Comments: John Humphrys interviews Rowan Williams

If I may I'll develop thoughts from as I have written elsewhere and add some:

Whilst I can go along with parts of the detail of Rowan Williams' position, it just does not add up in total, because he is trying to keep to and yet go along with some denial of what he is trying to keep to (about theodicy). It is his typical nip and tuck, back and forth, and at one level commendable and at another a failure. Nearing the end he leaps to doctrine and then a superior insight into the truth in Christianity, from its particular insight and history, and Mary could have said no (what? How does that work out in any historical sense?), and Christianity has more of insight than other religious paths, but they'd say the same about him back.

One is it does not work as a system, and so has no appeal to John Humphrys as it is "vague" and confusing (there is no alternative by jumping to cliches), and also it does not work as it simply does not in totality reflect a stark and contemporary understanding of the world - all sorts of mind-hurdles like intervention and miracles and the big intervention (Christ) and so on are kept, where the undercurrent is yet to turn it into narrative and story and understanding and thus have a more contemporary view of reality around the myth. The explanation needs sorting out.

Rowan William's approach just does not commend itself to me as credible; the critical level has to be raised in the sorting out process, and he is too much in the density of it and moving about in it, not making any main moves to get his own credible narrative.

Rowan Williams works his thought at the micro-level. It is as if the micro-level work can allow the overall structure, about which he has made a "decision" and a "commitment", to continue. But it is failing to answer overall - and if it fails then it does not meet his test, does it, of being a superior explanation over that of other religions. It calls for greater clarity than he can provide at the micro-level. This is why there has to be a move to a more radical theology.

Posted by Pluralist at Wednesday, 1 November 2006 at 3:51am GMT

Too vague and confusing? I wonder. Would Humphrys have been converted on the spot by a snap answer (highly unlikely!) - or is it better to allow him to think at some length about the interview, so that he comes to faith in his own time, to his own satisfaction, rather than having answers imposed on him? And equally the listener, who has heard the standard arguments many times without responding - is it not better to lead gently, as Rowan does, rather than simply recite from a prepared list of statements?

Posted by Alan Marsh at Wednesday, 1 November 2006 at 9:28am GMT

Has anyone listened to the longer version on the web site? Whatever one felt about RW's performance I was astonished that he didn't once mention Jesus in the broadcast 29 minutes, and I'm rather hoping that might be down, at least partly, to editing...

Posted by paulg at Wednesday, 1 November 2006 at 9:28am GMT

Have a read of "How Long, O Lord" by Professor Don Carson - one of the best books on suffering out there.

Posted by NP at Wednesday, 1 November 2006 at 10:28am GMT

It seems that mentions of Jesus and scripture may have been edited out of the broadcast version, I find it extreemly upsetting that the leader of the Church of England should seem so ill-equiped to answer straight-forward (if not simple) questions on the central basis of the Christian faith.

Posted by PeterB at Wednesday, 1 November 2006 at 1:01pm GMT

Williams' voice was soporific, and I don't think he mentioned Jesus once.
Of course theodicy is a vital - if rather overworked - issue, but long ago C. S. Lewis plumbed these questions far better than this program did. I haven't read the Carson book mentioned above, but he wrote a fine little work on 'The Difficult Doctrine of the Love of God', which touches on some questions of theodicy - highly recommended, takes the debate beyond Lewis.
Anyway, isn't this the apotheosis of vanity broadcasting? Why are British taxpayers paying to hear about John Humphrys' religious doubts? Who particularly cares what he believes or doesn't?

Posted by Steve Watson. at Wednesday, 1 November 2006 at 1:19pm GMT

I've spent the morning listening (twice!) to the full-length version of this interview. It is fascinating and ought to be compulsory listening. In the short version RW mentions Jesus once - to say he didn't heal everyone. In the longer interview he gets more of a look-in, particularly towards the end where RW says that when Jesus said "I am the way, the truth and the life," he meant that the fullness of relationship with God is what happens in relationship with himself. The real problem for RW during the interview is that Humphrys has already tried what he suggests he should do in order to find what he is looking for - opening himself to God, praying even - and it has failed for him. My own feeling is that the interview reveals a lack of Christocentrism to RW's faith. It is surely some achievement for him to get half an hour into a 55 minute interview before mentioning Jesus at all, and at no point does RW point Humphrys towards putting the issue of Jesus first in his search. There are, of course, two more interviews to follow - perhaps they will do better!!

Posted by John Richardson at Wednesday, 1 November 2006 at 1:47pm GMT

No mention of Jesus, and, as far as I could hear in the 30 minute interview, no (direct) mention of sin either, but then again, would that have worked with the likes of Humphrys?

For me (and, I suspect, for others) the fascinating thing about the interview is not Humphrys' unbelief but the Archbishop's belief and his articulation of it. You have to hold on tight as he sets off on some his answers but it's worth it in the end.

I don't know if Humphrys was moved towards faith in God, but I found it moved me towards faith in Rowan and gratitude that he is where he is.

Posted by ChrisM at Wednesday, 1 November 2006 at 1:53pm GMT

These pieces are always difficult to judge, though I have found some of the comments above very illuminating. This is a conversation for broadcast, scripted to highlight some of the aspects mentioned above, but also quite personal. If I was an “enquirer” I think I would be happy with this as first contact with a pastor, I would go back for more.
John Humphrys would never have contemplated this series a few years ago, I see this as an interesting development for him. Several years ago I interviewed him about his faith and his Welshness for BBC radio – the chats we had before the actual recorded interview were sadly far more informative than the interview itself – mostly my fault I think.

