FREE from the challenges, conflicts, and tabloid gossip confronting a modern Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams has found new and creative energy as an erudite dialogue partner.
In 2017, he conversed about faith with the eminent doctor and atheist philosopher Raymond Tallis, in the collection Atheism and Religion: Beyond the divide (Books, 15 June 2018). In 2020, he discussed novels with an American Episcopalian novelist and broadcaster in Rowan Williams in Conversation with Greg Garrett (Books, 24 July 2020). Now, his dialogue partner is Mary Zournazi, another atheist philosopher, the author of Hope: New philosophies for change (2003), and a passionate filmmaker, who teaches in Sydney at the University of New South Wales.
Those who have heard Williams preach, away from the media at village churches, will know just how accessible, pastoral, and eloquent he can be without a script. The numerous subordinate clauses that make his scholarly books and written lectures so difficult to assimilate are largely absent. A similar absence in these three intellectual conversations is both attractive and liberative.
Because Garrett and Zournazi are equally interested in novels — as indeed is Williams — there is considerable overlap between their two books. In both, there is much discussion of Shakespeare, 19th-century Russian novels, and modern novels such as Marilynne Robinson’s evocative Gilead (yet none of John Updike, who was just as theologically informed as Robinson).
The enthusiastic Garrett, however, tends to be a bit too deferential, while Zournazi is considerably more philosophical (but less theological), with many references to Simone Weil, Emmanuel Levinas, and the novelist Iris Murdoch in her philosophical mode. On religious faith, though, Raymond Tallis is more penetrating than either of them, and Williams is at his most persuasive with him — an astonishingly good dialogue between a secular humanist and a Christian one.
Justice and Love starts with a delightful prologue by Ben Okri, “Conversations Between Souls” and a more academic, but slightly pretentious, introduction by Zournazi, before moving into a series of seven dialogues recorded separately between 2017 and 2020.
The first two are on justice, distinguishing between a static, legalistic, Latin notion of justice and a more dynamic, personalist, Hebrew perspective of “justly looking”. This helpful distinction reflects Williams’s (and Tallis’s) long-maintained critique of “scientific” materialists who liken human beings to programmed computers devoid of freewill or creative imagination. In contrast, he insists throughout this book that the human is not simply “a problem-solving mechanism”.
The next three dialogues explore human beings as time-bound “witnesses” to something beyond the individual. There is much reflection on violence in the modern world, and the bombing of Syria is deplored by both Zournazi and Williams — similarly deploring Brexit, Donald Trump, and simplistic, self-centred forms of nationalism.
The two final dialogues turn, first to love and justice, and then to “discourses of faith”. Here, Williams makes this incisive critique of materialists:
”There is a pattern, a shape, to the world’s life, in which my life and my well-being are a natural element in the whole picture; and, to turn that into the highly personal language of religion, this is saying that around us there is giving, not just gift, in the environment… It seems to me that it’s a very strange use of our intellect to say that the intellectual life of human beings has evolved over the millennia in order that the intellect may dismantle the sense of gift or wonder.”
Tallis would surely agree with that final sentence.
An afterword turns to a theme shared by Zournazi and Williams: hope. A good place to end this fascinating dialogue.
Canon Robin Gill is Emeritus Professor of Applied Theology at the University of Kent and editor of Theology.
Justice and Love: A philosophical dialogue
Mary Zournazi and Rowan Williams
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