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Tag: Rowan Williams

Rowan Williams on Tolstoy

Despite what you may think, this is not a broadcast on the art of pogonotrophy (yes, I did steal that word from David Bentley Hart). It is a fifteen-minute long radio ‘essay’ on Tolstoy’s literary art and its relations to his religious conversion. Rowan also has interesting things to say about the relative differences between the Tolstoyan and the Dostoevskian God.

Eagleton on Dostoevsky’s Grand Inquisitor

If you never found time to read Eagleton’s Holy Terror then this article in Lapham’s Quarterly is a pretty good summary of all his main arguments.

The Grand Inquisitor ranks among those who regard God as their adversary. He believes that like a brutal despot, God loads on men and women more than they can bear; the burden he loads on them is known not as tithe or tax but freedom. However, this overlooks God’s own solidarity with human weakness, which is known as Jesus. On Calvary, God proves feeble and fleshly even unto death. His only signifier is the tortured body of one who spoke out for love and justice and was done to death by the state. Only if one can look on this terrible failure and still live can one lay a foundation for anything more edifying. Only by being entombed in the earth can one reach for the sky. It is in the place of excrement, as Yeats reminds us, that love has pitched his mansion. Any moral idealism that refuses this truth is just so much ideology.

In relation to this, you might want to check out a pretty much unread review that Eagleton wrote in 2008 of Rowan Williams’s book on Dostoevsky.

John Lennon, Rowan Williams and Grace

Having recently been pondering Badiou’s concept of ‘event’, I was surprised to come across the following passage in Rowan Williams’s Dostoevsky: Language, Faith and Fiction:

Christ is apprehended when something not planned or foreseen in the contents of the world [which he defines as ‘the ensemble of true propositions’] breaks through, in an act or event that represents the gratuity of love or joy. And such an event alters what is possible by offering the will what might be called a “truthful” or appropriate direction for desire.

In this light, the surprisingly theological tenor of Badiou’s atheism couldn’t be more apparent. But it is not Badiou that I want to discuss here; it is John Lennon.

I’ve just watched Nowhere Boy, Sam Taylor Wood’s biopic of John Lennon’s difficult early years. It portrays his painful adolescence, torn between an aunt who has always acted as his mother, a biological mother who effectively abandoned him, and a general fatherlessness (his biological father abandoned him and his uncle dies when he’s a teenager). Aside from its immediate interest as an insight into the sources of Lennon’s artistic genius, I was surprised at just how powerfully it demonstrated the potential damage that suburbia can do to people.

The problem with suburbia is not just its soullessness, its general conservativism and existential ennui; if this film is anything to go by, the real problem is twofold. Firstly, suburbia is a geography of stymied desire. The architectural economy of the suburbs, with its identical rows of individual monadic homes and its front gardens which act as shields against spontaneous fellowship, is such that humans’ desire becomes penned in and pent up. The Oedipal drama unfolds within a severely restricted space, across a numerically limited cast, and there is simply no outlet for excess libidinal charge. Some of the most touching moments of this film are when characters confront themselves in mirrors over mantelpieces, as if searching for a spiritual enlargement of their world. Lennon, of course, in an age where large-scale communal politics or the Church are no longer liveable options, will find his outlet in the ultimate cathectic substitute: rock and roll.

The second part of the problem is the dreariness of suburban architecture. There is a scene in the film which takes place during a post-funeral get-together following the death of Lennon’s mother. John is confused, enraged, and grieving and takes out his wrath by punching Paul McCartney to the ground. As soon as he does so, it is as if he awakens from a drugged stupor; he apologises, lifts up McCartney, and then the two friends, both now motherless (McCartney’s lost to cancer), hold each other in the middle of the street, weeping. At this point the camera switches to an aerial shot, and we see the pair stood stock-still in the suburban street, lined with identical squat brown semis. And when I saw this, it occurred to me: this street is not designed for this. These buildings cannot bear the emotional burden of what is being asked of them. The two lost boys, in a road in which they should not be stood, have opened up to something beyond the empirical stranglehold of their surroundings. The brown bricks have tried to imprison this unseemly drama, to generate the conditions in which such excess is not even contemplated; but the boys have ruptured suburbia. They have dared to lose and they have dared to love in a situation structured by the will-never-to-love.

