Faith in the Public Square

Written by Rowan Williams Reviewed By Peter Sanlon

Many conservative Christians think that Rowan Williams is a liberal. Announcement of his appointment to Canterbury provoked storms of protest from evangelicals. The day he announced his resignation I was phoned by the BBC and asked to comment on the significance of his decade-long leadership of the Church of England. I declined, telling the reporter that it was far too early to say. Despite his views being uncongenial to evangelicals at many points, under his leadership the Church of England resisted intense pressure to support same-sex marriage. One of Williams's final acts in office was to defeat Richard Dawkins in debate at the Oxford Union. The book he published prior to this one was an acclaimed exposition of C. S. Lewis' Chronicles of Narnia.

Can evangelicals learn from Williams? Does this book, published as he steps down from Canterbury, contain resources which will help us be faithful Christians over the next hundred years? I think so—and I hazard to suggest that the valuable raw materials in these published lectures are not easily mined from our normal stable of theologians.

Faith in the Public Square is a collection of lectures delivered by Williams in places that range from Georgetown University in Washington to the European Policy Centre in Brussels and numerous churches in the UK, Singapore, and the USA. Midway between high-level academia and informed writing for non-specialists, these lectures are demanding, but not impenetrable. Knowledge of key philosophical, cultural, and theological figures aids a reader in seeing the significance of Williams's comments, but he usually explains the views of people he interacts with at key junctures.

The lectures are divided into seven sections, covering Secularism, Pluralism, the Environment, Economics, Justice, Religious Diversity, and Spirituality. At least three themes recur throughout the lectures, which may make them a resource for evangelicals who wish to grapple with the realities of the cultural issues we will face over the next few generations.

First, Williams continually theologizes at the intersection between secular culture and Christian theology. So he says his lectures are, 'A series of worked examples of trying to find the connecting points between various public questions and the fundamental beliefs about creation and salvation from which (I hope) Christians begin in thinking about anything at all' (p. 2). Williams uses theological claims to challenge both left and right political narratives (p. 4) and finds striking illustrations and opportunities for Christian doctrine in investment banking (p. 213), environmental movements (p. 235), and our attitudes to the elderly (p. 243).

The concluding paper in the collection contends for a vision of the Christian life which refuses to be merely spiritual or disembodied. We should accept our physicality. 'A religious life is a material life . . . I'm laboring the point because of the persistent cultural error of treating questions about religion as questions about beliefs that may be more or less justifiable at the bar of public reason' (p. 26). The reason Williams is so persistent at untangling the confusions and misunderstandings that lie at the heart of secular pluralism and culture is that he feels strongly that Christians, and indeed all people, live real lives in real locations. He resists the temptation to retreat to a Platonic idealism, or to hanker after a Christian world that either existed long ago or nowhere other than our imaginations. The relentless determination to deal with the secular world as it is, to stand between church and state, is a clarion call against the reductionism and siege-mentality that we as evangelicals are tempted to take refuge in.

Second, Williams calls us to deal with the complexity of our world by repeatedly exploring the definitions of key terms. He realizes that words are used in different ways, and key concepts that shape our churches and cultures have levels of meaning. So, for example, Williams offers multiple definitions of secularism and observes, 'I suspect we may learn more from them than from arguments about the statistical levels of belief in religious propositions or self-identification with religious institutions' (p. 22). Probing the meaning of democracy, Williams reflects, 'Democracy seeks to consult everyone, but it cannot guarantee the enactment of everyone's wishes' (p. 63; see also p. 49). The notoriously ill-defined but much used term 'sustainability' is said by Williams to be 'about living in an environment that has a future we can imagine' (p. 235). Christians may resist pluralism, but 'the word “pluralism” has come to mean an uncomfortable variety of things in both the political and religious sphere' (p. 126). Williams challenges readers to reflect on the shades of difference between 'character,' 'empathy,' and 'bleeding-heart liberal' (p. 267). Against those tempted to elide secular political freedoms with the gospel, Williams warns, 'political freedom is more complex than the license to pursue a set of individual or group projects with minimal interference' (p. 24). Concerning these terms and others, Williams does not let us accept superficial definitions: 'We seem to be worried about multiculturalism; but we seem to be equally unclear about what the word means' (p. 100). Seeking to evangelize a culture while we are equipped with minimalist definitions-perhaps not shared by others-is in the end a failure of love. Williams's writing is an invitation to understand the culture we are facing so that we can witness and serve faithfully.

Third, Williams returns repeatedly to the theme of the damage done to Christianity and life by commercialization: 'The challenge to those of us who maintain our involvement in traditionally conceived religious communities is not just an assault by principled secularists on all religious belief-though that is hardly insignificant. More immediately in most contexts it is that we can't help being committed . . . to living with a market mentality. We have to learn how to make ourselves look credible and attractive, marketable' (p. 87). Williams finds it concerning that 'there is indeed one dominant culture in the world, and that is the exchange system of the market' (p. 109). When everything is thought of in terms of a market economy, it is difficult to make 'faith communities be more than a pool of cheap labour for projects of social integration' (p. 48). Speedy economic evaluation is assumed to be the natural way of assessing everything; consequently we suffer 'a deep and systemic impatience with the whole idea of taking time to arrive at a desired goal'. This is particularly troubling for Christians because 'trust is learned gradually' (p. 211). If evangelicalism is to have a fresh word for our generation, it must learn to not be conformed to the world. It is too easy for evangelicalism to seek to market-rather than witness to-Jesus. The warnings Williams gives about commercialization as a major feature of our culture may help alert us to that insidious danger.

There is much we evangelicals could learn by reflecting on Williams's alertness to these themes-interaction with secularism, complexity of definition, and the pervasiveness of the market. It is humbling to see how deeply he probes areas of vital import to the future survival of Christianity in secular culture. So many of these matters are treated glibly and superficially by others. Perhaps the reason for this is that Williams's insights have been forged in conversation with profound thinkers, well beyond the fields normally traversed by evangelicals. Much of his ability to probe the complexity of words and meaning is surely fruit of his engagement with Derrida, somebody whose beliefs he would at major junctures reject. Perhaps if Williams can learn from Derrida, we evangelicals can learn from Williams?

Peter Sanlon

Peter Sanlon is writing a systematics theology PhD at Cambridge University on Augustine’s preaching. As an Anglican ordinand, he attempts to be involved in local church ministry alongside academic research. He edits the journal Still Deeper at When possible he helps his wife restrain their pet kittens from eating their furniture.

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