Thursday, 24 September 2009

Christian Revisionism Applied

As part of his week's visit to Japan for the 150th anniversary celebrations of the Anglican Church in Japan, the Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr Rowan Williams has continued giving his revisionist view of Christianity in relationship to educational institutions that stands at some variance from how he understands Christianity when applied to his Church.

He continues to contrast such a revisionist view of Christianity with a narrow view of secularism and its rationality as an opposition, linking it to material and numerical educational assessment, and ignoring the once important theories of education more or less abandoned recently in the quest for statistics of 'success', and effectively links this narrow view of secularism to causes of world wars and other strife in the twentieth century, anti-religious rhetoric (as from some recent authors) and the recent economic meltdown.

He did this in a lecture on Monday 21st September to students and academics at Rikkyo Gaukin University, a specifically Anglican university in Tokyo. For example, he said:

However secular our age likes to think it is, the disastrous results of exploitative habits and of financial obsession bring people back to the recognition that they need the element of the sacred in their lives – in the sense that they need the freedom to respond to the beautiful and the puzzling and the tragic, to all the things that we do not have the power to manage.

This is the assumption that all secular reasoning has to be short term. Why make such an assumption? The financial crisis was based rather on misplaced reasoning, misplaced because it used computer programming to set up packages of products that displaced risk, but insurancing-out risk only works in bell curves of expectations and not in chaotic systems where equilibria become unstable. Apply such reasoning, and this needs reasoning, and a different result occurs - and different modelling too, rather more akin to weather and climate, or evolutionary outcomes.

Then we have the revisionism of Christianity:

But what distinguishes a Christian institution is not so much the doctrine as the outworking of it in the style and ethos of a community. If the whole tone of the institution is one that gives a message that risks are worth taking because there is an ultimate reality to be trusted, that is where the meaning of the [Christian] doctrine is made plain. 'Faith-based' education is education in the mixture of realism or provisionality with the courage to act, discover and create, to make relations and mend them.

Where does all this provisionality and risk come from? Where is that an implication of Christian doctrines, doctrines which are just as likely to sow matters up in a kind of doctrinal alternative universe?

Now we all know how important the Pope is to this Archbishop, because he keeps trying to remodel Anglicanism in order to present something coherent worldwide to the Pope. He refers to the Pope in this lecture:

A rationality that has brought us into the age of nuclear weaponry and global economic meltdown invites some sharp questions, to put it mildly; which has something to do with the revulsion in some quarters against the very idea of reason, against science and the notion of universal values and much else besides. As the Pope has argued several times in recent years, the drift towards relativism and pluralism is not the triumph but the defeat of reason; and as he has also insisted, the response of religious faith should not be to glory in the overthrow of rationality but to reclaim the idea and set it on its ancient foundations once more.

Arguably, it is the 'drift' towards relativism that will prevent the rationality of nuclear weaponry and nuclear meltdown. Relativism is simply a recognition of the limits of reasoning, and of no absolute point of reasoning existing. The Pope believes in such an absolute, and the Pope is not exactly open and pluralistic when it comes to what happens inside his educational institutions: he certainly isn't when it comes to theology and his clergy. The Pope particularly believes in the absolutism of Greek culture when it comes to the revelation of the self-limiting Christian God, for example, which begins to look bizarre as we no longer think in such categories.

Rowan Williams's view of education is rather more generous.

And that intelligent action is fully itself when it is rooted in self-awareness – which in turn includes the awareness of where we stand in relation to the rest of the universe and, most importantly of all, in relation to what gives the universe itself coherence and harmony, the wisdom of God. Once grant this, and much else follows – the possibility and the significance of the scientific method, the possibility of critical and flexible politics, the possibility of something like truthful, however incomplete, self-knowledge. Darwin, Marx and Freud all have their debt to Christian theology in this sense. Each on their own, with their different kinds of reduction of human complexity, will eventually cut off the branch on which they are sitting; but their insights can find a place within an intellectual world framed by trust in the wisdom of God and the destiny of God's created image.

