Monday 25 June 2012

Once more on Rowan Williams, Islam, and loyalty

Well, I contacted the author of yesterday's Observer piece on Rowan Williams. I explained that the potentially inflammatory quotations about Islam had been lifted out of context, and that they were actually statements of a position that Williams rejects. The Observer writer flatly denied that he had taken the quotes out of context. Maybe that's my fault; maybe my post yesterday wasn't explicit enough. So let me try this again.

Here are some excerpts from the original 2004 lecture which forms part of Williams' new book, Faith in the Public Square. The lecture is titled "Convictions, Loyalties, and the Secular State" – this is the section of the book from which the quotes on Islam were taken in yesterday's Observer. The sentences quoted in the Observer are in bold:

... the person's religious commitment involves both an additional level of social belonging, a membership in some other nexus of relations than that of the state, and a formation in critical questioning of the state's decisions, a reluctance to take for granted the legitimacy of these decisions without some further scrutiny.

This whole cluster of issues has become more immediate and practical with the current complexities over the modern state's relation to Muslim identity. Liberal commentators properly concerned to combat anti-Muslim prejudice ... persist in assuming that Islam is a set of convictions in the mode of much modern Christianity. To suggest that the Muslim owes an overriding loyalty to the international Muslim community, the Umma, is worrying; it is a factor in Muslim identity (say the liberal commentators) that intensifies suspicion towards the Muslim community in a quite unnecessary way. What is desirable is thus for Muslims to make clear that their loyalty is straightforward modern political loyalty to the nation state, unaffected by the private convictions that individual Muslim believers happen to hold in common.

...Maleiha Malik, a professional jurist of Muslim allegiance, has recently written at length on this conflict....

What this implies is in fact a subtle reframing of the issue of loyalty. Loyalty to a sovereign authority is replaced by or recast as identification with a public process or set of public processes; the simple question about loyalty, 'Are you with us or against us?' becomes a question about adequate and confident participation in a law-governed social complex. We are taken beyond a polarised picture of exclusive loyalty to the state menaced by mysterious fifth column-ish affiliations elsewhere. Loyalty to the Umma is not necessarily in competition with dependable citizenship in the state if the state's practices of consultation and acknowledgement of communal identities remove the threat of a total and terminal privatising of religious conviction.

This particular discussion ought to sharpen the agenda of Christian theologians, and to send them back to some foundational texts. Early Christianity, as we have seen, is a communal phenomenon proclaiming an allegiance that is deeply threatening to the unitary and sacred identity of the ancient city and the ancient empire. I have argued elsewhere that what we find in some of the records of the martyrs is in fact a surprisingly novel account of political loyalty: the accused refuse to treat the emperor as divine, but they accept the duty of paying taxes and praying for the public good. Thus they see themselves as participating in a public process, not as rebels against existing order; but they will not regard their loyalty to the state as a matter of exclusive and absolute obligation, religious obligation. They are, it seems, trying to clarify the sense in which political loyalty and religious loyalty are not in direct competition.

... While not a simple rival to the secular state, [the Church] will inevitably raise questions about how the secular state thinks of loyalty and indeed of social unity or cohesion. To this degree, it is not in a different case from the Muslim Umma.
As if by magic, this account of loyalty in Christianity and Islam becomes, in the Observer:
[Williams] also calls for greater integration of Muslims living in Britain and insists they make their loyalty to "the nation state" rather than "the international Muslim community". "To suggest that the Muslim owes an overriding loyalty to the International Muslim Community [the Umma] is extremely worrying," he writes. "Muslims must make clear that their loyalty is straightforward modern political loyalty to the nation state."
I'm sure this was an honest mistake – we've all misquoted things under the pressure of deadlines. But after Rowan Williams has spent so much of the past decade trying to build bridges between the church and Muslim communities in Britain, it was dismaying to see how quickly this paragraph was quoted across the web as evidence that Williams is, after all, a reactionary Islamophobe. By the time it got to the American papers, the headline had become: "Archbishop of Canterbury Ridicules Muslims..."

