Rowan Williams, Archbishop of Canterbury
pondering over Christian faith and politics
In the Doctrine of Divorce, John Milton the great English poet commented that truth comes like a bastard into the world with nothing but ignominy to he who gave her birth. Thomas Hardy quoted those words with approval in his poem entitled, Lausanne in Gibbon's Old Garden, when he put them into the mouth of the equally cynical historian. Not all throughout history have agreed with Gibbon and Milton, many have seen truth as a weapon whose potency is underestimated and in the light of the resistance to colonial rule conducted by men like Mahatma Gandhi that perception seemed to take on reality. Indeed the idea that truth itself is an ideological weapon of surpassing strength is what backs up the modern idea of protest as a political weapon. Every Trotskyite standing remotely by his banner for redistribution, every peace advocate marching in their millions through Trafalgar Square, all reject by their presence the idea that Milton so cynically expressed and that Hardy through Gibbon so enthusiastically affirmed.
The position of truth in politics is one of the key questions of our time. Its one that the current Archbishop of Canterbury in his lecture
at Kings turned to. Attitudes to it provide a clue in my view to the theological battles in all three major religions about their direction and their implication in modern political struggle. Rowan Williams believes that there is truth within the world and that he as a theist has found it. He also believes that because of that he needs no protection from law or even political activism to vindicate his conduct. All he needs to do to achieve his aims is to explain them and people will come onside. Williams is interested in social change but through explanation and conversion not force.
As such what Williams's speech doesn't do is define the aims of Christian politics- he talks a little about them mentioning denying euthanasia and more support for the poor- but not much. The real interest is in the means and here he creates an opposition and as he would be aware its a very old opposition. On the one hand you have factions or interest groups, on the other the Church of Christ. The distinction between the two is found in their political behaviour. A faction behaves the way it is because it is not linked ultimately to the font of truth, God. It acts with selfishness and attempts to exclude by force others from the conversation. A true Christian Church is not a faction, but operates by the force of example. Because its actions are undoubtedly, in Williams's terms moral, and because any fair judge would admit their morality, any fair judge will follow their examples. The Christian in politics therefore is not so much a politician as he transcends politics, operating by example and proving by conduct and tolerant argument the equal of his more selfish factional counterparts.
Williams provides a brief account of what he thinks that the Christian can morally contribute to the world. He suggests that the Christian can offer both a vision of politics that rises not out of interest but out of a communion with God. He also suggests that the Christian offers a perspective which is universal- as universal as the love of God.
the model for Anglican politics?
Dr Williams puts his argument in the context of Mahatma Gandhi's movement of satyagraha, soul force. He argues that Gandhi's movement in India offers us a real world example of the work that superior moral example can do. Gandhi, in Williams's argument, is the man who employed these tactics to succeed. By using Gandhi Williams hopes to rescue his argument from the accusation that such a mode of political education- for that is what he is talking about- is otherworldly, unrealistic and utopian. He suggests that we can see in the actions of Gandhi the example which the Church should follow. Williams does not assert that the Church has always followed the path of Gandhi, but asserts that that is the path that the Church ought to follow. The Church ought to assert both the fact that unlike a faction its prescriptions for society are based on truth, and secondly that its prescriptions are universal. They stand upon the foundation of a universal human relationship with God. This Williams finds is identical within all the monotheistic faiths, drawing from Islam the idea that there can be no compulsion in religion and from Christianity the idea of a Christian individual being, to quote John Winthrop quoting the Bible, a city on the hill.
What sense there is in Williams's vision of Christianity in politics depends on your attitude to theology. Williams's argument is based on the fact as he sees it that Christianity is true. There is though a large percentage of the population who feel that they can derive a morality without necessarily believing in Christ or any God whatsoever. To go further there are many Christians for whom Williams's ideas will seem repugnant, many Christians believe that rationality is an untrustworthy guide to the world. From Cromwell's army to Joseph De Maistre the case against reason has been made again and again by learned and less learned Christians of all kinds of congregations. If truth is something only bequeathed by an act of divine grace, that may be predestined to be reserved from some human beings, then the idea of an example forcing a conversion is merely poppycock. It makes divinity an affair of human reason. Your attitude ultimately to Williams's view depends accepting both his moral outlook and his belief that the example of virtue will convince others to be virtuous. It will need no more positive action.
Williams's vision in this talk is of a Christian engagement with politics that is pluralist. Pluralism is the idea that various competing ideas can coexist. That conflicts obviously with the idea of a thesis that is uniquely true and just. If my idea is uniquely true and just, then why should I respect yours. Williams attempts to get through this dilemma by suggesting that a true faith would be unselfish and unworried by human conflict. He suggests that a true faith would reveal its truth by its meekness and its willingness to lead by example. Hence a true faith sits easily with pluralistic understandings of the world.
Making the claim that you have unique access to the truth may though represent a threat to pluralism still. Many of us doubt that Williams is able to make the claim he is making. Furthermore the claim to truth he is making is based not on argument or repeatable experiment, but upon an inner sense of faith. An inner sense which is fundamentally subjective and therefore individual: I can't argue about your religious experiences because I haven't had them. Public discussion becomes more difficult if your argument consists of ultimately saying, I believe x, I have had an experience that is unrepeatable that x, and I will not produce anything else but it because its the truth. Given that pluralistic societies are based around conversation, satyagraha is ultimately not conversation, it is quiet, pacific, quietist insistence.
That brings me to another issue. Williams wants Christians and religious people in general to ground their faith on the fact that they and they only have access to the truth. Again that isn't easy to marry with a pluralistic society, not only does pluralism involve conversation and its difficult to converse about faith, but it also involves compromise. To what extent can you compromise on the truth. Compromise takes two forms. Firstly of course there is the compromise of electoral politics, to what extent would a satyagraha movement be willing to compromise say on euthanasia with a pro-euthanasia party. But of course secondly it takes the form of realising that people will live in ways that you don't like. Would Williams welcome Christians sitting outside gay weddings and passing out leaflets that say that homosexuals are going to hell? I suspect he wouldn't, but that would be another form of his soul force.
Pope John Paul II
less keen on soul force
Obviously it is harsh to take the Archbishop's lecture and do more than explain its outlook. A lecture of thirty minutes is not sufficient to answer all these questions, and there are plenty more that we could ask both from a theological standpoint and a political standpoint. It is interesting though to watch the Anglican primate making a real effort on these matters. It reflects the fact that during modern times we have become pluralist. Anglicanism and religion in general for most historical time has been monist, banning those that advocate atheism or other religions, persecuting them and persecuting those whose moral conduct the religious disapprove of.
There is a less theoretical concern about this as well. For the Archbishop's concerns don't seem to have reached others. The previous Pope was keen on a reference to God and the unique Christian heritage of Europe within the European constitution. He viewed and politicians in Poland, Spain and Sweden followed him in viewing God as a guarentor of any political system. Far from inspiring via soul force, the Pope wanted legislation to back the special place of the Church in the European community.
The Archbishop seems tentatively to be reaching beyond that, to some kind of compromise with post-enlightenment society. Reaching perhaps towards a compromise between the the insistance that he has a revelation from God and that society no longer automatically will bend its knee to that revelation. He finds that compromise in the idea that human beings will naturally yield to the truth, that Milton and Hardy were wrong.
Perhaps the Archbishop hasn't achieved that yet, but its interesting to see the attempt being made at all.