An evening with Dr Rowan Williams
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- Dr Rowan Williams
The 2013 University of Edinburgh Gifford Lecturer discusses in a relaxed manner some of the themes of his Gifford Lecture Series with an audience at The Royal Society of Edinburgh.
In introducing Dr Rowan Williams, Sir John Arbuthnott, the President of the RSE, made clear that the Gifford Lectures are an annual series of six established by will to “promote and diffuse the study of natural theology – in other words the knowledge of God.”
Dr Williams, now Lord Williams of Oystermouth, Master of Magdalene College, Cambridge and former Archbishop of Canterbury, described the task before him as difficult, but declared himself ready to take on the challenge of compressing his six lectures into 15 minutes. Fittingly, his subject matter was to explore the subtleties, variety and use of speech and, more specifically, the language of God, and what leads people to seek it out.
Dr Williams began by asserting that in the 18th and 19 th Centuries (Lord Gifford died in 1887) natural theology was understood to be the kind of talk about God that was not dictated by the doctrines of a Church or religious authority. At the time, this was very much part of the ideal world of the Enlightenment; getting away from the authority of the Church and the unaccountable and suspicious control of religion should, it was reasoned, allow people to think more clearly about God.
However, many Gifford lecturers have expressed unease about this approach – and Dr Williams counts himself among them – as it is extremely difficult to talk about God as though no-one has talked about God before. So he had come to the enterprise of delivering the lectures with caution – not only about meeting the terms of Lord Gifford’s bequest but also about turning his back on the idea encoded with it.
The difficulty is identifying that “complex, creative moment of intersection,” Dr Williams said, between how human beings talk in general and the “strange, eccentric form of talking that we call theology.” To him, this remains a worthwhile goal because it brings to the surface the question of how, as a matter of fact, people start to talk about God.
How people arrive at that point, he argued, is not just a matter of reading a book on natural theology or religious philosophy and deciding that they want to attend church. Equally, very few people have lost their faith and quit the church after reading a book by the evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins. The motives and circumstances that lead people to new kinds of language and into and out of faiths are more subtle than that.
Dr Williams invoked the example of the Dutch writer Etty Hillesum, a young, very secular Jewish intellectual whose journals had been published ten years previously. Hillesum was in Amsterdam during the German Occupation in World War Two and ended her days in Auschwitz under the Third Reich. But her journals describe how one secular, educated person, driven by circumstances and unspeakable suffering around her, had begun to think about what she had never come to terms with – speaking to God.
Hillesum summed up her spiritual journey, Dr Williams said, by saying she had always considered kneeling as a debasing posture. But, to her surprise, she found herself kneeling, alone in her room, and asking who she was kneeling to and what for. Her answer had been left vague; she was never an orthodox believer, Dr Williams said, but her experiences of the Occupation and Jewish persecution had brought her to the point that her normal way of explaining the world around her was inadequate.
Gestures or symbols beyond words were needed, so she knelt silently in her room, Dr Williams explained. Hillesum had found a language that did not necessarily describe the world around her, but was instead a different, but no less adequate, way of responding to the circumstances she was in. To Dr Williams that provides an example of one of the themes of his lectures – that there is a distinction between two kinds of talking; describing and representing.
In describing the world through speech, it is relatively easy to produce a reasonable picture of what we see, he contended. There are reliable criteria for knowing what is good or bad description. Representation, however, involves responding to what is around us with words, images and gestures which may carry some dimension of the surrounding environment of the world, but don’t fit in to the neat categories of description.
In the lecture series, Dr Williams said, he had been looking at different ways in which language is an “undetermined area” with an uncertain outcome. For example, it is an enormous fallacy to suggest that we know in advance what anyone is going to say to us. Similarly, – as everyone with children knows – saying that “that is the last word on the subject,” more often than not turns out to be untrue. The person we are talking to usually has something to say, which often stimulates a further response.
Another theme had been coming to terms with the “curious fact” that speaking is a physical activity. Speech does not just exist in our heads, Dr Williams said. When we speak, we also use our vocal cords, lungs and hands to help us express ourselves. In this regard, speaking is part of a whole set of strategies of relating to a world which gives us intelligible messages.
However, language is not static. One of the things we do with language, Dr Williams said, is put it under pressure. “We do strange things with it,” he said. “We make it stand on its hind legs and dance.” This could be putting it through the complicated rhymes and rhythms of poetry, developing it as metaphors or driving it to the point of paradox. “We work on it and settle on meaning. Then we find a way of unsettling that, and in that way language moves on.”
But language is not always vocal, Dr Williams insisted. He went on to describe the value of silence, in that there are moments in which the best way of expressing ourselves is through saying nothing. Those with pastoral experience would know what he meant; that there are moments of acute stress and suffering in everyone’s lives in which a pastor’s attempts to come up with spoken words and explanations would be folly.
Silence can be extremely expressive, such as the pause at the end of an overwhelming play or concert before applause begins. In his experience, the longer the pause, the better and more emotional the performance. What is being “said” by that pause, is that the experience has been in some way so significant that it cannot not be tied down in mere words.
That is a “representation” of something that we have not yet, and perhaps never will, find words or gestures for. Bringing that dimension into focus is, Dr Williams thinks, part of the job of a philosophical approach to religion and he believes very strongly that we can talk in those terms without buying into Lord Gifford’s view that there ought to be a rational, universal way of talking about God that is not “messed up” by professional religious leaders.
Such as archbishops, Dr Williams added wryly.
He concluded by suggesting that all these examples have demonstrated that the way that humans speak – or stay silent – is far less prosaic, descriptive or as predetermined than we may have thought. There is something about the nature of ourselves as “language using” beings that we seem to want to push language beyond our comfort zones as a means of aligning ourselves with the intelligence and intelligibility all around us.
Are you trying to say to us that theology is a fundamentally different type of discourse from the discourse a person might have with a person whom they love dearly, whom they don’t always understand but find fragile and unpredictable and full of life, and for whom they are trying to allow space so they are not imposing their form of discourse on them?
I don’t think it is. That very profound and moving characterisation of how we talk to people who matter to us does show us, I think, how little is catered for by thinking of language as a narrowly-descriptive model. There is something in our culture at the moment which assumes there is only one adequate model of knowing. Actually, when we break down how we think about knowledge, in the context you are raising, we realise that to claim to know is a much richer and more diverse thing. What you are trying to characterise, and what I have been trying to explore, is a discourse that takes time. All the things you mention are about time taking.
In your role as Archbishop, what would be your opinion on disenfranchising the Church of England and replacing it with a government forum in which all faiths were given equal voice but no one faith had a specific place in a legal parliamentary system?
The establishment of the Church of England is a bizarre political settlement, in all sorts of ways. My problem is that most of those who want to see the Church disestablished want to see it pushed further out of public debate and that’s when I dig my heels in; partly because what all my non-Christian friends used to say is that we need the Church of England to be established so that there is a channel for all the other religious bodies to negotiate with the State. It’s an odd and irrational viewpoint in some ways, but one based in reality. The establishment of the Church of England doesn’t give us any financial advantage or voice, except in the House of Lords, but it has generally worked to the advantage of other faiths rather better than any other system I can think of.
We are not looking for a single universal religion with everyone agreeing; God forbid: that would be boring and rootless. I am a Christian, but that doesn’t mean I cannot talk to a Buddhist and be enriched by the experience.
In your conversations with representatives of other religions, what were the most distinctive features that came out about the language that these people were using?
A lot depended on to whom you were talking. Sometimes we had representatives of many faiths. More recently, there were intensive discussions with Muslim groups for political reasons. For example; every year I chaired an international seminar of religious leaders, a “building bridges” seminar. We would take a common theme, such as justice, poverty or the role of women. We would pick out important texts, read them together and reflect on them and go from there. What that did was bring actual texts into discussion; we were not dealing with abstracts. That approach was often fruitful, but sometimes we ran into brick walls; we were not talking the same language. But we only found out we were not talking the same language when we started to talk – and that in itself was useful.
I was thinking about silence and time. And I was wondering if you would mind speaking as a poet about the importance of waiting and inspiration and spontaneity in the making of art?
