Reading Rowan Williams is like going hill walking without a map. You set off vigorously. The first part of the journey is bracing. Then the gradient kicks in. You slow down, sometimes to a crawling pace, often find yourself lost, occasionally retrace your steps, and wonder where exactly you are. If you persevere, which you know you should, you find the view from the summit exhilarating. You can see further and clearer now than before, and the excitement carries you all the way to end of your journey. But while the whole exercise is illuminating and sometimes even inspiring, it is also exhausting, and you can’t help thinking that there were quicker and simpler ways to have made it to your destination.
Faith in the Public Square is a collection of speeches from his time as Archbishop. Twenty-six chapters, each around 5,000 words long, are split into seven sections, looking at secularism, liberalism, pluralism, economics, environmentalism, and other big issues of the day, but all the time circling around the question of what role ‘faith’, in general, and Christianity, in particular, should play in the contemporary world.
Given the Archbishop’s reputation for reasonableness, intelligence and scholarship this is a mouth-watering prospect. If anyone could inform and guide the bad-tempered and confused debate about religion in public life, it is him, and the volume does not disappoint. Time and time again, standing on the brow of his colossal erudition, you see further than you would ever have done alone.
His fundamental argument is that for any society to flourish it must permit – indeed encourage – its religious citizens to draw on their faith for the wider public good. Conceptions of the state that are neutral or aggressively secular or unduly rational or monopolistic are not only unjust in themselves but are, in the long term, unsustainable, damning the well-spring of moral commitments that they need in order to survive.
His strength is in showing that this is a fundamentally Christian position – both theologically (the principles for this settlement being drawn from the scriptures and subsequent reflection on them) and historically (for example, in how Europe was formed politically). If it were otherwise – in other words if Christian participation in civil society were important in order simply to maintain the health of civil society – the tail would be furiously wagging the dog. Jesus did not, after all, come announcing that the Big Society was at hand. Williams shows that a vision of society as a “community of communities” is an authentic Christian one that underpins any healthy political settlement.
Whether it is through his careful and precise distinction between “programmatic” and “procedural” secularism, or his sophisticated understanding of the function of the government, or his analysis of the necessary ‘myths’ we live by, you soon realise you are in the company of someone who knows much more than you do, who has thought much more deeply than you have, and who writes… well, there’s the issue.
Rowan Williams avoids clichés. He shuns stale metaphors and never puts his intellectual feet up. His writing is dense and words are carefully chosen and rarely wasted. He demands a great deal of the reader. The result can be refreshing.
Moreover, he is certainly a much better writer than some other eminent theologians who seem to write as it their primary objective is to obscure rather than clarify. He rarely (at least in these essays) uses technical language, or even particularly long words. He does have his own particular vocabulary which you rapidly come to recognise – his essays are full of “horizons” and “boundaries”, of “creative possibilities” and “imaginative worlds” – but these are not complicated terms and reader soon grasps the message behind the medium. Indeed, the medium – his dense, precise and imaginative prose – is part of the message, encouraging the reader to see things differently to the way they are accustomed to because, from an authentic Christian position, things are different to the way we are accustomed to seeing them.
So, why the hesitation? It is, I think, because Williams has a habit of piling clause upon clause that can exhaust and confuse readers. The gradient never lets up. So great is the need for freshness and precision, that the demands of lucidity are sometimes forgotten.
So, for example, towards the end of a thought-provoking essay on ‘Secularism, Faith and Freedom’, he writes “to put it more dramatically, I am arguing that the sphere of public and political negotiation flourishes only in the context of larger commitments and visions, and that if this is forgotten or repressed by a supposedly neutral ideology of the public sphere, immense damage is done to the moral energy of a liberal society.” This statement is profound. It is core to the argument of both essay and volume. It is, in my opinion, entirely correct. But it is not dramatic.
None of this means Williams is incapable of writing clearly or even sharply. One essay, for instance, opens with the biting line, “the Iraq War was fought for the sake of freedom and democracy, so we are insistently told.” What it does mean is that Faith in the Public Square is, at times, a mystifying as well as a demanding and rewarding volume. You need to read it slowly and carefully; with, as its author might say, ‘attention’.