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Archbishop's Chevening Lecture at the British Council, New Delhi

Friday 15th October 2010

The Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr Rowan Williams today gave the Chevening lecture in New Delhi.

The Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr Rowan Williams, on a two week visit to India, today gave the Chevening lecture in New Delhi at the invitation of the High Commissioner Sir Richard Stagg. The lecture was hosted by the British Council. Among dozens of sermons, talks and seminar interventions by the Archbishop during his visit to eight major cities, this was the only keynote lecture.

In his lecture the Archbishop paid tribute to the secular vision of the Indian constitution and those who were instrumental in articulating that vision: India, he says, "has consistently tried to define a 'secularism' that is not hostile to multiple religious identities."

"The success or otherwise of India's capacity to manage 'interconnected differences', in Nehru's pregnant phrase, will have significance well beyond India's borders."

The example of India highlights that "the law and the state cannot just treat a population as a collection of individuals; their actual identity is already bound up with values and beliefs."  Dr Williams quotes Sunil Khilnani writing about Nehru who recognised India as "a society neither of liberal individuals nor of exclusive communities or nationalities but of interconnected differences".

In addressing specifically the question of religious pluralism Dr Williams argues against both the religious relativism which reduces religious narratives and beliefs to "a basic common vision" and the idea that the world of religions is one of "mutually uncomprehending systems".

Instead he argues in favour of a "careful and attentive interaction between communities of religious practice".  "To enter into the world of the believer in another faith" in and enquiring and sympathetic way is not "to abandon the claim that there is still one narrative that offers the comprehensive perspective in which other [narratives] may most truthfully and rightly be read".

Dr Williams proposes a political pluralism which he has described elsewhere as an 'argumentative democracy', and a religious pluralism which both acknowledges the reality of history but also "that there are dimensions of [religious] identity that we create as well as inherit".

India's continuing struggle with the challenges of both political and religious pluralism is "a matter of concern and importance....caught up as we often are in the contemporary world between renewed bids for theocracy and anxious efforts to secure the complete privatising of faith".

The full text of the lecture is below:


In this lecture I hope to show that modern India is a very fruitful context in which to examine various meanings of the word 'pluralism' – to look at how they apply in practice and at some of the questions to which they give rise.

The word 'pluralism' has come to mean an uncomfortable variety of things in both the political and the religious sphere.  In reference to religion, it is most often used to mean the conviction that no particular religious tradition has the full or final truth: each perceives a valid but incomplete part of it. This sort of pluralist perspective implies  that no faith can or should make claims for itself as the only route to perfection or salvation.  In the political context, it can refer to at least two positions.  The first is an analysis of the state associated with political theorists like Harold Laski and John Neville Figgis in the early twentieth century.  According to this approach, we must think of the state not as the all-powerful source of legitimate community life and action but as the structure needed to organise and mediate within a 'community of communities', a plurality of very diverse groups and associations of civil society, ranging from trade unions and universities to religious bodies.  And a second political meaning is the one given currency particularly by Isaiah Berlin in his writings on political liberty (see the essays collected in Liberty, edited by Henry Hardy, Oxford University Press 2002, especially the famous 'Two Concepts of Liberty', pp.166-217).  There is a genuine plurality of human goods, and they are not all compatible in any given situation: doing the right thing may involve the sacrifice of one desired good for the sake of another, and we must not deceive ourselves as to the cost, pretending that there is some ideal condition in which all genuine human moral goals are realised harmoniously.  If there is such a diversity of human goals, the most realistic political aspiration is for a liberal state that does not seek to advance by legislation a programme for this or that specific vision of human improvement or self-realisation.

Diverse as these definitions are, there are clear areas of overlap.  If it is true, as some claim, that no religious tradition possesses ultimate truth, no religious tradition can claim the right to be legally enforced.  If the state has to broker relations between different communities, it must itself be ideologically neutral.  If a religious body exists within a pluralist state, it must at least recognise that it cannot expect the state to legislate as though its religious and ethical claims were beyond dispute.  It has to understand that, while it may still make the same truth claims, they are now open to scrutiny, rebuttal and attack, and cannot be taken for granted.  And the interweaving of all these themes is perhaps more evident in India than in many places in our world.  India, in declaring itself a secular state at independence, was making a clear option for a certain kind of public and political neutrality, acknowledging that to be a citizen in India could not be something that depended on any particular communal identity and that the state could not intervene in religious disagreements except insofar as they became socially disruptive.  Furthermore, the religious context and history of India are bound to pose questions to any simplistic religious absolutism; and the oldest traditions of India have a good deal to say about the elusiveness of the divine as well as its revelation.  Which is why modern India is such a fruitful context in which to examine understandings of pluralism –how they apply in practice and questions arising.


