Faith in the Public Square by Rowan Williams (London: Bloomsbury, 2012), vi + 344 pp.
Article first published online: 5 DEC 2013
© 2013 John Wiley & Sons Ltd
Volume 30, Issue 1, pages 181–183, January 2014
How to Cite
Perry, J. (2014), Faith in the Public Square by Rowan Williams (London: Bloomsbury, 2012), vi + 344 pp. Modern Theology, 30: 181–183. doi: 10.1111/moth.12091
- Issue published online: 5 DEC 2013
- Article first published online: 5 DEC 2013
Published as he was moving out of Lambeth Palace, this collection of essays by Rowan Williams could easily be read as a valedictory for his time as Archbishop of Canterbury. Perhaps that is even how it was intended, which makes it tempting to take this opportunity to evaluate Williams's legacy. Resisting this temptation, I instead consider the book for what it is: a collection of twenty-six lectures given from 2003–2012, each within the theme of the public implications of the Christian faith.
The topics are surprisingly wide-ranging and are organized under seven headings: secularism, law, environment, economics, social justice, religious diversity, and rediscovering religion. For those who have followed recent debates about the public voice of Christian theology, what Williams is doing is easily described. Imagine, as seems to be the case, that the “public reason liberalism” associated with the early Rawls was judged to be overly simplistic, if not altogether implausible. If so, Christians may freely speak in public as Christians. But what then?
This “what then?” is precisely the challenge Williams faces: how to speak charitably, intelligibly, and candidly as a Christian to a public that is Christian, Muslim, Jewish, agnostic, and atheist. For the most part, and to his credit, he doesn't talk about how to proceed in such a situation; he just gets down to doing it. That is, he recognizes that his audience is religiously diverse, but nonetheless sees his role as speaking persuasively to them, and yet he doesn't want to take the escape route of simply side-lining the contribution his Christian faith would make to the conversation.
Central to this—and the subject of more than a quarter of the lectures—is how to understand secularism. Williams distinguishes between “procedural” and “programmatic” secularism. Procedural secularism poses no problem for Christians; it is the effort to deal equitably with different religious communities within a wider community. By contrast, programmatic secularism is the effort to enshrine as a kind of public orthodoxy the view that … well, here is where it gets tricky. Williams defines it mostly by negation; talking repeatedly of “the opposite of … programmatic secularism” (p. 5). So he doesn't quite pinpoint what it is, but he knows what it's not.
Given his overall framing, one expects him to say that programmatic secularism is the exclusion of religion or of God-talk, but he never says this. This is because he wants to show that programmatic secularism is even worse than that. The secularism that should worry us is more thoroughgoing and therefore more troubling. It excludes “an attitude to the world that acknowledges that there is more to anything and anyone I encounter than I can manage or understand. What I see is already ‘seen’ by, already in relation to, some reality immeasurably different from the self I know myself to be. … grasping this fully has the effect of what Wittgenstein called having a concept ‘forced on you' ” (p. 5). Secularism would then be not about atheism or neutrality; rather it would be a kind of hyper-empiricism.
This starting point has several interesting consequences—some more plausible than others—and these run throughout the essays. For one, it means that “art is necessarily un-secular” (p. 17). For another, it means that government should be a “community of communities” (p. 3). (He attributes this quasi-federalist picture to Augustine and Aquinas, but it sounds more immediately like Catholic subsidiarity to me.) Yet another, and perhaps the most important practical consequence, is that the greatest villain of all will be consumerism. This is not an attack on the free market or capitalism, as such, but on a worldview in which our public lives have no shared ends other than whatever each of us individually wants. (As if to emphasize his distaste for such a world, Williams calls the global restaurant chain “Macdonald's.” Maybe he doesn't eat there very often.)
I find this definition of secularism compelling. For secularism cannot really cast as fine a net as it believes. It excludes not only the Bible, but a whole host of other rich sources of knowledge, human experience, wisdom, and so on. I'm similarly sympathetic to his relentless attack on consumerism, but it is the reviewer's task to be contrarian and so it is at least worth mentioning that the rise of market economies and the merchant class coincides with (I say nothing of causes) significantly greater religious toleration. If I'm determined to give my daughter an iPod for Christmas—to the point that Apple Computer becomes an object of loyalty for me—I might find that I couldn't be bothered to persecute my Muslim neighbours. Or so the founders of classical liberals believed.
There are many topics that I lack space to address, notably a chapter engaging Alasdair MacIntyre entitled “Do Human Rights Exist?” Elsewhere, in perhaps the best lecture of the book (ch 9), Williams uses Isaiah Berlin to great effect, showing the ambiguous relation that Christians ought to have to the Enlightenment and to the Enlightenment's critics. Much of the past generation of theological ethics has been premised on a robust modernity critique because of modernity's confidence in “a set of convictions about universal human values,” the belief that, “whether at a distance of space or a distance of time, human beings were fundamentally the same and their needs could be worked out by the application of universal, reasonable principles” (p. 113).
This is Williams speaking in Berlin's idiom, but stated that way, the project begins to look surprisingly … Christian. After all, Christians believe that some practices and ways of life lead to human flourishing precisely because God has created an ordered world, and has created humans to display certain features: to be made happy by friendship and loyalty, to love beauty, to enjoy meaningful labour. What Williams does in that chapter is turn the modernity critique on its head, and at the same time pinpoint better what about modernity is worthy of critique.
There is one notable line from Berlin that, ironically, Williams quotes in the chapter. I say ironically because although Williams quotes it approvingly, it exposes one of the most consistent problems with these lectures. Berlin is criticizing how some philosophers “throw a metaphysical blanket over” things (p. 114). The idea is that simple philosophical moves are disguised as more complex, or as less self-interested, under the cover of metaphysical terminology.
There are points in these lectures where it feels as though there are a lot of metaphysical blankets being thrown, especially on the applied topics (economics, care for the elderly, human rights). Repeatedly asserting that human beings are “embodied human beings” really doesn't help the debate over human rights all that much (p. 157). So too (on other topics) for the metaphysical blankets of “covenant” and “mutuality” and “Eucharist” and even “faith” itself.
To be fair, Williams throws such blankets far less than many theologians. Yet it highlights a trend that we would be wise to avoid as we relearn, post-Rawls, how to speak candidly as Christians in public: the mistaken belief that we're not speaking Christianly unless, at least once in every conversation, we invoke systematic theology jargon. We should not avoid talking forthrightly of Christology or Incarnation or Trinity or Eschatology when they communicate what we're trying to say; but that all depends on what we're talking about. We should not make them into metaphysical blankets.
Having thus far resisted the temptation to reflect on Williams's episcopal legacy, I will indulge it briefly. Throughout the book I was struck by the contrast with recent papal documents, and how favourably Williams comes out in comparison. While it is a mistake to think of the Archbishop of Canterbury as an “Anglican pope,” the roles are similar. The primary way that British Christians and the wider public come to experience the intellectual life of Anglicanism is through lectures like these. Though the encyclical is a very different sort of document, it provides the most obvious public way that Christians and others encounter Roman Catholic intellectual thought. That's unfortunate. The particular voice that Williams speaks with here is engaged, lively, concrete, authoritative (even if not magisterial), generous, humble, and witty. It's not clear that any of those features are possible within the genre of encyclical as it's currently conceived. This has left the Bishop of Rome, at least of late, with no such voice available to him. Perhaps one of Williams' legacies can be to model, for both his successor at Lambeth and the new pope, alternatives for speaking of faith in the public square.