Sunday, February 10, 2008

In Defense of Rowan Williams: Are Brits Secularists, Xenophobics or Both?

The Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, has been assailed for comments concerning his view that the British legal system could accommodate the Islamic moral code called sharia.

The interview can be found in its entirety at the Archbishop's Website.

I had heard about the incident earlier in the week, but found the remarks rather unremarkable. He wasn't specifically lobbying for the implementation of such a legal system, he was only commenting on the homogenizing effect of a unified legal system and that such a legal augmentation wouldn't necessarily be antithetical to the current system, as it already capitulates to Judeo-Christian legal values.

The Archbishop can perhaps speak for himself:
Christopher Landau (CL) And your concern is that that is in some ways under threat; the ability of religious people to be true to their faith as well as true to their role as citizen in the secular state?

Archbishop of Canterbury (ABC) I think at the moment there's a great deal of confusion about this; a lot of what's been written whether it was about the Catholic church adoptions agencies last year, sometimes what's written about Jewish or Muslim communities; a lot of what's written suggests that the ideal situation is one in which there is one law and only one law for everybody; now that principle that there's one law for everybody is an important pillar of our social identity as a Western liberal democracy, but I think it's a misunderstanding to suppose that that means people don't have other affiliations, other loyalties which shape and dictate how they behave in society and the law needs to take some account of that, so an approach to law which simply said, 'There is one law for everybody and that is all there is to be said, and anything else that commands your loyalty or your allegiance is completely irrelevant in the processes of the courts'. I think that's a bit of a danger.

CL And that is why Sharia should have its place?

ABC That is why there is a place for finding what would be a constructive accommodation with some aspects of Muslim law as we already do with some kinds of aspects of other religious law.


As personally innocuous the statement seems, the response has become a shrill pitch. The TimesOnline writer, Minnette Marrin, wrote an article entitled (sincerely, and without ironic hyperbole intended) "Archbishop, You've Committed Treason." The always level headed Christopher Hitchens wrote a similarly spew-filled article from the Slate entitled, "To Hell with the Archbishop of Canterbury."

Most of Britain seems incensed by Williams' comments. However, the outcry signals clearly one of two possibilities; Brits are either thoroughgoing modern-secularists or xenophobic or both.

This deep disdain Brits seem to come from the fact that someone would have the audacity to put God before country.

Marrin rites boisterously;
In the midst of all this moral confusion and relativism, is the premier prelate in the land holding fast that which is good? Far from it. He is recommending multicultural legal cherry-picking, in which individuals would be free to choose the jurisdiction they preferred for certain matters. He even admits that his proposal introduces, “uncomfortably”, the idea of a market in the law, “a competition for loyalty”.


Yet, what Williams' is suggesting is not relativism, which is in fact what the common-law legal system creates; a legal amalgamation between precedence and innovation. The Archbishop is not suggesting relativism but an alternative legal system used to specifically eschew relativism and follow an unmitigated code of conduct.

The ubiquitous and universal legal system in the United States leads to strange outcomes, too. Dr. D. Stephen Long often muses that privately owned bars are barred from allowing patrons to smoke in their establishments, but that the Neo-Nazis are legally allowed to march yearly in the heavily Jewish suburb of Skokie.

Yet, what makes Marrin's article so revoltingly interesting was that her premise rested in the concern for the 'good'. Yet the case could be made that she has confused the good of the City of Man with the ultimate Good that rests in only in God. The jurisprudence of the city may at times reflect the will of God, but it can never univocally circumscribe the justice of God; as God's justice and God's mercy are never in competition, but in inclusive harmony with one another. The good found in civil justice can only be partial. Politics itself, as Dr. Brent Waters states, 'is the art of exclusion.'

Yet, if Brits were modern-secularists it would seem that plurality would be defended, if not merely treated with indifference; the suggestion taken as a suggestion as an odd erudite-driven argument from an academically minded religious leader. For modernists it should have been seen as just another idea in the marketplace of ideas. So, it might something more insidious than a bland modernism, perhaps just good-ol' fashioned xenophobia. England is touting the rallying cry for unification, and this may be well in good, but just as absolute diversity demands an infinite-regress that can never be satiated, so too does absolute unity demand a homogenization that leads to an erosion of particularity ultimately obliterating individual identity. Rowan Williams is thinking theologically, plurality is a reasonable compromise for a country that has multiple cultural milieus and mores. Of course, the call for unity can only be truly accomplished in the act of being Church acting as the body of Christ.

I end simply with the Bishop's own words, which are simply a call for the Augustinian act of faith seeking reason:
ABC People may be surprised but I hope that that surprise will be modified when they think about the general question of how the law and religious community, religious principle are best and fruitfully accommodated. What we don't want I think is either a stand-off where the law squares up to religious consciences over something like abortion or indeed by forcing a vote on some aspects of the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Bill in the commons as it were a secular discourse saying 'we have no room for conscientious objections'; we don't want that, we don't either I think want a situation where because there's no way of legally monitoring what communities do, making them part of public process, people do what they like in private in such a way that that becomes a way of intensifying oppression within a community and that happens; that happens. So how does the law engage critically and intelligently – the law of the land – with the custom, the imperatives, the principles of distinctive religious communities? It's a large question, much larger than the question about Islam and I think it's a question which the Church can quite reasonably be thinking about.

4 comments:

Hellernot said...