I say this because it is easy at times to take the language of pluralism in any or all of the above senses as an unexamined aspect of what social modernity means; yet both conceptually and practically, there is unfinished business. I do not expect to finish it in a brief lecture; but it may be useful to notice where the unfinished-ness can seriously mislead, with risky consequences both for faith and for politics. 

In what follows, I want to offer some thoughts about how religious pluralism might be understood in a fresh way that will not simply leave us with relativism or indifference.  And I shall be trying to connect this with some thoughts about the character of a well-functioning modern democracy that seeks to secure equal liberties for diverse communities.  I believe that the history of reflection on these questions in India has considerable relevance for our general thinking about the issues of religion in the modern state.

Part of what was taken for granted in the formation of modern independent India was the conviction that the state had to create a new kind of loyalty – not replacing or destroying the more basic kinds of belonging associated with religious history or ethnicity, but securing for everyone a degree of equal access to social goods: to fairness before the law, the chance of economic liberty and protection from the violence of other groups.  A proper political pluralism works with, not against, the grain of local and specific identities, but it still has to assert certain values and standards for all.  Whatever may be said of the 'value pluralism' argued by Isaiah Berlin, it cannot mean that the state has no moral commitments.  It is at least committed to seeing everyone as deserving of legal protection and capable of sharing in democratic decision-making.  But in basing itself on assumptions like these, it also recognises that the law and the state cannot just treat a population as a collection of individuals; their actual identity is already bound up with values and beliefs.  As Sunil Khilnani writes about Nehru, he 'saw cultures as overlapping forms of activity that had commerce with one another, mutually altering and reshaping each other.  India was a society neither of liberal individuals nor of exclusive communities or nationalities, but of interconnected differences.'  This last phrase is of great importance, and we shall be coming back to it later in this discussion.

So part of the modern political story in this context – a story played out very clearly in India – is one of making the connection between communal identity, religious or otherwise, and the new, constructed loyalty that is political affiliation as a citizen.  Rather than trying to build civic loyalty from nothing, a sympathetic state will build on the experience of co-operation and passionate concern for the common good that is nurtured in particular communities, especially by a religiously formed ethic of self-giving, so that this sense of mutual 'investment and mutually created well-being can carry across into the wider political realm.

In this context, how should we understand and speak about religious pluralism?  The pluralist state takes religious belonging seriously and sees itself, as a state, as serving the healthy coexistence and interaction of diverse communities of conviction and loyalty by creating for all of them a 'civic space' where all can find a voice.  It is a system of legal universalism and a morally serious and committed project of securing every particular community's liberty to express itself and argue about shared concerns and hopes.  This is what is commonly meant by calling states like India 'secular'. 

But part of what this also means is that the real differences between communities and their claims are not seen as unhappy survivals of a less enlightened age that really need to be eradicated.  A secular democracy can perfectly well benefit from the serious arguments that may be generated between these communities about shared goods and concerns and the moral and religious basis on which goals are pursued in society; the state's job is not to silence all this but to ensure that there is a space in which the argument can be pursued with civility.   


Religious pluralism is not, of course, strictly or necessarily 'relativist'.  It generally assumes that there is some reliable common ground in claims to knowledge of God or the sacred, even if it is sceptical of more particular doctrinal formulations – the Christian doctrine of the Trinity, for example, or the Muslim commitment to a direct and final divine communication in the Qur'an.  But it may still be agreed that the sacred reality surrounding this universe is benign, that human beings have some share in, or natural capacity for knowing, the divine character, that meditative practice in silence and asceticism brings us closer to the divine and that universal compassion and the quest for universal justice is a natural expression and consequence of knowing the divine.  All these things may be affirmed as holding true in every human situation.  But as to the distinctive assertions of each of the faiths, these – we are told – must be regarded as at best uncertain or perhaps as diverse attempts to express what is in fact the same vision or message.  They may be helpful vehicles for local religious expression or devotion, but they cannot be treated as holding true in all situations; properly understood, it is argued, they cannot even be regarded as serious candidates for being believed as universally true.

