On Friday 13 December 2013, former Archbishop of Canterbury and now Master of Magdalene College, Cambridge, Rowan Williams, gave the Edward Schillebeeckx lecture at the Radboud University Nijmegen, organised by the Soeterbeeck Programme and the journal Tijdschrift voor Theologie. During this event also the Dutch translation of Faith in the Public Square (Geloof in de publieke ruimte) will be presented. It has been translated by Huub Stegeman and Stephan van Erp.
Prior to the lecture a seminar on religion and politics was held in which Herman Westerink, Chantal Bax and yours truly were invited to discuss the book with Rowan Williams and the audience of the seminar. The three of us presented a short review of the book and these reviews have now been published at the Telos blog:
A rebellious archbishop—what more can the reader wish? An archbishop willing to take the risk of “blundering into unforeseen complexities” when trying to find the connecting points between various public questions with religious faith. No blundering as far as I can tell, but a risk, yes, there is always a risk when talking about Faith in the Public Sphere, or having faith, being faithful, in the public sphere. This is not only a risky undertaking for an archbishop, but probably for every modern believer since the days of Ignatius and Calvin, who realizes that there is a tension between good civil behavior and raising one’s voice of conscience. Hence, that there is a fundamental tension between faith and the public sphere in modernity—a tension that cannot be resolved, but should actually be regarded to be constitutive and constructive for both faith and the public sphere itself.
Faith in the Public Square is far from an orthodox book. It is unafraid to challenge received opinions, both religious and other kinds. This for instance shows itself in Williams’s consistent challenging of a dichotomy that has long shaped Western social and political thought, namely that of Gemeinschaft versus Gesellschaft, or of community versus society. What I am referring to is the idea that there is a sharp distinction between, on the one hand, traditional social bonds based on a robust shared identity resulting in organic solidarity—that would be Gemeinschaft—and on the other hand typically modern organizations of collective life in the form of negotiated interests and impersonal contracts—which would be Gesellschaft (and I’ll stick to the German terms because these bring out the contrast most clearly).
While Williams does not mention this distinction explicitly, his arguing against a secularism that bans religious voices from the public square—a main topic in almost all of the chapters of the book—can be explained as an undermining of the notion of Gesellschaft.
Rowan Williams’ book Faith in the Public Square, which is based upon several lectures, should not be read as a compendium of political theology, but instead as a “series of worked examples of trying to find the connecting points between various public questions and the fundamental beliefs about creation and salvation” (p. 2). I read the book as an attempt by Williams to provide the reader with themes, thoughts, and questions which are relevant to current debates about what kind of society we want to construct, how we should deal with pluralism, and how we might engage with any conflict between the religious and the secularist in contemporary society. And that is exactly what it does.
I want to address three issues that arose while I was reading, namely: the distinction between procedural and programmatic secularism, the limits of Williams’ approach and, related to both, the issue of gender segregation at UK universities.