That's why I think the Observer ought to publish an apology.

Sunday 24 June 2012

Rowan Williams in the Observer: Muslim loyalty and the nation state

So a piece in today's Observer discusses Rowan Williams' forthcoming book, Faith in the Public Square, in which the Archbishop attacks David Cameron's 'big society' rhetoric. Excitingly, the article claims to be quoting from leaked passages of the book. Including the following, on Islam:
[Williams] also calls for greater integration of Muslims living in Britain and insists they make their loyalty to 'the nation state' rather than 'the international Muslim community'. 'To suggest that the Muslim owes an overriding loyalty to the International Muslim Community [the Umma] is extremely worrying,' he writes. 'Muslims must make clear that their loyalty is straightforward modern political loyalty to the nation state.'
That sounds pretty dismaying, and naturally it has drawn the ire of bloggers (e.g. here and here). But is it really possible to believe that these are Williams' own thoughts about Islam? 

He has written and lectured extensively on Islam in recent years. (If you search his website for 'Islam', you'll start to get the general idea.) He has discussed this issue of loyalty in other settings, and his views on the subject are no secret. He thinks that loyalty to the international Muslim community, the Umma, “is very close to what a Christian would say about loyalty to the church”. He notes that “the kind of comprehensive loyalty we associate with the nation state is a very modern and local phenomenon.” He stresses that, for Muslims and Christians alike, loyalty to one’s country is not a matter of “foolish” patriotism, but is “fundamentally a moral and religious loyalty, the kind of loyalty which holds you accountable to God.” Those quotes are from his published Zaki Badawi Memorial Lecture on Islam, Christianity and Pluralism, pp. 6-7

Williams has written so much on Islam in recent years, all along similar lines, that I find it impossible to believe that his new book will argue the proposition that “Muslims must make clear that their loyalty is straightforward modern political loyalty to the nation state.” Disregarding the question of Muslims, Williams doesn't believe that anyone ought to have a straightforward modern political loyalty to the nation state”!

So what's the explanation for this sensational report in the Observer? I'd be willing to bet you five dollars that the passage quoted is, in fact, just the summary of someone else's view – a view of religion and national loyalty that Williams is critiquing. The line has been lifted out of context for journalistic purposes: it's the oldest trick/mistake in the book.

[UPDATE: A commenter at AUFS has identified the full 2004 lecture in which this passage appears – you can read it here. Williams is indeed merely summarising the way 'liberal commentators' talk about Islam, and his whole lecture is an attempt to explain why their view is inadequate. Interestingly, while Williams notes that such commentators view Muslim loyalty to the Umma as 'worrying', the Observer writer appears to have slipped in an additional adverb: 'extremely worrying'!]

This reminds me of a front-page newspaper article many years ago, back in ancient Israel. While the Psalmist was still hard at work on his latest song, an eager journalist got his hands on some leaked passages. Next morning, the headlines were printed: PSALMIST SAYS: THERE IS NO GOD. If only he'd waited for the published version – it was Psalm 14 – he would have seen the line in its proper context: 'The fool hath said, There is no God.'

Friday 22 June 2012

On the virgin birth: or, why it's better to say the creed than to criticise it

I got an email from someone the other day about a post I wrote (seven years ago!) where I cast aspersions on the "historical" value of the New Testament's virgin birth narratives. 

I sent a reply email, and since I felt ashamed when I read that old post, I thought I'd reproduce my reply here:

Barth's famous discussion of the virgin birth is in Church Dogmatics I/2, the section on 'The Miracle of Christmas'. Barth always insists that acts of divine revelation are 'not historical'. But he doesn't mean they never happened. All he means is that revelation is a unique event, an act of God. It's not part of the normal historical sequence, it doesn't belong to a chain of cause-and-effect, and so there's no use trying to verify or disprove it on historical grounds. 

