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Rebellious and Responsible: On Rowan Williams’s Faith in the Public Sphere

This is the last of three papers delivered at a seminar on religion and politics that was organized with Rowan Williams, the former archbishop of Canterbury, on the occasion of his recent book Faith in the Public Square. The seminar was held at Radboud University in December 2013. The first paper, by Martijn de Koning, appears here, and the second paper, by Chantal Bax, appears here.

It has been a real pleasure to read Rowan Williams’s book Faith in the Public Sphere, not the least because of one of the first statements in the introduction: “Archbishops grow resilient and sometimes even rebellious” in the face of all possible forms of critique archbishops can expect to receive when commenting public issues. A rebellious archbishop—what more can the reader wish? An archbishop willing to take the risk of “blundering into unforeseen complexities” when trying to find the connecting points between various public questions with religious faith. No blundering as far as I can tell, but a risk, yes, there is always a risk when talking about Faith in the Public Sphere, or having faith, being faithful, in the public sphere. This is not only a risky undertaking for an archbishop, but probably for every modern believer since the days of Ignatius and Calvin, who realizes that there is a tension between good civil behavior and raising one’s voice of conscience. Hence, that there is a fundamental tension between faith and the public sphere in modernity—a tension that cannot be resolved, but should actually be regarded to be constitutive and constructive for both faith and the public sphere itself. Having read the book, it seems to me that Williams has set himself the task of showing how constructive this tension can be.

Faith in the Public Sphere. Any discussion of this issue will have to start with mapping the terrain. What is the proper place or space for this sphere? How is it organized and by what rules? The ideal public sphere is the one organized in a formal way by what Williams identifies as procedural secularism—a secularism in which the state is like a good referee, that is, the type of referee that has a good feel for the game, only gives a yellow card when absolutely necessary, and is primarily interested in the continuation of an intense and interesting game. It is the kind of state that defines its role as safeguarding peace among and equal rights for a variety of religious communities. Unlike in programmatic secularism, religion is not repressed from the public sphere in the dark corners of the private sphere, but instead it provides religious communities the opportunity to openly and freely express their views. The latter point is especially important it seems, that is, the idea that religious communities have the most liberty in a procedural secular society, hence when faith is neither banned from the public sphere nor allied with the political power itself. But also, it means that faith is more open and also more moderate when engaged in discussions in the public sphere: Faith in the Public Sphere demands flexibility on the side of faith—the willingness to take the risk of critique and self-critique. All this also means that the state ideally recognizes that the society is not as secular as one may think or hope, but that religious communities should be given the liberty to speak out in the public sphere. And this is certainly not evident in contemporary Western and non-Western societies.

Is faith then like an uninvited guest, who should nevertheless be treated with all the hospitality a guest deserves? Maybe it is better to put it the other way around: the secular society should invite as much guests at possible, also and especially those guests that are known to be notorious troublemakers because society needs critical and even undermining voices as a critical corrective. A corrective of what? Williams makes a strong plea against the instrumentalization and functionalization of people and organizations in secular modernity. A strong plea against what one may paradoxically describe as the non-humanist closure of a humanist project. In other words, in order to remain humane, the secular society needs critical, disturbing voices against its own tendency toward closure, toward subjecting everything and everybody to managerial standards—a society organized in terms of numbers and passwords, and only interested in the organization of labor in the interest of the welfare of the larger majority. Again, it is not an easy task for secularism to admit religious criticism. I agree with Williams that secularism produces and conveniently embraces certain forms of New Age spirituality or neo-conservative religiosity because of its implicit or explicit qualities (“problem-solving,” “consumerism”), hence, those forms of religiosity and spirituality that are ideologically complementary to secular functionalism and one-dimensionality. Faith however has a disruptive quality resisting functionalism or instrumentalism. Yet moreover, secularism needs this critical corrective for its own sake, and at the same time it is better served with moderate, open, and flexible religious communities willing to engage in the public sphere then with more hidden and rigorous forms of privatized faith. Eventually—if I understood the book correctly—Faith in the Public Sphere is a kind of win-win situation in which faith, though rebellious by nature, nevertheless contributes to a humanist openness in secularism, and vice versa the public sphere supports open-minded, tolerant, and flexible forms of faith. These forms of faith do not necessarily need to be liberal; they can also be orthodox, since both liberal and orthodox faiths share the same attitude, namely, “the injunction to the dispossession of all self-centred perspectives” and the recognition of “the finality of its own formulations.” In other words, the state is well advised when it gives room to orthodoxy—including Islamic orthodoxy—because of its traditional openness. I guess, problems only arise when absolute and fundamentalist positions (both religious and secular) enter the public sphere. How to deal with fundamentalism in or outside the public sphere? It is not clear how to deal with that problem—a problem which is maybe essentially not about faith, but about the problem of human aggression and intolerance in society.

