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WASHINGTON, DC: Rowan Williams: To Understand Believers, Understand Unbelievers

Rowan Williams: To Understand Believers, Understand Unbelievers

By Robert Stowe England
The Christian Challenge
Washington, DC

March 30, 2004

WASHINGTON, D.C.--The Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams told a packed house at a lecture delivered at Georgetown University that one can better understand believers in other faiths and even atheists by understanding what others disbelieve about one's own faith. In turn, their understanding of your unbelief can help them.

The lecture was delivered as part of a "Building Bridges" interfaith seminar between Muslim and Christian scholars that began last night and will continue through Wednesday. It is the third such
"Building Bridges" conference, following on the heels of similar gatherings in London in 2002, hosted by Williams's predecessor, Lord Carey, and Qatar in 2003.

Williams, who delivered his lecture in an authoritative, polished style,
argued that interfaith discussions can be helpful if they find "the
appropriate language in which differences can be talked about rather than used an excuse for violent separation." His learned discourse
illustrated why so many consider him a towering intellect.

The Archbishop used the occasion to criticize a proposal in the United
Kingdom to require that religious instruction in schools include the
"non-belief systems" of atheism and humanism. While he agreed
religious instruction and faith can benefit by looking at criticisms of
the faith, he rejected the notion that atheism is a fully developed
system of its own outside the context of the faith systems it rejects.

Williams began by recalling the story of Polycarp, Bishop of Smyrna, who was arrested, charged with being a Christian, and brought before a
magistrate in 156 A.D., when he was an aged man in his 80s.

The magistrate, admonished Polycarp he could save his life by renouncing his faith and acknowledging the divine spirit of the emperor by saying 'Away with the atheists.'

In this instance, "atheists" was used to refer to Christians and others who did not take part in the civic cult of the Roman Empire, and did not perform public religious duties and take part in the Roman festivals, Williams explained.

Polycarp, though, looking around at the noisy mob in the amphitheatre
gathered to witness the fights of the gladiators and public executions
and said, 'Away with the atheists.' The magistrate grasped what Polycarp meant and he condemned him to be burned alive.

Various atheistic approaches in Western societies are "not intelligible apart from a specific context of thought and image, representation and misrepresentation of specific religious doctrines," Williams said.

The Archbishop then described several varieties of modern atheism to
illustrate his point that they are simply responses to a belief system
and not a system in and of themselves. He named, among others, the
"protest atheism" of Bertrand Russell, who found Christianity
conceptually inadequate, and the "supreme intellectual
detachment" of atheists who see the intellect "as a mechanism
for processing checkable information only, with everything else reduced
to emotive noise."

The Archbishop also noted that atheists like Marx and Nietzsche who
claimed that religious talk is ideological and "an instrument of
social control whose surface conceptual structure is designed to obscure
its real function and to divert thought, emotion and energy from real to
unreal objects."

The Archbishop faulted the UK proposal to teach atheism and humanism as belief systems, noting such proposals are based on "the pervasive
assumption of modernity that the intellectual default position is

Williams warned that such instruction could "end up treating
atheism as the only position not subject to critical scrutiny and the
construction of a proper intellectual genealogy: not a welcome position
for a rationalist to be in." Even so, Williams argued, religious
faith can be strengthened by intellectual skepticism and criticism.

The Archbishop, however, questioned the tendency in current religious
instruction to teach about "finished systems for which questions
have been answered rather than (to borrow Alastair Macintyre's
phrase) 'continuities of conflict,' in which the moral, spiritual and intellectual tensions constantly press believers towards a
fuller, more comprehensive statement of their commitments."

To build his case for a more critical assessment of faith, Williams cited
the Zen dictum, "If you meet the Buddha, kill him." Such a
command is made to illustrate the point that "any shape given to
enlightened awareness (the Buddha) will take its shape from the
unenlightened awareness."

The Archbishop transferred the analogy to the Abrahamic faiths of
Judaism, Christianity and Islam. He cited the work of Simone Weil, who,
he says, concluded that "when the human ego says 'God', it cannot be referring to any reality to which the name might be truthfully applied. Because the 'I' that says 'God' is always self-directed and so wedded to untruth, God cannot properly be spoken of."

