Rowan Williams: A wise man who makes my brain ache

Last night I was in London attending the Annual Theos Think Tank lecture, which this year was being given by Archbishop Rowan Williams.  I don’t think I’ve seen so many dog collars in one room before, but I digress.

This was my first opportunity to see Rowan in the flesh and the eyebrows were as impressive as I’d hoped, but the real reason I went to see him speak was to hear what he had to say. The title of his talk was ‘The person and the individual: human dignity, human relationships and human limits’, which suggested it was going to be pretty deep theologically and that proved to be the case.

I’m now going to have a go at briefly summarising his lecture.  I’m hoping this makes sense and follows what was said accurately:

You can’t define me as a person by the functional nature of who I am; I eat, think, walk and do a lot of other things, but that doesn’t make me ‘me’.  I’m more than a biological set of facts.  What makes me fully human is the way I interact with other people.  In my life I’m surrounded by a network of relationships and they define who I am.

This is the mysterious nature of what it means to be a person.  This relational element that is the key to our humanity doesn’t change whether we are disabled, dying or on the margins of society.  Even a baby inside the womb is in relationship with its mother.  Christians believe that attention and respect is due to every person because we are all caught up in this relational reality. No one is outside of it.  We are fully human because of our relationships.

There is a distinction between seeing ourselves as a person because of our relationships and seeing ourselves primarily as an individual where my world revolves around myself.  The problem with identifying ourselves primarily as individuals above that of relational beings is that we inevitably detach and alienate ourselves from those around us.  It leads to us wanting to control our lives, to let our desires and expectations push us on towards and past our limits seeking to become more perfect and prosperous.  We resent our limitations rather than embracing them.

If our understanding of our humanity is focused on the self rather than understanding it through our connectedness with others then we are in danger of losing the desire to treat others with the respect and attention we seek to give ourselves.

St. Augustine wrote that before our relationships with each other, we are in relationship with God.  Our relationship with God then defines those relationships with others; it is the root of everything it means to be a person.  It is through our relationship with God also that we can claim our human rights.  These are the rights to be respected and affirmed and for our lives to be valued.

Ultimately what binds relationships together is love and that love first and foremost comes from God.  I am neither a machine or a self-contained soul; I am a person, spoken to, seen and loved into existence.  My relationships make me who I am as a person, but they also require me to have faith; faith to allow others to impact and shape my life.  This engagement is risky.  It forces us to open up to others, but it also teaches us to be responsible for each other and to place value on those around us.

It’s impossible to understand who we are as humans unless we can grasp the concept of person over individual.  And we can’t address our humanity fully without seeing it from a theological (God’s) perspective.

This summary is a lot shorter than Rowan William’s full 45 minute discourse, which you can listen to here.  I’ve been thinking about how we can simplify this concept further and Rowan’s discussion of who I am as a person can really be summed up by Jesus famous teaching:

Hearing that Jesus had silenced the Sadducees, the Pharisees got together.  One of them, an expert in the law, tested him with this question: “Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the Law?”

Jesus replied: “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.  This is the first and greatest commandment.  And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbour as yourself.   All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.” (Matthew 22:34-40)

The heart of the Bible, the gospel and our very existence are inseparable from love and relationship.  You can guarantee that where our society is struggling, it comes down to love and relationship, whether it be marital breakdown, abortion, addiction or areas such as banking and crime.

I struggle to see how a nation that ignores Jesus’ commands can function healthily.  It’s why I believe the Christian faith needs to be at the heart of our institutions and in the corridors of power.  I have not found a way to live that is superior to that which is taught in the Bible.  That’s what drives me to present the Good News when I write and gives me the desire to see the Church alive and at work in every part of our nation.

I think Rowan believes this too.  Listening to him, I was bowled over by his wisdom and deep level of understanding of theology and also of the human condition.  It was a privilege to hear him speak in such a way at one of his last engagements before he steps down from his position.

It all made my brain hurt too, but I’m not complaining.

Categories: Archbishop of Canterbury, Human rights, Theology

Tags: , , , , , , ,

10 replies

  1. Lovely piece- I wish I could bottle a dose of Rowan to take when I forget…you have provided one- Ta!

  2. Excellent summary and bang on. If it were to be tweeted, you could say “I am who I am because you are who you are”, or something like that

  3. Reblogged this on MrTheKidd and commented:
    For those interested, Rowan Williams is coming to the end of his term as Archbishop of Canterbury, and he recently spoke at the Annual Theos Think Tank lecture. Here’s an excellent summary.

  4. I too was very impressed with this and gained much respect for the Archbishop’s thoughtfulness and deep understanding of humanity. For there is no doubt that what Rowan Williams has said is true and should be a fundamental aspect of Christian behaviour.
    I find it sad that such a man feels compelled to stand down prematurely, being unable to solve some of the many complex and deeply entrenched problems within the Church of England today.
    In retrospect, I can see how the Archbishop has tried very hard to foster relational solutions, and sought a humanitarian and understanding approach within a fast changing society that challenges us all. Humanly speaking, I cannot see any man succeeding in unravelling all the tangles that beset the church today, many of which I believe it has brought upon itself.
    This is because, somewhere along the line, the church at large has let go of the unchanging truth of God’s word in other key areas, such as His definition of morality, which it should be upholding. Tolerance then becomes compromise and we should never compromise with God’s word and the absolute values it teaches.

  5. I think we often forget what a tough job being the Archbishop of Catnerbury is. Whoever comes in next isn’t going to find it easier irrespective of their theological leanings.

  6. I have a question… you said the Archbishop of Canterbury said:

    St. Augustine wrote that before our relationships with each other, we are in relationship with God. Our relationship with God then defines those relationships with others; it is the root of everything it means to be a person. It is through our relationship with God also that we can claim our human rights. These are the rights to be respected and affirmed and for our lives to be valued.

    In this quote, I don’t understand how he proves that we are in a relationship with God. It seems he skipped over that. He does say it is the root of everything it means to be a person, but that doesn’t answer the question.

    What do you think?

    • I can’t remember now if Rowan Williams went into this in detail. I don’t think his intention was to prove this point; he was just quoting Augustine. If you take God out of the equation, we then have to understand relationships and morals purely in biological terms. Where else would they come from? I don’t think that you can prove God’s existence through human relationships other than recognising that human society functions around relationships and that our need to relate is an integral part of our make-up.

      If you study the Bible you will find that relationship is the reason why God created the world – so he could have a relationship with creation and in particular, humans. When you see human relationships through this lens, they begin to make sense and it also shows that we are all equal because we are under a higher power. None of us has the right to exalt themselves over anyone else.

      This is just a brief answer, but hopefully goes some way to answering your question.


  1. A few good links | eChurch Blog
  2. ‘Persons and Individuals’ – Reflections on Rowan Williams’ Theos Lecture | James Lee's Blog
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