So in the case of the virgin birth, Barth argues that it's not subject to the methods of historiography. Its truth isn't for historians to decide. But he certainly believes that it really happened, that it happened in time and space, within the real material human world. It involved Mary's body, her real flesh and blood. In this section of Church DogmaticsBarth's brilliant critique of Brunner rests on the assumption that the virgin birth really happened. His point is just that it happens as revelation, as an act of God. 

And so we can start to get our heads around the truth of the virgin birth only by confessing it. It's not an explanation or a conclusion that you could arrive at from other premises, historical or philosophical or whatever. It's a truth grasped in the humility of faith.

Anyway, I guess I misrepresented Barth in that post: don't hold it against me, it was so long ago! And I definitely misrepresented the Christian faith if I gave the impression that something can have theological meaning without actually happening! As though the creed were a conjuring trick, a magical formula rather than a confession about reality, about how things really are in this world. 

For what it's worth, nowadays I would never speak that way about the virgin birth. Who do I take myself for? Am I really so much smarter than St Matthew and St Luke? Am I qualified to correct the church's creed, the sum of the gospel, just because I've read two or three books on the topic? Would my own personalised ready-made faith – in which everything is arranged just as I like it, and everything difficult or offensive is removed – really be an improvement on the faith of the church? Wouldn't I be like the proud young carpenter who, on his first day on the job, scorns the silly traditions of other carpenters and gets to work building his own three-legged table – only to discover that the rest of the world knew what they were doing when they made them with four legs?

I guess all I'm trying to say is that I used to be a lot more cynical and sophisticated than I am today. As one of the saints has said, "I was so much older then, I'm younger than that now." Nowadays, to be honest, I'm just very grateful to be a Christian at all. Three-legged tables are fine, as far as they go. But you can rely implicitly on the ones with four legs; that's the kind you want when you're sitting down in the comfort of your own home, day after day, a table just like the one your grandfather used, and just like the one your great-grandchildren will use too, long after you've left the world and gone to that big dinner table in the sky.

It's a good thing to be a Christian – I'm sorry to be so banal, but that's what really strikes me. It's a good thing to believe something that you didn't invent for yourself. It's a good thing to have a certain framework, a story that tells you what kind of place the world really is, so that there are some basic questions that are already settled, that you don't have to go on wringing your hands and wondering about. It's a privilege, a real privilege, to be able to join your voice to the church's confession: "... and in Jesus Christ his only Son, our Lord, who was conceived by the Holy Ghost, born of the Virgin Mary, suffered under Pontius Pilate" – and all the rest. 

If you ask me, a faith like that is as good as Christmas: as reliable as the calendar, but full of surprises too.

Tuesday 12 June 2012

The wisdom and foolishness of the cross: a conference on 1 Cor 1-2

It's a good year for conferences on the theology of St Paul. There was the recent Princeton conference on Romans, and next month is the St Andrews conference on Galatians. Now Christophe Chalamet of the University of Geneva has announced a conference on 1 Corinthians: "The Wisdom and Foolishness of the Cross: Reconsidering 1 Corinthians 1-2." The conference will take place in Geneva on 23-25 May 2013.

So far, speakers include Heinrich Assel, Günter Bader, John Behr, John Caputo, Kathryn Tanner, Marc Vial, and Matthias Wüthrich.

If you're interested in presenting something, you should send a one-page CV with a half-page abstract of your paper to Christophe Chalamet by 1 October. Accepted presenters will have free room and board in Geneva.

Saturday 9 June 2012

Yabba dabba doodlings

by Kim Fabricius

I am an American expat of over forty years, following the national narrative from the UK, with annual visits to my mom/mum on Long Island. Only those with a passportless intelligence will not realise that the exilic eye cannot help but see the homeland as – well, from the bananas to the baleful to the Mitt Romney. God bless Amercia!

