The real problem with Rowan Williams’ acquiesence to Sharia-creep in the UK is not so much the fact that he did so. He is the archbishop — that kind of thing is his job. Theodore Dalrymple points to the “opacity of the language that he habitually employs” and correctly identifies the problem with it. “There is only one word for a society in which such discourse can pass for intellectual subtlety and sophistication, and lead to career advancement: decadent.” Having a little fun with the decadence, The London Telegraph gives that kind of learned discourse the fisking it deserves.
The problem is not that Rowan Williams did something right in line with what made him famous. The real problem here lies with N.T. Wright’s inexplicable defense of the archbishop. Wright, unlike Williams, thinks and writes clearly. Much of what he has written is both clear and magnificent. I am currently reading his new book on the resurrection hope of Christians, Surprised by Hope, and thus far I am enjoying it greatly. Wright is frequently far more orthodox than many of his faux-orthodox critics. But when he gets it wrong, as he does here in his defense of the AoC, he doesn’t hold stint or back. This is an area where anyone familiar with Wright’s previous themes can see immediately that for some reason he has reversed himself. N.T. Wright laid out six responses to all this, and I want to interact briefly with each of them.
First, in answer to the question “why doesn’t he speak about Jesus,” Wright says that Williams does, “a great deal of the time, but this wasn’t that sort of occasion.” So, what kind of occasion was it? Well, he was addressing “some of the most serious and far-reaching questions which face us both in Britain and throughout western culture, and was doing so with the sensitivity and intellectual rigour which the occasion, and his audience, rightly demanded.” What is the unspoken message in this juxtaposition? It is that if the issues are serious and far-reaching, and if sensitivity and intellectual rigor are called for, the audiences may rightly demand the exclusion of Jesus. Nobody wants to maintain that to be Christian we must mention Jesus in every other sentence. But we must surely mention Him when it counts, as, on this occasion, it most emphatically did.
Second, Wright says, with a tip of the hat to his former position, that “many of the great world faiths, including Christianity itself, actually claim that all of life is included within religious obedience.” But then he goes on to make a subtle shift, one that gives away the store, one that allows the secular, pluralistic state to remain right where it is. The debates of the public square must be informed by, and remain in discussion with, the religious consciences of the citizenry. What Wright here pretends is a “fresh solution” offered by Williams, something called “interactive pluralism,” is still pluralism. But Jesus never agreed to any power-sharing arrangement with the idols — whether they are the idols of secularism or the idol of Islam. Wright says here that our goal is to live together in a “civil and wise societry while cherishing different faiths.” As the Lord lives, it is not. To argue this is nothing less than a repudiation of Wright has previously said about the public nature of Christ’s lordship. He can say one, and he can change his mind and say the other. But he can’t maintain both, because it is not possible to suck and blow at the same time.
Third, Wright maintains that Williams ruled out those points (oppression of women, beheadings, etc.) that the “screaming tabloids” accused him of affirming. But I was over there when the fracas broke, and I learned from the media that Williams was wanting to innoculate against various unacceptable understandings of Sharia law. Whether he or anyone else could possibly do this is a separate question — I think it is clear that Sharia creep in as rootless a society as Great Britain has become cannot be halted without massive reformation — but there was no question but that Williams only wanted nice Sharia bits and not the nasty Sharia bits. So his motives are clean and pure, and that was clear in the media. But let us ask the question. By what standard are we to evaluate acceptable and unacceptable Sharia law? If we evaluate in line with the laws of the Scripture, great. If not, then we are all still locked up in this secularist house of mirrors.
Wright’s fourth point was that Williams was ill-advised to go on the air and talk about his lecture before he gave it. That’s true enough. If he had only given the lecture, there would have been no hubbub because the central confusions that have his mind and heart in a vise would have all been safely deniable.
Fifth, Wright wants to say that the whole episode was unsettling because we are getting into a “set of assumptions about society, law, culture, freedom and religion by which we have operated.” We live in a time of “massive cultural change” and “we shouldn’t be surprised that attempts to understand what’s going on and do something about it are deeply threatening.” Yes, that would be unsettling. But do you know what would be completely disorienting? It would be if the bishops of the Church of England declared unambiguously that Jesus is the King of kings and Lord of lords, and that His is the only name given under heaven by which men may be saved. If something like that happened, nobody would know what to do. People would be stopping one another on the street. “The bishops are convinced and practicing Christians. Who knew?”
Wright’s sixth point is that we should pray for the archbishop in and through all of this. We should also pray for “wise and reasoned discourse to emerge.” I certainly agree with this last point completely, but some of the exchanges are going to be pretty difficult to take. Consider this post an attempt to contribute to just such as discussion. If Jesus is Lord of Great Britain, and He certainly is, what are the ramifications for the public life of that nation? Let us ask and answer the hard questions. But if we ask and answer them in terms of what Wright has previously written, then we will come up with completely different answers than if we go on the basis of what he has written here in defense of his friend. For example:
“The choice before the world must therefore be made clear. You either embrace this God, this God who is both three and one, or you embrace idols” (N.T. Wright, Bringing the Church to the World, p. 206).
“Rowan was going to the roots of these problems and coming up not only with fresh analysis but fresh solutions, particularly what he calls ‘interactive pluralism’ . . . His point was precisely that neither the secular state nor any particular religion can ‘monopolise’. (N.T. Wright, link above, emphasize mine).
If you can harmonize the two statements above, you have a great future ahead of you squaring circles. There is no way to describe this as anything other than to say that Wright has surrendered to pluralism, and has thrown in the towel. For what it is worth, I still agree with the statement from Bringing the Church to the World, even if Wright no longer does.