Sunday, December 26, 2010

Blair's Faith Foundation: candle and/or canary in the coal mine?

By Tony Blair, Former Prime Minister of Great Britain, in Toronto Star, December 23, 2010
I started my Faith Foundation precisely to create greater understanding between the faiths. My reasoning is simple. Those advocating extremism in the name of religion are active, well resourced and — whatever the reactionary nature of their thinking — brilliant at using modern communication and technology. We estimate that literally billions of dollars every year are devoted to promoting this view of religion.

So my foundation has a university program — now underway in nine countries — that is designed to take religion out of the sole preserve of divinity schools and start analyzing its role in the world today. We have another program — in 15 countries, with others set to join — that links high-school students across the world through interactive technology to discuss their faith and what it means to them. And we have an action program through which young people work with those of another faith to raise awareness of the Millennium Development Goals, the United Nations-led program to combat world poverty.
We are just one organization. There are others starting. But governments should start to take this far more seriously. The Alliance of Civilizations, begun by Spain and Turkey, is one example. The king of Saudi Arabia has also shown great leadership in this sphere. Yet this is not just about bringing high-level people together. It has to be taken down into the grassroots of nations, especially into the media of their young people.
Finally, religious leaders must accept a new responsibility: to stand up firmly and resolutely for respecting those of faiths different from their own. Aggressive secularists and extremists feed off each other. Together, they do constitute a real challenge to people of faith. We must demonstrate the loving nature of true faith; otherwise, religion will be defined by a battle in which extremists seize control of faith communities and secularists claim that such attitudes are intrinsic to religion.
Both congratulations and gratitude to Mr. Blair for the establishment of his Faith Foundation to promote understanding and compassion and to counter the extremists in all faiths.
While this is a brief introduction to his Faith Foundation, it does not address one of the fundamental issues with faith, and that is the question of proselytizing. And it seems that Roman Catholics, Protestants of all strips, and Muslims of many faith colours are engaged in a process similar to the underlying processes of the private corporations, to grow their brand.
All of the means of communication, including digital technology, are being used to recruit followers.
And the battle, including the one engaged in by the Blair Faith Foundation, seems to be which side will win, take over the world and impose its will on the world.
In the West, there is a long tradition of law, based loosely on the Ten Commandments, yet revised multiple times, to more closely conform to the mores of the culture, language and traditions of that national culture.
There has also been a tradition of religious festivals that have become embedded both in law and in the cultural history and tradition of the various countries. We are in the middle of one such festival this week; for some it is called Christmas, celebrating the birth of Jesus Christ in Bethlemen. For others, it is called Hannukah, celebrating a Festival of Lights.
Rising quickly in what might seem like our "rear-view mirror," the Islamic faith has burst onto the scene in the West, and is growing its number of converts devoted to the teachings of Muhammed, calling their god Allah.
Currently, for many westerners, the Islamic faith has more of a political face and voice and goal, than what might be called a spiritual dimension. Nevertheless, many of those in the Islamic faith seek to impose their Sharia Law on the many countries where their numbers and their political influence in growing.
As precedent, Islam can point to the political conflicts that have consumed many people and dollars in campaigns on the issue of the "right to life" versus a "woman's right to choose". In the political and cultural vernacular, that conflict has become knows as the "pro" or "anti-"abortion fight. The fight continues among different sections of the "christian" community and faith, without showing any sign of diminishing.
In Canada, for example, while the public health system pays for a woman to have a therapeutic abortion, there are many who would and do seek to have this law overturned to have the society better conform with their personal and their religion's view of scripture.
In fact, in the West, politicians are very conscious of the "faith blocks" of votes and voters. Each individual political aspirant couches his/her rhetoric in ways that indicate some sympathy of the crowd that is in front of him/her. So church affiliation, and therefore religious convictions, are already a significant part of political life.
Another issue that confronts different faiths is the "status of women" issue, or framed a more politically correct way, the "equality of gender" issue. Beginning with the acceptance or rejection of women clergy, there is a deep divide, for example, between Protestants and Catholics on this issue, since Roman Catholics in the West do not accept or ordain women as fully practicing clergy.
In most western jurisdictions, there is some form of "no-fault" divorce law, attempting to render both men and women equal in the division of rights and responsibilities in the event of divorce. However, the Islamic tradition of Sharia Law, would have divorce settlements arrived at by a Sharia Court, for Islamic citizens.
In some ways, there has been a historic sound of foresight on matters of law and education from the First Nations communities and at least in North America, politicians have mishandled the "First Nations File" abysmally, generating long chapters of injustice in the history books.
In fact, if the issue of "faith" ever is framed inside the issue of "race", the last two hundred years of North American history would not provide a positive harbinger for a negotiated, compromised and mutually beneficial model of relationships between minority and majority groups.
If, however, the issue is framed on the basis of "truth" and "holiness" between faith communities (as in "my" faith is more religious, more just, more holy, more in tune with the will of God, more spiritual than "your" faith) in a competitive spirit, then the battle of faiths will consume much of the political will and time in any country with that dynamic defining its relgious relationships.
People of good will, and honourable intentions, and compassion and ethical respect for "others" will be more needed even to frame the issues around the next century's approach to how faith operates in the public square. Schools that inculcate a kind of superiority of faith tenets, among their students, of whatever faith, will do much to generate competition and ill-will between the children of different faith traditions. Even the current "sterilized" approach to excluding any words mentioning God, Christmas, Hannakuh, or any festival of the Islamic calendar from all conversations in schools in cities like Toronto are not what one might call shining examples of religious tolerance and respect for faith. The theory seems to be that educational leaders, paid as they are by the political masters, seek to avoid any charge of favouring one faith over any other faith, except in the schools formally and legally designated as Roman Catholic schools.
So, for the majority of students in Ontario public schools, religion is a matter left to the parent to discuss, and, of course, the media to report on its successes and its failures, including the murder of doctors who perform abortion, in their clinics.
If Mr. Blair is right that civilizations will have to pay more attention to the impact of faith among their people, there will have to be a very different animating spirit for such considerations, in order to strip any formal, and political and public debates of the inherent fears, biases and suspicions that any faith tradition brings to the table, based on previous tragedies like the Holocaust, or the Crusades, or the more recent jihads.
He is right, however, and it must be acknowledged, that many of the globe's conflicts have a religious basis, generating military and political conflict between religious positions and the people who espouse those positions. It has been said that more lives have been lost in the pursuit of faith and relationships with God than over any other human issue.
In order for such a tradition to cease, there will have to be a very different "take" on the relative merits of each faith, including an open acknowledgement that no faith has to "whole truth" or the "whole mind" of God in its dogmatic positions, and that each faiths might have something to teach the others.
And that process will require profound trust, and a seismic shift in human capacity to welcome the other, no matter where that "other" comes from geographically, linguistically, politically or religiously.
Growing "religiosity" as Blair seems to think, is not the same dynamic as growing a deep and profound spiritual experience, no matter in which faith tradition.
Karen Armstrong's books will have to become central to the curricula of all of those courses that are going to be offered in all of those universities, and the curriculum will have to be stripped of all attempts to win converts. Her The Case for God is an excellent example of the new "take" on faith, from her global perspective.
May God's blessing be upon all those whose life mission includes such lofty and worthy goals and objectives.

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