Yet this is like some olde-worlde justification of the scientific and social-scientific (and more) activity, long after it has had no need for such an hypothesis. His argument here is one against compartmentalisation, which is an academic problem of specialisms; but the academics who study more and more about less and less are aware of this, with another emphasis emerging stress on having cross-curricular conferencing. Again it has no need for the other hypothesis. Rowan Williams goes on, and here comes the revisionism big time:

And the tragedy is that often the response to this from some kinds of modern religiousness has been the equally poisonous dogma that the critical and sceptical sciences of Darwin, Marx or Freud and their countless followers and revisers must be regarded as destructive of faith and so to be reviled and rejected. In response to both sorts of intellectual tyranny, there remains a powerfully necessary role for what is often called 'Christian humanism'. This is not a vague liberal affirmation of the goodness of the human self or the genius of the human imagination, though it has sometime been used to mean this. A Christian humanism is a perspective that cuts against all such illusions and faces the tragic and the unresolved in human affairs with honesty. It is 'humanistic' simply in that it recognises utter and lasting worth in human beings because of how God has dealt with them. But because it is based in this way on God's dealings, it appeals to some comprehensive, absolutely free and transcendent reality about which – astonishingly – we can make some true statements. It challenges both the humanism that claims an absolute value for humanity to be self-evident and the relativism that makes such a statement of value no more than a strong expression of emotions of solidarity. It implies that what is good for humanity is truly a universal destiny, on which the minds and hearts of all people can converge; and thus it is a fundamentally non-violent humanism, seeking the grounds for reconciliation by insisting that what is good for one person, community or civilisation has somehow to be integrated with what is good for another. Friendship and converse between persons, justice and peace between communities, between ethnic and national groups are the fruits of this universalism.

The question is, does this fit in with the history of Christianity, and why should there be such revision in his search for an intellectual foundationalism by which to justify any other human thinking activity?

What of the other side, apparently the thin to non-existent, "relativism that makes such a statement of value no more than a strong expression of emotions of solidarity"? It is not about this at all, but about individuals who communicate with others, who have feelings of pain and pleasure, and who in communication can enrich their lives with the content of that communication, that makes sense and gives purpose. It is out of this that religious value and sentiment can develop. Such communication is thoroughly plural, investigative, and is also to be challenged - challenged by the Buddhist emphasis on transience and clarity that therefore prevents a fundamentalism of language.

The problem with education today is not secularism, but the demotion of education for economic training. What is the use, for example, of ever greater examination success when the students doing so well find that they lack the literacy and study skills to study? If you base education on the behaviourist sausage factory of quantitative lesson plans and objectives met by numerical forms of assessment, then you end up with the 'evidence' that students have become sausages. Shoved through exams and wads of coursework pushed by teachers, they are dependent on teachers. So I agree with Rowan Williams to the extent that he says:

Education is properly to do with the growth of an emotionally as well as intellectually mature self, and the nurture of the rational person needs at least to point to what love might mean, not as a particular passing state of feeling (our Buddhist friends have some very perceptive questions to ask about love if this is all it means) but as an entire environment for thinking and relating...

I agree so long as he does not confuse intellectual with quantitative teaching. Rather there are other theories - humanistic, holistic, experiential, for example - that have other views of the human mind and development. So again, a sort of agreement when he states:

Just at the moment, in the wake of last year's financial crisis, people throughout the world are asking about what kinds of behaviour are life-giving and sustainable, now we have seen the effects of greedy, individualistic, self-absorbed and obsessional practice. More than ever we need educational practices and educational communities that open the door into other possibilities.

But why cannot he apply this Christian revisionism when it comes to the bureaucracy of the Anglican Communion and its constituent Churches? Why does the Church have to become a combination of traditionalist Catholicism of bishops and dioceses up to him and lowest common denominator biblicalism for recognising one Church by another as the basis for some Covenant wrapping? If the broader human-affirming approach is good as the basis of community and intellectual endeavour, why can it not be so for belief and the relationships of understanding between Churches? Or is it the case that the presentation to the Pope by a central Archbishop has to be something altogether narrower and closely defined?


Brad Evans said...

Saying that "no absolute point of reason exists" is itself an absolute point of reasoning.

Pluralist (Adrian Worsfold) said...

From what perspective?