Lewis for Our Times: Principles of Cultural Apologetics in the Writings of Rowan Williams

In a posting of several months ago (“Romantic Orthodoxy, Militant Atheism, and a Question of Style,” December 27, 2010), I suggested that Rowan Williams models an attractive style of Christian engagement of secular culture. Here I would like to flesh out that claim by outlining three simple but powerful principles that animate the Archbishop of Canterbury’s recent writings in the areas of literature, art, and culture. These commitments in turn reveal a rich, though subtle, theology of nature and grace informing his approach. Williams could be as powerful a resource for intelligent engagement of the arts as C.S. Lewis once was and it’s important that culturally engaged Christians avail themselves of such help.

The need for Christian apologetics is as great today as it has ever been, and the terms of reference have not changed very much from Lewis’s day. The English don helped his culture to see that scientific naturalism could not fulfil its intellectual cravings; he did so in a way that did not capitulate to an aestheticism that proffered an evacuated spirituality in the name of Culture, as it did for Matthew Arnold in the late nineteenth century. Today’s situation resembles that of Lewis’s day more than may first appear. Postmodernism, famous for promoting fluid perceptions and power relations, has not quashed naturalism so much as led to its redescription in cultural and, more recently, in cognitive terms. It is no accident that the heyday of postmodernism has coincided with (or perhaps precipitated) the resurgence of a crass materialism manifest in the polemics of people like Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, Daniel Dennet, and Philip Pullman. Christian cultural apologists would do well to recognize that they continue to operate in this naturalistic environment and to recognize that they have excellent resources to respond to it.

For some time now analysts of culture have known that they need some self-awareness of their theoretical assumptions, that “everyone has an ideology.” For the Christian cultural critic, one might say that “everyone needs an apologetic.” Stick-handling between naturalism and the spiritualism of Culture remains an essential skill. There are guides. When I was preparing entries on literature and poetry for the forthcoming Zondervan Dictionary of Christian Spirituality, I was greatly encouraged by the strength and diversity of Christian scholarship. Yet I am convinced that Christian cultural apologists need to be more intentional about rallying around a specific set of commitments, at once theological and stylistic. On the one hand we do not want to become woodenly doctrinal, but on the other in what name do we preserve a critical sensibility, that elusive lightness of touch? How do we know we haven’t succumbed to an Arnoldian conflation of culture and spirit in the name of mystery or apophaticism?

The current Archbishop of Canterbury may seem an unlikely candidate to model the way forward. As a great prelate, he may seem to be the antitype of a Lewis, who spoke so convincingly as “an ordinary layman in the Church of England.” As a theologian, Williams may seem (by definition?) to lack the critical lightness of touch. Does he have the breadth of appeal of a Lewis, who was sufficiently “high,” “traditional,” and “beer-drinking” to reassure those with broad-church commitments, yet remain sufficiently committed to what the author of the Chronicles of Narnia called classical or mere Christianity to reassure the fervent?

On the question of the relationship between theology and cultural and literary criticism, Williams has shown tremendous breadth. Both he and the schoolof Radical Orthodoxyhe helped birth have done essential work to combat cultural nihilism from within the precincts of theology. Yet several of Williams’s most recent books locate themselves more squarely within contemporary cultural discourses. These include Lost Icons (2000), a trenchant work of cultural criticism; another, Grace and Necessity (2005), on aesthetics; and a third, Dostoevsky: Language, Faith and Fiction (2008), on the literary oeuvre of the Russian novelist. His prize-winning book on Dostoevsky also initiated a series under the editorship of Stephen Prickett and published by Baylor University Press entitled “The Making of the Christian Imagination.” In these diverse works he shows himself to be engaged in three highly visible areas of cultural and literary studies. Though deeply imbued with theology, his writings can make a serious claim on the reader as works of literary and cultural criticism. They deserve to be read carefully and their contents seen as establishing an exemplary pattern of engagement for lay and professional cultural apologists alike.

Principles of Engagement

In these and other writings Williams models three principles of engagement for Christian literary and cultural criticism: (1) the Christian cultural apologist finds something fundamentally true in antagonistic non-Christian cultural work; (2) the Christian artist or apologist does not seek to show that the credibility of faith is unassailable, but does affirm positive content and the credibility of faith through its freedom to let itself be judged and grow; (3) the Christian critic helps a secular vision of reality to be true to its own best insights.

