A reflective Churchman

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The ever-reflective former Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams responded as follows to a question on Darwin and the conundrum of human evolution put to him by Nick Spencer of the Christian think tank Theos,

One of your key points is that human beings “live in an environment where intelligible communication is ubiquitous – where there is ‘sense’ before we make sense”.  Can you expand on that?

Yes, I think I quote Connor Cunningham in his wonderful book on Darwin, in which he says that it’s “intelligence all the way down”. To recognise intelligible pattern in the world around us, is to recognise that there is an order, a coherence, in what comes to us, that calls out to be made sense of. That’s putting it metaphorically of course, but why not?!

That the trajectory of evolution is, it seems, towards intelligence – you don’t get mindless stuff in the sense of absolute, inactive, disordered matter. Wherever you look, something is developing intelligible shape and reaching out as something that can be conceptualised and imagined. In a sense that’s what the evolutionary doctrine is all about. The bizarre thing about Darwinism, and this is Connor Cunningham’s point again, is that it leaves you with a material order which is suffused with intelligible patterns, and that at least ought to make us pause. We do sometimes assume that there’s dead stuff out there, and there’s live mind in here. Well where is this dead stuff? More and more we appreciate that continuities of pattern and action go right through.

The reflections of former Archbishops of the CoE can be illuminating and inspiring, but not always. For example George Carey seemed to be offering Christianity as an ideology for the hard right when he observed,

. . . We are a small island and recent immigration figures are highly disturbing. Last year, a net figure of 330,000 people settled among us – more than the population of Sunderland. Imagine this continuing, year after year. . . Britain should make Syrian Christians a priority because they are a particularly vulnerable group. Furthermore, we are a Christian nation with an established Church so Syrian Christians will find no challenge to integration. The churches are already well-prepared and eager to offer support and accommodation to those escaping the conflict.

Some will not like me saying this, but in recent years, there has been too much Muslim mass immigration to Europe. This has resulted in ghettos of Muslim communities living parallel lives to mainstream society, following their own customs and even their own laws

George Carey even draws on the Islam-hostile Barnabas Fund to back his stands. In contrast, God bless Rowan Williams, who decries the shrill evangelical outlook of the Patrick Sookhdoos and Nazir-Alis. Wise Williams responded as follows to another question put by Nick Spencer:

You quote Merleau-Ponty in effect saying “words are fundamentally not objects designed somehow to depict other objects, but practices”. How are words practices?

Speaking is something we do. We can isolate it from the rest of what we do, but the fact is, speaking is one of the ways in which we are interacting with the world. It’s in some respects the most resourceful, the most surprising, the most generative of all the ways in which we interact with the world. But if you think that when a child learns language, he or she also learns gesture – coding and decoding gesture and facial expression. You couldn’t learn language without that.

So when I say, with Merleau-Ponty, that words are practices, it’s reiterated to remind us that language is, after all, a way of interacting with the environment, not just a labelling process which would have no connection at all with the business of finding your way around. As I learn a language, I learn not only to identify objects, I learn how to interact with another speaker. We all know what happens when people don’t learn that, when they speak without a sense of the codes that are operating – the tone, the timbre, etc.

I suppose that’s what panics people about, let’s say, a primary school teacher wearing the face veil. As a matter of fact I think that’s largely a misplaced anxiety, but I can see where it comes from. I’ve actually been in public discussions in Pakistan with women wearing full face veil, and you learn to read differently, it’s not that those codes don’t happen… but there’s a cultural obstacle to overcome. click here.