Rationality and faith need each other, says Williams

By staff writers
25 Sep 2009

The Archbishop of Canterbury has said that the recent record of a purely rationalistic and secularist approach to intellectual and academic life has sold short both the meaning of rationality and the broad human values nurtured by critical faith.

Dr Rowan Williams' remarks came as part of a week-long visit to Japan for the 150th anniversary celebrations of the Anglican Church there.

He received an honorary doctorate in humanities on the trip, and gave a lecture to students and academics at Rikkyo Gaukin University. The university is a Christian foundation.

He declared: "[T]he sober testimony of the twentieth century is that the rationality of secular thinking is no guarantee of universal understanding and reconciliation. A rationality that has brought us into the age of nuclear weaponry and global economic meltdown invites some sharp questions, to put it mildly."

Dr Williams continued: "However secular our age likes to think it is, the disastrous results of exploitative habits and of financial obsession bring people back to the recognition that they need the element of the sacred in their lives – in the sense that they need the freedom to respond to the beautiful and the puzzling and the tragic, to all the things that we do not have the power to manage."

"It is in this sense that a religiously grounded education is a deeply 'reasonable' one. It communicates the skills we need to inhabit the real world. That may sound a little strange at first. So often, 'living in the real world' is a phrase that people use when they want to justify ruthless competition, mistrust, low expectations. But the reality around us is not simply one of menace and uncertainty, a place in which the other is always a source of anxiety. It is a place that nourishes us and keeps us alive – through material processes and through human community, from family to society."

He said a purely functional account of education runs the risk of missing the true nature of life: "Relating to God requires of us a radical acceptance of the fact that we are dependent beings, that we always stand on the edge of mysteries we cannot fathom, and that the true direction of our lives is not necessarily what our own unexamined and selfish ambition might suggest. Relating to God creates in us the habits of silence and listening, the willingness to be questioned and to question ourselves. Specifically for Christians, relating to God means growing into the role of a child of God, called to maturity, to a life in which dependence and creativity go side by side, inseparably."

Dr Williams argued that the need to develop a new academic philosophy in relation to the environment is an example of how a rational approach could require urgent and radical change.

He said: "[I]f we are seeking to shape a humanity that is genuinely rational, we need to question a very great deal of what has passed as rationality in our habits of production and consumption for the last century. This is not simply about how we avoid catastrophe, though that is serious enough; it is also about what kinds of relationship with the world we live in are harmonious and proper, respectful of the material environment in a way that is in accord with the character and purpose of the creator."

Religion, he declared, must not mirror the tendency of its critics to be inflexibly dogmatic: "It is one of the most poisonously foolish dogmas of modern intellectual life that reducing human motivation and reflection to a pattern of determinism, whether material or psychological, is a mark of liberation and maturity."

"[T]he tragedy is that often the response to this from some kinds of modern religiousness has been the equally poisonous dogma that the critical and sceptical sciences of Darwin, Marx or Freud and their countless followers and revisers must be regarded as destructive of faith and so to be reviled and rejected."

Dr Williams said that the place of Christianity in humanistic education was not the propagation of faith but the nurturing of an academic environment in which true rational exploration could be developed.

What should distinguish a Christian institution, he said, is not so much faith statements as the outworking of these in the style and ethos of a community. "If the whole tone of the institution is one that gives a message that risks are worth taking because there is an ultimate reality to be trusted, that is where the meaning of faith is made plain. 'Faith-based' education is education in the mixture of realism or provisionality with the courage to act, discover and create, to make relations and mend them."

Creative Commons LicenseThis work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 2.0 England & Wales License. Although the views expressed in this article do not necessarily represent the views of Ekklesia, the article may reflect Ekklesia's values. If you use Ekklesia's news briefings please consider making a donation to sponsor Ekklesia's work here.