February 13, 2006

N.T.'s Remarks to the House of Lords Feb 9th

N.T. Wright made a speech in the House of Lords in England in response to both the Danish cartoons and England’s recent religious hatred legislation. I think he made some great points.

In fact, I rather liked his speech and have re-posted it on my weblog. He makes an intersting twist of "global climate change" speaking instead of a moral climate change.

Click "[Read the Rest...]" if you'd like to see it.

The Lord Bishop of Durham (N.T. Wright)

My Lords, I, too, am grateful to the noble Baroness, Lady Knight, for the opportunity to address some urgent issues. I think it would be a mistake to confine our attention today to the Danish cartoons and their aftermath, regrettable though all that is, or indeed to the recent court cases. These fall within a larger moral and social landscape. We are faced with moral climate change, which is comparable to other forms of climate change and equally dangerous.

The 1960s swept away the old moral certainties, but getting rid of them has not made us happier or safer. Hence, the invention of new quasi-moralities out of bits and pieces of moral rhetoric; the increasingly shrill language of rights; the glorification of victimhood, which enables anyone with hurt feelings to claim high moral ground; and the invention of various "identities," which demand not only protection, but immunity from all critique. It was this messy but potent combination of neo-moralities that generated the religious hatred legislation, of which your noble Lordships, rightly in my opinion, took a dim view recently.

It is not just the invention of new moralities that should concern us; it is the attempt to enforce them—to enforce, that is, newly invented standards that, in some cases, are the exact opposite of the old ones. How else can we explain the attempted ejection of protestors, whether from a party conference or even, yes, from Parliament Square? How else can we explain the anxiety not only of religious leaders but also of comedians when faced with the proposed religious hatred legislation? How else can we explain the police investigation of religious leaders, such as my colleague the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Chester or the chair of the Muslim Council of Britain for making moderate and considered statements about homosexual practice? As the crimes in question have to do not with actions but with ideas and beliefs, what we are seeing is thought crime. People in my diocese have told me that they are now frightened to express their opinions down at the pub on matters of considerable public interest today for fear of being reported, investigated and perhaps even charged. I did not think that I would see such a thing in this country in my lifetime. The word for it is tyranny—sudden moral climate change enforced by thought police.

The answer cannot be simply to repeat the old 18th century slogans of "tolerance" or "freedom of speech", as if they were straightforward concepts that would commend themselves and restore everything to sanity very easily. They are not. The Enlightenment modernism, where those concepts find their natural home, is busy crumbling under the post-modern critique. Let us not fool ourselves—that is where we are culturally. In that climate, tolerance and freedom are reduced to mere licence and then are quietly redefined so that we will not any longer tolerate dissent from the new party lines that emerge. Intolerant tolerance is one of the greatest obstacles to genuine freedom of speech.

Whose freedom are we talking about anyway? Notoriously, the freedom of my fist ends where the freedom of your nose begins. Similarly, the freedom of my speech has always been curtailed by the freedom of your honour, as the laws of slander and libel have always recognised. Part of the problem of freedom of speech is that it is often the media that are most in favour of it, although they themselves often cheerfully censor information that cuts against editorial policy.

Freedom of speech is useless if it is only selectively enjoyed and if it is not combined with appropriate responsibility. It needs to be set within a larger context of social and cultural wisdom. We have to find a way through the post-modern morass, not to go back to the Enlightenment modernism—we cannot do that—but in order to go out the other side into the construction of a new world of civility and mature public discourse. For that, freedom of speech has to be reciprocal. It needs the disciplines of interaction, of patient listening and attention.

To that end, we must take the religious dimension seriously as part of the whole and not wave it away as dangerous or irrelevant, as some these days are inclined to do. The increasingly shrill attempts to banish religion from public life are, I believe, self-defeating. Rather, we in the Church are committed as a matter of urgency to working on public issues with the other great households of faith. I mention particularly the new Christian-Muslim Forum, launched just last week, to stand alongside the Council for Christians and Jews, the Three Faiths Forum and similar bodies.

In these initiatives, tolerance is not the point. I can tolerate someone standing on the other side of the street; I do not need to engage with them. Tolerance all too easily supposes that all religions are basically the same and that they can all be discounted for purposes of public life. Thanks to the 18th century, that is what many people still believe. But tolerance is a parody of something deeper, richer and more costly for which we must work—a genuine and reciprocal freedom. It is a freedom properly contextualised within a wise responsibility. It is freedom not to be gratuitously rude or offensive—I totally agree with what the noble

Baroness, Lady Falkner, said about that—especially to those who are already in danger on the margins of society, but freedom to speak the truth as we see it while simultaneously paying great attention to listening to the truth as others see and speak it and to work forwards together from there. That is so in matters of religion; it is so in matters of public policy; it is so in matters of sexual morality; and it is so in areas where all those issues and others rightly overlap and interlock. It is precisely that sort of wise, responsible freedom that is at risk if honestly held beliefs, clearly and respectfully expressed, are likely to get you into trouble with the law. We must learn fresh wisdom before the moral climate changes irreversibly and the sea rises to engulf the moral lowlands where we presently live.


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