Monday, 11 February 2008

Mike Higton on Rowan Williams and sharia

Mike Higton, the world’s leading expert on Rowan Williams’ theology, has posted an extremely helpful analysis of Williams’ lecture. It’s a lengthy piece, but it’s well worth reading the whole thing carefully – you won’t find a better account anywhere of what Williams was really driving at in his lecture. Here are a few excerpts from Higton’s post:

“Despite everything you’ve heard and read, the most striking thing about Rowan Williams’ lecture is that he mounts a serious and impassioned defence of ‘Enlightenment values’…. He takes it for granted that we live in a largely secular, liberal, pluralist state. And his question is about the place that religion appropriately has in such a state.”

“Williams’ point is not really (I think) about what happens once someone has apparently broken the law and has appeared before the courts…. His point is rather broader. When we as a state are sorting out how things should run – when we are framing laws, when we are deliberating about how laws should actually be put into effect, when we are thinking about exceptional and borderline cases, when we are designing systems and procedures – we should do so in a way that takes account of the plurality of voices and identities that our state includes. That’s what it means to be a liberal, pluralist state…. So, in Williams’ view, it is proper that the state recognise that I am a Christian, and that the Christian church is one of my defining communities – and it should recognize that this fact does make some public difference.”

Be sure to read the whole post.


bruce hamill said...

Thanks heaps for that link. Mike's presentation of Williams's vision is very clear and attractive. It deserves a wider audience

Wretchard said...

We already have a system for taking "account of the plurality of voices and identities" that a state includes. It's called representative democracy. Christians, Muslims, Buddhists already make a difference by living within the community not by withdrawing from it into some separate system.

Many of Williams points seem to make sense in the abstract, but on closer examination they are thoughtful-sounding nonsense. Consider his idea of "complementary jurisdiction". Complementary jurisdiction is already built into the system. People can choose to settle their affairs and behave in any way not contrary to law. And they do, via contract law or within private associations, including religious ones.

Consider his other idea, "shared jurisdiction". That can only mean, if it means anything, activities in which sharia and state law claim jurisdiction over the same acts. Hence "shared". But which shall prevail? Williams seems to imply there are situations when a citizen can pick between two alternatives in a shared space. But this can only happen if the sharia alternative is not contrary to law. Can you envision a situation where the choice is between two contradictory solutions? That is, between British law and a sharia solution contrary to British law? And in which sharia law will prevail? Unless sharia can at least sometimes prevail we are talking about nothing. But if that is then case then Williams disproves his own assertion that he has no intention of creating a parallel legal system.

Perhaps an example might make things clearer. If a woman chooses to let her parents select her husband that's 'complementary'. Nothing forbids an adult from assigning that right to her parents. But consider polygamy. Do you mean a citizen can choose whether to marry four women or women according to his preference? And why should we stop with sharia, as there are many, many other religious traditions besides Islam. There's no formal reason they should not also be accomodated.

But William's problem is not just bad logic. It's bad leadership. When your own synod and flock rise up against you, its an indication that he didn't sound them out before embarking on his little musings. He sprang it on them like a jack out of the box.

And what a thing to spring on them! Everything is said in a context. There is a big difference between using the word "nigger" in performing Showboat, where it is part of the lyrics of Old Man River and calling a black man a nigger at a dinner party. And Rowan Williams decided to 'teasing' suggestions at a time when Christians in Darfur, Nigeria, Indonesia, the Philippines and elsewhere are fleeing sharia law -- a fact of which he was not so subtly reminded by Bishops from Africa.

But most insultingly of all Williams seems to claim he was misunderstood, as if those who are reacting to his speech, including the former Archbishop of Canterbury, can't understand plain English or are somehow unable to grasp the finer points of his presentation. He might have done better to say he put things poorly. But to say he was misunderstood, except by experts who can parse his statements in the background of some wider theology is not a very good line of defense.

Kien said...

Thanks for the link. Very helpful commentary on Rowan William's lecture. The lecture and commentary both address questions about identity, plurality, religion and society that I've only begun to grapple with in my mind, and would have taken me years to sort out (assuming I do manage to sort out in my life time!). I'm grateful to Rowan Williams for his lecture.

Anonymous said...

"But to say he was misunderstood, except by experts who can parse his statements in the background of some wider theology is not a very good line of defense."

Well, it's not a bad one if he was misunderstood.

Anonymous said...

But on the plus side it's deterred his flock from the whole gay bishop thorn, yeah baby as the Doctors of Hipocrisy would sing 'all means to attract and distract'. Come on folks let's not call the man stupid, he's a politician with a funny hat, but it's all politics and locating one specific enemy highlights the projected danger of displacement and hey let's submerge our own theological positions beneath the need for unity in face of a more pronounced threat, reminds me of Russia and the allied powers when Hitler was having his crack at world domination.

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