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Two octogenarian prophets of our time - Amartya Sen & Richard Rogers

Amartya Sen of India and Richard Rogers of Britain are both 80 this year. In their different, and complementary ways they are prophets of our time. Sen is one of the great thinkers of the modern world and Rogers, often controversial, is one of its most distinguished architects. Both have influenced huge numbers of others on this small, shared planet, and their work will be analysed, valued and criticised far into the future trajectory of human history. In my view, they are secular and inspiring prophets: visionaries whose contribution to our shared story is great by any standards.

Prof Sen has just brought out a new book with his colleague Jean Dreze. It is called – An Uncertain Glory, India and its Contradictions - and it deals with the enormous disparity in wealth between those in the “new India” and the hundreds of millions who remain in abject poverty within a country which is now a global player. The book is a powerful critique on India’s boom. It still remains a basic fact that modern India is a disaster area in which millions of lives are wrecked by hunger and a pitiable investment in health and education services. His statistics about present-day poverty in India are grim reading. Truly grim.

Yet despite his critique Sen argues on the side of hope and with a deep faith in human reason. He believes that the consciences of the Indian middle classes can be stirred, and that political change will come, even if not quickly. I think I am less certain of that.
Amartya Sen has been a towering thinker in many fields - science, economics, public health, philosophy and law, yet his work is rooted in the search for true justice among the world’s people. For Sen, the great Indian poet Tagore has been a life-long influence. Like Tagore, he continues to keep the poorest people on earth central in his thinking. We salute him at 80.

The controversial and distinguished British architect Lord Richard Rogers 80th birthday is presently being celebrated by a major retrospective exhibition of his work at the Royal Academy in London. Rogers has designed a huge number of world-famous buildings, including the Pompidou Centre in Paris, the Lloyds Building in London and the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg. His work is acclaimed by many and disliked by others, including his best-known persistent critic the Prince of Wales.

I like his modern, functional work, not least because his great public buildings provide wonderful spaces for human beings to meet and interact. The Pompidou Centre revolutionised museums by transforming what had once been monuments for the elite into popular places of social and cultural exchange, woven into the heart of the city. Rogers once said: “The street is where society comes into itself. Watching TV on your own is not very inspiring.” His public spaces are places of life, of celebration, of community, of hope.

Some people expect the prophets to be religious people in a traditional sense. That cannot be said of either Sen or Rogers, but a prophet is essentially a person who challenges us to see well beyond our own often limited vision of life, of God, of other people, of the future, of the fate of the planet. Without prophets whether they be within the church or outside it, we are inwardly impoverished. Our way of “seeing” becomes static and we become content with the often bland options which engulf and frame modern societies.

Father Richard Rohr whose writings so many of us all around the world appreciate, puts it this way:

“Up to now, the hegemony on Christian teaching and theology was held by an exclusive group – males, educated, the Northern hemisphere, those with a vested interest in organised religion, those who never went beyond their own denominational boundaries.

At long last the neglected perspectives are having their say – the feminine lens, the lens of those on the bottom instead of just those on the top, the lens of Blacks, Latinos and Asians, the lens of sexual minorities and all minorities, the lens of the incarcerated and even the lens of sincere secular seekers.

Truth like beauty is in the eye of the beholder – and we have a lot of new beholders”.

(This is taken from a webcast under the title: What is the Emerging Church?)

As I look at the state of the world in which there is so much injustice and misery it is easy to wonder where it will end up. Many commentators believe that within a few generations there will be those on the top in terms of wealth and power and the vast majority of the human race struggling to live, with few in between. Is it not like that already?

Each day, often in a very fragile way, I try to walk alongside those who are committed to hope, to compassion, to awareness - whether they have a faith in God or whether they don’t. Many of you who read these reflections are on a similar path. That is something to celebrate, even when we sometimes feel the path is lonely. I see in people like Amartya Sen and Richard Rogers two individuals, who even if controversial and often misunderstood, stand on the side of hope and justice and risk. There are thousands like them in every nation, but sometimes they are silenced by governments and embedded power structures.

In my latest book A Time To Mend: Reflections in Uncertain Times (Wild Goose Publications) I included these words which are part of a longer meditation:

For LIGHT still shines, and illumining our days we walk together in it.
And in the walking we remember and celebrate the miracle and wonder of life –
but also something more: the unfolding and surprising purposes of God
forever at work in ourselves and the world.


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