But whether religious pluralism of this kind is relativist or not, it still carries with it some unresolved problems.  The 'universal' truths on which all major religious traditions are alleged to agree are all embedded in, entwined with, the specific convictions of each faith: and so the reasons given for affirming the universal truths will vary.  It is not as though belief in a benign sacred power is simply innate in everyone and is clothed with different cultural forms from which it can be painlessly separated.  Such beliefs are grounded in the narratives of encounter between the divine or the sacred and the human, the narratives which are embodied in scriptures or rituals and commonly spoken of in the language of 'revelation' – that is, they are represented as connected with moments in history and language, their credibility and intelligibility is bound up with history and language, and their expression is determined by these stories of encounter and enlightenment.  Of course, different traditions approach these matters in diverse ways: there is a sense in which the historical experience of Gautama is indeed identical with the enlightenment attained by the Buddhist practitioner in any and every human setting – i.e. it is presented as universally available and, in an important sense, not dependent on any particular supernatural agent who can only be 'contacted' or activated by a person holding correct theoretical or theological beliefs.  But this example reinforces the point.  The experience may be universal and the enlightened practitioner may be in principle 'equal' to the Buddha; but the character of the experience is once and for all specified by the narrative of how the Middle Way was discovered and realised by Gautama.

The point is that, while it may be possible to distil a fairly general core of common wisdom from the diverse languages of faith throughout the world, each will provide a different rationale for believing – and, even more importantly, a different discipline of life and practice for becoming aligned with it, living it out effectively.  This diversity cannot be reduced to what 'suits' regional, cultural or even individual temperaments.  It has been noted that what is often left out of accounts of the intellectual problems around certain classical theological formulae in Christianity like the Nicene Creed is a proper account of how the formulation actually took shape, in response to what specific pressures – in other words, how it was learned.  The issue is the same in this wider context.  We cannot avoid asking how a particular system of belief is 'pressured' into existence, how what is claimed as a truth is learned.  And, as the observations on Buddhism in the last paragraph imply, the story of how a religious world-view emerges into being is closely bound up with how the believer now becomes fully assimilated to that world-view, how he or she comes to live it as true or real.

So a religious 'pluralism' that seeks to identify a core of common insights as opposed to a diversity of ways in which these are clothed is in danger of ignoring not only the narratives of origin which all faiths appeal to but also the narratives of personal development and transformation related by believers.  The 'common core' approach cannot become an embodied practice, except in terms of ethical recommendations of a pretty uncontroversial kind; and such recommendations have usually been regarded by religious people as impossible to sustain independently of the practices (and thus the narratives) of particular religious commitments.  It is not realistic, either intellectually or practically, to see religious 'pluralism' in its frequently used sense as a straightforward programme that can guarantee peaceful coexistence between faith communities on the basis that they all come to regard their distinctive narratives as non-essential and culturally-conditioned 'extras' to a basic common vision. 

But this need not mean that we are left either with a world – or a society – of mutually uncomprehending systems or with a bitter competition for supremacy between the 'religions'.  Apart from the critical fact that the whole idea of 'religions' as parallel systems all seeking to conquer the same territory and answer the same questions is a hugely unhelpful place to start, we need to recognise that what confronts us here is a complex map of stories and rituals.  They are shaped and expressed in such a way that they inevitably make implicit or explicit claims about what is the fullest or most effective way to secure and understand contact between humanity and the sacred.  But they also (and consequently) make some claims about whether and how the sacred order of being might act  towards us in making such contact possible and real.  In the nature of the case, there will be no 'neutral' evidence that will settle this question; but that does not reduce us to hopeless agnosticism.  Instead, it prescribes, I would argue, a careful and attentive interaction between communities of religious practice, so that we can raise questions like, 'How does this tradition deal with such and such a particular aspect of human experience?' or 'How does this practice actually connect with what are claimed to be the fundamentals of the original narrative?' – and 'Are these two or more traditions addressing similar or different concerns when they use language and imagery that seems to be closely similar?'