I’m as American as Occu-py. In fact, in broad daylight I recently executed a successful one-man raid on the Tetley tent at our local street party for Liz’s Jubilee. Thousands of bags of tea are now floating in Swansea Bay. 

It has recently struck me how central themes of Augustine’s Confessions pervasively inform Bonhoeffer’s Letters and Papers from Prison: the posture of the Psalms; the delight in music; the significance of friendship; the search for a faith with intellectual integrity; the relentless self-investigation with its implacable observations – the vanity of sincerity, the opacity of motivation, the hopeless instability of the ego, the macular degeneration of the mind’s eye – and its inexorable conclusion: the futility of the whole introspective project; and, finally, the longing for the cor quietum, the “I am Thine”.

What is the genre of the Confessions? Billet doux (cf. XI, 1).

An elegant stylist, inspired allegorist, and knightly apologist, if a rather conventional moralist and sophomoric philosopher, all of which, along with his virtual silence on the life and teaching of Jesus, accounts for his iconic status among both traditionalists and conservative evangelicals. (In)famous for committing the fallacy of trifurcation while thinking he demonstrated that Jesus is the Son of God. —C. S. Lewis.

Cormac McCarthy looks at the world and sees an evil, ugly, and ultimately hopeless place. Marilynne Robinson looks at the world and sees a broken, yet finally good and beautiful place. Shakespeare combines both visions of the world – and in iambic pentameter, for Christ’s sake.  

It may be a happy or a sad thought that the period of life you are now in may be the best part of your life, but it is certainly a melancholy thought that you will not realise it until you are well past it.

To all intellectuals there comes a time when, though one thinks one is still mining gold, the seam is actually empty and one is just fossicking around.

Neuroscience is to the brain as the science of evolution is to nature, and both can teach us many interesting and important things, but it is a category mistake to think that the one can tell us anything about personhood or the other anything about creation. 

Atheists and sports: Nietzsche plays ice hockey; Marx boxes; Camus plays the beautiful game; and while Dawkins drives a rally car, de Botton plays croquet.

Speak of the devil (well, the imp): first it was the civilising of faith, now it’s the sanitising of porn. At least de Botton is interested in the right subjects (some would say in the same subject), religion and sex. Alas, the poor man is a cultural tourist, a curator of desire.  

Benjamin Franklin said that “in this world nothing can be said to be certain, except death and taxes” – though he might have added “and the ever attempted evasion of the two by British celebrities.” 

John Wesley’s heart was “strangely warmed” when he overheard someone reading from Luther’s commentary on Romans. My own experience of reading Barth’s commentary on Romans was the inverse: my heart was “warmly stranged”. Maybe that’s the difference between Methodists and Reformed. 

John Howard Yoder and Rowan Williams have both reminded us of the virtue of patience, particularly in conflict resolution. Ironically, however, patience is also an essential attribute of the one who seeks revenge – which, remember, is a dish best served cold. 

Rowan Williams is a theological multiplier, not simplifier. That’s why he has a beard: he eschews Occam’s razor.

Why is marriage in such a mess? Because we believe that love is something that happens rather than something we do – chemistry rather than calisthenics. We talk of “falling” in love; we should speak instead of rising, standing, and walking in love.

Marriage (a cynic might say) is like rooting for the Cubs: the promise of opening day, the reality check of May and June, the envy in July of the Cardinals or Reds (or even the Brewers, Astros, or Pirates), the dog days of August, the start of the football season to ease the desperation of September. Still, once a Cubby fan, always a Cubby fan: you’re never going to cruise the South Side.

And speaking of sports and the Windy City: there’s a famous little statement on biblical inerrancy formulated in 1978 known to liberals as the Chicago Bull. 

The historicity of Adam is theologically non-negotiable. Its denial is the thin Enns of the wedge.

