Wednesday 12 September 2007

Rowan Williams's Excellent Lecture

It is said that Archbishop William Temple reflected the time in which he lived, and this lecture September 11th - Lessons from History for Faith and Civil Society does the same for Archbishop Rowan Williams. It does follow a theme which was present in his lecture on Freedom and Slavery, on 24th April 2007 , in Hull, for the Wilberforce Lecture Trust, which is the impact of the religious - the Christian - message on the social and the political. I did not like it for its underlying false opposition, I felt, to the secular, even if the people of the Enlightenment failed to see the rather huge blind spot in their equalitarian statements when it came to slavery. This lecture, coming on September 11th, six years after the atrocity in the United States, has no such oppositional sentiment. It is about people of difference making contributions to the social and political whole, against oppression and for liberation. It is particularly good in how it draws on the Bhagavad Gita and the Qur'an, as well as the form of fellowship amongst the early Christians.

Some sections I highlighted on my contribution to the Fulcrum website, and I can discuss them here. There are further points to make too, which, honestly, have to be made in the light of the other matter of September 2007.

First of all an issue is what kind of theology has relevance outside the holy huddle? It is, surely, theology that relates to the nature of relationships in wider society. It is social theology, of course, but what happens here is that Williams applies his understanding of text and narrative from three sources - the Bhagavad Gita, the Bible and the Qur'an. These sources are not unambiguous in their rejection of violence, but they do relate to the non-violent approach to resisting oppression, and therefore the form of fellowship of people one with another when in a complex pluralist social world like ours.

Here is what Williams states about how Gandhi read the Bhagavad-Gita:
Gandhi is reflecting on the emphasis in the Bhagavad-Gita on detachment: our natural or instinctive way of operating in the world is to imagine ourselves as controlling both our own destiny and the conditions in which we live, so that we struggle for the conditions that promise us such control. But the divine imperative is that our actions should be determined not by this but by the fixed resolve to act in accordance with the truth – that is, with the truth of who and what he actually are both in society and in the universe itself. When we have learned to act in this way, we are free from fear; we give up the anxious effort to master our circumstances by force.
Gandhi's treatment of the Gita as a spiritual struggle has, of course, been criticised by a number who give it a plain reading. The drama of the book (part of the Mahabharata) is two armies facing one another, and Arjuna does not know what to do. Krishna says be truthful and fight. This is a bit like Islam and the Qur'an, then - well, it could be. But in the scripture is this essential matter of detachment, and therefore no what can be called the Will to Power. This makes the crucial turn from the physical to the spiritual. It is a fight then about truth.

Williams refers to Satyagraha: but Gandhi combined this with Ahimsa. Gandhi learnt from Jainism and its non-violence (the two go together in the same way Mikhail Gorbachev coupled Glasnost and Perestroika - one being the philosophical commitment to truth and the other a commitment to a form of action). So there is a direct connection then between the text and the action involved.

Also the quest for an action that does not simply mirror the action of the oppressor does find allies across divides, and of course Gandhi was murdered by a nationalist Hindu and not by anyone across the divide.

Thus it is relevant that Williams also states:
surely what any religious believer wants is to have the voice of faith heard within the pluralist debate, to have a guaranteed place at the table? Surely that’s why we are discussing the whole question of faith and civil society and why we want to answer once and for all the reproach that religion is a dangerous and destabilizing presence in our culture?
A pluralist society is not necessarily divided, but it is a complex set of overlapping people (and some ghettoes of defensive ethnic similarity) that believe different inspirations, and either clash but tolerate with their respective truths or understand them as stories or narratives to live by. Society looks for means to be functional, and this does not just mean an economic functionality but an ethical drive. Hans Kung has written about a global ethic, for example. Sometimes this implies a universalism of the message, via a syncretism or secularising, but Williams stays with the various narrative texts without a theological universalism. His universalism is about the worth of the human being (incidentally this was a repeated core message of the late Ernest Penn, Unitarian minister at Hull, but he made the assumption as a base message, whereas I used to think on what basis - well here the basis is the interpreted, inspiring, religious text.

In the criticisms of Christopher Hitchens and Richard Dawkins (Rowan Williams was reading the Hitchens book during his break), these attacking the supernatural and superstitious and the ethically awful, Williams pleads for the positive contributions of the religions to the fundamental worth of the individual and the contribution to the social good. When reorientated religions are about having all people at the table, all able to make a positive contribution to peace between each other.