Continuing the analogy from Weil, Williams added, "Any God my
selfish mind can conceive is bound to be a false, non-existent God. The
true God is known only in ways that cannot be reduced to theory or
third-person language. If you meet God (in the language of systematic
theology or metaphysics), kill him."

Williams then began a tutorial in how certain statements from each of the Abrahamic faiths that are disbelieved by one or both of the other two can illuminate each of the faiths. He noted, for example, that Jews
disbelieve the proposition that "God is free to disregard or rewrite the solemn promise made to a specific people at a point in history."

Christians disbelieve the proposition that "God needs to be persuaded by our virtue to love us or to act on our behalf," Williams said.

Muslims disbelieve the proposition that "god is the compound of
several distinct divine agents," as in the Trinity, Williams said.

The Archbishop noted that it is important to understand that the belief
systems of one of the Abrahamic faiths is not a rejection of an opposite
point in each of the other two faiths. "[O]ne of the darkest and most tragic parts of our history in relation to other faiths . . . . is the construction of the other as the opposite," Williams said.

Williams argued that the differences between groups in dialogue can help those participating in the dialogue to clarify their fundamental points of view. For example, he noted, Christians view the church as a separate body from the political community while Muslims see the religious and political world intertwined. "But this does not at all mean that [Muslims believe that] 'religious' authorities must dominate
the state, or that the free exercise of different faiths is unthinkable" Williams said.

Williams contended that "the issue of voluntary abandonment of
Islam is a subject that needs to be looked at with nuance." He noted that to Muslims, this is a political offence, but he added that it was not clear that Muslim jurisprudence required an extreme political penalty, such as death. Christians see this Muslim view as a denial of human liberty.

Discussions between Christians and Muslims on the issue of voluntary
abandonment of Islam, he suggested, could lead to "a deeper
recognition of the logic of free submission, and the unavoidably
paradoxical nature of a political community governed by law which also
assumes that loyalty and obedience to this community cannot be secured by external sanctions that seek to constrain the will by threat."

The Archbishop said the interfaith dialogue does not have to be condemned "to the sterile and abstract task so often envisaged for it, of
identifying a common core of beliefs." This approach is built on
the misunderstanding that the points of agreement are, indeed, the
important points of the three faiths, Williams said.

"The exercise I have been describing is not about finding a common
core at all; it is about finding the appropriate language in which
difference can be talked about rather than used as an excuse for violent
separation." Williams said.

"[I]n the interfaith conversation, we can continue to make the
claims we make out of conviction of the truth, but seek to break through
the assumption that everything can be reduced to whether people say yes or no to a set of simple propositions," Williams said. "Only in the wake of such a move can true dialogue proceed."

Williams's Letter to Griswold (first reported by VIRTUOSITY)

THE AUTHOR BRIEFLY TALKED with Rowan Williams at a reception after the lecture. While Williams was cordial and discussed topics not currently in the news, he declined to answer any "hard questions" about
alternative episcopal oversight in the United States or the state of the
Anglican Communion.

Williams' press secretary, the Rev. Jonathan Jennings did, however,
provide some comments about the ongoing claims and counterclaims about a recent letter Williams sent to Episcopal Church Presiding Bishop Frank Griswold.

Jennings confirmed that Williams sent a letter to Griswold ahead of the
recent meeting of the House of Bishops in Texas, urging that an effort be made to provide alternative Episcopal care for parishes at theological
odds with their bishops. He said that the verbatim quotations Griswold
read to the bishops in Texas was an accurate reading from the letter.
However, no transcript of those quotations has been made public, so the
exact text is not widely known.

According to various news reports, Griswold claimed the letter stated
that Williams said that alternative Episcopal oversight should occur
within the parameters of the Province's canons. But, it still remains unclear if the news reports accurately reflect what Griswold read
from the letter since it was a closed meeting, and all reports have been
reported second hand.

Jennings did make it clear that the quoted remarks read by Griswold from Williams' letter could not be construed as a direct comment on the
confirmations by five visiting bishops in Ohio in the week ahead of the
House of Bishops meeting. "The [Archbishop's] letter went out
before that happened," Jennings noted.

Jennings stated the Williams' position is that ECUSA authorities
and those who wish to set up alternative Episcopal care should work
together to find a solution. Beyond that, he would not comment.


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