On the subject of trouble in paradise, where is the historical Eve in all this theological kerfuffle? The historical Paul mentions her in II Corinthians 11:3 – she’s the one deceived by the lies of the historical snake. And the maybe-historical Paul mentions her in I Timothy 2:13, also in the context of serpentine deception. And not having blue beehive hairstyles like Marge Simpson. And not telling men what to do. And having lots of babies. So here’s another reason for the theological non-negotiability of the historical Adam: no historical Adam, no historical Eve; and no historical Eve – Mark Driscoll will have a bovine delivery.

And where are the Catholics in this discussion? I mean, if the First Woman is not historical, what happens to Eve-Mary typology?

Staying on the subject of biblical literalism, but moving from protology to eschatology: if you do the maths, to be right behind Left Behind is to be a total ass.

In the US, to change the minds of the Christian right on gay marriage, forget about sophisticated biblical hermeneutics, arguments based on commitment and faithfulness, or appeals to experience, to the evident holiness of the relationships of gay people. This kind of stuff is rhetorically useless. A better tactic might be to sell gay marriage as a life sentence with no parole, as a new theatre for (sexual) warfare, and as a decorative dungeon for the mutual infliction of novel types of (psychological) torture.

Contemporary translation of Mark 14:26b: “On the way, Jesus paused to check his Facebook page. It said: ‘You have 0 friends’.”

Of course I believe in hell. There is no other way to account for the Westminster Confession, Sheol’s crib for the the corda inquieta of YRR.

Extra! Extra! Headline for US Gallop poll comparing the popularity of Pope Benedict XVI to that of Sister Margaret Farley: “Second to Nun”.

Sunday 3 June 2012

Berlin notebook: on tourism

After we had been in Berlin for some weeks, it was decided that we had better do the right thing: we had better see the sights. After all (so we told ourselves), it would be absurd to spend three months in Berlin without knowing what the Reichstag looks like, or Checkpoint Charlie, or the Berliner Dom or the Brandenburg Gate. So at last, more from duty than from conviction, we did the proper thing. We acquired a tourist brochure, complete with maps and instructive tips on where to eat and where to point your camera, and we set off for a day of sightseeing in Berlin.

As we made our way along Unter den Linden towards the Brandenburg Gate, I began to feel strange. Perhaps it was only the crowds and the heat. Perhaps it was only the bad expensive cheese sandwich I had just eaten at the crowded café. We pressed on through a sea of people. Everyone was talking loudly; everyone seemed unhappy. At the corner of Schadowstrasse I noticed the first faint stirrings of nausea. Waiting at the traffic lights, I realised I was not quite myself. A man beside me was eating currywurst with a tiny fork. He dripped curry as he ate the little slices. I wondered if it was dripping on his shoes. In front of me a man was trying to fold a map while a woman chided him in a low voice, looking straight ahead. The light went green and the crowd surged across the street. The currywurst man turned his head and said something to nobody in particular. He gestured with the plastic fork.

When we reached the corner of Wilhelmstrasse the first wave of nausea came. I was profoundly aware of my arms and legs – they moved mechanically, as if by automation – but everything else grew dreamlike and remote. The bodies pressing against me were eerily distant. I registered a flush of heat somewhere near my shoulders. I wondered whether my feet were hurting too: it was a possibility. On the edge of the street, two workmen in hard hats were smoking cigarettes. One of them chuckled. A truck rumbled slowly past.

Moments later we arrived at Pariser Platz. A sea of people and raised cameras. All of a sudden too much colour, too much sound. People gathered in little thickets around tour guides with microphones. Through the crowd ahead, a man dressed in military costume stood at attention on a little soapbox. He saluted and people took photos. Someone else was dressed as a gorilla. I saw the high impassive pillars of the Brandenburg Gate just before the first quick flash of light appeared at the corner of my eye. It flickered on and off like a faulty lightbulb, very bright, sinister and tantalising.

Now everything was reeling in a sickening orbit around my head, the cobbled pavement and the stone buildings and the double-decker bus that had stopped to spill its contents on the street. I reached out to steady myself. There was a steel pole. It must have been a tourist signpost. I held on.

