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Seated at the right hand of Power: Rowan Williams on faith and force

John Ritzema

Rowan Williams
Humanitas Visiting Professorship
Oxford, 24th and 29th January 2014

Two dark, dank days at the end of January saw scores of interested listeners trudge through wind and rain to Oxford’s sleek new Mathematical Institute building. They came to hear the former Archbishop of Canterbury share his latest musings on the relationship between faith and force in the modern world. Organised as part of the Humanitas Visiting Professorships in the arts, social sciences and humanities at the Universities of Oxford and Cambridge, the three lectures offered ample proof that Williams (now Lord Williams of Oystermouth and Master of Magdalene College, Cambridge) remains one of the sharpest Christian intellectuals of the present era.

The first talk, entitled “Faith, Force and Authority: does religious belief change our understanding of how power works in society?”, was the manifesto of his visiting professorship. So often pigeonholed as belonging to the liberal-Catholic party of the English Church (frequently with greater emphasis on the ‘liberal’ than the Catholic), Williams immediately demonstrated his deftness in engaging with complex questions about modern society in terms of traditional Christian doctrine. His goal was to re-set our understanding of human power in the light of theological accounts of God’s own. He began by clearly and succinctly setting out an orthodox doctrine of God as ‘Unlimited Power’. In terms that theological listeners will have immediately recognized as strikingly Thomist, he explained that God cannot merely be seen as one more powerful agent amongst many in the world, as if on the same scale, but rather is without any limitation on his power. The God of the Abrahamic religions is properly simple; his being and will and activity are identical. Failure to understand this basic tenet of orthodox belief, Williams argued, is at the root of the abuse of power by modern fundamentalisms both Muslim and Christian.

Williams characterized such fundamentalisms as being surprisingly heterodox in theology and post-Enlightenment in their concerns; militant Islam and Christianity in the twenty-first century were taken to task for having too low a concept of God’s power. The egregious human rights abuses inflicted by many today in God’s various names are an attempt to protect a weak God from emancipated man. Such a God needs protection. Failure to recognize that man cannot hurt or limit God – that God is (not possesses!) Unlimited Power – thus results in humans usurping and abusing power over one another. In this sense modern fundamentalism can be seen as a modern manifestation of the same crippling religious anxiety which produced the persecuting impulses of Roman emperors and mediaeval inquisitors. In this sense, the religious abuse of power is not so much a misapplication of faith as a debilitating lack of it.

Williams was not afraid to relate this more closely to the great debates of his own archiepiscopate. He remembered, and not without a heavy sense of regret and painful recollection, his own use of influence in Church and parliament to caution and campaign against the invasion of Iraq in 2003. Adopting a surprisingly prosaic just war doctrine, drawn largely from book XIX of Augustine’s City of God, he praised what he called the admirable restraint of the UK parliament’s decision to avoid armed involvement in the Syrian conflict. He characterized the impulse to intervene as a need to be seen to do something rather than nothing, and suggested that, in this respect, even the overwhelmingly secular UK political élite came perilously close to accepting seductive justifications of violence not entirely dissimilar to those proffered by militant fundamentalists. In doing so he argued for a religiously motivated nonviolence which refuses to idolise human intervention in all circumstances.

The lectures were above all an excellent insight into Williams himself. He is perhaps the last great Renaissance prelate: a scholar who reads eleven languages, a former Lady Margaret Professor of Divinity at Oxford, a life-peer, bishop and privy councilor. It would not be hyperbole to compare his stature in Church, state and Academy to the likes of Cranmer and Pole. Like those predecessors, he has had his moments of weakness and indecision – sharia law and Jeffrey John are always mentioned, and it would be foolish to deny that he presided over a period of catastrophic tension and disunity in the Anglican Communion – but in these lectures his personal and intellectual integrity seemed vindicated. He lives up to his own episcopal motto: cultus dei sapientia hominis (the worship of God is the wisdom of man). His faith in, and worship of God, are clearly the personal wellspring of a lifetime of study and insight.

John Ritzema is a post-graduate student at Oriel College, Oxford.