Why did Rowan Williams defend Shari’a Law?

It’s because, Ben Myers argues, Williams was seeking to ‘promote [an] Hegelian style of public engagement, where what is good for any single community becomes part of the vision of what is good for all’. It also, as Ben notes, has everything to do with the fact that Williams seeks to take Philippians 2 seriously, where the church’s ‘vocation’ is to ‘reach out across all those boundaries that fragment the human community into self-protective ghettos’ and ‘to dismantle the whole logic of side-taking’. Read Ben’s piece here.


  1. Jason,

    I agree that Williams’ desires, his aims even, were motivated by his sense of what the gospel requires and makes possible. That said, however, I wonder if Ben’s explanation really comes to grips with the fact that there are in fact times in which sides must be taken — if only in the Eschaton. Robert Jenson’s treatment of wickedness in his little book On Thinking the Human makes this point well, I believe.

    Interestingly, if I remember rightly, Jenson critiqued Williams’ theology for being too open-ended, overly-indefinite.


  2. (Sorry, hit “enter” too quickly.) I wonder what, if anything, you make of Jenson’s critique?


  3. This is an excerpt from a post on a blog I read yesterday. (My husband’s influence).
    It’s from a sermon by Pope Benedict when he was in his thirties and is entitled “Are We Saved? or Job Talks with God”. Even though the sermon was presented fifty years ago I believe it’s still true today.

    “What really torments us today, what bothers us more is the inefficacy of Christianity: after 2000 years of Christian history, we can see nothing that might be a new reality in the world, rather, we find it sunk in the same old horrors, the same despair, and the same hopes as ever. And in our own lives, too, we inevitably experience time and again how Christian reality is powerless against all the other forces that influence us and make demands on us…

    Christian theology, which was very soon confronted by the discrepancy between expectation and fulfilment, in the course of time turned the Kingdom of God into a kingdom of heaven that is beyond this moral life; the well-being of men and women became a salvation of souls, which again comes to pass beyond this life, after death. But theology did not thereby provide an answer. For what is sublime in this message is precisely that the Lord was not just talking about another life, not just about the souls of men and women but was addressing the body, the whole person, in his or her embodied form, with his or her involvement in history and society; that he promised the kingdom of God to the man or woman who lives bodily with others in this history. As marvellous as knowledge is that has been opened up for us by biblical scholarship in our century (that is, that Christ was not just looking forward to another life but was talking about real people), it can also disappoint and unsettle us when we look at real history, which is in truth no kingdom of God…….”

    Nice one, Benny.


  4. Jason,

    I located Jenson’s critique (it came in his Pro Ecclesia review of Williams’ On Christian Theology). Here’s a snippet:

    “As the essays succeed each other, the bishop’s fear of closure begins to seem far too obsessive to be truly helpful in the life of faith. The confession into which teaching is supposed to lead us begins, after all, “I believe…,” not “I wonder about….” Is it really the chief proper use of dogma and other theology “to keep the essential questions alive,” (p. 92) indefinitely to sustain puzzlement? Should dogmas and other theolo-goumena serve mostly to remind us of the problems they pretend to resolve? God is indeed a mystery, but between honor for the biblical God’s specific mystery and the kind of endless semi-Socratic dialectic Williams often seems to commend, there is, I would have thought, some considerable difference. No doubt argument and perplexity are permanent in the church’s thinking, and no doubt this is a good and necessary thing; so that stirring up stagnant conviction must indeed be one task of theology. But, e.g., the phrase just cited, “to keep the essential questions alive,” occurs in an exposition of “the doctrine of Incarnation,” (pp. 79-92) and the fathers of Chalcedon and 2nd Constantinople themselves certainly thought they were settlmg certain essential questions, in such fashion that conflict about them should not thereafter legitimately trouble the church. Their answers, of course, posed further and again difficult questions, but to say that this also was a good thing — as I do — is a different point than the one Williams presses — or anyway I think it is. Apophatic thinkers though they were, the fathers of the christological councils — to stay with that instance—did not suppose that the purpose of their formulations was to keep alive the debates that brought them to the meetings.”


  5. Chris – I’m a fan of Robert Jenson’s, and I think his critique of Williams’ (to paraphrase) “obsessive fear of closure” is somewhat accurate; Jenson means it pejoratively, though, and I don’t agree with him on that. Williams’ is a complex mix of faith in orthodoxy – faith that orthodoxy is a firm foundation on which to build Christian thought, and has been shown to be so (i.e., his book on Arius) – and a painful awareness of the tendency of all systems to, eventually, murder victims; chief among these victims is Jesus Christ. As he said elsewhere in the Incarnation essay “In the face of the cross… we are left with no firm place to stand.”

    It’s an unstable mix, but that’s what Williams thinks you get from the Christ event, and I’m inclined to agree with him. (I’ve written about this in an unpublished paper that I’d be happy to send you if you’d like.)


  6. Joel,

    Please do send the paper to me when possible [cewgreen at gmail]. A couple of questions: (a) what makes you think Jenson violated the rules of polite discourse in his critique of Williams and (b) even if Jenson is being rude — and I didn’t take him that way — does that invalidate his criticism? Seems to me that Williams is too coy for his own good sometimes — exactly as Jenson suggests. That doesn’t mean that I’m not fiercely loyal to Williams and deeply impressed by his theological vision.

    On another note, thanks for your website. Recently, through the saving mediation of Tony Hunt, you secured Williams’ work on the Eucharist as sacrifice for me, which I needed desperately. Thanks for that.


  7. Chris, sorry about that! I didn’t mean to imply that Jenson was inappropriately or unprofessionally rude or anything like that. I should have just said that he meant it “as a criticism,” and that I don’t agree with the point he’s making. My mistake.

    I’ve heard the obscurantist charge before, but I’m not sold on it… though I’ve also never really looked into it, to be honest. Is there anything in particular you think he’s coy with? I’d be interested to look at it together.

    Glad I could help with the Eucharistic sacrifice article! It’s a small world.


  8. Joel,

    No, no problem at all. I sent you an email; I’d like very much to see your paper. I’ll send you a separate email detailing some of my concerns with Williams’ coyness/obscurity.



  9. Chris I can’t contribute anything except a looking eye and alistening ear but would you mind cc-ing me also on that email too [plesseymathews at gmail] . Thank you.


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