Favourite extracts from Rowan Williams

Posted in Uncategorized by rumblegumption on March 16, 2012

[Jacques] Maritain is far from claiming that there are no moral questions to be asked of artistic production, but his argument needs some teasing out. A bad man may produce fine work; but there is a precariousness in this. The ineptitude of a person’s moral perception is a factor that can easily spill over into other ineptitudes. A bad man whose badness takes the shape of self-centred exploitation of his material to advance his personality is a bad artist. And that habit of self-centredness is unlikely to be simply a matter of artistic practice, but connected with or rooted in other moral failures. The artist as artist has a morality, and it is not wholly divorced from the rest of what constitutes morality. (Grace and Necessity, 39)

He [sc. Dostoevsky] began the novel’s [sc. The Idiot] drafts with the idea of someone who advances to some sort of holiness through a career of extreme moral behaviour; it is the ‘innocence’ of his violent extremism that carries him through to renewal. But the various plans failed to work themselves out. Gradually the central figure — epileptic, vulnerable, capable of drastic and shocking acts of forgiveness — came into focus as a representation, from his first appearance, of Christian love, and Dostoevsky clearly thought at one stage that he was constructing a ‘Christ figure’. A good many commentators have taken him at his word; but this, too, misses the point. The final version of this enigmatic character is in one sense an embodiment of Christian gentleness, but it is a gentleness deeply flawed by lack of self-knowledge, confused desire and passivity — an ironic picture that reflects what some would indeed see as Christlikeness, yet incorporates an oblique recognition of something like a Nietzschean critique of Christianity as dealing in unrealities and depending on the resentment of the weak. Myshkin as he emerges in the novel is a tragic hero in a sense that prevents him being a simple icon of Christ (though Dostoevsky mischievously gives him the physiognomy of the familiar iconography of the Saviour, and has people wondering where they have seen him before). The important issue is that Dostoevsky failed to write either a novel about the conversion of a sinner or the portrait of a saint; he wrote one of his most painfully enigmatic fictions because he could not ‘find’ the character of either saint or sinner, and so produced a singular, complex character whose depth is precisely in his failure to be either saint or sinner, his sheer marginality in what we ordinarily think of as the moral world. He is a ‘christ figure’ in his alienness to mere morality; but — human and not divine — this alienness destroys him and implicates him in the destruction of others. The haunting reminiscence of Christ that Myshkin carries with him is a matter of intensely ironic imagining, not a pious aura. Here was elsewhere, Bakhtin is a necessary voice to remind us of Dostoevsky’s refusal to write in straight lines. (Grace and Necessity, 146)


Herbert McCabe, a prominent British Catholic theologian and moralist, wrote many years ago – not without a touch of mischief – that ‘ethics is entirely concerned with doing what you want’; going on to explain that our problem is that we live in a society, and indeed as part of a fallen humanity, that deceives us constantly about what we most deeply want. The point that both [Rush] Rhees and McCabe are trying to make is emphatically not that ethics is a matter of the individual’s likes or dislikes, but, on the contrary, that it is a difficult discovering of something about yourself, a discovering of what has already shaped the person you are and is moulding you in this or that direction. You might put it a bit differently by saying that you are trying to discover what is most ‘natural’ to you, though this begs too many questions for comfort. Rhees notes, very pertinently, that if I say I must discover something about myself in order to make certain kinds of decisions with honesty, this is not purely ‘subjective’: I am in pursuit of a truth that is not at my mercy, even if it is a truth about myself. And when the decision is made, I shall not at once know for certain that it is ‘right’ – in the sense that I might know if it were a matter of performing an action in accordance with certain rules: it may be that only as years pass shall I be able to assess something I have done as the ‘natural, or truthful decision. (On making moral decisions)