This is close to what the Jesuit scholar Francis X. Clooney describes as 'comparative theology'.  'In our religiously diverse context,' he writes, 'a vital theology has to resist too tight a binding by tradition, but also the idea that religious diversity renders strong claims about truth and value impossible.  Comparative theology is a manner of learning that takes seriously diversity and tradition, openness and truth, allowing neither to decide the meaning of our religious situation without recourse to the other' (Comparative Theology.  Deep Learning Across Religious Borders, Wiley-Blackwell 2010, p.8).  Clooney defines a method in theology that does not seek to keep itself at a distance from particular rites and idioms and narratives, but rather seeks to learn what may serve the goal of spiritual maturity within the commitments already undertaken and accepted.  Instead of proposing a theology of inclusion on some sort of a priori basis, it simply performs 'acts of including' (ib.p.16) by engaging carefully and imaginatively with other voices and habits.  It is a theology that still retains its fundamental understanding of how its own vision or worldview is learned and how that learning is constantly reproduced in the believer's life, and it does not shrink from making claims for the truth of what is thus learned.  But it also opens up new kinds of relations between the believer and the rites and stories of another faith – and with the persons who hold to another faith.  Clooney speaks of a 'new community' emerging in this process, even of a degree of 'multiple belonging' (see esp. ibid. ch.9).  The comparative theologian seeks to enter in to the world of the believer in another faith, to experience some of what they experience as a genuine and personal spiritual discipline and means of discovery and growth and so to understand more fully the relation between basic narratives and daily practice.  The simple polarity of insider and outsider is no longer adequate to describe these relationships.  Yet to say this is not to abandon the claim that there is still one narrative that offers the comprehensive perspective in which others may most truthfully and rightly be read.


 At this point, it may perhaps be possible to see how the political and the religious aspects of the present discussion begin to converge.  I have suggested, in effect, that interreligious conversation needs to beware of two misleading perspectives – on the one hand, the idea that any encounter must always be a contest between two or more self-contained rival systems, offering clear alternative answers to the same set of questions so that only one of them can be regarded as ultimately true; and on the other hand, the belief that all specific narrative and doctrinal schemes are variant expression of the same underlying conviction or convictions.  In other words, interreligious conversation and encounter seeks to avoid assumptions both of 'zero-sum' conflict and of the possibility of a final dissolution of real otherness.  For this to happen, there has to be a secure space for genuine exchange and exploration: there has to be a 'civil space' for religious communities to meet each other.  This is in some ways a distinctively modern challenge.  There have been many pre-modern societies in which diverse faith communities live alongside one another in varying degrees of sympathy or harmony; but there was generally a single dominant religious presence, allied with political power.  In this perspective, what the neutral or secular modern state makes possible is a deeper and more empathetic encounter between religious discourses and systems.  The secular public sphere provides the space for civil argument.

Earlier in this paper, I spoke about the new loyalties created by a properly pluralist law-governed democracy.  By establishing a situation in which genuine diversity in society can be acknowledged and worked with through a shared loyalty to legal institutions that protect all, a degree of mutual loyalty develops, a sense of shared interest and investment in the neighbour's well-being.  This is the civic ambition of modernity.  But we have noted already that it is a serious and damaging mistake to think that the identity so created is something which replaces other identities: as I said above, no-one is just a citizen, and the project of a blanket promotion of secular civic identity at the expense of actual communities of habit and conviction is one of the less liberal aspects of some contemporary liberalism.  Part of what consolidates civic loyalty is the confidence that the state and its law recognises the real plurality of the communities that compose the state, rather than working only with abstract models of legal identity.  So the challenge before the healthy pluralist state is to maintain a robust defence of universal civic liberties and universal access to legal process and legal protection, while seeking to work with the grain of existing loyalties and solidarities to secure a better settlement for all, not just for a majority.

This has been precisely India's agenda from Independence onwards.  It has consistently tried to define a 'secularism' that is not hostile to multiple religious identities; and it has had to struggle repeatedly with pressures and temptations in the direction of communalism, to avoid the state becoming only a harassed referee between sometimes violently competing identities and claims.  In this sense, India's political history is a good deal more central to the understanding of the basic problems of religion and politics in modernity than some have thought; and the success or otherwise of India's capacity to manage 'interconnected differences', in Nehru's pregnant phrase, will have significance well beyond India's borders.

But my point here is that this significance is not only to do with the political management of an unusually complex society.  The success of the project is also to do with the viability of the model of interreligious encounter I have been outlining.  Where religious identities and political power are intertwined, conversation is always affected and usually distorted by the awareness of these issues of power and advantage; a civic or civil space for encounter and proper mutuality is not created.  The secular environment in which religious identities are recognised but not privileged allows for mutual questioning, mutual influence and a degree of change in how each party sees its own identity.  The secular assumption in the government of the state is not necessarily hostile to religious faith, but neither does it simply leave every self-specified identity beyond challenge or critique (a point well made by Amartya Sen in his essay on 'The Indian Identity', The Argumentative Indian. Writings on Indian History, Culture and Identity, Allen Lane 2005, pp.334-356).  The very fact of the civil space guarantees that there will be critique; it should also guarantee, by means of the educational and civic policies of the state overall, that such a critique is reasoned and non-violent.