1. The Christian cultural apologist finds something fundamentally true in antagonistic non-Christian cultural work.

A number of years ago, Philip Pullman took aim at Christian belief (and C.S. Lewis as a Christian apologist) with his fantasy trilogy His Dark Materials. While various Christian groups were up in arms, the Archbishop publicly supported the atheistic writer. In a review for the English newspaper The Guardian of a stage production of the trilogy, he modelled this principle of affirmation. Here’s how the review begins:

In the interval of the second part of His Dark Materials, I found myself surrounded by a lively school party fromEssex wanting to know what I thought of it so far. Was I shocked? No. But wasn’t it about killing God? Yes – but which God is it who gets killed? Is this what a believer would recognise as the real God? This set some animated discussion going….

Rhetorically, this brilliant opening demonstrates a profound generosity that simultaneously cloaks a stubborn refusal to capitulate to the polemics of the novelist or even to view Pullman’s critique in polemical terms. Seen from one perspective,Pullmanis virulently anti-Christian, conceiving of the Ancient of Days as a withered old man and the Church as delusionally manipulative and oppressive. Yet Williams gently draws attention to the fact that the object ofPullman’s wrath is unrecognizable to believers and his magistracy different from the historical church in subtle but significant ways. He gives credit to the author for drawing attention to the evils that attend idolatrous conceptions of God:

I read the books and the plays as a sort of thought experiment: this is, after all, an alternative world, or set of worlds. What would the Church look like, what would it inevitably be, if it believed only in a God who could be rendered powerless and killed, and needed unceasing protection? It would be a desperate, repressive tyranny.

Not only is this strategy generous, it allows Williams to foreground a significant theological problem – appreciating the true otherness of God. This challenge, represented in theology by the apophatic tradition, besets believers and unbelievers alike. Williams affirms in aggressive non-Christian cultural critique a contribution to this tradition. He seesPullmanas reminding us all of “the gods in which we ought not to believe” and the need for what one Christian writer has called “‘purification by atheism.’” The Archbishop also compares this activity to the sentiment in the Buddhist saying, “If you meet the Buddha, kill him.”

This approach requires active interpretation on the apologist’s part. Whereas others may see only anti-Christian polemic, Williams actively finds something more, or other. He drawsPullmaninto a properly theological discussion. He has to take care in deploying this strategy. He could sound patronizing, as if insisting that there is really no difference betweenPullman’s own perspective and an orthodox one. To say so would be not to have heardPullman’s anger, not to have countenanced a dissenting point of view. Williams is aware of this tension, and so is careful to acknowledge that “Pullman’s views are clear” and that “Pullmanis very much a celebrant of a kind of modernity….” But he locates certain apparent authorial intentions within a larger network of interpretive considerations. He also finds a common space, however provisional, in the ambiguities of good literary language, good drama. Though one could argue that his dexterity with theEssexschool party reflects his own skill, he credits the power of art. It is almost as though, by definition, ifPullmanis a good writer his vision cannot coincide with a complete indictment of the historical church. This congruency between art and spaces for belief is more than accidental. It suggests the presence of grace in a natural, cultural activity (though stopping well short of an Arnoldian affirmation of the aesthetic as spiritual in its own right). Because Williams has the deeper resources of his Christian belief on which to draw, he can show how there is something deeply true and helpful aboutPullman’s very sincere hostility.

The second of Williams’s strategies is closely bound up with the first:

2. the Christian artist or apologist does not seek to show that the credibility of faith is unassailable, but does affirm positive content and the credibility of faith through its freedom to let itself be judged and grow;

Williams articulates this principle especially well in describing Dostoevsky’s attitude towards faith and the writer’s task. He shows how the author reflects on the inability to align belief with reality through art in a final decisive way. Art does not have that imaginative power. The Christian needs to avoid overambition in her or his cultural work. But that does not mean that the artist’s role, or the apologist’s, is limited to apophasis. Having acknowledged the place of the apophatic in the Russian’s art, Williams hints at Dostoevsky’s insistence on positive theological content as well, what theologians call kataphasis:

Dostoevsky knows what he is about, knows what kind of a failure he has condemned himself to. What he does in Karamazov is not to demonstrate that it is possible to imagine a life so integrated and transparent that the credibility of faith becomes unassailable; it is simply to show that faith moves and adapts, matures and reshapes itself, not by adjusting its doctrinal content (the error of theological liberalism, with which Dostoevsky had no patience) but by the relentless stripping away from faith of egotistical or triumphalistic expectations. The credibility of faith is in its freedom to let itself be judged and to grow. (D 10)