People learn how to tell the story of their own lives in a coherent way when they have some broader picture to which to relate it. You can only tell the story of your own life, it seems, when it isn’t just your story, or even the story of those immediately close to you. … Think for a moment of how you talk about learning or growing: certain experiences are seen as pushing you forward or pushing you into a larger landscape. You interpret what’s happened to you, you don’t just record a series of disconnected moments. You change your job: where did the decision come from, what does it contribute to your picture, your story of how your life develops? (And yes that is a question I have been asking quite a bit lately!) You haven’t seen that particular friend for a while; is that significant? You decide it’s time you made or remade your will – what’s prompted that? And all this is possible because we all at some level work with a usually unspoken sense of what a fuller or more mature human life looks like. We all know the frustration of trying to relate to someone who doesn’t seem to learn, who doesn’t notice when their experience appears to lead them round in circles. We need ways of getting a story straight so that we don’t have to go on repeating it, repeating patterns of behaviour that never move us on. Groundhog Day is a comic horror, but a real enough one: we know how easily we can get stuck in repeating patterns. And the vague and unspoken sense of what maturity might look like at least begins to open us up to the idea that others may be moving in similar rhythms to us, and so to the sense of a shared story that doesn’t just fade away when I’m no longer around. All good therapy and counselling have something to do with this business of getting the story straight; but what is different about religious belief is its bold claim that there is a story of the whole universe without which your own story won’t make sense. (Richard Dimbleby Lecture)


What [Isaiah Berlin’s] perspective brings back into political reflection, political theory and philosophy, is a sense of the tragic: rational universalism, reasonable behaviour and ideals being the same for everyone, can’t deliver what it promises in terms of a resolution of every conflict which honours every positive moral principle, so the decisions that are made, especially in the public sphere, political decisions, are always going to involve loss, compromise, some degree of failure in responding to rational ethical imperatives.  All public and political decisions are in some sense less than ideal, in some sense they involve a loss. If ‘[w]hat the entire Enlightenment has in common is denial of the central Christian doctrine of original sin’ ([Two Concepts of Liberty]., p.264), the pluralism that comes from this reaction to the Enlightenment brings back a sober recognition if not exactly of original sin, then of the original limits of human aspiration.  The problem is that so many of the advocates of the counter-Enlightenment – the resistance to universal Rationalism say what they do with the aim of discrediting or paralysing any idea that planned social change is possible; they begin from a deeply pessimistic assessment of human capacities, so the theorists of counter-Enlightenment will regularly argue for high levels of social control, harsh penal systems and minimal social mobility.  The people most critical of the Enlightenment in the early nineteenth century especially, are people with a strong vested interest with things staying as they are – so that you can’t have arguments about how to make things better: if you try to make things better you’ll only make things worse. In a nutshell you may as well stick with absolute Monarchs and lots of executions. So, Berlin’s challenge is about how we construct some political thinking that secures not only basic ‘decency’ (a favourite word of his) but the greatest possible freedom for debate between advocates of diverse projects and priorities; the society that’s worth working for is one in which diversity is tolerated – and therefore criticism is always possible …  And that aim is not vitiated or undermined by clarity and honesty about the incompatibility of certain goods with each other in any finite political settlement. (Isaiah Berlin Lecture)

Could you believe in a faith whose fundamental narrative could clearly be shown to have been fabricated? How important is the credibility of the historical narrative to your faith?

I was asked this question in another context a couple of weeks ago and I had to reply that if the bones of Jesus were discovered in Palestine I could not be a Christian in the way that I now am. I could not celebrate the Sacraments: I could not understand the life of the Holy Spirit as I do: I might still want to be associated with some of the insights and values of the Christian tradition but you would no longer have me as Archbishop of Canterbury (I rather hope you wouldn’t have anyone as Archbishop of Canterbury!) because I actually don’t think that the Church would be credible in its central historical shape. So it does matter, and when you ask ‘could I believe in a faith whose foundations could easily be shown to have been fabricated?’ well, I have to say that that is a risk that every Christian takes: the risk of believing that a difference truly has been made to the world: a risk which depends upon the fragility of these historical affirmations. History alone doesn’t give you a knock-down argument for faith, but I couldn’t do without it because of the very nature of that faith, that at some point God worked, specifically in this way, in human history, and that was the beginning of something different. Christianity has shown itself reasonably robust in seeing-off what some people have thought to be easy and obvious attempts to shake its historical credibility, but that there remains an element of risk I think is undeniable. And that is, depending on your temperament, either something very worrying or something really rather exhilarating. There is a degree of adventure at least, about this, as Dorothy Sayers liked to say about the Christian claim: call it what you like, but not boring. (Answer to questions after Holy Week lecture 2008 on ‘Faith and History’)