I see nothing wrong with stoning some poor woman to death if she is seen with some man in public that is not related to her---at least every once in a while. Strapping bombs on mentally ill woman and directing them to the center of the marketplace? ---No argument here. Shria is clearly the proper conduct in this religion of peace and love and it has many opportunities to demonstrate its superiority and should be considered an alternate in the name of diversity. The only problem I see is how in the world are we to come up with 100 million burka’s and properly train our women in this religion of peace and love? I’m not sure we’re going to get there fast enough using this “incrementalism” but at least the good Archbishop has us off to a good start---it’s extremely important that the lines between right and wrong must be constantly blurred otherwise how will we ever get the true diversity that we deserve?

Mark Koester said...

Tocqueville, a native Frenchman raised on Cartesian rationalism, once attempted to investigate and understand why and how the United States had religion as a central component of its democracy--the political system and the social society. Many sociologists and anthropologists have it wrong in claiming this religious element and its institutional offshoots are simply irrational beliefs founded upon arbitrary values. Postmodernists try to claim that every belief of every person has value because there is no such thing as objectivity when it comes to judgments, feelings, and beliefs of value and worth. Tocqueville (and I think Max Weber to my limited knowledge) claimed that religion was rational to the extent that people had reasons for believing them; religion "made sense" in the United States because it fit its context, it was rational amongst the whole. If the Archbishop was saying what he said because he thought all beliefs were relative and impossible to justify universally or objectively, then I think we could claim he's postmodern and his words are a desperate and hopeless search for meaning in the dark. But the Archbishop, in my humble opinion, still retains the idea that beliefs and values are not relative or arbitrary but objectively and universally "recognized" by people as true. This idea of universal or objective recognition of ethical worth is clear when ALL people are put in front of a movie or a play or, in the rare case, in a real-life drama and they react with communal or collective feelings of disgust at the unjust or inspiration at the just and justly. I wouldn't put religion as the sole owner of these objectively universal "collective beliefs" but I would go so far as to welcome the thought of putting values in a pluralistic context where beliefs "make sense" collectively and are rational (and not simply irrationally to the extent that anyone willing to defend their personal idea has a right to a collective defense of that value or belief.).

Mark Koester said...

Check out this recent article from the NY Times (maybe you've already seen it but I'm always a little behind on happenings in the English-speaking world): http://www.nytimes.com/2008/02/17/weekinreview/17liptak.html

Tom Schreiner said...

Hi, I don't know you guys personally, but I stumbled upon this discussion and -- although Williams's remarks are by now old news -- I thought I might ask for some clarification, particularly with respect to Mark K.'s thoughtful commentary:

"Many sociologists and anthropologists have it wrong in claiming this religious element and its institutional offshoots are simply irrational beliefs founded upon arbitrary values."

I not an expert (esp. in anthro), but I wonder if this is true. In the thought of the principle founders of sociological theory, religion plays a pivotal role in the emergence of modernity. In the Durkheim of 'The Elementary Forms...', it creates and sustains social solidarity. In Marx --

"The abolition of religion as the illusory happiness of the people is the demand for their real happiness. ... The criticism of religion is, therefore, in embryo, the criticism of that vale of tears of which religion is the halo."

-- religion fulfills a need that is, in his estimation, itself entirely rational. Or maybe what I mean is that, to Marx, religion has a kind of 'truth-value' in that it is an 'opium' that makes it possible for humankind to endure its enslavement within the material world, which, of course, to him was the 'real' world. And I agree with this characterization of Tocqueville and Weber:

"Tocqueville (and I think Max Weber to my limited knowledge) claimed that religion was rational to the extent that people had reasons for believing them; religion "made sense" in the United States because it fit its context, it was rational amongst the whole."

In a manner similar to Marx, Weber recognized of rationality with respect to the processes that gave rise to religion, as well as to the function it performs. Tocqueville observed the same thing on an anecdotal basis in early America. In his case, religion appears as one in a number of ways in which the 'civilized' east distinguished itself from the 'uncivilized' west. Paradoxically, and in a way that continues in our current society, one aspect of the easterner's 'civilized' self-construction was in fact religious moderation. This was much like the manner in which we Jeffersonians/cosmopolitans think of religion and the state as occupying two separate but autonomous spheres.

Perhaps inhabitants of the frontier in Tocqueville's America, leading threadbare existences, would have found the idea of juggling these two separate,autonomous spheres to be alien, or even reprehensible. Much the same as -- if I dare say so -- the contemporary archetype of the exurban or southern Evangelical Christian rejects as oppressive the maintaining of this very separation.

(Not saying that all Ev. Chr. actually THINK this way; I'm talking as much about the identities that, for instance, media and politicians IMPOSE upon this population as I am about the realities on the ground.)

So, from Tocq's description of the role of religion in the perception of easterners of their own values v. the values of frontiersmen....and also, now that I think about it, in Weber's description of modernity as continual, inexorable conflict among separate, autonomous and competing spheres of value, I'm reminded that the tension between 'secularism' and a more robust religiosity has been around for quite some time.

I feel that -- despite the annoying persistence of the 'culture wars' -- perhaps the USA is ultimately better equipped to deal with forging solutions to the tensions between religious doctrine and the state. That's because this country is unique in the world in having been founded in an environment in which consciousness of this very tension was already widespread, and in fact was the reason why many people emigrated from their homes in the first place.