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Christianity and Western Civilization: Tony Blair's View at Yale University
by Dr. Emanuel Paparella
2009-01-30 09:47:28
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In 1996, the year before he became prime minister, Tony Blair published a collection of his speeches and articles under the title New Britain: My Vision of a Young Country. In that book Blair inserts the history of Britain within the larger context of the history of Christianity and very much in the tradition of Christopher Dawson, C.S. Lewis, G.K. Chesterton, and George Santayana, underlines the fact that one will understand precious little of Great Britain and even less of the whole of Europe’s history and development, on every level, unless one manages to learn well the history of Christianity.

To do that one need not be necessarily a believer. And in fact, the approach in that book is analytical and intellectual revealing little of Blair’s personal relationship with the divine. Nevertheless, we do know that Tony Blair, the son of a militant atheist began his exploration of Christianity while at Oxford in the early 1970s and subsequently embraced Anglicanism in 1974 and later on Catholicism; this too was in the tradition of C.S. Lewis, G.K Chesterton, and Christopher Dawson.

Here are a few excerpts from chapter 7 of the above mentioned book (titled “Why I Am a Christian”):  “First a politician’s health warning: I can’t stand politicians who wear God on their sleeves; I do not pretend to be any better or less selfish than any-one else; I do not believe that Christians should only vote Labour; and I do not discuss my religious beliefs unless asked, and, when I do, I discuss them personally. Of course, they influence my politics, but I do not wish to force them on anyone else…Easter, a time of rebirth and renewal, has a special significance for me, and in a sense, my politics. My vision of society reflects a faith in the human spirit and its capacity to renew itself…I am often asked how my religious convictions have played a role in the emergence of my political thinking. First, my view of Christian values led me to oppose what I perceived to be the narrow view of self-interest that Conservatism—particularly its modern, more right-wing form—represents. But Tories, I think, have too selfish a definition of self-interest. They fail to look beyond, to the community and the individual’s relationship with the community. That is the essential reason why I am on the Left rather than on the Right…Christianity is more than a one-to-one relationship between the individual and God, important as that is. The relationship also has to be with the outside world. Second, Christianity helped to inspire my rejection of Marxism….The problem with Marxist ideology was that, in the end, it suppressed the individual by starting with society. But it is from a sense of individual duty that we connect the greater good and the interests of the community—a principle the Church celebrates in the sacrament of communion.”

During his lengthy tenure as Prime Minister, Blair seldom revealed to his constituent the kind of private compass to his life that faith represents for him. Now that he is no longer directly involved in politics and the constraints of high office and voters’ opinion, he has made religion the center piece of this new phase of his life. He has established the Tony Blair Faith Foundation whose mission is to foster greater understanding among people of various religions by involving them in collaborative projects, such as development efforts and dialogue. It is a simple yet vast undertaking: to make religion a force for good as globalization mixes together people of different cultures and faiths.

The US operations of the foundation will be headquartered at Yale University. In the fall of 2008 Blair has co-taught a course at Yale, with the eminent Christian theologian Miroslav Volf. The course’s theme was the intersecting forces of faith and globalization. It was the first of three seminars that Blair has committed himself to teach at Yale and it immediately followed the unveiling of his Faith Foundation in the summer of 2008. A press conference launched the foundation at the Time Warner Center in New York was hosted by Christiane Amanpour and Bill Clinton who provided the opening remarks.

What all this activity amounts to is an initial giving voice to a belief that faith can and in fact should have a role in public decisions. This, in a country mind you, and in a culture—modern Western culture--which keeps religion and politics separate and tends toward a secularism which loudly and contemptuously proclaims the exclusion of that voice from the public square to relegate it to the purely private in a church on Sunday, a synagogue on Saturday or a mosque on Friday. It is a controversial proposition, to say the least.

Nevertheless, Eboo Patel, executive director of the Interfaith Youth Core, a non-profit organization based in Chicago has lauded the Blair enterprise: “I think this movement needed a world leader, and Tony Blair is a world leader. He is one of the types of people who can take the interfaith movement to the next level. There is a new category emerging of interfaith activists, along the lines of human rights or environmental activists. I am now consistently speaking to several hundred or several thousand people, when just five years ago I was talking to seven people in a church basement. And Tony Blair is the first leader of this stature to take this issue this seriously.”

Gustav Niebhur, director of the religion and society Program at Syracuse University and author of Beyond Tolerance: Searching for Interfaith Understanding in America chimes in “This is a testing time for him, when he has to move from one stage to another and show people he is sincere and committed and can achieve something real.” Reverend Rick Warren, senior pastor of Saddleback Church in California and author of the best-selling book The Purpose Driven Life, who delivered the benediction at Barrack Obama’s inauguration, and serves on the group’s advisory council, has revealed that the foundation has already “raised several million dollars” for its projects and this was largely due to Blair’s contacts and stature.