I said to my wife, 'Sorry, I need to sit down for a minute.'

The lights came properly now, bright electric white lights, sharp like knives and moving in stabbing zigzags across my field of vision. The lights were very bright and everything else was dark. I thought: if I faint here, I will knock somebody down. I thought: if I faint and no one gets knocked down, I will crack my head on the pavement. I thought: sightseeing is no good way to die; I won't get into heaven. I thought: I could really use a drink of water.

My wife helped me. I said, 'I'm sorry, I can't see anything.'

She helped me to sit down and I sat there very safe and grateful on the cool cobbled ground. I said, 'You go on, I'll catch up in a few minutes, it's just a migraine.'

It is always better with your eyes closed, so I closed my eyes and watched the violent lights knifing their way across the reddish twinkling darkness.

When it was over I drank some water and we went and took a photograph of the Brandenburg Gate. I recognised the currywurst man standing in a little huddle around a tour guide. They all wore caps and sunglasses. Some of them had the names of cities on their shirts. They set off through the gate towards the Tiergarten, as grave and deliberate as supermarket shoppers.

That was my inauspicious day of sightseeing in Berlin. I don't know why, but tourism has had similar effects on me whenever I have tried it. In Prague I fainted from migraine outside the Powder Gate; the lovely streets were as vertiginous as a spiral stairwell in a tower. The worst fever of my life was in Rome; I fled St Peter's Square and lay in my bed, aware of every aching bone and horribly fascinated by the way the ceiling moved like the surface of the Adriatic Sea. 

It was with characteristic insight that C. S. Lewis, in The Great Divorce, portrayed the inhabitants of hell as tourists on a sightseeing bus that makes its way around heaven. Hell is just the streets and buildings of heaven as glimpsed from a sightseeing bus. To be in hell is to be gawking at heaven, peering from the bus and snapping photos and sampling the local food without ever learning to live there or speak the language. 

Anyhow, that's how it is with me. Even the world's most gorgeous streets and buildings, even the most impressive historical monuments, become an affliction when I see them as a tourist. I hate to think what might happen if I was ever forced to go on one of those guided tours to Jerusalem. Probably I would pass out and be found, days or years later, sprawled beside the Pool of Bethesda, waiting for someone to help me get in when the angel stirs the waters.

After we had done our sightseeing I needed something consoling and familiar, so I went to one of my favourite places, the vast abandoned ruins along Revaler Strasse in Friedrichshain. The crumbled gutted warehouses are covered all over in graffiti. The roofs have all caved in or disappeared; the walls are sprouting weeds. An iron gate lies on its side against an ancient vinyl armchair. In what might once have been a factory, there are many high glass windows, and all of them are broken. Standing inexplicably alone is a high brick facade; someone has etched a huge lifelike face on it. A shipping container stands propped up on makeshift stilts. It looks as if it might tumble down at any moment; it looks as if it has stood that way forever. There are broken pipes on the ground and big broken slabs of concrete. Everywhere there is broken glass. 

Here there is no time or history. It is barely even a place. 

Beneath your feet, railway tracks will suddenly appear, then sink again out of sight into the earth. Here and there you spy a lone figure creeping silently among the ruins, taking photographs. Someone is climbing a fence. In the shadow of a broken wall, a man and woman sit on white buckets, smoking contentedly, saying nothing.

I walked around with nowhere to go. Two boys went by carrying skateboards. From somewhere far away I heard laughter. I stopped to look at a black cross made of twisted scraps of steel and mounted on an old electrical box. Two buzzards, sculpted from clay and painted black, crouched like thunderclouds on either side. But the cross was, is, empty. I looked up from the black cross to the bright sky and shuffled away. It was silent as a monastery, apart from the glass and gravel that crinkled under my feet, and, somewhere nearby, the sound of someone's camera going click-click-click, purposeful and slow as a benediction.


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