Saturday, April 26, 2008


There are a number of interesting aspects to Rowan Williams' recent talk on The spiritual and the religious - is the territory changing? A ever, he has some creative things to say. But much more attention needs to be paid, I feel, to why 'organised religion' has so often veered in the opposite direction to the one that Williams (rightly) feels is more truthfully inherent in the claims of the Gospel, certainly. I know I would say this, but the missing element in the picture he gives is a clear commitment to a post-Christendom vision - one which envisages the church in theological and practical distinction from the kind of power games that it has played in the past and is still playing. He wants the benefits of this without looking at the institutional contradiction of his position.

It is hard for the head of an Established Church to do more than move around the edges of the post-Christendom argument it seems. As a friend astutely commented to me recently: "In contrasting religion at its best with more mediocre forms of spirituality, it seems to me that he is making the same mistake – albeit in a more nuanced form – as the militant atheists who write or comment on blogs [and] in the newspapers. Above all, he avoids confronting the issue of the power in faith communities." This includes the confrontation within such communities between liberating and constraining imaginations of what 'religion' and 'spirituality' (neither of which are my favourite words) mean, and how to relate to others - including those who are conceiving a journey of hope in a variety of post-religious terms. Hoped-for generosity is not enough.

Some of this will come up in the discussion I have this afternoon with the Fellowship of Reconciliation council in Oxford, I imagine, which is looking at peacemaking beyond Christendom. Here's a key part of Williams' argument, which I'd like to be true, but which needs considerably more work (as I have no doubt he is aware):

The better we understand the distinctiveness of religious claims, the better we understand the centrality within them of non-violence. That is to say, the religious claim, to the extent that it defines itself as radically different from mere local or transitory political strategies, is more or less bound to turn away from the defence or propagation of the claims by routinely violent methods, as if the truth we were talking about depended on the capacity of the speaker to silence all others by force. Granted that this is how classical communal religion has all too regularly behaved; but the point is that it has always contained a self-critique on this point. And that growing self-awareness about religious identity, which has been one paradoxical consequence of the social and intellectual movement away from such an identity, makes it harder and harder to reconcile faith in an invulnerable and abiding truth with violent anxiety as to how it is to be defended.

In short, as religion – corporate, sacramental and ultimately doctrinal religion – settles into this kind of awareness, it becomes one of the most potent allies possible for genuine pluralism – that is, for a social and political culture that is consistently against coercion and institutionalised inequality and is committed to serious public debate about common good. Spiritual capital alone, in the sense of a heightened acknowledgement especially among politicians, businessmen and administrators of dimensions to human flourishing beyond profit and material security, is helpful but is not well equipped to ask the most basic questions about the legitimacy of various aspects of the prevailing global system. The traditional forms of religious affiliations, in proposing an 'imagined society', realised in some fashion in the practices of faith, are better resourced for such questions. They lose their integrity when they attempt to enforce their answers; and one of the most significant lessons to be learned from the great shift towards post-religious spiritual sensibility is how deeply the coercive and impersonal ethos of a good deal of traditional religion has alienated the culture at large.

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