One of the insights that Blair has brought to the course on Faith and Globalization at Yale is that while Globalization obliterates borders and frontiers, faith often becomes a reaction to it and pulls people apart and that is unfortunate. Blair points out that he saw such a phenomenon when he was a prime minister, before and after 9/11 and he adds that “even if you are of no religious faith and don’t even like religion, you should be interested in this. But specifically, if you are a person of faith, the question is, what role does faith have in the future? My view is globalization needs strong values to guide it make it equitable and just.”

It should be stressed at this point that the Faith Foundation of Tony Blair is not dedicated to mere theoretical and abstract projects but has placed on the table concrete active projects such as Malaria No More, with the aim of providing insecticide-treated mosquito nets to people in sub-Saharan Africa. Another is that of selecting 30 men and women of various faiths, aged 18 to 25, from the United States, Britain and Canada to work for African countries combating malaria and then returns home to raise money for an awareness about the disease. Moreover, the Faith foundation has also asked Harry Stout, chairman of the Yale’s religious studies department, to develop a secondary school curriculum for the foundation’s use in fostering interfaith discussion among teenagers.

The 25 students who took the course co-taught by Blair (chosen from 270 who applied; a microcosm of globalization from various cultures and faiths) describe his teaching method as Socratic; one of probing questions and tentative answers. He has discarded the air of seasoned authority on the subject. He appears to be exploring the truth himself rather than delivering it. His co-teacher has said that Blair gives the impression of moving toward something without being completely sure yet, what it is.

The course basically explores the extent and causes of religious resurgence, also situations in which religion has proved to be an oppressive force, as well as situations when it has been largely positive. As per the syllabus of the course: “the conditions under which robust religious allegiances can constructively be employed in the pluralistic environment of an increasingly interconnected world.” Which is to say, the aim is to arrive at a holistic picture; not a cherry picked or biased one, for or contra religion wherein caricatures abound and few insights are garnished. The course was developed in concert with the Yale Divinity School (a school across which I resided for the four years of my residence at the Yale Graduate School in the 70s when I was studying for my Ph.D. in Italian humanism) which has been working hard lately on Muslin-Christian reconciliation. Also with the Yale School of Management which has highlighted the work of religious groups to bring about debt relief for African nations. Blair hopes that the course will serve as a template for similar courses at other institutions and to that goal he has made a three year teaching commitment to Yale.

It ought to be noted here that Blair, as mentioned above, has further converted from Anglicanism to Catholicism but only after leaving office because he did not wish that action to be misunderstood. His wife and children were already Catholics and now he can take communion with them when they worship together. As he put to his students in a class in October: “If you are a person of faith and are engaged, people seem to think that everything you do is because of some special relationship you are claiming with God. But, for example, if you take a decision, as I took on several occasions, to engage in military conflict, to go to war—leave aside whether you agree or disagree with individual decisions—there isn’t a transmission where your faith tells you that this the right way to decide this issue. But if you are assessing of whether you are going to do it or you are not going to do it, the issue of right or wrong is important, and actually in my view should outweigh the issue of constituency—or indeed, I would even say, constitution. I put that up as a question. I think that faith is that sense can be progressive. Not—and you must understand what I saying here—not because the decision is necessarily the right decision. But progressive in the sense that issues to do with right and wrong are part of the decision-making progress.” Now, if I understand Blair, he is saying that the classical universal ethical criteria to judge right and wrong, which are not purely religious but go back to Plato and Aristotle, ought to be applied in arriving at momentous decisions and not simply judge whether or not they are in the interest of one’s country in a relativistic mode.

Be that as it may, those 25 chosen students will eventually disseminate those ideas found in the seminar’s syllabus by developing curricula for secondary school students. To be sure, the cynics, believers and non-believers, whom we’ll always have with us, have decried the futility of such an enterprise against the rage and the violence perpetrated in God’s name and will continue confusing freedom of religion with cults of various stripes which enslave and coerce. But Blair has a different view and remains adamant insisting that “what most people want is a sense of purpose derived from spirituality in their lives.” Ultimately his fight is against those who’d like to use faith to shut themselves off from other people, against the religion bashers who’d like to reduce religion to a mere caricature. Like President Obama, he is gambling on the idea that there is an immense constituency for peaceful coexistence among all nations and all people. In fact, Obama’s recent inauguration may be seen as a symbol and emblem of such an idea.

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