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Religion beyond Gemeinschaft and Gesellschaft: On Rowan Williams’s Faith in the Public Square

This is the second 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. The third paper, by Herman Westerink, will be posted here shortly.

According to the publisher of Faith in the Public Square, “Archbishop Rowan Williams is the most gifted Anglican priest of his generation. His views are consistent and orthodox and yet he has been consistently misunderstood.” Now maybe this is just another case of misunderstanding, but I doubt, not whether Rowan Williams is the most gifted priest of his generation, but whether his views are really that orthodox. In my understanding of that term—though I should stress that my vocabulary is not first and foremost theological—Faith in the Public Square is far from an orthodox book. It is unafraid to challenge received opinions, both religious and other kinds. This for instance shows itself in Williams’s consistent challenging of a dichotomy that has long shaped Western social and political thought, namely that of Gemeinschaft versus Gesellschaft, or of community versus society. What I am referring to is the idea that there is a sharp distinction between, on the one hand, traditional social bonds based on a robust shared identity resulting in organic solidarity—that would be Gemeinschaft—and on the other hand typically modern organizations of collective life in the form of negotiated interests and impersonal contracts—which would be Gesellschaft (and I’ll stick to the German terms because these bring out the contrast most clearly).

While Williams does not mention this distinction explicitly, his arguing against a secularism that bans religious voices from the public square—a main topic in almost all of the chapters of the book—can be explained as an undermining of the notion of Gesellschaft. According to Williams, modern, secular forms of political organization actually have more in common with traditional communities than they pretend to have—which is a good thing, if only they acknowledged it and put it into practice. “The supposedly neutral space of secularism,” as he puts it in the chapter on multiculturalism, “carries . . . its own assumptions about what is due to human beings” (p. 108). Secularism, in other words—or what Williams calls “programmatic secularism”—is not value-free but simply presents its own values as universal and beyond contestation. This means that it is in fact much less liberal than it claims to be; indeed, Williams observes, “When the Church is regarded as an enemy . . . that must be resolutely excluded from public debate, liberal modernity turns itself into a fixed and absolute thing, another pseudo-religion” (p. 79). If we really think through the liberal motivations behind secularism, we find that religious voices should not be excluded from the public debate beforehand and that room should be made for a true plurality of perspectives, both religious and non-religious.

Secularism well understood—for which Williams reserves the label “procedural secularism”—thus welcomes the non-secular too. This does not only include religious voices in the strict sense of the word, but any perspective critical of the account of human existence that programmatic secularism presupposes, and in fact imposes on modern-day citizens. That account, Williams points out, is rather narrow: it “effectively reduces the . . . self to an economic unit, a solitary accumulator of rights, comforts and securities” (p. 36), as he puts it for instance in the second chapter. Yet human life is about so much more; persons always already find themselves in a thick web of relations and commitments that exceed calculated self-interest. According to Williams, these relations and commitments cannot simply be relegated to the private sphere, or can only be relegated to the private sphere on pain of completely distorting human existence, “as if the only kind of human solidarity that really matters is that of the state” (p. 32). This does not only go against the self-understanding of many groups of people, but also has harmful consequences in the public domain, where e.g. neo-liberal education treats students as consumers rather than developing selves and universities as business rather than abodes for critical thinking. This goes to show that non-secular values are not a mere matter of lifestyle choice, Williams maintains; it is for the better of everyone if other than narrowly secular voices get a say in the public debate.

On Williams’s view, then, Gesellschaft is and in fact should be more like Gemeinschaft than programmatic secularists realize. The right kind of secularism, he writes in the introduction to Faith in the Public Square, accordingly “thinks of itself as a ‘community of communities’ rather than a monopolistic sovereign power” (p. 4). However, as this formulation already makes clear, that Williams contests the sharp distinction between Gemeinschaft and Gesellschaft does not mean that he is longing for a return to pre-secular forms of political organization, trading militant secularism for an uncompromising kind of organic belonging. His rethinking of the notion of Gesellschaft cannot be seen in isolation from his rethinking of the notion of Gemeinschaft, at least not as I understand the book.

Faith in the Public Square repeatedly emphasizes that, even though there are plenty of examples, both historical and contemporary, of violent and intolerant religious groups, this is not the only or even the most viable understanding of what it means to belong to a faith community, or even to a community as such. In the penultimate chapter, Williams for instance explains that the more religious persons are, the less they should be inclined to impose their values on others, because that would actually betray their trust in transcendent, supra-human truths: “none of us received the whole truth as God knows it” (p. 301), Williams reminds his readers, and neither can “[t]he divine . . . need protection by human violence” (p. 293). The most explicit arguments against the notion of Gemeinschaft as diametrically opposed to Gesellschaft can however be found in the second part of Faith in the Public Square, to which the chapter on multiculturalism that I already mentioned belongs.

