Friday, 13 April 2012

The pornography of confusion

Well, I spent some of my free time over Easter reading Christ the Stranger: the Theology of Rowan Williams (ISBN-13: 978-0567599711) (H/T Peter Ould).

I've always thought of Rowan Williams as being a fine example of what happens to a good man in a bad culture: unless individuals, however talented and well intentioned are supported by good institutions and culture, they are incapable of complete flourishing. By being placed in an ecclesial community such as Anglicanism which largely seems to have abandoned any attempt at following Catholic intellectual or spiritual authority, there are limits to what any individual can achieve.

The book itself is quite thin: intellectually and (metaphorically on a Kindle but literally in paper) in size. A serious failing is the lack of any deep engagement with the sources of his theology. My own suspicion is that the key element in Williams' thought is a principled resistance to clarity of reasoning (or superficial ratiocination if you prefer) derived from tendencies in Russian thought (I found Lesley Chamberlain helpful here) and from Gillian Rose's reading of Hegel as a refusal of easy reconciliation of tensions in society and thought (a bit like MacDiarmid's 'anti-syzygy') rather than the traditional view of the upbeat proclaimer of the end of history in the nineteenth century Prussian state (see especially sections 2.2 and 2.3 here).

Avoiding any attempt at being totally fair to Williams -if I knew enough to do that, I wouldn't have been reading an introductory work on him- the sort of picture which emerges from Christ the Stranger at any rate is a relishing of not being clear. And that sort of line is one you can't help but encounter quite regularly in modern religion: at best a refusal of easy certainties; at worst, a self-indulgence in intellectual obfuscation on the one hand, and the sort of rambling on about 'wounded healers' that leads to the privileging of immoral behaviour as a path to holiness on the other.

And against this, we have Catholic Scholasticism with its emphasis on clarity of reasoning and system, and Catholic moral theology with its attempt to express the complexities of ethics again in clear rules and system. It's here that faithful Catholicism is at its most counter cultural: modern popular and academic culture (certainly within the humanities) does not value system and clarity; modern, magisterial Protestantism again tends not to value these aspects of traditional Catholic thought. Moreover, even within Catholicism itself, there are countervailing tendencies. Traditionalists oppose the anti-rationalism of inherited, past forms to the struggle for clarity; those possessed by the spirit of Vatican II oppose felt and inarticulate experience to the articulated conclusions of canon law and casuistry.

Now there is clearly the possibility of the life in spirit and in intellect being killed by a legalistic system building. If Catholicism thought God and life were exhausted by articulated systems, then some of these criticisms would be fair -and indeed, I have no doubt that, in some specific cases, they were and are fair. But in principle, the attempt to articulate and be clear about human life and God is essential: the drive to clarity and the comprehensiveness of system, if done in the awareness of the ultimate distance between the desired and the achieved outcome, better expresses humility than any immediate embracing and relishing of obscurity.

As Flaubert puts it in Madame Bovary,

Human speech is like a cracked kettle on which we tap crude rhythms for bears to dance to, while we long to make music that will melt the stars.

But an acknowledgment of inadequacy does not entail the abandonment of the attempt: better dancing bears than nothing at all.


  1. Interesting piece, thanks; still intrigued by your title for it...?

  2. I was thinking of the enjoyment of obscurity. There is an essential difference between the sort of regret that Aquinas expressed at the end of his life ('Everything that I have written seems like straw to me') which is compatible with the attempt at the utmost rigour and clarity, and the sort of wallowing in the failure to be clear that characterizes a lot of modern theology and religious writing. What makes this such a tricky area is that much that is good about current revival in Catholicism (eg the emphasis on Patristics and tradition that you find in Balthasar) is also a (understandable)reaction to the sort of clarity and simplification that you find in the 'Spirit of Vatican II'. There is a narrative -which you find (eg) in the Radical Orthodoxy movement which Williams is linked with- that rejects scholasticism and certainly the neo-Thomism of the nineteenth century manuals- as itself part of the failure of the Enlightenment project. Whatever truth there is in this narrative (and perhaps there is some) as Catholics we need to hold on both the clarity of philosophical thinking as well as the resistance to taking this as the final word on the mystery of God. Otherwise we end up precisely as Radical Orthodoxy (and most Anglo-Catholicism outwith the Ordinariate)has: much learning, much whirring of patristic cogs, and a final result that is indistinguishable from secular liberalism in its embracing of homosexual activity, women priests etc. Crudely, in blogosphere terms, we need both Ed Feser and Father Z! (Ed Feser:; Father Z: