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I know he’s a favorite punching bag of a lot of folks who share my religious sensibilities, but the fact remains that Rowan Williams, the Archbishop of Canterbury, is one of the most thoughtful and intelligent religious leaders in the world. I know you can’t say a good word about some people without inviting attack, but even when he says and does things that drive me around the bend, I always listen to the Archbishop, because he always gives evidence that he’s thought carefully about matters. Here’s a recent interview in New Statesman with the man. Excerpt:
Can we make sense of morality without a religious notion of a transcendent or supernatural being?
I think that, to make sense of unconditional rights or claims, we need to be clear that there is such a thing as universal human nature and that it has some intrinsic dignity or worth. To try and ground this independently of the idea of a transcendent source of value seems to me not finally feasible. People do, of course, make such claims, and do so in good faith, but I don’t see how you can define a universally shared, equal, independent-of-local-culture-and-habit conception of human flourishing without something more than a pragmatic or immanent basis.
In other words, I think morality ultimately needs a notion of the sacred – and for the Christian that means understanding all human beings without exception as the objects of an equal, unswerving, unconditional love.
What are the consequences of pushing religion to the margins of the public sphere?
If religion is pushed into private spaces, as increasingly it tends to be by our public discourse, we lose one of the most emotionally and imaginatively resourceful ways of seeing human behaviour; we lose something of the sense that certain acts may be good independently of whether they are sensible or successful in the world’s terms. I suppose you could say that we lose the “contemplative” dimension to ethics, the belief that some things are worth admiring in themselves.
I wish I could disagree with him about the social need for God as a transcendent source of value, but I don’t see any way around it.