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Being Human: Bodies, minds, persons by Rowan Williams

29 March 2018

Edward Dowler looks at Christian versus secular humanism

CONTEMPORARY “Humanism” seems largely to have succeeded in a daring land-grab. In the Polly Toynbee version of this philosophy, the human and the divine have become a zero-sum game: the more you care about God, the less you will care about human beings.

Unfortunately, the Church has to some extent played into her hands. The recent IICSA hearings, for example, have reminded us that failures to value individual human persons have sometimes undermined the true humanism that Christianity teaches: that all human beings are created in God’s image, and that, by taking our humanity in Christ, God has raised our human nature to the heavenly places.

In this remarkable volume, suitable for a wide readership, Rowan Williams seeks to redress the balance, offering a fine set of reflections on the Christian understanding of what it means to be a human person.

Williams’s characteristic stylistic tendencies to courtesy, caution, and circumspection strike an apposite note for a Church whose humanism is under scrutiny. For example, the pugnacious David Bentley Hart writes that the offerings of the hyper-Darwinist, materialist philosopher Daniel Dennett on the subject of consciousness are “utterly inconsequential . . . in fact . . . something of an embarrassment”. For the gentle Williams, on the same subject, Dennett is “a philosopher for whom I have a great deal of respect” — he doesn’t quite tell us why. One senses, however, that Williams, no less than Hart, is aware of a danger that “a culture that has become truly post-Christian will also, ultimately, become posthuman.”

Typically, Williams will begin a chapter sounding some simple but careful notes about the nature of the human person. He will gently but persistently challenge the adequacy of crude, reductive misconceptions, such as Stephen Hawking’s characterisation of human beings as “chemical scum”.

As the chapter develops, the themes become more fully orchestrated as he shows that a fuller and more satisfactory account of what a human being is (relational, embodied, language-using — some familiar Williams themes here) can be found in the religious traditions, because these traditions espouse a “model of the universe . . . in which intelligibility and intelligence are omnipresent: in which there is no such thing as ‘dead matter’; in which there is always a speaking, an invitation, a summons to engage”.

In its finale, the symphony builds to a climax as Williams shows how, in the Christian tradition, these are not simply philosophical insights but gifts of grace and revelation in Christ. The apotheosis comes in the epilogue, a sermon on the ascension of the Lord, the ultimate humanist event: “Jesus’s humanity taking into it all the difficult, resistant, unpleasant bits of our humanity, taking them into the heart of love where alone they can be healed and transfigured”.

The final chapter, fittingly, leads to contemplation: “silence and human maturity”. Here Williams reflects on liturgy: a subject that he rarely seems to address. In contrast with the bustle, chatter, and noise of much contemporary worship, he argues, liturgy needs to be “making space, acting, moving, speaking in a way that makes space around it”. Thus conceived, it will open up worshippers to God, and enable them to grow and mature into the fullness of the humanity in which they have been created and redeemed.

The Ven. Dr Edward Dowler is Archdeacon of Hastings in the diocese of Chichester.

Being Human: Bodies, minds, persons
Rowan Williams
SPCK £9.99
Church Times Bookshop Special Price £7.99

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