Select Page


(Please note that this is a summary of what was said and not a transcript)


Rowan Williams, the former Archbishop of Canterbury, spoke at the end of last month in Oxford on the topic of ‘science, faith and knowledge’. This ‘absurdly ambitious title’, as he described it, was given much greater poignancy by playing at the start of the event an excerpt from an interview with John Humphrys he had given the day after the Beslan massacre (ten years ago) on Radio 4. The atrocity, which resulted in the death of over 300 people, was all the more disturbing because of who the militants targeted. The siege took place in a school, and few could forget the harrowing images of the hall, in which the children were assembled, being rigged with explosives and flanked by armed terrorists. Humphrys’ question was blunt and to the point: ‘Where was God yesterday morning?’ Williams’ response and the ensuing discussion were played to the audience:

RW: ‘Where was God? Where was God in the Aberfan disaster? Where was God on September 11th? The short answer is that God is where God always is, and that is with those who are trying to comfort and bring light in any such situation. I would guess in such a situation and, how can one imagine the nightmare in that school, how can one begin to imagine it, I would guess that there must have been older children putting arms around younger children, you might see God there. But in a world in which human decisions are free, even free for the most appalling evil like this, God does not dictate and intervene for outcomes.’

JH: ‘Human decisions are free?’

RW: ‘Human decisions are free, and that’s why…’

JH: ‘Not for the children they weren’t, were they?’

RW: ‘The children were held captive, the decisions were being made by others and that’s how power works in the world, of course, that some are enslaved by the decisions of others.’

JH: ‘So when Christianity talks about free will, what it actually means is power?’

RW: ‘It means the ability to make a difference in a situation. Now that also means the difference, the ability tragically to use others in the way that these terrorists were attempting to use those children. And I suppose, the sense that we all have that some kind of line has been crossed here, is the almost impossibility of imagining how people cannot only calculate that the death of children will serve their purpose, but actually to sit with suffering children for days watching that in a calculating way and that’s the kind of decision which, yes you have to call evil.’

The Talk
The talk was not primarily focused on this topic, however – although he did touch on that question – but instead it was on the nature of knowledge itself. His central point was that knowledge has a faith element to it, because of its multi-faceted and interconnected nature. This was a direct riposte to those, such as the new atheists, who believe that it can be reduced down to a set of scientific facts. He saw this as being related to the stand-off between science and faith, because there had been a failure on the part of some to understand different types of knowledge. On the one hand, ‘hard science’ can provide us with publicly agreed knowledge that can give us leverage over our environment, but on the other hand there is another type of knowledge that does not easily reduce down to facts and figures. The latter concerned ‘knowing how to go on’ and was more like learning a musical instrument or doing fret-work, in the sense that it involved cost, pain and perseverance. As Simone Veil argued, there is something unambiguously spiritual about learning a craft, as short-term goals are put on hold and we learn our way into it. The experience simply cannot easily be reduced down to atomistic facts and, to only see it in those terms, would be to have an shrunken and bloodless view of knowledge. As Ian McGilchrist has shown, there is an interconnectedness of functions, in the sense that we use synthetic skills to gradually build up a larger picture that our other skills, such as those requiring analysis, feed into. So there is not one way in which we grasp knowledge and if anyone suggests there is, we should be concerned, especially if these ideas are then translated into how we should educate others. The danger is that we can foster a ‘risk-averse intellectual climate’ where we focus on skills and bits of information, and how they relate to a short-term impact, rather than being able to imagine the complex realities that are needed for larger frames of reference. It has been said that you can reduce all biology to chemistry, all chemistry to physics and all physics to mathematics, but we need to be able to have the imagination to be able to link the different disciplines. A scientistic perspective is to regard faith as an outlier in human mental activity, akin to believing in the tooth fairy, but although this may be satisfying to categorise it as such, it is a simplistic view of knowledge that is ‘tone deaf’ to how human interaction works. As Mary Hesse suggests, metaphor and myth play an important part in science and this is where a synthetic connectedness is at play. Some parallels can be drawn with poetry, because it is concerned with resonances. Poetic language is used to say a little bit more about life, which makes the world ‘larger’ and opens up humanity in a way that would not occur otherwise. Faith is worth it, therefore, because it makes humanity more rather than less.
When we are responding to the nightmare of arbitrary violence, especially those affecting children, a rational theory could be provided for why it occurred, but that simply does not suffice, because that is not what is wanted. We can explain why dementia occurs, for example, but that does not make it alright for those having to deal with it. As Fyodor Dostoyevsky said in The Brothers Karamazov, sometimes giving us a theory doesn’t help us, and, in fact, sometimes it can actually show that we don’t understand the problem. We don’t explain why an atrocity, such as the Beslan massacre, had to happen, because it didn’t have to. You can have understanding that doesn’t make a difference. Knowing a set of propositions does not change a human heart and we can all see that the human will is capable of more than we imagined. This is where faith and knowledge become more than we think they are. Clearly definable skills are one type of knowing, but it is not the case that everything else is superstition or prejudice. Where does the imagination lie, for example, and what facts sum up what it is to be human? This is why we need to be reminded about the interconnected nature of knowledge. Left-brain activity presupposes that the mind is detached, whilst right-brain synthesising already assumes we are connected. We are involved with the connections we don’t make, and this is where God is. We need to take time to grow in that interconnectedness, because we don’t just live in a world of objects. No, we are involved in it and we need to engage intelligently with the world around us. How do we do that? Well, the interconnectedness of science, faith and knowledge is what it is all about.