And this, perhaps, is what is meant by Rowan Williams when he speaks of that moment of gratuity which occurs in a situation governed by a logic alien to any such gratuitousness.

Penis Rings: You May! Why Sex Doesn’t Matter

May I? Yes, you may!

May I? Yes, you may!

We are obsessed with sex. It’s everywhere. You can’t turn your head but suck a breast, cock an eye but glimpse a cleavage, change the channel but catch the dying groans of someone else’s ecstasy. In fact, if you come across the latter then you might well be watching Durex’s much-publicised advert for what it describes as ‘pleasure gel’. Durex used to be a company that made condoms, pure and simple. Today, however, it is a £40m brand, a promoter of such exoticisms as vibrators, penis rings, oils and lubricants, and – most importantly – a symptom of where we stand ideologically in terms of sex.

Now, there are two ways of approaching this phenomenon, and both – I hope – avoid the common errors of, on the one hand, predictable conservative fundamentalism (sex is sinful…blah blah blah) and, on the other hand, the orgiastic mantra of an ‘18 to 30s’ holiday. The first approach derives from Slavoj Žižek, a Slovenian Marxist psychoanalyst, who has been described as the ‘Elvis Presley of cultural theory’. Throughout his work he stresses that whereas in traditional psychoanalysis the superego was effectively the ‘No!’ of the father, that which forbids (“Can I do this?” squeaks the meek child “NO!” booms the castrating father), today’s superego might be said to be the polar opposite: ‘You may!’ Now, superficially, that seems fairly harmless: ‘What a nice superego! It’ll let me do whatever I want! I can drink and whore till my heart’s content!’ The downside, however, is that ‘You may!’ is a command, and all commands have a nasty side, something in them which is excessive. Suddenly, what seemed like permission to drink becomes a command: ‘You WILL drink excessively and you WILL enjoy it!’ Who hasn’t experienced a night out where, after drinking so much you vomited, you then felt compelled to go on drinking, since that’s ‘fun’? The same goes for sex today. Just because we are a post-hippie, everything-goes generation does not mean that we are a flourishing one. Being free to have sex where, when and with whom we like often transforms maliciously into the Durex implicit imperative ‘I must have sex and it must be good, or else.’

Unfortunately, Bernini never read my blog.

Unfortunately, Bernini never read my blog.

Given that that is the current state of play, the second approach to the problem has the potential to be fairly radical, and it comes from my favourite of unlikeliest sources: the Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams. He observes that, despite the fuss that the Church has made historically over sex and sexuality, if you consider the New Testament carefully then you’ll see that sex just isn’t that important. Here is a quote from an essay he wrote over ten years ago, but which has recently been making the rounds on several theology blogs (Ben Myers’s and Halden’s in particular):

“What is baffling and sometimes outrageous to the modern reader is just this assumption that, in certain circumstances, sex can’t matter that much. And I want to suggest that the most important contribution the New Testament can make to our present understanding of sexuality may be precisely in this unwelcome and rather chilling message. We come to the New Testament eagerly looking for answers, and we meet a blank or quizzical face: why is that the all-important problem? Not all human goods are possible all the time, and it would be a disaster to think that there was some experience without which nothing else made sense. Only if sexual intimacy is seen as the last hiding-place of real transcendence, to borrow a phrase from the American novelist, Walker Percy, could we assume that it mattered above all else.”[1]

In other words, precisely because we live in an age obsessed with sex and sexuality, we tend to stake almost everything on those terms. What we forget, and what the New Testament suggests, is that sex just isn’t important. Indeed, in a follow-up post, Halden provocatively concludes that “If Christ is truly the fullness and definition of authentic humanity, we must say categorically that marriage, sex, and parenthood tell us nothing whatsoever of ultimate significance about humanness”. And in this day and age, that is in no small way shocking.