In this long quotation the critic models how to make a transition from the acknowledgement of limitation to the positive affirmation of shape and content to belief. He affirms that the Christian artist or apologist engaged in culture does not and cannot seek a final presentation of a life that makes the credibility of faith unassailable. The apophatic side of the Christian tradition insists that all our pictures of God will be flawed in some crucial respect. And Williams is sensitive to how, for Dostoevsky, these flawed pictures inevitably manifest themselves in our day-to-day practices, artistic and otherwise. Yet faith is itself identifiable; it has a shape and manifests doctrinal content. In affirming such a content and shape in Dostoevsky, Williams suggests his own attitude towards liberalism: an impatience with the adjusting of doctrinal content as if that content were arbitrary. Just such an accusation of liberalism has been levelled against the Archbishop by certain Christian groups. It might deter some apologists looking for a good role model from giving Williams the careful attention he demands and deserves. Faith reshapes itself as it strips away the egoistical or triumphalistic, but does not change its doctrinal commitments. It does not seek to escape rationality and articulation; Williams does not oppose faith and reason. Nor does he posit a romantic attitude that shucks normativity and typically resolves itself in reifying the discerning and ever-nimble self (supposedly free of all commitments). In affirming the positive content of belief and showing the credibility of faith through its ability to let itself be judged and grow, Williams is after more than apophasis, other than liberalism, and less than unassailable truth for the cultural witness.

3. Christianity helps a secular vision of reality to be true to its own best insights.

For Williams a rigorous Christian vision involves seeing things with an integrity that amounts to an apparently sutured naturalism. Such a coherence is unattainable by a secularism that ultimately cannot be true to its own best insights. A Christian vision fulfils much of what secularists claim to want to emphasize. This is also Charles Taylor’s argument in A Secular Age. This principle is a corollary of the first two. If, as we have seen, those with a secular perspective contribute to the vision of those with faith, those with an openness to grace help others to be faithful to their own principles.

Grace and Necessity was written for anyone interested in the sources and commitments of modernism, an early twentieth-century movement in art that isolates the artwork as important in and of itself. The study shows the importance of Catholic incarnational thought to the modernist aesthetic of David Jones and Flannery O’Connor. In its conclusion, Williams writes: “the tradition I have been examining would claim that theology has, as we might put it, a story to tell about artistic labour which provides a ground for certain features of it and challenges it to be faithful to certain canons of disinterest and integrity” (GN 169-70). Christian thought helps art to be true to itself, to be more itself, according to canons of distinterest and integrity emphasised by a modern aestheticism that would distance itself from moralism or belief of any kind. This is a bracing and paradoxical claim. Throughout the book, its author theorizes how a certain understanding of the presence of grace within the created order (incarnation!) allows nature to be itself; this principle applies to the processes of artistic creation as well.

Williams mounts a similar argument in Lost Icons, his book on social theory and cultural criticism. He validates the emphasis on freedom in contemporary secular thought but shows how its commitment to an absolutely free self deconstructs. “A mythology of the goodness and givenness of an inner self [and] the (equally mythological) picture of the agent as simply enacting a chaos of timeless desires” (LI 7) both deny that the self is shaped by its choices in temporal reality. Williams wants to make choice more meaningful (and less violent). He wants to add more material, incarnational density to the discourse of self and freedom. Paradoxically, the Christian language of “soul” is helpful, if dangerous: dangerous because “it is religious language that has borne most of the responsibility for keeping alive the story of a substantive soul that can live apart from the body and its history” (LI 7). Just such a model needs to be challenged if we are to affirm history, contingency, embodiment. Yet the language of “soul” rather than “self” is helpful because, stripped of associations with disembodiment, in Christian discourse “soul” residually means absolute dependence on an other.

Language becomes the arena in which this dependency is played out. Both in Lost Icons and Dostoevsky Williams shows the importance of language for a deepening picture of the self as free. He shows how Dostoevsky critiques the supposed freedom to say whatever we want that accompanies some theories of language. (For Dostoevsky this bumps up against the need to be understood). Instead, language is the marker of freedom because we can always respond, we can always say more. For Dostoevsky and Bakhtin alike, as Williams observes, “This is emphatically and evidenty a liberty that depends on otherness” (D 11). In Lost Icons he asks “whether a wholly secular language for the self can resist…trivializations and reductions” (LI 7) such as the self’s constant need to assert itself. Under the conditions of modernity, he argues, one might expect to find:

an immense investment of energy in strengthening the image of the willing or choosing subject, whether by a therapeutic rhetoric of “feeling strong” in the face of adverse circumstances, or by a market environment encouraging ideas of free-floating consumer liberty and offering a range of styles as an aid to a creative will. (LI 100)