Same-sex love annoyingly poses the question of what the meaning of desire is in itself, not considered as instrumental to some other process (the peopling of the world); and this immediately brings us up against the possibility not only of pain and humiliation without any clear payoff’, but – just as worryingly – of non-functional joy: or, to put it less starkly, joy whose material “production” is an embodied person aware of grace.  It puts the question which is also raised for some kinds of moralist by the existence of the clitoris in women; something whose function is joy. lf the creator were quite so instrumentalist in “his” attitude to sexuality, these hints of prodigality and redundancy in the way the whole thing works might cause us to worry about whether he was, after all, in full rational control of it. But if God made us for joy… ? (The Body’s Grace)

In its most robust form, in pre-modern societies, honour is a category far more solid and deep-rooted than ‘reputation’ in our own world, with which it might be easily confused. Honour is part of a tight mesh of perceptions and evaluations of what you do, which teaches you what you may think of yourself and expect of yourself, as well as what you may expect of others and they of you. Loss of honour may result from accepting without protest a failure on someone else’s part to give you what is owed to you, or from a failure on your own part to conform to what might rightly be expected of you. And such a loss means dropping out of an entire system of exchange, of mutual perception or recognition: nobody knows how to talk to you any longer. There have been, and perhaps there still are, societies where you can die of dishonour, because there is no convention left by which you can go on being intelligibly connected with other people. You cannot reconstruct for yourself what their formalised perceptions and evaluations provided for you. Quite literally, you cannot respect yourself. … Honour formalises systems of recognition, ground upon which conversation can proceed. More than this, it assumes that the capacity of others to recognise me, to talk to me, is indispensable to how I perceive and experience my self. To lose some dimension of how I am seen and regularly responded to is to lose party of the substance of myself … It is tempting in our environment to misunderstand this dependence on how I am seen as a sign of individual weakness, as if it were always the mark of an unhealthy lack of proper self-regard. But for cultures in which honour is significant, self-regard is learned precisely and only as a way of being-in-society, not as the individual’s assertion of an abstract or pre-social identity. This is why in such cultures shame is both a personal and social penalty: it is not just a particularly acute form of embarrassment, which I may brazen out or which I hope will be forgotten, but a real restriction on what I am able to think and feel about myself, as much as on what others think of me, make of me, say to me and understand about me.

A society without even residual traces of honour and shame would be a very odd one. it would have to work on the assumption that what finally secured my identity was, at the end of the day, the exercise of my will, the resources of an individual energy. The constant in my experience would be that I am always able to choose to construct a worthwhile picture of my existence; and in this sense I should be invulnerable to that enormous investment of my identity in connectedness with others that is typical of a society oriented towards honour. You might then expect, in a culture without a lively concept of honour, all kinds of difficulties about appealing as a moral sanction to the dangers of diminishing the solidity of the self by ignoring the perceptions of others, since the self’s solidity would always be secured by the will’s freedom to affirm itself. You might expect a situation in which shame was no longer any kind of regulating factor in what was thought or said about behaviour. There might be a variety of pragmatic replacements for it — the dread of embarrassment, of appearing out of step, the fear of losing public plausibility — but these would have to do with possible disadvantages, weakenings of a negotiating position in the sphere of public transactions, not with possible moral injury to the self. You would expect an immense investment of energy in strengthening the image of the willing or choosing subject, whether by a therapeutic rhetoric of ‘feeling strong’ in the face of adverse circumstances, or by a market environment encouraging ideas of free-floating consumer liberty and offering a range of styles as an aid to a creative will. You would, in short, expect an environment rather like ours in the contemporary North Atlantic world. (Lost Icons, 120–3)