In such a context, it is possible to see how the sort of encounter envisaged by Clooney can flourish through 'acts of including' and mutual discovery which may modify and enlarge the original self-definitions of a religious tradition without evacuating it or threatening to submerge it into generalities.  I said earlier that religious identities were shaped by narrative and by ritual and spiritual practice.  Granted that there are foundational stories and patterns of practice that are at the heart of a tradition, it is also true that there is a continuing narrative, a developing process of 'receiving' and realising afresh those foundational matters.  And if the continuing narrative takes in the practices of civil encounter and reasoned argument, this in itself begins to modify some of what might originally have been seen as essential to an identity.  Such a process, of course, happens whenever any religious tradition moves into a new cultural situation and seeks expression in a new language; Christianity, which has never had a single sacred language, has particularly varied experience of this, but there are parallel stories to be told in each of the world's major traditions. 

In both the political and the religious context, we can see the importance of creating a set of loyalties that are not exclusively communal and local in order for those communal and local identities to speak to each other and to argue without fear or panic.  The civic space is in one sense artificial: but in a complex society it is a necessity not only for order and social collaboration but also for the intelligent discussion and appropriation of more basic loyalties and affiliations.  I don't think this necessarily implies that civic identity always 'comes first' or matters more – that a religious believer is simply an Indian who happens to be a Jain or a  Briton who happens to be a Muslim (and here I am less happy with Amartya Sen's analysis; see op, cit. p.356).  The kinds of belonging involved are sufficiently different for us not to have to see them as competing.  To be a Christian or a Hindu or a member of any distinct religious body is to inhabit and accept an identity that is believed to be in tune with how the universe most deeply is, or with what God intends and desires.  This will therefore mould personal options and practices in a comprehensive way, consciously and unconsciously.  To belong in this way is to be a particular kind of human being, with the added hope and trust that this mode of human existence will most fully correspond to what reality itself requires of us.  The facts and the claims of civic identity and loyalty are not put forward as a way of living in accordance with transcendent truth, but as forms of social life that recognise diversity of conviction and secure protection for the voices of all.  These claims and these social forms can be accommodated along with, even within, the wider claims for truth, since they allow for belief to be articulated while controlling violent conflict.  And, although this would be too large a topic to address here, the forms of civility and exchange can themselves be incorporated into the forms and claims of religious belief as representing a new form of old virtue.  It is striking that every major religious tradition now proclaims that it prizes tolerance and peaceful diversity.  It was not always so; but the pressure of modernity, in a wholly positive way, has made certain kinds of civic charity native to the religious narrative itself.

'Pluralism' is, as we have seen, a slippery word, but in both the political and the religious context it has a positive sense which needs clarifying and defending.  It denotes the refusal on the part of political authority to seek legitimacy by simple appeal to one tradition of faith.  It denotes a self-awareness on the part of the state, a recognition that actual civil society is composed of a variety of groups with a variety of convictions and habits, moral and ritual, so that the state's task is to seek the best possible co-existence and interaction between them for the attainment of goods that no one group can secure alone.  It denotes a recognition also that religious diversity is neither a problem to be overcome nor a threat to be controlled.  Properly understood, I suggest, a political pluralism that is fully conscious of the potential of interactive variety (a refinement of 'interconnected difference') is a fruitful context for an interreligious encounter that does not compromise convictions but is also ready to envisage growth and change.  Both political and religious pluralism acknowledge the reality of history: identities, however deep and passionately adhered to, do not make decisions and self-determinations unnecessary.  There are dimensions of identity that we create as well as inherit.  Amartya Sen (op.cit. p.32) speaks of 'the long history and consummate strength of our argumentative tradition': my contention has been that our best political future lies with what I have elsewhere called 'argumentative democracy', and that religious integrity is well served and not undermined by such a vision for our society.  India has struggled to put flesh on these abstractions for over half a century, and, if I am right, its continuing struggle with the challenge is a matter of concern and importance for us all, caught as we often are in the contemporary world between renewed bids for theocracy and anxious efforts to secure the complete privatising of faith.  

© Rowan Williams 2010

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