Q & A Session

Q: How do you acquire faith?

A: It comes through a different route from pure argumentation and this is part of the beauty of prayer. It requires working at and through dogged repetition you will eventually reach a point when things look different. The process itself will enlarge your view of life. John Wesley once said ‘preach faith until you have it’. He didn’t mean that he didn’t have faith or that it wasn’t real, but like John Neville Figgis put it, by praying ‘the landscape changes’ and through it ‘the world gets younger every day’. Gaining faith of this nature is seldom acquired through argumentation. Few have been argued into faith, but it can still play an important part in removing obstacles to belief. There is still a healthy tradition of internal argument within orthodox Judaism, in particular, but also in Christianity, and this helps to tease out knowledge.

Q: Is the existence of the world just gratuitous in the sense that it is not important to God, but it is important to us?

A: It is important to steer away from arguments that suggest that God needed to create, as if there was some kind of deficiency of his nature, like wanting someone to love, for example. God creates out of his own willingness to share. This is what his nature is and we are made to share in God’s ‘blissful character’. Yet, as Charles Williams pointed out, God has also made us a creature equipped to disagree.

Q: If faith is to expand our knowledge, what about those who use their beliefs to try and constrict other forms of knowledge? Do those types of people make you despair and do you consider them to be Christians?

A: It is up to God to decide about other people. It can be difficult to have a fruitful conversation with those who are so anxious for God to be what they want him to be, that they aren’t willing to allow God to be who he is, nor others to be who they are. It is vital to have a proper contemplative sense of God’s ‘godness’, following in the tradition of those like Augustine and Aquinas. As George Herbert said, ‘God is what God is’ – he doesn’t need us to defend him and to look after who he is. Instead, we need to need to understand that we are creatures needing to grow and we need to allow space for that. If anyone refuses that type of growth then that is a worry.

Q: What do you think of Michael Sandel’s suggestion that faith is being squeezed out of the public square? Is this a concern?

A: We need to be wary of whinging about being marginalised, but we also need to be wary of the view that faith is fine provided you keep it to yourself. In general, religion shouldn’t have power or take for granted that it has people’s respect, but it has to earn the respect of others in order to be able to speak into society. Yet, as Michael Sandel says, it is vitally important that people are free to say where they are coming from. Good public argument allows for that and there shouldn’t just be one secular voice dictating things. On a hot topic like immigration, for example, I am influenced by our basic commitment to Christian notions of hospitality. Of course it is fine to discuss the economic value of immigration, for example, but it’s important not to discount where our deepest sensibilities lie.

Q: If you are relying on non-propositional knowledge, how do you avoid your ideas becoming stagnant?

A: It is important to use words that keep options open. Like in poetry I try to think of ways to communicate that open up life, rather than closing them down.

Q: How do you define faith? [A question from someone whose field was therapy]

A: There are analogies to be drawn from the field of therapy, in the sense that you build up a language that can be shared and trusted (e.g. gesture, habit and the creation of an environment together). It is about ‘learning someone else’s rhythms’. As Phoebe Caldwell said, the initial stages are decisive, as in order to get close to someone who might seem otherwise isolated or closed (based on her work with those with autism), you have to listen carefully to them in order to ‘feel their pulse’.

Q: Are the new atheists speaking a different language when it comes to faith?

A: It is important to stress that I am not against definitive forms of doctrine. I say the creed in chapel every morning and I believe it to be true. Indeed, orthodox doctrine needs to be celebrated, rather than something we need to feel anxious about. Sometimes when you are engaging with people you do realise you are speaking a different language. This is why it is important to stress that the language of faith is not an outlier, but it is an important part of knowing.

Q: What about the ‘cloud of unknowing’?

A: This is an inevitable part of growing into a religious worldview, i.e. we realise more and more how little we know. It is a bit like Thomas Eliot when he eventually said it was about time he became a Christian. Our minds slowly get attuned to faith, but you never know everything about it. It is not a formulaic thing and you never know, for example, the essence of God.

Q: Is faith innate in all of us and what role does it play in society?

A: Faith is innate as we are made to have the capacity to be in a relationship with God. It is not the case that some are disabled and cannot grow into what they are created for. We need to show that we are acting faithfully on a basis of trust in God. Although there is a general cultural dismissiveness towards Christianity, it would be good to hear more about the role that faith plays in society in general, like invented rituals, for example. It would be nice to make sense of this together through constructive risk, not simply mutual self-interest, as it is this that really honours the depth and dignity of human beings.

[A final comment on the evening]
What perhaps doesn’t come across from a textual summary of the evening was the way in which Rowan Williams delivered his message. He had a very pastoral manner that was so diplomatic and disarming that you might easily have missed that he was challenging the scientistic understanding of knowledge, which he clearly viewed as simplistic and lacking. Furthermore, it was evident that his views were the result of careful and deep thought on the matter, which was shown not only by the ideas he communicated, but also by the steadfast confidence of his delivery. Some of his comments were enigmatic, which left you wanting further clarification. Yet you could argue that this was itself part and parcel of what his central point was, i.e. that knowledge does not all reduce down to convenient facts. In that sense, the talk did precisely what he intended it to do, which was to challenge our understanding and, above all, to give us all pause for thought.

Report by Simon Wenham