[1] Rowan Williams, “Forbidden Fruit”, in Martyn Percy (ed.), Sexuality and Spirituality in Perspective (London: Darton, Longman and Todd, 1997), pp.25-26

Rowan Williams’s Radical Christian Mission

Rowan Williams

Rowan Williams

Last week, the Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, gave a lecture on Christian mission. What, you might be thinking, could Rowan Williams and Christian mission ever, even after having smoked the world’s beefiest bifter, have to do with me? Well, here goes a shot in the dark…

To begin with it might help if we turn to that bastion of lexical resourcefulness, Dictionary.com, for a simple definition of ‘mission’ in the Christian context: ‘a group of persons sent by a church to carry on religious work, esp. evangelization in foreign lands, and often to establish schools, hospitals, etc.’ In general, even such a neutral description of Christian missionary work as this one can conjure grim spectres of rapacious colonial expeditions in the minds of most enlightened liberals. Having no expertise in the history of such expeditions myself, I’m far from qualified to comment on the justification of these conceptual ghouls. Nonetheless, the stereotype of Christian mission which exists in the minds of secular westerners might look something like this: the white, male, Christian from North-Western Europe arrives in Africa with a fleet of war-ships, over-brimming with brainless, God-fearing mercenaries; he approaches the terrified locals (whom he refers to as ‘savages’) who had been leading lives of perfect contentment up until this point, and stands on the beach proclaiming that he has come to release them from the bondage of ignorance and wishes to shine the light of the irrepressible one true God into their lives; when the locals fail to demonstrate immediate enthusiasm at this mysterious interruption into their hallowed ways, the Christian missionary calls in the mercenaries who butcher, rape and torture at will until the terrified inhabitants of the African wilderness acquiesce and give themselves up to Christ; the said missionary then tears out the heart of one of the corpses, hoists it aloft, and as the blood drips down upon his celestial features he bellows: “The truth of the Lord is written on the hearts of all men!”

In what sense, then, can Christian mission still have any relevance whatsoever to anything at all? I’ll try to keep it brief. Rowan Williams concentrates primarily on the biblical passage of Matthew 10 (the Bible, incidentally, for those of you who never read it – like me 50% of the time – is a disturbing, if invigorating, read):

These twelve Jesus sent out with the following instructions: ‘Go nowhere among the Gentiles, and enter no town of the Samaritans, but go rather to the lost sheep of the house of Israel. As you go proclaim the good news, ‘The kingdom of heaven has come near.’ Cure the sick, raise the dead, cleanse the lepers, cast out demons. You have received without payment; give without payment. Take no gold, or silver, or copper in your belts, no bag for your journey, or two tunics, or sandals, or a staff; for labourers deserve their food’.

Here’s what Rowan Williams gets from this:

  1. Jesus’ instruction to go to the ‘lost sheep of Israel’ implies that missionaries should only go there where they feel God has, in some sense, already ‘tilled the field’, somewhere where God has already prepared the way, i.e. don’t just jump on a plane with your Gideons and invade any old Amazonian patch, but rather think about where you might be needed or – dare I say it? – welcomed. (‘Start where God has started’.)
  2. ‘As you go proclaim the good news, ‘The kingdom of heaven has come near.’’ Rowan Williams reads this as an extension of the first point; when a missionary goes somewhere where they believe God is opening doors, one of the first things they should say is precisely that – God is already here amongst you at work. It seems to me as if one might draw a comparison with Plato’s ‘anamnesis’ or ‘unforgetting’: you help those to whom you go to unforget that God is always already at work amongst them. (Hang in there, all ye atheists – the main point hasn’t been broached yet.)
  3. But then what should missionaries do? Essentially, Rowan seems to think, it’s a question of changing and release: ‘Mission is release from sickness, from death, literally, from isolation (leprosy), from the demonic and the destructive forces that suck human beings down into darkness both inside and outside. Mission is crucially about tangible change, visible release, a release that at the individual level is the release from guilt and fear in respect of God which at the public and corporate level is a release from despair and oppression, from poverty and inhumanity.’ Ultimately, it is what he calls ‘Christ-shaped change’. And here we approach the main event.

