In the July 8th issue of The Guardian, David Hare has an interesting interview with the Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams.
Yes, get your “Mr. Bean” jokes out now.
Williams has been an outspoken critic of the New Atheist movement happening in his backyard, but his critiques have been mostly what I would call a “failure to engage.” But as I read more and more about Williams, his theology, and his argumentative style, I would classify his critiques less as a failure to engage and more as a choice not to talk over.
That is, after all, what most of these shouting matches between atheists and theists have been: talking over one another.
So when one can boil the Archbishop’s responses down to the simple, awfully British, phrase, “Oh, please…” I now understand better why. Williams finds the whole process of argumentation to be an exercise in futility. And one, I might add, that leads to more bitterness and entrenchment than anything else in my experience.
I, too, came to this realization about a year ago. In my search to mine the depths of my own skepticism, I finally came to much the same conclusion that Williams appears to have known for some time (if only those with ears would hear): argumentation in this arena is a futile attempt at making oneself believe by mind what is only known by heart. Or, as St. Ambrose reminds us, “It does not suit God to save (God’s) people by arguments.” Williams apparently often recites this.
This realization is not an escape, mind you. That’s ultimate Truth. And if you think you know it, I would question if you do.
Willaims explains this idea much more satisfactorily in the interview:
“Oh, look, argument has the role of damage limitation. The number of people who acquire faith by argument is actually rather small. But if people are saying stupid things about the Christian faith, then it helps just to say, ‘Come on, that won’t work.’ There is a miasma of assumptions: first, that you can’t have a scientific worldview and a religious faith; second, that there is an insoluble problem about God and suffering in the world; and third, that all Christians are neurotic about sex. But the arguments have been recycled and refought more times than we’ve had hot dinners, and I do groan in spirit when I pick up another book about why you shouldn’t believe in God. Oh dear! Bertrand Russell in 1923! And while I think it’s necessary to go on rather wearily putting down markers saying, ‘No, that’s not what Christian theology says’ and, ‘No, that argument doesn’t make sense’, that’s the background noise. What changes people is the extraordinary sense that things come together.
In reading Harris and Hitchens, in reading Craig and McGrath, I’ve come to this conclusion: I enjoy the reading. On both sides. I find myself nodding to Hitchens about just as much as I find myself nodding to McGrath. And I find myself shaking my head in the same places, too: where the argumentation devolves into silly straw-people stereotypes and supercilious name calling.
(Harris and Craig, actually, I find pretty tedious because their anger is not mixed with enough sarcasm. I prefer my agitants to be laced with humor. It helps the hate go down better.)
But all in all this interview with the fine Archbishop has helped me to hone in, once again, on what it is that I am giving up in this life constantly, and that is the need to be “right.” He notes:
Put it this way, if I’m not absolutely paralysed by the question, ‘Am I right? Am I safe?’ then there are more things I can ask of myself. I can afford to be wrong.
My dance with religion has led me to find that I’m not dancing to learn the steps, I’m dancing to dance. And perfection is not the goal of this endeavor; dancing is. I’ve given up my need to have the right steps.
But if that’s the case, why are so many Christians concerned with orthodoxy? In my own church, my own denomination, we’re continuing to struggle with issues over orthodoxy, and yet, if we’ve given up the need to be right as the Christ has freed us to, it appears we haven’t given up the need to fight about it.
It is at this point that many will say, “Sure, but your point certainly doesn’t mean that anything is permissible!”
Quite correct (I’ll refrain from using the word “right”).
But must we argue and divide and split on account of it? Williams’ own tenure as Archbishop has shown that diverse opinions can be pillars that hold up the same house. And whether it’s because his eyebrows are too threatening to tussle with, or because he’s actually on to something here, he truly believes in the church in a way that makes me not want to fight him on it.
But I’ll allow his belief to be my own for the present time. For while I want to believe in the church, the church often makes me a reluctant Christian. Christians make me a reluctant Christian. While I find myself free from the need to be right, it appears my sisters and brothers throughout the church do not.
And sure, the one last argument the dissenting reader will throw out is true, “But don’t you think you’re “right” in believing its correct to give up being right?!”
Fine. Incurvatus in se. I won’t argue with you on that…because arguing will get us no where. But I don’t believe in the rightness of my belief. I don’t believe in the rightness of religion; no way.
Instead, I’ll just say that it’s my lens. I lean on it. I look through it. Or to put it another way, I’ll quote someone else much smarter than me:
“Religion is not primarily a something to be believed…Religion is first and foremost a way of seeing.” (Kushner, Who Needs God)
So, I guess I don’t want to be right, even if that’s wrong. Because in my reading and my experience, being right or needing to be so, well, it just leads to blindness.
I don’t get how you can talk about ultimate Truth without caring whether that Truth is really right; as in, actually true.
Theists are forever a mystery to me.
Thanks for commenting, Nerdiah. I guess it has to do with the idea that, whether or not I’m “right” about a thing, it doesn’t change the Truth.
People are forever a mystery to me. Beautifully, strange and annoying mysteries…
“Beautifully, strange and annoying mysteries …”
Hahaha, ain’t that the truth 🙂
My curiosity has gotten the better of me so forgive me for being presumptuous: are you really sure that this was all that you were saying, that you’ve given up the need to be right?
Because there are different levels of “right” aren’t there? There are meta- levels of rightness, like the right result might be a product of the right action, which is a product of the right process, which is a product of the right knowledge, and so forth.
You have an analogy there about the difference between getting the right steps and dancing. What you seem to be saying is that, for you, religion is about the process. Or the analogy about the lens; again it sounds like religion is a process or a method for you, in this case a method of seeing the world.
This is really interesting and pressing conversation. I want to say that I believe that I’m moving toward Truth, but that I welcome conversation on that topic. My belief falls more in line with ancient belief, which is more the equivalent of “trust” than “mental assent”. So, if you’re talking about process (as you do in your follow-up) then, yes, I trust that God is real, that God is seen through the Christ, and that talking about it is important and, indeed, necessary for life.
But I also trust that life is lived in conversation, and that God has set it up this way, and so this conversation is important. I think that process is SO important for my faith journey. As I’ve said before, I was an atheist for a year or two (although a closeted one), and came back around to the faith through practice. I am an example of the “how” of faith instead of the “what” of faith (to borrow phrases from Diana Butler-Bass) In that, I feel like we have many conversation points, and many points of agreement.
Religion is a way to see the world, and a way that I find life-giving. Thank you for providing your lens as well.
I was thinking some more about this conversation, and I think I’ve hit upon a way I could grasp what you’re getting at.
If religion for you is about the process rather than the end result, then there’s another way of thinking more-familiar to me that is kind of similar in that way: science. Because science isn’t a body of knowledge, right? It’s a method, a way of thinking, a process for investigating the universe. Like religion isn’t a series of steps but the process of dancing.
But I’m not really sure how we know that science is right except to say that it seems to produce true results. Or I should say, empirically true results (because of Descartes and all that jazz). So what’s the equivalent in for a theist? If it is the process of religion that matters to you, like it is the method that matters to science, what is the output or result that gives weight to the process and makes it worthwhile?
i heard a great speaker once say that most people would rather be right than successful. We set out to make ourselves right and miss out on great success. interesting, right?
Hmmm. That is an interesting idea. I think “success” can also be a siren call, though.
Although, given the choice between being “right” or being “successful,” …I’ll just have a beer.
Thanks for sharing!