Vulpes Libris

A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.

Faith in the Public Square, by Rowan Williams

fitpsReview by Kirsty Jane McCluskey and Michael Carley

Religion as understood by those who find it unacceptable… is something seen essentially in terms of an appeal to the will: decide to believe these propositions and to obey these commands.  Heard in this way, the appeal to religious faith invites the response: “Why should I?”  It seems like a simple bid for power, an appeal to irrational submission. (Chapter 7, p. 88)

Kirsty: I think perhaps the first thing to say about Faith in the Public Square is that it’s not a new monograph from Rowan Williams. It is a collection of essays based on talks delivered during his tenure as Archbishop of Canterbury (2002-2012), organised into thematic sections. Williams refers to them in the introduction as a “set of worked examples,” which I think rather sums it up. And what’s particularly striking, given both the format and the scope of this collection — covering politics and social structure, ecumenism and secularism, economics, environmentalism, belief and non-belief — is how well they fit together. I knew some of these essays in their original form, and yet reading them in this context has done much to clarify not just aspects of Williams’ theology, but the particular way in which he defined his role as Archbishop.

Reviewing this book is a daunting prospect. Partly because of the scale and complexity of the thing, but also because it has become something of a key text for me and I’m not confident of phrasing an adequate response to it. So I’m going to start by picking out a straightforward favourite among the essays: Chapter 7 (The spiritual and the religious: is the territory changing?).  In it, Williams lucidly and concisely expresses something I have long struggled to formulate to others, and even to myself, since I came to theology and to faith from a strongly antireligious and programmatic secularist standpoint: that being Christian is not about institutional allegiance, even when it finds expression in institutional membership.  In other words, faith in Christ and a given understanding of the sacraments does not imply that I must agree with every aspect of the “official line” of my own denomination, much less that I am obliged to justify my non-adherence to the various toxic false dichotomies set up by a certain kind of conservative fundamentalism and often replicated wholesale in antireligious discourse (God vs. gays, creation vs. science, “Christian values” vs. gender equality, socio-economic reform and welfare provision).  This essay crystallises a theme that runs through the collection as a whole: that allegiance to something higher, something that necessarily transcends institutional, national, state and social categories, ought to liberate the believer from uncritical adherence to any human institution or system, even one with a religious basis.

Michael: Of course, he gets off to a good start in that chapter by quoting Bono as an example of precisely the pseudo-intellectual windbaggery (not Williams’ phrase) that often passes for discussion of religion and “spirituality”. Bono’s statement that he is anti-religion, because he is interested in “personal experience of God”, is the kind of thing that gives self-serving, self-indulgent, preachy millionaires a bad name: he wants to believe in something, but not to the point where he might have to think seriously about his conduct towards other people.

The high point for me, oddly enough, was when Williams, speaking about prison reform, reminded me of Alex Comfort (that Alex Comfort):

Responsibility grows when actions can be planned that will play a part in this wider context, where goals are imagined that are more than just release of feeling. (p. 263)

Comfort somewhere says that the point of anarchism is to allow people to live responsibly: if people are free, they will act in a responsible way towards others. Williams, here, uses the term “responsibility” in a way completely alien to the discourse of “rights and responsibilities’” where “responsibility” turns out to be a synonym for “blame” or “guilt”, and is something to be inflicted on the powerless. His implication is that responsibility is part of the apparatus of a fully adult, fully engaged member of society, a privilege to be exercised. As an idea of what the people in a decent world might look like, it’s a very good starting point. The reference to “release of feeling” is not accidental, either, I think. Williams is not (here) interested in a lazy indulgence in “self expression”, but in a self-disciplined engagement with a really existing world where other people are affected by your actions, and where inaction is a renunciation of responsibility, the giving up of the gift of responsibility.

Kirsty: And of course it’s not just that you have a responsibility towards others, but that you should be able to rely on them to act responsibly towards you. The keyword in that chapter is “mutuality,” and indeed that’s a consistent preoccupation throughout. For Williams, public life, like justice, is (or ought to be) a participatory exercise; this conviction is clearly fundamental both to his Anglicanism and to his take on liberalism. If he is an idealist, this is his idealism.

Michael: I’m not sure that “public life as a participatory exercise” is liberal as such: “participation” goes beyond representative democracy, and Williams’ political, or cultural, stress seems to be summed up in the phrase “human flourishing”, which means more than “the good life”. He appears to have an idea of life, public or private, which involves a network of relationships between flourishing humans relating to each other to varying depths, but with a common sense of humanity, and of mutual responsibility.

Kirsty: As a secular humanist, how did you feel about his focus on Christianity?

Michael: You could hardly expect an Archbishop of Canterbury not to focus on Christianity. I am not too bothered about that focus, since he uses it as a myth (not “legend” or “fairy tale”) with a power to explain and motivate a certain way of life. In some ways, he seems be less interested in Jesus than in Christian communities as a model for living together. That can be a very radical approach to society (see Diggers, Levellers, and Quakers) and the religious element can be taken as incidental. The important thing is the form of society, and the view of humanity, being put forward.

Kirsty: I see exactly what you mean: the focus is very much on interconnection and mutual respect regardless of faith, a nominally Christian praxis that is also deeply ecumenical. But I don’t agree that the religious element is incidental. Williams is very strong on Christianity’s unique contribution even as he’s intelligent and sympathetic in his ecumenism (which I think fits very well with the “comparative theology” of Francis X. Clooney, SJ, cf. p. 131). Maybe it’s more that, in his theology, the personal is professional is political: the model of living together is what gives form to the relationship with God, as can be seen in the final and most openly religious essay (Chapter 26: Religious lives). To paraphrase something Williams said to Richard Dawkins at the Oxford Union debate of 2012 , God doesn’t need to be brought into the picture, because He’s already there. Of course, it could be precisely this that makes it possible to look past the Christian aspect and concentrate on the social and organisational questions. Faith is integral to Williams’ perspective; accordingly, it does not appear as an intruder. His theology is not an aim in itself; this means that his conclusions can be assessed independently of his beliefs.

