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.

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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).

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