Wednesday 9 April 2008

Lent Lectures 1 and 2: Answers

There were question and answer sessions after the Lent Lectures 2008 in Holy Week, by Rowan Williams, the Archbishop of Canterbury, at Westminster Abbey, now released for all to read and hear. There were Faith and Science questions and answers (Monday 17 March 2008), Faith and Politics questions and answers (18 March) and, by far the most interesting, Faith and History questions and answers (19 March), the latter being the most internal and theology-discussing and to be treated in a separate blog entry here.

Some of the answers from Rowan Williams on science strike me as thoughts by a happy if informed amateur, and among answers he thinks that religion as well as science can be dominating and demanding submission of nature, but he does not treat religion as subject to the same paradigm shifts as science (whether they undermine or are cumulative). He answers some more specifically religious questions relating to science, for example, that God is first behind any theory of creation and:

God doesn't fit inside the universe if what we say of God is that God's act or energy is the fundamental reality on which every other form of energy depends. I wouldn't say bigger than, because that takes into what are often rather unhelpful kind of metaphors.

God is not bound by the laws of nature, according to Rowan Williams:

God is what God is and nobody tells God what God can be. And the universe is there, Christians believe (and Jews and Muslims and many others too), because God is free and determined that there should be what was not God – that is the universe.

Interestingly, though, many Catholic Christians view God as revealing himself in a specifically limited way through Greek culture and categories, and this limitation expressly denies the overall pure transcendence of God of which a Muslim speaks. It brings God within not just the universe but a bit of this world and absolutises a cultural transition. It further limits God ethically and culturally, and uses categories by which to view revelation. Of course some Christians have a high and dry view of God, but Christianity has this and other settings where God is self-limiting.

His belief about miracles is that if God is believed to be as God is, then miracles are a necessary consequence, with more direct action, but has no theory for this.

The scientist cannot rule out miracles on a general principle, so all of the Apostles Creed can be believed: this, presumably, is a fully realist view of the creed, about which more becomes obvious in his answers two days later. His view of what people knew and realised in the first century just does not wash; the way people understood realities would seem bizarre to us - the world did not end either, but they expected it, and the writing of some narrative in a Hebrew Scripture and its mistranslation into Greek brought such reality to mythic yet powerful historical life. They built knowledge up, and had expansive plausibility structures, and did not have a cool, critical view of the world. Their reality is, for us, somewhat fantastic. Just because when you get punched it hurts does not mean reality is restricted around such limited evidence. One only has to look at other cultures and the work of social anthropologists to see how fantastic is reality on many accounts.

As he says, the literary critic has a more powerful effect on relativising the biblical accounts than a scientist. That's because scientists do science.

It is interesting that he finds no such thing as religion as such, when one might posit that religion involves some sense of repetitive ritual (elastically defined), of thoughts and responses about the spiritual (elastically defined), with some determination of ethics and/ or incorporating ethics, and a level of organisation, and some sort of interaction with tribal identity. He posits an experiential basis for truth claims by which one moves in or out of a religion. He makes a distinction between Darwinism as "a very credible and resourceful way of making sense of the history of organisms" and neo-Darwinism as an ideology. Of course it trespasses over the boundaries of science: explanatory myths come from all kinds of sources. What perhaps he should ask is how neo-Darwinism is indeed a powerful paradigm of broader explanation and whether to adapt Christianity to this mode of understanding (as it has culturally shifted before) or whether some sort of conserving line in the sand is drawn. His comments overall suggest the latter.

Darwin, of course, was regarded as one of those rather secret Unitarians; his position became more agnostic than that and he realised the impact of the theory which, indeed, did have huge impact and has become that broader paradigm of explanation of much more than in science.

The next day there were questions and answers regarding politics, perhaps the weakest session of the three days. He says:

Society brings back to the Church its own deepest convictions and says 'isn't this what you meant?' I like to think that the history of Feminism has been a bit like that..

Or indeed the current debate about homosexuality. Or indeed a great deal that is ethical. Ethics seem to have evolved - oops - and the myth is that the Church always meant to have the ethics that a liberal-democratic society has achieved. Or, when the secular word is mentioned, there is this resistance to an enemy, when secularisation was once seen as a liberating friend.

Christians should not rush to God's assistance as if God needs our help: but this is not a Jewish view, nor is it a Muslim view about behaviour, and if we don't do it who does?

I find this the most agreeable comment of all three sessions, a communal, incorporating view within the suffering and unequal Jewish community:

And that's why the Church begins with Jesus, not with St Paul, because Jesus deals with the exclusion from community that affected the sick or the unclean. His miracles of healing for example are very often to bring the excluded within. And so I don't think you could say he was a-political. He was constantly being nudged and shunted into position by those who wished him to take their side in a political conflict, but he evades those pressures. He evades them not by taking refuge in an internal world of spirituality, but by acting to re-create community in his own terms.

Torture undermines everything, influence can be power so Christians should undermine this by being active for the sake of the unbeliever too, the current blasphemy law and what can follow is problematic, specific Christian political parties haven't a good history - better to join existing ones, reason in politics he associates with interests whereas vision and moral energy comes into obligations outside the immediate, and religious convictions should be openly expressed in political debate.

Rowan Williams states that an Archbishop of Canterbury has to be a politician in the sense that:

...he has got to think about the understanding and the management of a quite varied and often rather unruly Christian community: the Church of England and the Anglican Church, worldwide.

Also he contributes about human dignity into wider politics. He indicates that Establishment is not vitally necessary, but its removal might allow for secularising and loss of reference to the transcendent (which can involve groupings of people of different religions in the House of Lords). People do participate to advance peace processes in the world, and Christians are a community "where people take responsibility to and for each other before God".

As the questions and answers followed each session, they seem to have been divided up and no one asked a question that attempted to tie in the lectures together. Some of the answers did try to make the links in his own connected lectures. Answers about Faith and History are analysed in the next blog entry.

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