Uniting Economic and Moral Literacy

Rowan Williams

This article is adapted from his remarks at the final session of the Trinity Institute conference on “Building an Ethical Economy,” held at Trinity Church Wall Street in New York City in January 2010.

The real key to what we owe to the future lies in our capacity and freedom genuinely to live in the present. By which I mean precisely not the short-term thinking that Kathryn Tanner so rightly identifies, but living out of a vivid and critical sense of the world we now inhabit, being able to look at ourselves, our relationships, our dependencies, our hopes, and our needs truthfully. 

Living truthfully in the present – having the spiritual discipline to recognize our interdependence and interactions – is perhaps the basic condition of working constructively for the future.

One of the worst things we can do is to imagine that what we owe to the future is essentially just worrying about it. As if what we owe to the future is a constant brushing away of where and who we are now in order to live in the imagined world of tomorrow.

Apostolic Attitudes

That’s a lesson that the New Testament vision of living in the last days puts before us. Why is it that, in the New Testament, thinking that you’re living in or near the last human generation doesn’t seem to have a paralyzing or depressing effect? I think what’s going on in the New Testament is two things: one, the sense that what has already been begun by God in God’s work with humanity is about to come to a conclusion, which will make humanity still more human, in closer relation with God. It’s not a last generation that has run out of steam, run out of energy, run out of hope, and has given up on the future. On the contrary, the sense in the New Testament of living in the last generation is precisely the sense of living in intense excitement about a future that is deeply mysterious and unimaginably joyful. The second thing is, of course, St. Paul’s very firm warning to some of his converts: don’t imagine that the idea of living in the last generation gives you an alibi for the present.

Living truthfully in the present means acknowledging that my actions and decisions in this moment will, whether I like it or not, whether I intend it or not, create a future. With every decision I’m involved in, I set in motion a series of causal interactions. I create something. For instance, I am, here and now in the present, a parent. I have set in motion a train of causal interactions called another person – two, as a matter of fact – and that’s me, that’s who I am now. Doing justice to the future is somehow bound up with doing justice to that aspect of myself now, doing justice to the fact that, here and now, I am making a future: my decisions create, or indeed potentially destroy, aspects of the world I live in.

Thus, by doing justice to my present self as an agent making a difference for the future, I hope to come to a point where my basic, determining attitude toward the future is not one of worry or fear, but of taking responsibility for the gift that I can’t help giving towards the future.

What are the areas in which this cashes out most clearly? Let’s take the environmental issue. To know that the next generation needs what we need, because they live in the world we inhabit, needs food security, needs environmental stability, is perhaps the most blindingly obvious part of this equation. Our responsibility for our environment is part of that doing justice, that truthful recognition that human beings need that sort of stability and security, in the lives they lead. We owe to the future decisions that will, we trust, make their lives as livable as ours are. That’s how we do justice, recognizing that their interests are like ours.

Defying Short-Termism

If we’re thinking about the environment in terms of security and stability, we need also to think of the human environment, the social ecology, as a challenge to the short-termism that afflicts our culture. What are we making possible or impossible in terms of employment, in terms of social care, in terms of the security of the vulnerable, in the next generation? We are capable of making decisions now about where our profits are invested for the future, in guaranteeing certain things about care for the sick, for the elderly, for the disabled, for the vulnerable in general. We owe that to them because we can never tell which of our own children will be involved in that level of vulnerability. We want to do justice to that risk.

Indeed, there are cases of business enterprise that take seriously the community in which they operate. There are cases of companies taking very seriously the fact that they are physically neighbors to particular communities and putting themselves in some ways – their facilities – at the service of local communities, thinking about sensible and constructive working patterns in terms of how a community lives. I think of the cooperative history of some major companies where workers’ cooperatives have produced some very competitive companies without the alienation that often goes with that. That’s part of the history of some of the great Quaker companies in the UK, for instance Cadbury’s, the chocolate-makers, and it’s rather a touching part of it. I would like to see in our education more good narratives of virtuous practice – stories worth telling as a way of uniting economic literacy with moral literacy.

Finally, we owe to the future what I can best describe as passing on a human, or humane, vision. Passing on a sense of what’s possible for human beings. That is, what we owe to the future is the treasuring of cultural resource. Of course, I don’t by that just mean making sure that we lay down, as it were, a cellar of Mozart CDs for our children and grandchildren, though there are worse fates than that. But treasuring, keeping alive and being willing to transmit – and I use the term without any apology – the best that humanity has been capable of. We need to look towards a future where our children and grandchildren are not only kept secure and stable, but where they’re challenged, excited, amazed, and enlarged. I would say that that is a crucial part of what we owe to future generations, keeping alive the memory of what humanity at its richest may be. 

Rowan Williams, born in Wales, was the 104th Archbishop of Canterbury, spiritual leader of the world Anglican Communion. Confirmed Archbishop in 2002, he is also a theologian, author, translator, scholar, and poet.