Williams clearly is no Durkheim even if the social good sounds functionalist: religion is not equated with social functionalism, nor simply with law and politics (comments made about Islam in particular). Nor is the human contribution ever quite finished:
– a condition that can be partially realised in the life of the community around Jesus but waits for its full embodiment in a future only God knows.
Religion then generates and motivates, it reads into, the social. It offers, but whilst humble and without will to power, cannot be less than the social:
Islam, like Christianity, refuses to make faith either subservient to the social order or simply an aspect among others of social life: it is something that offers transformation to the entire range of human activity.
It can of course be evil, nasty, violent, as it was on September 11th 2001. What Williams does is to reflect on interpreted text - important this, as text needs to be read and spoken about. The pluralist nature of todays world suggests that jihad should be non-violent (otherwise in such a world it will be destructive), and about the person. Thus the individual and social are connected.

The reason I use the Internet identity "Pluralist" is because I identified with the progressive side of that small Unitarian denomination, not just with religious humanism but with insights of the faiths. It was always an institutional shame that Christianity was divided off from the pluralist side and that it was associated with maintenance of identity in appearing to be a church and performing appropriately. My pluralism included Christianity, and its radical expressions. My social gospel, was that people could come together, to worship in difference, and not expect to be the same and not have to agree. My view did not prevail, as congregations sought agreement, identity and then the denomination decided to "uphold liberal Christianity" (whatever that meant). One may as well be postliberal then in a richer, theologically deep, institution.

It must be obvious why I warm to this lecture. I know, this is what Williams also states:
Jesus himself in his trial before Pilate says that his royal authority does not derive from anything except the eternal truth which he himself embodies as the incarnate Word of God; only if his authority depended on some other source would his servants fight (Jn 18.36-7). Earthly authority needs to reinforce itself in conflict and dominance; if the community of Jesus’ followers reinforced itself in such a way, it would be admitting that its claims were derived from this human order.
This is typical Rowan Williams: Williams is not saying there Jesus himself in his trial before Pilate says ... he himself embodies ... the incarnate Word of God. This latter point is a reflective on the eternal authority on which Jesus draws, that this relates to the text of John's gospel, that this is about how the early Christians had to behave - and did they behave according to eternal truth or, by suggested contrast, human order? Is this Rowan Williams just making clear his own badge of membership, or adding it into the issues he presents for good effect? He knows as well as anyone that Jesus did not claim his own divinity, and of course this does not say that - it just appears to do so. On the substance of the point, my view is there is a growing exclusivity in the early proto-orthodox Church not present in Jesus himself, even though Jesus focused on the Jews and the end time. Jesus did it with an open generosity and a social-health-salvation radical reversalism that defied the definitions of sin and understood beneficiaries of the day.

Rowan Williams knows that he states this section as he does, not just because he believes it, but with an eye to the inevitable tribal critics who will jump on his generosity to not just Gandhi but to the Gita as source and the Qur'an as scriptural sources. I think this lecture is as important as Jonathan Sack's 2001 book The Dignity of Difference, and both book and lecture respond to September 11 2001 in New York. Sacks' book also draws on texts, this time both written and oral in the traditions of Judaism to uphold not a theological or Enlightenment universalism but a divine basis for difference. Again, I don't care for the rejection of Enlightenment insight and universal (about which progressive Jews were so important) but it shows a religious contribution to the plural nature of the world: via the dignity of the individual to the complexity of the social.

And what of the inevitable tribalisms? Sacks had to travel to Manchester to meet Orthodox rabbis who criticised his book. He rewrote a chapter, taking out the most contentious points but keeping the central message. This is September 2007, where there are many basically homophobic types waving Bibles and demanding selective literalist readings from it, and who want to throw out a Church that includes those who do theology not unlike Rowan Williams, and replace that Church with an authoritarian alternative (one that recently has felt the censorship of offending the Rwandan presidency).

Come on! This archbishop surely cannot produce material like this, and participate with Episcopalians in New Orleans, and open an interfaith based centre there, and behave like some sort of institutionalised cane-wielding headmaster of old? If he comes anywhere near this, he would appear to be so ridiculously inconsistent that it would be laughable and tragic at the same time.

This lecture is closely-worded and complex material, and hardly reaches the masses, but it does speak of religion and society today, and is a positive reflection from three scriptural texts and their interpretation. It is the way to do relevant and connecting theology.

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