It is worth quoting a whole passage from the Archbishop’s lecture:

And I put it that way so that we can remind ourselves that the change we speak of, where mission is concerned, is not simply or primarily a change of opinions or even of beliefs. First of all, it’s a change in the whole environment, a change in the world you live in. Not for nothing does St Paul speak of new creation. Not new things going on inside your head; not new concepts but a new world, a world whose newness is shown in that manifest release that’s going on in the lives of people and communities. Where do we start? Where God has started. What do we say? God is nearer that you think. What do we do? We seek to bring Christ-shaped change.

Now, as a pseudo-intellectual with Marxist proclivities, this strikes me as deeply radical. Mission is not ‘primarily a change of opinions or even of beliefs.’ This goes against all bourgeois thinking on faith. For bourgeois society, faith is something you do in your spare time: it’s a private, internal affair. (This presupposition is, of course, the upshot of the public-private divide which capitalist society exacerbates to borderline schizophrenic proportions.) But what Rowan Williams is saying is something else: mission is not about going to a farflung country and commanding a local people to tick off a checklist of the Nicene Creed, all the time leaving the external environment exactly the same as it was before. It’s about new creation, building a new worldscape, which means material newness as well as psychological novelty. Because faith, despite what many seem to think, is not just a private affair: it is lived out in reality and it recognises no public-private divide. In this sense, it has definite resonances with socialism. (It is no co-incidence that Rowan Williams is often associated with traditional leftist thinking; he was once arrested for scaling a fence during a protest organised by the Committee for Nuclear Disarmament).

Indeed, the next part of Matthew 10 simply compounds this idea of creation: ‘You have received without payment; give without payment.’ Contrary to diabolical theories of creation, orthodox theology teaches that God had absolutely no reason to create the world, but did so, rather, out of a sheer superabundance of love. (Fortunately, shareholders play no part in the Trinity, and so the triune Father, Son and Holy Spirit were blessedly free of the utilitarianism of the Alan Sugars of this world.) Likewise, Christian missionaries have freely received and so they must freely give: there is no exchange value which haunts this transaction; businesswise the figures just don’t add up. If God created the world for no reason but love, then mission is all about gratitude for that free gift.

Now, gratitude is difficult to demonstrate to whichever brothers and sisters you anticipate serving if you arrive with a fleet of stealth bombers. That might be how oil merchants like to spread their gospel – by inscribing its falsehood onto the blown-up limbs of children – but it is not recommended for followers of Christ. Rather, as Rowan Williams puts it rather succinctly: ‘Mission travels light.’ Further on, he expands:

‘we have to be very careful not to close doors by the way we plan: that is, we need to be led by the sense of where God is actively opening doors and put the initiative and energy there in the trust that somehow that action will generate the resources we need – ‘For the labourers deserve their food’.’

It seems to me that this, too, is an extension of the radical nature of mission I’ve accentuated so far. It’s not about planning a military operation, where to strike, and what we want to get out of it. Rather, it’s a case of heeding local communities, listening to what they need and helping them to bring that about. By serving a community, by putting yourself and your resources at their disposal, your deeds speak the words of the Gospel.

So, whether or not one is Christian, or socialist, or a Christian socialist, it is not unthinkable that the most unfashionable of men with the most outrageously unkempt of eyebrows, can, in a lecture on something as obscure and superficially irrelevant as Christian mission, give us a few pointers on where we’re going wrong, and how we might better live together.

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