific religious beliefs) into a kind of abstractness that will be difficult for individual religions to recognise.

8. Tony Blair makes a useful observation that politics is now less about left vs. right than about open vs. closed.

"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 U.S., 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. "

I think that this is a useful characterisation of the present situation. Not only does it have relevance to political movements and parties, but to local communities and to individuals in those communities. It is relevant when we consider how an individual might react to a new neighbour from a different country, for example.


bernadette said...

He`s very clever, isn`t he. A genius in fact.
His whole speech prompted one question for me: Is Tony Blair the Anti-Christ ? Discuss.

Christopher said...

Thanks for the very useful precis of Mr. Blair's address.

I think you pick up on the positives (which is good) but also on the two main reasons why his "vision" for a sort of "Weltethos" is really distinctly un-Catholic: his understanding of "faith" and his making "reason" (at least) analogous to "progress" (particularly in the natural sciences).

It seems to me that these are the two classic errors of modern Christian leaders and that they are the ultimate out-working of the principles of Protestantism. It is not enough to want to make "faith" a utilitarian tool which, when coupled with an uncritical acceptance of "reason" (here defined as scientific rationalism "humanised" by the odd religious or moral scruple) creates for humanity a better "future" in which nasty things no longer happen. I find that vision not only almost unbearably unchristian, but also horribly bleak since humanity - even creation itself - is inclined to chaos if the real God, who revealed himself in covenant first to Israel and then in Church, is rejected in place of some nebulous benevolence.

I am sorry to say that, despite the positives (which are real) what I overwhelmingly take away from your summary (I confess I have not read the whole text of the address) is negative. Tony Blair surely has enough personal matters of conscience to unravel before he begins trying to advise everyone else how to unravel theirs (and then with what seems to me to be very unhelpful language).

Joe said...

Matthew Parris has a "Comment" on Tony Blair's lecture in The Times today (Saturday). It is headlined "A v.sloppy effort. See me after class, Blair". Parris marks Blair's homework with comments in the margin like: "define your terms" [I have sympathy with that - terms like "faith", "reason" are used abstractly or vaguely], "What is your evidence there?" [I am not sure I do sympathise as much with this observation, as I can readily think of evidence to support Blair's list of the positive engagements of religion that I refer to in my post]; "how do you square this with * above/below?" [Being open to this criticism seems to me to be an inevitable consequence of ill-defined terms, which are read in different ways by different readers].

Parris reveals his own anti-religious intent: "Tony Blair doesn't understand that the core of faith is fanaticism" is the by-line, and the text includes reference to "those of us who remain doggedly unconvinced of the ragbag of metaphysical claims made by the world's religions". It is interesting to note that someone opposed to a religious input to public life is
strongly critical of Tony Blair's lecture.

Joe said...

In the light of posts and comments elsewhere,I have done some editing of this post since it first appeared. Visitors might wish to re-read the post.