Michael: The legendary letter writer, and lifelong atheist, Keith Flett wrote once in the New Statesman that he preferred Christians who were socialists to atheists who weren’t. Those of us who are not Christians have to engage with Williams’ ideas without including a faith element, but you are right: the religious element is not incidental. Even if we ignore actually existing religion, Europe, or “the West”, is a culture which has developed from Christianity. The cultural shape of Europe has developed from that religious background (Dante might have been a great poet without Christianity to work with, but he would not have been the same poet), and so has its political and cultural shape. The reason so much of Williams’ thought sounds left-wing is that much left wing thought comes, often at some distance, from a religious background.

How does a Christian socialist, as opposed to a Christian Socialist, engage with Christianity, especially the idea of humanity presented by Williams?

Kirsty: I can only speak for this Christian socialist, of course (and just to be extra precise, I mean Christian as in Anglo-Catholic and socialist as in classical social democrat).  Well, the question you ask is a spiky one, and very apt, because Williams has actually been — still is — an immense influence on the development of my faith perspective; bearing in mind I’ve only consciously had one for three years or so.  That might seem an odd statement, because I think it’s fairly clear that Williams would not call himself a Christian socialist, or any kind of socialist.  But I couldn’t go through quite the same journey with an Oscar Romero or a Frei Betto or even a Giles Fraser, with whom I frequently and enthusiastically agree.  My instinctive standpoint is liberation theology; it is the religious expression of convictions I already held on a secular level and which have not changed, so there is little creative tension to be had by reading solely within the left-wing Christian tradition that is my natural home. No, what introduced a new and compelling critical element to my theology was the engagement with Williams, whose body of work as a theologian expresses deeply sympathetic convictions about human value, dignity and diversity, but who evidently felt during his tenure as Archbishop that it was incumbent on him to keep these convictions to himself, where they would prove controversial (as per this very interesting TIME interview), and to act in the interests of unity. That troubled me at the time, and it still troubles me, but I now feel I have a better handle on why he acted as he did and what he hoped might emerge from it.  And it is worth noting that while he does not explicitly say much about gender and sexuality in these essays — unsurprisingly, since they all date from this same period — he has left the framework for a genuinely inclusive theology intact.

So suffice it to say that I often don’t share Williams’ perspective on specific institutions and their functions, including the Church of England; but his ultimate aim, a pluralist and procedurally secular society based on mutuality, is one to which I can subscribe both as a Christian and as a socialist. The chapters on economics were an interesting example of this. Without going into great detail and making this review still longer, Williams’ ideas for economic reform do not go nearly as far or as deep as I would like, but his three point plan for a Christian contribution to economic debate struck me as refreshing, intelligent and useful (Ch. 17: Ethics, economics and global justice, pp. 223-224).

Above all, following his line of argument frequently requires me to step outside my familiar discourse, even when we ultimately agree; to question what Williams calls the naturalness of my own position.  That is invaluable.

Michael: I’m not sure that Williams wants consensus so much as unity: as Archbishop his job is to hold the Anglican Communion together, a more political role than the one he has now. His thinking seems to be made up the need to maintain unity, and a searching for some kind of solid set of principles to work from (or a way of implementing solid principles), and those things will often be incompatible, because not everybody agrees, even on the most basic things. It is interesting to find him trying to push the limits of being the head of his church, and seeing him constrained by the politics of the role, but his ideas stand alone quite well, without needing religious assumptions for them to make sense.

Kirsty:  There’s a lot more to discuss in Williams’ work, but clearly we more or less agree, despite the pretty vast theological difference.  And where you and I share a political outlook, it’s different again from the one Williams identifies with.  I think that says a lot about the value of this book, and its broad reach.

Michael: I once attended a demonstration where the most radical things said came from Ken Loach and from the Bishop of Bath and Wells. Ignoring religion is to consign yourself to ignorance of what the world really is and how many people in it are motivated; ignoring what intelligent, honest representatives of (a) religion have to say is to cut off an important strand of thought on what a decent world might look like. This book is worth reading, if only because Williams probably knows the prayer of Saint Francis, and also genuinely believes in it.

Kirsty:  Amen to that.

Bloomsbury Continuum, 360 pp., ISBN: 978-1408187586

6 comments on “Faith in the Public Square, by Rowan Williams

  1. Jackie
    April 12, 2013

    This book sounds really interesting and the dual review provided much food for thought.

  2. Hilary
    April 13, 2013

    I loved this joint review, was delighted to see a civilised and mutually appreciative discussion about this book from two very disparate standpoints. What you have both brought out from this book makes me now eager to read it, whereas I was hesitant before. Thank you both!

  3. Melrose
    April 13, 2013

    Hilary beat me to it. I was going to make the same comments about the review as she did. I just hadn’t worked out the exact wordage, and Hilary has said it far better and more fluently than I could. I loved the exchange between both parties, and read every word to get full enjoyment!

  4. Pingback: Faith in the Public Square | Kirsty Jane McCluskey

  5. Pingback: In Conversation with Rowan Williams | Vulpes Libris

  6. John
    February 7, 2014

    Hi, I am from Australia.
    Please find a radical criticism of what is usually promoted as religion in this time and place via this essay and website.

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