This chapter raises the question “What exactly is a culture?” (p. 100) only to undermine some very widespread assumptions, not just about the possibility of a plurality of cultures living together, but about what it mean to belong to a culture or community in the first place. As Williams points out, the oft-voiced claim, both in the UK and in the Netherlands, that multiculturalism can only lead to social dysfunction—to ghettoized groups vying to make their own customs into law—presupposes that cultures make for static and impermeable entities. Yet “there is something odd about regarding cultures as a fixed and given matter” (p. 102), Williams continues. A closer look at both the very concept of “culture” and the history of actually existing cultures reveals that they are in fact “inherently changeable” (p. 105), always already adapting to new circumstances, and that they have moreover never shied away from entering into conversation with other communities. This does not mean that there are no differences between cultures—quite the contrary—but it does mean that these differences cannot be explained in terms of incommensurable monolithic blocs.

A community, in other words, is not some rigid and homogeneous thing; or to use the terminology I introduced earlier, just as Gesellschaft is not necessarily the polar opposite of Gemeinschaft, the latter has more in common with Gesellschaft than is often assumed. Both from within and without, communities are prevented from closing in on themselves and from imposing immutable identities on their members. In another chapter from the second part of Williams’s book, one on the topic of pluralism, he makes unmistakably clear that this holds—or at any rate should hold—for religious communities just as much as for cultures broadly conceived. Williams writes: “Granted that there are foundational stories and [practices] that are at the heart of a [religious] tradition, it is also true that there is a continuing narrative, a developing process of ‘receiving’ and realizing afresh those foundational matters. And if the continuing narrative takes in the practices of civil encounter and reasoned argument, this in itself begins to modify some of what might originally have been seen as essential to an identity” (p. 134).

When I say that Faith in the Public Square is far from an orthodox book, it is first and foremost this, let’s say, deconstruction of community that I have in mind. The claim that identities are never immune to change is quite radical, coming from a former archbishop. Yet this latter fact also indicates that Williams perhaps does not mean to deconstruct community all the way though, or it at least raises the question how his emphasis on transformation and permeability relates to the transcendent truths that believers affirm and that he repeatedly refers to as well. On the one hand, Williams can explain the Church itself as always already challenging given identities, remarking that membership in the Church “is not restricted by race, class or speech, and in that way [questions] the absoluteness of any local and tribal identity” (p. 78). On the other hand, however, he states that faith communities “hold to their convictions with an absolute loyalty, believing they are true and thus non-negotiable. If they thought otherwise . . . there would be no ground for holding on to a distinct identity” (p. 295).

Yet if we really take seriously that a religious community is always already involved in a “process of . . . realizing afresh” their foundational commitments, and that “none of us received the whole truth as God knows it,” should we then not say that even non-negotiable beliefs can at some point become the topic of discussion? Should we then not say, not that fundamental convictions are completely up for grabs, but that we cannot always say beforehand which commitments are wholly and completely immune from revision and which one are not? Or if this does not follow, then what exactly distinguishes those foundational matters that are changeable from those that are principally excluded from change?

This brings me to another question that I had while reading Faith in the Public Square, namely, what exactly distinguishes religious groups from other kinds of communities, and should a distinction between different forms of Gemeinschaft always already be made at all? That is to say, Williams convincingly argues for the inclusion of religious voices in the public debate and laudably does not try to reserve this privilege for Christian voices only. Yet while he accordingly endorses interreligious dialogue and collaboration at several points, he does not really seem to explore the possibility of forming alliances with non-religious groups or persons. Many of the insights that Williams explains religious communities to be able to bring to the table are however defended in other, not strictly religious circles as well, most notably in so-called continental philosophy.

The idea, for instance, that the self is always already embodied and embedded in a thick web of relationships is one of the basic tenets of phenomenology, and the claim that identities are not fixed and given is defended by deconstructive thinkers who are simultaneously inheriting and re-inventing the phenomenological tradition (it is not a coincidence that I earlier described Faith in the Public Square as giving a deconstruction of the notion of Gemeinschaft). Now while these continental philosophers cannot be said to be completely a-religious—far from it—they do not necessarily make their claims in religious terms. So to end with some final questions on my part, does this inevitably form an impediment to collectively challenging the hegemony of programmatic secularism? Or is there no principled reason that believers and non-believers could not join forces here? Indeed, does the rethinking of the GemeinschaftGesellschaft dichotomy not imply that it is possible to have a community of both the faithful and the faithless?

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