Those without the material ability to select identities find themselves as objects. Consideration of the soul, on the other hand, vivifies the importance of language and through it the shaping effect of choices in time, even (generalizing Marx’s philosophical insight) the recognition that “meaning is bound up with the processes by which we engage and transform a material environment” (LI 8). We make our souls dialogically. There is no flight from materiality and mutual interdependence. Where Dostoevsky is concerned, “recognition is possible because we are all at the most basic level of our being made to resonate with the interdependent life of a universe that is addressed and sustained by a Word from God” (D 12). The word of God is at once the beauty of coherent discourse and the word that enables freedom in the possibility of response.

Williams celebrates the theological narrative that invites secularity to be attentive to the integrity of artwork and the language of “soul” that more truly accommodates the desire for freedom in materiality celebrated by contemporary cultural discourse. In both of these ways, he thinks with secularity, and shows how Christianity helps a secular vision of reality to be true to its own best insights.

Nature and Grace

The principles that mark Rowan Williams’s criticism hint at a paradoxical understanding of the integrity and independence of the natural world, on the one hand, and its dependency on the supernatural to be itself, on the other. The nature—grace question partly accounts for Williams’s deep engagement, as an Anglican, of both Catholic and Orthodox theology, in which the doctrine of participation in God figures prominently. Williams illustrates this doctrine with “the convention in iconography of building up the colours on a gold base: from this the rest of the representation ‘emerges’” (LI 2). Milbank similarly talks about humanity’s “natural orientation to the supernatural [that] indicates the presence of the divine to us always in the depths: our latent mystical condition” (The Suspended Middle 28). In Thomistic terms, this condition brings two Aristotelian principles into profound tension: if the desire is natural, then it cannot be disappointed without violating the Aristotelian principle that a natural impulse to an end cannot (unless abnormally) be frustrated. However, the presence of the divine to us in the depths indicates grace, and the application of the Aristotelian axiom to grace violates another Aristotelian axiom, namely that every authentically natural movement towards an end must be capable of realization out of its own resources (SM 28). This is the nature—grace paradox: the integrity of nature, with grace somehow intrinsic to it. Catholic filmmaker Robert Bresson, whom Milbank quotes epigrammatically, puts it this way: “Le surnaturel, c’est du réel précis” (SM ix). The supernatural is the real in all its precision. Williams describes the relationship this way: “God makes a world in which created processes have their own integrity,” yet at the same time “the integrity of a created process will, if pursued honestly and systematically, be open to God’s purposes” (GN 9).

One needs to include C.S. Lewis on this topic as well. Lewis makes claims about the naturalness of human cultural activities and encourages students, even in war-time, even when people are going to hell, to conduct their learning for its own sake because in some mystical teleological way, that activity for its own sake does not preclude its being for God’s sake. God gives us the appetite for cultural activity, and he creates no appetite in vain. Doing cultural activity leads to the beatific vision. I think many Christians enjoy that exquisite paradox in Lewis without recognizing the Thomistic, participatory understanding of reality to which he appeals. He appeals to it again in trying to explain Hooker’s apparent secularism in the sixteenth-century:

From what I have already said it might be inferred that the unconscious tendency of [Hooker’s] mind was to secularise. There could be no deeper mistake. Few model universes are more filled – one might say, drenched – with Deity than his. “All things that are of God,” and only sin is not, “have God in them and they in him likewise, and yet their substance and his are wholly different.” God is unspeakably transcendent; but also unspeakably immanent. (qtd in A.M. Allchin, Participation in God, 8 )

Immersion in the political, the linguistic, the material can look secularizing but they belong equally well, better, in a meaning-drenched universe.

I have come full circle. The contemporary milieu is gripped by naturalism. Christian art and cultural apologetics bear their best witness through a combination of the apophatic and the kataphatic, the articulation of a rival system of meaning capable of enfolding insights from any quarter yet never seeking a final, unassailable depiction of the credibility of faith. Rowan Williams has modelled an engagement of contemporary culture based on the principles of affirming non-Christian cultural work, showing how faith adapts, and helping a secular vision of reality be true to its own best insights. These are principles all Christians who take cultural apologetics seriously can apply.

Norm Klassen
St Jerome’s University

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