Reading the manuscript, I was intrigued by the way Williams discusses the tensions between faith and secularism, notably in the chapters and passages in which he addresses the problems of the kind of programmatic secularism that excludes religion from the public sphere and in the end becomes anti-humanist and even endangers culture as a whole. What are the possibilities for change and transformation in such context? And what is the role of faith in such process? In his book Williams addresses this question arguing that Anglican have a tradition of “passive obedience” in case a state if malfunctioning. But is this the only option? It is of course a classical issue that Luther already has trouble answering: Should one be obedient if one is governed by a tyrannical malfunctioning state. His first answer is yes, but when the peasants ask for his support in their revolt against German nobility, the answer becomes no. The issue is not easy, because of the rather sharp distinction the Reformation made between the two functions of conscience, one in the service of adaptation to societal norms and behavior, and one guarding religious life. It meant of course that there could be a massive inner conflict between the two voices of conscience. There are several solutions, for example Mennonite non-conformism combined with pacifism. But we also know of the notorious activism of Calvinist groups who officially approved of political revolution. Or what about religiously motivated anarchism? It has always been an element in Western anarchistic movements from the nineteenth century onward. Or religiously motivated resistance against Nazism? In short there is a long tradition in which protest takes the form of active disobedience. I am of course curious under which circumstances Williams might approve of certain forms of non-violent active disobedience.

In his book Williams discussed the relation between spirituality and religion, arguing that the problem with many forms of contemporary spirituality lies in the idea that spiritual awareness is associated with post-religious consciousness, that is, a spirituality disconnected from the notion of a sacred reality, “an initiating agency that is independent of anything in our world” which invites a person “to make myself answerable for the good, the human welfare and spiritual health, of the human other.” Hence, contemporary post-religious spirituality lacks the awareness of transcendence (man as “object of divine intention and commitment”) and moral sensibility. In many ways opposed to this is a Christian spirituality that “stubbornly resists being made instrumental to the well-being of an unchallenged Western and capitalist modernity.” Williams clearly has a strong case when he identifies post-religious spirituality with a kind of individualistic, hedonistic attitude toward life that so easily connects with modern capitalism. But the issue is not easily decided, because of course Christian spirituality is often very individualistic and also envisions well-being, certainly in the Netherlands, particularly in the typical Dutch discussions of meaning-making, individual religiousness and well-being are central issues. A distinction between an individualistic hedonistic spirituality and religiousness including moral sensibility might well prove to fail short. We should never lose from sight the historical relation between modern capitalism, individualism, and a spirituality of well-being, on the one hand, and a whole Christian tradition focused on the vicissitudes of the individual man and his well-being. There is a fundamental problem here, and I was very glad to see that Williams does not fall in the popular trap of simply opposing individualism and religion while reducing religion to morality. One sometimes comes across this double caricature in the writings of other authors. What we need here is more critical self-awareness as regards religious motives and the way we look at Christian tradition. After all, as regards these motives it makes a difference whether, for example, Saint Martin shared his coat because of his compassion with the man in his nakedness or because of his personal obsession with his own spiritual state before God. Was he doing something good for someone else or merely for himself? Or both? Probably both, and when we recognize this, we will also have to admit that Christian spirituality and post-religious spirituality have more in common than they would wish they had.

What we certainly also need is a critical reflection on the predominance of well-being as criterion for a good and successful life. The problematic effects of this criterion are visible in many places in our society, notably in health care but also in education. Williams strongly stresses the religious openness toward transcendence and the other as another. I really liked the idea expressed in the final chapter that it is man who can create place for God to dwell. But this “event” is much more I think than taking the “responsibility for the appearing of God”. More than that, it is admitting one’s own eccentricity in loving and caring for someone. This also produces well-being, but of a different kind, obviously, then it is no easy burden to be responsible for the appearance of God, for humanism and for culture. That’s a heavy burden, even for a rebellious archbishop. And thus the question arises: Can so much responsibility be imposed on believers? Or: How much faith does one need to take such responsibilities?

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