My experience as a poet has a lot to do with internal listening. It is impossible to write poetry by saying “I am going to sit down and write a poem”. It’s more than having a bit of space and time; it’s about listening and seeing an image, then seeing if you can give it time to come to the surface. Sometimes an idea comes too soon and you do not know what to do with it; too late, and you may have missed the moment, the fire has gone out. So listen for the moment and try and draw something out. This is a very delicate calibration of listening and time taking.
Another experience I think is common to poets is that some poems walk in ready-made and some take forever to form. There are two or three of mine about which I can say they wrote themselves and I could hear the logic, the direction and the shape from the start. For example, this will be a ten-line stanza. At other times, you may have two or three lines and then nothing happens for months.
I am interested in the poetic stream that you are following. There is a wonderful comment from Wordsworth, who said “the poet speaks not to be heard but to be overheard.” How do you reconcile that train of thought with your role as an archbishop, in which you had the imperative of having to take decisions. As a theologian, how does that burden bear on you?
Of course there are decisions you have to take as an archbishop. That is what you are there for. However, it’s a process in which you try to take as many views as possible, balance out what you think is for the overall good; take a deep breath; say a lot of prayers; decide and live with the consequences. As I am not the infallible Pope, there was no guarantee of getting that process right, but you live with it.
Putting that into the context of theology, I have a deep theological commitment that only the whole Church knows the whole truth. In other words, the more voices you are listening to in that process the better. Even if you make a decision, the day after you should turn back to those who may be disappointed and say “that doesn’t mean I have stopped listening”. We can carry on the conversation even though a decision has been made. I say that theologically as well as pragmatically.
Theology does itself come to points of decision. A few centuries in the early Church and you had creeds emerging, crystallising what we want to say collectively. We can’t roll those back but those creeds are not a tombstone on discussion. Poetry is something that keeps alive those dimensions of humanity and belief that not even the finest creed can capture. I found I was burdened with decision making because it doesn’t come naturally to me. I like to be liked – neither really good qualities in an Archbishop of Canterbury! I continued to be both a theologian and a poet precisely because I wanted to keep this in the context of theology.
There is an implicit order in your title – AB of C (Archbishop of Canterbury). You have talked about different kinds of language, describing and representing, and you have talked about poetry which is metrical, measured and ordered. Can you give examples of implicit orders in faith or society because of the different kinds of languages you have talked about?
I grew up in the 1960s with all sorts of talk about civil rights. Increasingly, I came to think of the language of human rights as thin and problematic, unless it has a clear sense of what is human built into it. Part of my theological journey in the last 15 years has again and again been about exploring what I think you are calling the order implicit in something like human rights, by thinking through what I mean as a Christian, by thinking of a human being made in the image of God. If we are looking for order in human affairs, then we need a robust picture of what human is.
Why do we still need God in the 21st Century?
The 21st Century is not bad if you live in certain parts of Edinburgh, but not so good if you are in The Congo, Syria or Iraq. Suffering remains fundamental and very real in many places. But God is there not just to make us feel better. God comes in to enhance and enrich our humanity to its fullest capacity. He is interested in our joy, not in solving our problems; in enriching our hearts and minds. That is needed now as much as ever, if not more.
When I was a boy, I wasn’t bright but I was sensitive. I wrote an essay about suffering, looking at suicide and the Holocaust and other aspects. I was so disturbed I went to my Head of English and asked him to comment on where this should be going. He simply wrote across in large letters: ‘ACCEPTANCE.’ You have been talking about your belief that Jesus Christ’s life, death and resurrection is true and this is the foundation of all you have done. But I am very frightened by your philosophical thinking sometimes and the way it challenges certainties. Can you comment on what I was trying to do with my essay and what you would have said.
Speaking as an unrepentant intellectual, someone within the Church has to go and do some of the complicated work and imagine in advance how difficult it can get and lay a few foundations. There are many people who say religion belongs to the stupid; I don’t believe that. It matters that the Church gives people space to explore intellectual ideas. But there is no way around the imperative; when in a church on Sunday morning to find language that is most effective and straightforward – horses for courses. My task is to try and kindle imagination and faith. All I have been saying tonight and in the Gifford Lectures is that however complicated the systems, the pause at the end of the concert is what matters as far as faith is concerned. Your essay and the response you received says a lot there.