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Middle East

Leap of Faith

Tony Blair, Middle East envoy, says religion and globalization go together — in a good way.

Tony Blair, the controversial former British prime minister who left office in June 2007 and then converted to Roman Catholicism, is back in the headlines. With Israel's military actions in Gaza this week, Blair has an influential role as an envoy to the Middle East for the Quartet on the Middle East (United States, United Nations, Russia, and the European Union). These four powers have been pressing for a negotiated solution between Israelis and Palestinians and strongly favor a two-state solution.

After Israel launched its current military actions across the border with Gaza, Blair on Saturday told the news media in London, "The terrible events and tragic loss of life in Gaza require, in the immediate term, the introduction of a genuine calm in which the rocket attacks aimed at killing Israeli civilians and the Israeli attacks on Gaza cease so that the suffering of the people, which is severe, can be lifted. Then, as I have said many times before, we need to devise a new strategy for Gaza, which brings that territory back under the legitimate rule of the Palestinian Authority in a manner which ends their suffering and fully protects the security of Israel."

In early December, Blair was at Yale University, where he lectured about globalization and religious faith. He spoke with CT senior writer Tony Carnes in a joint interview with Religion News Service and other news media. Later, during his lecture and chapel address, Blair listed ten themes concerning religious faith and globalization. During his long career in public service, Blair was elected British prime minister three times, serving from 1997 to 2007. His remarks are edited for clarity and length.

You appeal to the common values found in different religions. President Bush appeals to the values inherent in human dignity. Is there a difference?

It's a different process, but the same approach. The thesis, if you like, of [the Faith and Globalization course at Yale] is to explore aspects of faith in globalization, like faith in a liberal democracy, like faith in human rights, and so forth.

Globalization operates to push people together, to blur distinctions between different nations and cultures. It's helping to create a multi-faith society. That faith becomes a constructive and progressive force to provide globalization with a human face and with some spiritual capital.

Alternatively, globalization could be a reactionary and destructive force that pulls people apart. In a multi-faith society, it is by people understanding each other that we learn to respect each other. By respecting each other, [we] get to peaceful coexistence.

Should corporations and governments be open to receiving the human face that faith might want to put upon globalization?

You might have said a year ago that globalization is an impersonal impulse. It operates at a purely material level. One of the things we've learned through this global economic crisis is the importance of trust, confidence — the ability to rely on the word of the other person. To make globalization work, we need values. The need to have some sense of spiritual capital is an important part of building both human capital and a deep, thriving global system.

How do you respond to author Christopher Hitchens, who believes religion poisons everything?

My dad's an atheist and quite militant about it. It is perfectly possible to find examples of religious faith being destructive and reactionary. It is, however, also possible to find examples of religious faith inspiring people to do great things — great works of compassion, social progress, of enlightenment. The best selling book in America in recent years has been The Purpose Driven Life by Rick Warren.

Are you saying the activities of Saddleback's Pastor Warren are an example of faith and globalization?

I'm a great fan of Rick's. He provides a really inspirational example of somebody who can combine a very direct and simple way of explaining things to be prepared to involve themselves in major global issues. He represents an evolution of religious organization in which people are prepared to encounter those of different faiths and try to understand and learn about them. The thesis prevalent in the 1980s was that as the world got more prosperous, faith would decline. But that is not what has happened. Faith does matter, and it has a voice, and it's sensible to hear that voice.

How would you convince a person of non-faith to be in alliance with you?

People who are anti-faith can see that faith matters. Everyone has an interest in peaceful coexistence. If you look at the trouble spots of the world today, you'd have to say there is a significant religious dimension to most. Even if you are not someone of faith, you can see the sensible purpose of bringing people of different faiths into greater understanding of and respect for each other.

Secular political ideology almost destroyed the world in the twentieth century. Extremism is not limited to those of religious belief. The question in the twenty-first century will be: Is there a way that we can build spiritual capital? There's a yearning within humanity for that.

As a Catholic, how do you assess your own church's place in relation to globalization?

We're exploring the degree to which organized religion assists this process or can get in the way of it. The Catholic Church does fantastic work on the ground. The Vatican is now taking up with interfaith initiatives.

But there's always, in all religions, a lot of nervousness about the interfaith idea. People have found their own faith enriched by the faith of someone else. Faith is a guide or thread in the process of globalization. That is what I would call the interaction of faith and globalization.

During a lecture at Yale, Blair offered these ten themes concerning faith and globalization:

1. Faith matters, and motivates billions and billions of people who are of faith.

2. Faith is not in decline or, at least, not in decline in all cultures.

3. Faith can operate positively or negatively.

4. Globalization is helping to create a multi-faith society, because globalization is pushing people together.

5. Globalization itself needs values like trust, confidence, openness, and justice in order to be effective. Without a sense of fairness in globalization, the support for it is diminished. Without trust and confidence between people, it can't operate even at the commercial business level.

6. Faith can provide values underpinning globalization only if faith itself is open, not closed, and not about an exclusionary version of identity but about compassion, justice, and cohesion.

7. The goal of faith and globalization should be human flourishing. Spiritual capital is an important part of human capital and part of societies that are successful and at peace.

8. Spiritual capital requires a tolerance and respect for those of another faith.

9. The key to respect is not merely an attitude but an understanding; and hence the need for education about the faith of the other.

10. Organized religion can support such respect, not contradict it, and should allow an evolution in faith in order for that respect to come about. If religious faith becomes a means for pulling people apart, religious faith can be a source of conflict. That is bad for everybody.

Tony Carnes is a CT senior writer based in New York City.

Related Elsewhere:

The former Prime Minister of England recently started the Tony Blair Faith Foundation, an organization promoting faith as a force for good in the modern world.

New York Magazine and Newsweek recently profiled Blair. He appeared on The Daily Show in September and spoke more about his faith.

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