Inspire Dialogue: Final Summary

Lord Rowan Williams, Master of Magdalene College, Cambridge

“To be able to imagine that things don’t have to be as they are is perhaps one of the most important things that human beings ever do.”

Lord Rowan Williams at Inspire Dialogue 2016

One of the things that has struck me from today is the overlap between the presentations from all the different groups. Certain things have come up in every presentation – to do with connectedness, to do with education, to do with technology, in one way or another. I think we need to bear in mind that what we have been discussing today is an interconnected set of questions and challenges.

Another observation is the need to take the amount of time that is necessary. We heard, for example, about the lack of time sometimes in educational contexts to really attend to people and draw them out, so that we find out what they need and what they need to be doing, hearing or saying. We have heard about the time it takes for genuine reconciliation to bed in between societies – we hope very much that we are not on the verge of another Thirty Years, but who knows? The problem is that we live in a society where taking time is not very popular, where we like fast food and fast results. Fast food, as we have discovered, has all sorts of problems attached to it, and fast results have exactly the same consequences. So we have quite a difficult balance to find between the sense of urgency, which certainly ought to be in our minds and hearts, and the sense that we have to learn how to take as much time as something takes. Often we want quick results just to feel better, just as we want fast food just to feel full – and neither of them works. So we need to think about taking the right kind of time.

Inspire Dialogue 2016. Martin Bond Photography

Secondly, another thing that came through for me is that the responsibility we have is for the responsibility of others. We are responsible for helping others grow into their humanity in their fullness; we are not responsible for solving all their problems. This has come through the discussion in so many different ways, and is central to the practical projects which we hope will come out of this dialogue.

There are two long-term questions that seemed to come up. Firstly concerning freedom: we think we can solve our problems by law, but they can in fact only be solved by culture and communication. Law very often is saying, in the great words of Homer Simpson: “Why can’t someone else do it?” – which is taken from an episode where he ran for public office on this slogan. But it is the opposite of what we are trying to do here. If we try to solve all our problems through law, then we can be giving ourselves a let-out clause for our own responsibility and the changing of culture that will actually shift things. Law has its place, and I could not agree more about the need for absolutely crystal-clear legal protections, legal equalities, and so on, but that does not solve the problems at once.

The second dimension of this is the question: what are the institutions in our society that are independent enough, courageous enough, resilient enough, to push us beyond short-termism in order to keep major issues before the eyes of the public over a long period? At present, our news cycle is dominated by short-term concerns and our planning is dominated by short-term concerns. We need institutions committed to long-term, independent, creative thinking and response. So I would say that the health of our institutions – research institutions, reporting institutions, educational institutions – is part of our agenda in these Dialogues.

Running through so much of the discussion today has been the importance of art, drama and imagination. One of the great philosophers of the last century said: we think we can solve our problems by will, when we need to solve them by imagination. Lively cultural and artistic life is not the icing on the cake – an optional extra: it is part of the air we need to breathe to make a difference. To be able to imagine that things don’t have to be as they are is perhaps one of the most important things that human beings ever do.

Inspire Dialogue 2016. Martin Bond Photography

And lastly: empathy has come up again and again. Not just as an exercise in virtual reality, but the phrase that came up was about knowledge and feeling. Empathy is not just about trying to conscript other peoples’ interesting experiences to make your own life more interesting: it is having a real sense of connectedness with someone else’s experience, and knowing that your own experience is affected by it in the long run; that you are less of a person if someone else is less of a person. And that involves not just trying to know other people, but also letting ourselves be known – knowing how we are seen and how we are experienced by others. So the issue of vulnerability comes in. So many people, especially in the western world, have gone around in the last couple of decades trying to sort out the problems of other people and other cultures in the world, with very little idea of how they are seen – and the results have not been very impressive.

But knowing how we are seen is quite a risky business. We talk about risk and how to avoid it, rather than asking about what enables us to take risks – and the answer to that is of course trust. We can try and avoid risk, or else we can ask: what is it that helps us bear it, given that we cannot avoid it? And this means the building up of trust.

 

Thumbnail photograph by Brian from Toronto, Canada (Archbishop of Canterbury) [CC BY-SA 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

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