Thursday, February 7, 2008

Has the Archibishop gone bonkers?

I was hoping to entirely ignore the latest episodes in As the Anglican World Turns, but then... who can possibly overlook Rowan Williams -- a character for all times and meta-narratives, the arch-villain or fool of right, left, and the befuddled middle (though one who is beginning to sound as though he desperately wants to get written out of the script). I've already ranted in the blogosphere about the BBC radio interview he gave earlier in the day. Some of those remarks may have been hasty and intemperate (what else are blogs for, especially the one "Where the lunatics rave"?). Nevertheless, while I am now willing to admit that there was more substance in the written text of the lecture (or at least the appearance of substance, some of the grainier details barely visible through the mist), it still answers loudly in the affirmative the question of Has the Archbishop gone bonkers?

Rowan writes,
But the point of defining legal universalism as a negative thing is that it allows us to assume, as I think we should, that the important springs of moral vision in a society will be in those areas which a systematic abstract universalism regards as 'private' – in religion above all, but also in custom and habit. The role of 'secular' law is not the dissolution of these things in the name of universalism but the monitoring of such affiliations to prevent the creation of mutually isolated communities in which human liberties are seen in incompatible ways and individual persons are subjected to restraints or injustices for which there is no public redress.

The rule of law is thus not the enshrining of priority for the universal/abstract dimension of social existence but the establishing of a space accessible to everyone in which it is possible to affirm and defend a commitment to human dignity as such, independent of membership in any specific human community or tradition, so that when specific communities or traditions are in danger of claiming finality for their own boundaries of practice and understanding, they are reminded that they have to come to terms with the actuality of human diversity - and that the only way of doing this is to acknowledge the category of 'human dignity as such' – a non-negotiable assumption that each agent (with his or her historical and social affiliations) could be expected to have a voice in the shaping of some common project for the well-being and order of a human group. It is not to claim that specific community understandings are 'superseded' by this universal principle, rather to claim that they all need to be undergirded by it. The rule of law is – and this may sound rather counterintuitive – a way of honouring what in the human constitution is not captured by any one form of corporate belonging or any particular history, even though the human constitution never exists without those other determinations. Our need, as Raymond Plant has well expressed it, is for the construction of 'a moral framework which could expand outside the boundaries of particular narratives while, at the same time, respecting the narratives as the cultural contexts in which the language[of common dignity and mutually intelligible commitments to work for certain common moral priorities] is learned and taught' (Politics, Theology and History, 2001, pp.357-8).

From "Civil and Religious Law in England: a religious perspective," a lecture by Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr. Rowan Williams, foundation lecture in Temple Festival seriesThursday 07 February 2008.

Rowan Williams somehow manages to live in his head romantic views of Christian and Muslim fundamentalism, both of which he apparently finds far superior to the secular humanism that supposedly governs British society in particular and Western culture in general, since he sees the former as rooted in the "private" realm of "custom and habit" (something apparently foreign and attractive to those who reside in academia, at least the kinds of academic places Jonathan Swift described so well). These views strike me as founded in neither a principled defense of religion nor tolerance of other cultures, but rather a cold-eyed, academic, blinking incomprehension of why so many in the U.K. are turning their backs on the Church of England, and a naive longing for the comfort and certainty of deeply entrenched "habits" and "customs" of the most vocal and visible religionists who carry on in resisting civil laws that would prohibit their own peculiar brands of prejudice, bigotry, and intolerance, at least in public life.

Whether and when civil law in a democratic society should accommodate fundamentalist religious views may well be a serious topic for discussion. But what person in his or her right mind could take seriously as a working hypothesis for the legal accommodation of Muslim and Christian fundamentalist religious views,

"the construction of a moral framework which could expand outside the boundaries of particular narratives while, at the same time, respecting the narratives as the cultural contexts in which the language ... is learned and taught"?

Only someone hopelessly lost in a post-structuralist fog.

UPDATE: Friday's The Lead has, as always, full coverage of the commentary. One I found particularly intriguing was this quote form Paul Vallely:
The error is assuming that the leader of a major church has the same intellectual freedom that he had when he was merely an eminent theologian. The cold fact is that the semiotics are entirely different. An academic may call for a nuanced renegotiation of society’s attitudes to the internal laws of religious communities. But when the Archbishop of Canterbury does that the headline follows, as night follows day: “Sharia law in UK is unavoidable, says Archbishop.”
This aptly describes the position Rowan occupies, one which he has repeatedly refused to accept or perhaps even to see. But I wonder if it nevertheless misses what may be wrong, at times, with "nuanced" academic thinking -- that it may have no bearing on how people can or should act in "real" world situations. I am not suggesting that anyone jump on the anti-intellectual bandwagon, whether it be on the religious or secular side. But it seems to me that one should not have to occupy the see of Canterbury to be called on seriously flawed thinking, the kind that claims legitimacy based on its complexity and uses the concepts of "nuance" and "tension" as masks for good old fashioned horse manure.

No comments: