Thursday, October 25, 2007


I'm pleased to see that Lambeth - with a little encouragement from me, among others - has made available in good time the delivered text of Rowan Williams's recent public lecture at the University of Swansea on 'Misunderstanding Religion'. (Given that bits of it have been quoted widely in the media, it is good to have the complete version, and it becomes immediately clear that one or two accounts have walked right past its subtlety and care... as is the way of reporting on intellectual endeavours these days, sadly.)

I am about to highlight some excerpts and offer commentary for Ekklesia, but thought I'd immediately pop something up here. The two main points of Williams' (gentle, other than on meme postulates) contention with Dawkins, mentioned at the beginning of the excerpt below, are dealt with at some length in the lecture. So if you want to understand more, go there. Taking chunks from what Rowan says is always tricky, because he is very careful in the way he weaves his ideas, examples and propositions together. I've chosen a piece on the fiduciary dimensions of common knowledge and communication, because the simplistic notion has got around - promoted by Dawkins and others - that 'faith' is divorced from, unaccountable within, and the antithesis or denial of, rationality; rather than what it can be - the critical practice and awareness of a trust that is needed for the whole enterprise of reasoning to work at all.

Of course Williams would be the first to say - and indeed has said here - that this does not necessarily entail faith in God. But he would also contend, as I would, that rightly understood (that is, differently understood to some popular caricatures) faith in God is, while clearly contestable, quite reasonable: that is, it is capable of being accounted for in ways that make sense, though without claims to invulnerability. These ways cannot simply be deduced from, or reduced to, forensic statements or analogies about how we 'know' things and processes within the universe however, which is the logical impossibility demanded by some dogmatic forms of atheism. Rather, a fiduciary framework is epistemically entailed in God-talk because of the claimed nature of what it seeks to address - a transcending Giver, Gift and Giving which are, by definition, not specifiable features of the universe but the unconditioned and unconditionable source of it. This isn't an evasion, as some claim. It's simply a way of saying what is logically meant by God once we have stripped back, for the purposes of clarity, what Williams calls the "unguarded terms" of popular religious expression. Nicholas Lash unpacks this very well in his writings, not least in The Beginning And The End of Religion, and I have tried to follow suit in What Difference Does God Make Today? and various other pieces, including Three ways to make sense of one God. OK, here's Rowan Williams:

You can misunderstand religion as a survival strategy; you can misunderstand religion as a form of explanation. And staying within that second issue for a moment: it’s not a question about bad scientific explanations and good scientific explanations. Scientific explanation always looks for specific causes inside the universe. That’s what science is. Theological language, religious language, asks if there is a ground for the very idea of a regular world of which you can make sense. And religious language perhaps appropriately therefore at the very least reminds the scientist that in every intelligible act there is an act of faith. I’m not suggesting that when the scientist goes into the laboratory every morning, he or she renews consciously with a little recitation of creed and canticles, a belief that what’s going to go on during the day will make sense. Yet the act of faith which says we can communicate with each other in consistent and coherent ways is a real act of faith. Even at the most trivial level, when we speak to each other we make a great many rather remarkable assumptions... But my point is that whenever we communicate we assume there is something we can trust in language which will allow us to move forward, to explore, to listen, to argue, even. And without that act of faith we wouldn’t begin any process of explanation or theory in any area whatsoever.

[and then a fair bit further on] We have no obvious knock-down arguments. But we say to the critic ‘look at how the focal practices of religion – not seen as survival strategy or explanation - as they actually exist. Look at how they work to create self-questioning and trust. That self-questioning and trust may be going forward on a truthful basis or not. No external force is going to settle that for us. But before writing off the religious enterprise watch, watch what happens as persons of faith grow in these habits of self-questioning and trust; in the understanding of what the Christian would undoubtedly call justification by faith.

Self-questioning and trust are not peculiar to religious people. Just as impressive moral integrity is not – God knows – the preserve of religious people. But for the secularist, for the systematic critic of religion, moral integrity, self-inspection, fundamental trust must either be reduced to a personal option (I do this because I choose to do this) or it must be reduced to another form of survival strategy. And some of the problems with that, I’ve already touched upon. The religious believer says in contrast, that moral integrity, self-inspection, honesty, openness and trust are styles of living which communicate the character of an eternal and free agency, the agency that most religions call God. Agree or disagree, is what I would want to say to our contemporary critics, but at least grasp that that is what is being claimed and talked about. Don’t distract us from the real arguments by assuming that religion is an eccentric survival strategy or an irrational form of explanation.

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