Monday, December 22, 2008

‘Blessed are the poor in spirit: for theirs is the kingdom of heaven’

Rowan Williams is the leading intellectual of the Church of England, in much the same way that Prince Charles is the leading intellectual of the royal family. He (Williams) says:

The 20th century built up quite a list of casualties around ‘principles’ in [Karl] Barth’s sense. Various philosophies solemnly assured us that the human cost is really worth it, because history will vindicate the sufferings and sacrifices of the present. Keep your nerve, don’t be distracted by the human face of suffering, because it will be all right in the end; we know it will because the principles are clear.

How could anyone read such a passage – let alone write it – and not think of Christianity as the classic exemplar of the ‘keep your nerve… it will be all right in the end’ school of thought ?

He says that Barth was warning against “the temptation of unconditional loyalty to a system, a programme, a ‘cause’ which was essentially about ‘me and people like me’”. But he exempts Christianity: “everyone is capable of saying yes to this appeal, so no one is dispensable”.

There are indeed parts of Christian teaching that apply universally. There are other parts that place non-believers in a clearly inferior moral category. Williams (usually) chooses to emphasise the former parts; many other Christians prefer the latter. Williams’s choice here is, therefore, made on some basis other than being derivable from the Bible: his temperament? Or even principle? Because that’s what it is: a belief in the universal and unconditional worth of all people is a belief in a principle; it’s just one that he happens to think there’s a God who agrees with him about.

The mythology of the Gospels, and the institutional history of the Church, are pretty rickety vehicles for this principle (and they carry many less savoury passengers). But Williams loves these old bangers. Heigh ho.

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