Friday 4 April 2008

Archbishop's Lent Lecture 1

In the first Lent Lecture (Monday 17 March 2008) Rowan Williams the Archbishop of Canterbury discussed the relationship between science and religion. There is nothing specifically Christian in this lecture at all, except that he has drawn his use of narrative from his approach to theology.

He accuses the Richard Dawkins etc. approach to memes, on the analogy of genes, as reductionist, a survival of the fittest in culture, where what Daniel Dennett has called a universal acid operates over ideas that get falsified.

I thought the memes idea was rather simpler than this: it is that cultural objects get repeated as their own senseless spread. Caps are worn with the sunshield at the back of the head - and it catches on as the latest craze. It is an explanation for the lack of Darwinism regarding culture! The Darwinism of Daniel Dennett is about how to arrive at objectivity of knowledge, which is rather different, and has been done also by Juren Habermas where purely instrumentally disinterested academics can drop bad ideas for good ones.

The danger for Rowan Williams is that he drops into his own kind of reductionism: the narrative.

The truth is that both Darwinism and Christian theology are telling stories. They both work as narratives. Narratives assume drama, agency, and personality. But the paradox is that one of these stories knows what it's doing and confesses it is working in the categories of drama and agency and personality and the other apparently doesn't.

This is the truth, is it? Well it may be a broader based truth, but some would point out that the numinous and the purely transcendent are non-narrative. We can't talk about them outside of narrative constructions, but having talked about them they are supposed to have this quality where the flip side is nothing - the zero in Hinduism and the mu of Buddhism.

Many a scientist would not like to think that their enterprise is just narrative. Of course it is a series of questions seeking answers generating questions. Of course scientific answers are potentially transient, waiting to be falsified, but the longer they stay as a truth the more robust they become as truth. Paradigms - joining the dots - are always more transient still.

Odd, all this, from an Archbishop who has told the Anglican Communion that there is only one way to read a Bible in order for one Anglican Church to recognise another's geographical monopoly, that way being virtually fundamentalist and anti humanist. It is as if that way of reading a Bible is a bureaucratic (ecclesiastical) meme, a silly view of biblical reading that denies scholarship but works at a surface, reproductive level for institutional purposes.

It is dangerous to say that religion is a narrative, because there are so many different ways to talk, and have stories, and nor do narratives conserve themselves over time. His does; though of course the way the rather fixed cultural-religious inheritance is understood alters. Intellectually, the one way of reading the Bible has been subjected to some considerable acid, but then culture contains corners of all kinds of sub-cultural beliefs, which is why so much that governs the way the Church talks about 'reality' is rapidly becoming sub-cultural sectarianism - except in lands where supersition, magic and the supernatural still have a grip on the minds of many people, and who want to impose their ways of thinking on the rest of us who live ordinary, practical and causal lives.

Commentary is also given: Lecture 2 and Lecture 3.


A Liberal Catholic response has been made and is followed by my comment.

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