Friday, January 17, 2014

Friday Theology: Rowan Williams On Secularism

Two posts here in two days?  Don’t get your hopes up that great things are happening, but here is a return to my idea of posting an excerpt of a theologian I’ve been reading on Friday.   This would be the third time I’ve followed this plan, which by most measures in the church is enough frequency to be considered a tradition.

Rowan Williams was until recently the 104th Archbishop of Canterbury, the head of the Anglican Communion, and is perhaps the preeminent living Anglican theological.  His essay, “Seculalrism, Faith, and Freedom”, was first given in 2006, and the text quoted below appears in a volume of essays, The New Visibility of Religion: Studies In Religion and Cultural Hermeneutics (Continuum Books, 2008).   

I can across this piece while starting a graduate seminar on secularism this term here at Laurier.  In this essay, Williams argues that if we as a society allow our public discourse to be governed by purely secular principles, ruling out of bounds any religious or ideological arguments  as to what constitutes human good other than those arguments which offer “a minimal account of material security and relative social stability”, then our social life will be greatly impoverished and we will be unable to discuss anything of significance.

“…I am arguing that the sphere of public and political negotiation flourishes only in the context of larger commitments and visions, and that if this is forgotten or repressed by a supposedly neutral ideology of the public sphere, immense damage is done to the moral energy of a liberal society.  For that ideal of liberal society, if it is to be any more than a charter for the carefully brokered competition of individuals, requires not a narrowing but a broadening of the moral sources from which the motivation for social action and political self-determination can be drawn.

… There is indeed, deplorably, a kind of appeal to ‘liberal’ ideals that effectively reduces the human self to an economic unit, a solitary accumulator of rights, comforts, and securities.  But, it is an odd sort of liberalism that so dismisses the significance of a freedom learned by social processes of formation and exercised consciously and intelligently for goals that are not exclusively self-interested.

If the three terms of my title do indeed belong together; if a proper secularism requires faith; if it is to guarantee freedom, this is because a civilized politics must be a politics attuned to the real capacities and dignities of the person - not the individual consumer, but the self-learning over time to exercise liberty in the framework of intelligible communication and the self-scrutiny that grows from this.  Such a concept of the person is, I would maintain, unavoidably religious in character; it assumes that we ‘answer’ not only to circumstance or instinct or even to each other but to a Creator who addresses us and engages us before ever we embark on social negotiation.  That, after all, is why we regard the child - or the mentally challenged adult or the dying man or woman who has passed beyond ordinary human communication - as a person, whose dignities and liberties are inalienable.  The struggle for a right balance of secular process and public religious debate is part of a wider struggle for a concept of the personal that is appropriately robust and able to withstand the pressures of a functionalist and reductionist climate.  This is a larger matter than we can explore here; but without this dimension, the liberal ideal becomes deeply anti-humanist.  And, like it or not, we need a theology to arrest this degeneration."

2 comments:

Kieran said...

An interesting post sir.

Whilst I definitely agree on the point that human value and worth needs to be emphasised in society or policy-making - particularly over any reductionist view of people as economic units and the emphasis of the material.

However, I would argue against the following point: "...attuned to the real capacities and dignities of the person [...] the self-learning over time to exercise liberty in the framework of intelligible communication and the self-scrutiny that grows from this. Such a concept of the person is, I would maintain, unavoidably religious in character." And the following " That, after all, is why we regard the child - or the mentally challenged adult or the dying man or woman who has passed beyond ordinary human communication - as a person, whose dignities and liberties are inalienable." Perhaps I've missed the point, and perhaps he is using "religious" in the broadest sense, but to assume that secular values have no inherent sense of the value of a human being as simply a human being - whatever condition they find themselves in - is also reductionist. That this needs a belief in a Creator to fully appreciate is perhaps unfair, and the notion that it can only be reductionist or functionalist, I think, is quite wrong. This will probably seem more cynical than intended, but as the head of the Anglican Communion and somebody with political office and seat, it's not surprising that he says this. However, I certainly agree with the broader sentiment completely.

Just for context, I'm not writing as an angry anti-theist but as somebody that came very close to having OSB after their name.

Apologies for the waffling post, it's been a long day. Incidentally I bumped into Rowan Williams in the tiny bookshop at King's Cross Station. I've also attended a Remembrance Service by George Carey, and regularly passed the Archbishop of York on my way to work - I'm not sure Archbishop Spotting will catch on as a hobby though...

Kieran (Headologist)

+Peter said...

I really like this post and given the lack of religious engagement in the public discourse in Canada it was particularly interesting. There was a time when the church (and I can only speak from that tradition) precipitated social reform when purely secular values seem to have held sway. I think of universal literacy, prison reform, child labour laws, worker's rights, advocacy. etc. Religions pioneered many of Canada's academic institutions and social services and in so doing were substantively involved in the public discourse. We also messed up some things. But I do not believe that we can rest on our laurels.

In the past 30 years we have gradually withdrawn from the dialogue and claim that we have been excluded. Our fault. In any case it is seldom that we are saying anything that society is not already saying to itself. Any pronouncement on the environment is being voiced also by school children and probably to more effect.

I agree with the Archbishop (my former 'boss')but only if religious groups are prepared to fully grasp the prophetic spirit of their traditions and the passion that informed previous eras and to do theology in a substantive way being well versed on the issues rather than shooting from the hip from a moral high ground. A theology of the Incarnation touches the earth.

I appreciate Kieran's comments and do not regard him as cynical at all. I think that +Rowan is speaking of "religious" in the broadest sense in that there is often a way of looking at things from that perspective but to say that it is limited to those who claim a religion may indeed be reductionist.

I think that I must think further so thank you for this.

Mad Padre

Mad Padre
Opinions expressed within are in no way the responsibility of anyone's employers or facilitating agencies and should by rights be taken as nothing more than one person's notional musings, attempted witticisms, and prayerful posturings.

Followers

Blog Archive

Labels