Thought Leader: Rowan Williams

March 1, 2013

Rowan Williams

DEVIN STEWART: What is unique today, particularly from a moral perspective?

ROWAN WILLIAMS: I think the big factor for the world today is, of course, global communication, the rapidity and the reach of global communication and the fact that anybody, in effect, can post views electronically and have a global audience.

That's not, in itself, morally distinctive; it's a technological innovation. But the moral implication becomes out there for everybody and straightaway. There's very little mediation through culture, society, cultural institutions, and I think that has a new moral effect on how we relate to one another, individual visions and individual anthropologies.

DEVIN STEWART: So you are saying we have a more direct picture of one another?

ROWAN WILLIAMS: We have a more direct picture of one another in the sense that we are aware of what other people are saying, but because of the relatively unmediated nature of this, we don't get much sense of the context of another person, and I think it's characteristic of our electronic communication that we hear the words and we don't see the context. That's a problem, I think, a moral challenge.

DEVIN STEWART: Part of our project is to look at shared values across cultures, to see if there are such things. Part of that is to look at what we call a global ethic. Does that mean anything to you? If so, what does it mean?

ROWAN WILLIAMS: I don't think that we should think of global ethics as a possible single ethical system. But I think it's perfectly right to look for areas of convergence. Some of those areas these days, perhaps more than ever, have to do with a sense that human dignity requires a degree of control over your life and environment, control over your options, and I think that to try to hold that together with a proper sense of accountability to one another, that's one of the really big challenges.

I would say that the heart of a global ethic for our time, or a convergent point of global ethical systems, is that twofold sense of recognizing one another's dignity and sharing our resources in justice. If I can just add to that for a minute, I would say that that is one of the areas where the religious traditions of the world have a very significant role to play, since they all in their different ways have a strong sense of how human dignity is to be understood and a strong commitment to justice.

DEVIN STEWART: So you see dignity and justice as a common motif throughout religions?

ROWAN WILLIAMS: Yes. Yes, I do.

DEVIN STEWART: Do you want to give some examples?

ROWAN WILLIAMS: If we look at the spread of the great world religions, and it's clear that in what people call the Abrahamic religionsChristianity, Judaism, and Islamthere is built in from the very start a sense of accountability to God as creator, a sense, very differently expressed in the three traditions, but a sense that in some way human beings reflect the liberty, the dignity, or whatever, of God Himself.

A Muslim would say it's the role of a human being to be God's representative within creation. A Christian or a Jew would say we are made in the image of God, and so on.

Going outside the Abrahamic tradition, you have a very different configuration of this in, let's say, the Hindu world, where justice comes through in the understanding that your acts always have consequences, which may last beyond this life. You have to wake up to the consequences of your actions and recognize that what you do will come back to you. In some form or other, you have to address the balance, and you have that dignity of choosing.

A Buddhist would say that because there is no objective world there to be possessed, the way to life, the way to liberty, is letting go and creating a community in which people are willing to let go of the illusion that they can possess the world around them.

Now, these are very different metaphysical and religious systems, but I think what comes out of all of them is a sense of the recognition of the mysteriousness, the liberty, the capacity of human beings, and the folly and wrongness of approaching the world as something that we can control, manipulate, and, as it were, put in our pockets.

DEVIN STEWART: You talked earlier about empathy as being something that we might lack if we don't catch the context of how people got their views. Do you see that as the greatest ethical challenge facing the planet, or is there something else you would like to talk about?

ROWAN WILLIAMS: I think it is one of the greatest ethical challenges. I think that a great many of our conflicts are, if not caused, then at least made very much worse by the stereotyping and caricaturing of one another and by a failure to see the history that leads people to have those positions, to have those concerns.

For example, we quite rightly get very, very exercised about terrorism, and we are often very reluctant to do the analytic work that says where exactly this comes from.

So I would say empathy is, yes, one of the great ethical priorities of the day. It is part of the recognition that our humanity is something we share, a sense that the problems that the human race faces cannot be resolved by one person, one group, one nation, one religion alone, understanding that we share the same vulnerability, that it is not a world in which the strong can pretend that they don't share the problems of the weak.

DEVIN STEWART: As you know, Andrew Carnegie tried and failed to promote world peace. Do you think world peace is possible?

ROWAN WILLIAMS: We've come to a position where a major war between European countries is pretty well unimaginable. Now, that's a step forward. I'm not saying that Europe is a paradise or utopia by any means, but we have, in the aftermath of two shocking and appalling wars in the 20th century, we have somehow found ways of maintaining some kind of equilibrium. So, regionally, it is not impossible.

Look at Southeast Asia. It's quite difficult to imagine countries in that region going to war in the old way. There are signs that we have, I thinkin bits of the world they may recognize that, again, war is not inexorable; we are not doomed to it.

DEVIN STEWART: The final question, Dr. Williams, is how do you think about accountability? How would you urge the average person to help make a better world?

ROWAN WILLIAMS: Everybody, I think, is able to look at their own immediate context and say, "Are the decisions I make decisions that increase or reduce the possibility of sharing, increase or reduce the recognition of dignity, increase or reduce the possibility of a convergent vision of the world?" I don't think that it's simply a matter of politicians making different decisions, though I often wish they would. It is a matter of electorates, populations, giving politicians permission to take risks in the direction of dignity and sharing events. It's a matter of electorates holding governments to account on these things.

Take the Millennium Development Goals. I think if we had a world in which populations of electorates really were saying to governments, "Look, these are the commitments made; what's happening?" and to go on asking those questions, to go on obstinately pressing those questions but at the same time asking themselves whether they're doing what they can in an immediate environment. It's a question about how businessmen, policymakers, religious groups, and individuals can respond to today's problems and what the priorities might be from a moral point of view.

There are a few things there that struck me. In my work as archbishop of Canterbury, I used to spend quite of time traveling to churches around the world and would always want to see what, in any local setting, the churches were doing to make some sort of sustainable difference. I came to be very strongly persuaded that building grassroots capacity for a sustainable future is essential here.

By that I mean very often looking for the small-scale differences you could make. Education is the key to nearly all of this, but especially the small-scale healthcare project, the local women's refuge for women who have suffered especially in war and other kinds of conflict, local experiments in more effective, more sustainable food production.

Throughout Africa and parts of Asia I've seen again and again these schemes developing in ways which are not going to change the headlines instantly but are really substantially changing what people take for granted at a local level, and that does permeate a bit in the direction of government in the long run.

So I would plead for real attention to how you build that capacity at that levelthe local microfinance initiative, the local education project, the care for women and children, that sort of thing.

DEVIN STEWART: Excellent. Thank you so much, Dr. Williams. It has been a real pleasure speaking with you.

ROWAN WILLIAMS: You're very welcome. Thank you.