Posted by Martin Reynolds at Wednesday, 1 November 2006 at 4:11pm GMT

The alleged lack of Christocentricity in ++RW's interview would be consonant with (my understanding of) the purpose of the programme, that is to explore the arguments for faith in its more general form.

Clearly ++RW is coming from the Christian tradition (and I tire of those who complain about Jesus not getting enough explicit mentions in the things clergy say — the fact that I am a Christian means it is axiomatic that Jesus is rather important to me), but is it really ++RW's brief to turn JH into a Christian when the guy's having enough trouble with the idea of God in the first place?

As for John Humphries aggrandising himself by having his search made into a radio programme — well, for JH read 'Everyman': what DO we say to intelligent people well-disposed towards faith who can't get there? I think that a highly important issue to raise.

Posted by David Rowett (=mynsterpreost) at Wednesday, 1 November 2006 at 7:33pm GMT

I've listened to the long version twice, and I am very impressed with the non-agressive character of RW's reflections and attitudes - he "allows", rather than demanding. He comes across as carefully thoughtful, gentle, and pastoral. I deeply appreciate that he claims no unassailable certainties of knowledge, but witnesses to his own faith life and spiritual development as well as truly honoring Humphrys' sincerity and good will. It is not (thank God) a "debate", nor is it (thank God) a Sunday School class, but a reasonable gentlemanly sharing.

There was no point in dropping "Jesus" all over the place to a man who doesn't even believe in God! This interview is "pre-Christian", and neither Jesus nor sin ought to have any place in the discussion at this point. As my rector used to say, "You have to think like a Jew before you can think like a Christian." At least that's the sequence God seems to have followed, isn't it?

Posted by John-Julian OJN at Wednesday, 1 November 2006 at 9:40pm GMT

In response to Alan Marsh (and I heard the 54 min version):

I specifically say cliches would not have worked either, and I'm trying to assess Rowan Williams' overall approach. I've also been given his On Christian Theology (2000) to borrow, and the speaking man is similar to the writing man, in that it is dense, closely argued, back and forth material. My interest is in how this all adds up to the total, and in the radio interview more came out about the whole than in the book.

The issue for me is, where is the core location of this account of faith. People have mentioned his lack of mentioning Jesus. This may be because Jesus is part of another narrative that does not necessarily hinge on that narrative of God and theodicy, and later Jesus is brought in as part of an explanation of specificity as to why Christianity is superior.

See, if he says God acts through human freedom, he means what? That there is no intervention, or that there is intervention but no one can ever notice it? He might have pulled in Jesus as part of a suffering God, but he wanted to keep omnipotence and the rest going - all he did was say God limits himself. So there is an intelligent decision maker then to self-limit? Old model verses liberal revision. Or he says prayer is opening a channel of communication that somehow lets God in, and whilst that's fine he is then on to people who are not prayed for like an older model of asking and being heard. Old model verses liberal revision again. The detail never gets anywhere.

But look really hard and there is a dominant core, and it is narrative and story, and Williams is like a detective in the middle of the various stories going on with his magnifying glass. But this detective doesn't get to the big picture because he has already made a "decision" to hold to the crime as already presented. It is a sort of theological stalemate. And yet that stalemate has a kind of underlying saw working on the branch on which he is sitting...

He did mention "the way, the truth and the life" verse, and used it almost in the way that it is commonly abused as a cliche. Except, think about it. "No one gets to the Father except through me". But for Williams the Father is that specific placed pattern of understanding of the narrative of God from the Hebrew Bible and into Christianity. So I could say yes to that and "No one gets to nirvana except through Buddha". Both narratives are right. this is what happens with narratives - they are encompassing cultural fictions. Clarity is needed.

Posted by Pluralist at Wednesday, 1 November 2006 at 9:43pm GMT

I'm surprised at the suggestion RW makes no mention of Jesus. Listen again. He's there, quite close to the beginning.

Posted by Stephen Wikner at Thursday, 2 November 2006 at 12:13am GMT

Fascinating comments here, and also a fascinating interview with ++Rowan.

I haven't been able to get through it all yet due to some connection problems. I'm at about 23 minutes into the long version, and heard a few bits of the short version.

From what I've heard I think the edits in the short version definitely do NOT do Rowan justice.

As I was listening, I had an idea for a 4th individual whom I would love to hear Humphrys interview, asking these same questions: Nicky Gumbel of Holy Trinity Brompton (and Alpha, of course).

Since I haven't heard the whole thing yet, I'm reserving my comments in terms of any broad conclusions, though I already do wish Rowan had been clearer in places. But I have heard nothing heretical.

Also, for those concerned with Rowan's Christology, it helps me in listening to this interview, which is frustrating so far in terms of it's lack of reference to Christ, to remember other examples of Rowan's writings or sermons in which his orthodox Christology is CRYSTAL clear and boldly proclaimed. I was thinking of his sermon to the Global South Encounter in Egypt.

But of course, having in the past given brilliant sermons about Christ doesn't help poor John Humphrys or those BBC listeners who may similarly be hungry to know God.

Posted by Karen B. at Thursday, 2 November 2006 at 2:23am GMT

Apropos Williams' references to Jesus, when Tariq Ramadan is interviewed I wonder whether he will have very much to say about Mohammed or the Qur'an? Will we wait while he seeks to lead Humphrys to Mohammed and the Qur'an via Allah, or will he begin with these things? Islamic theology is not, of course, 'Mohammed centred', but it is very close to be Qur'an centred - at least in terms of how God is revealed. The worry, for me, is that faced with the challenge to address a seeking doubter (which Humphrys clearly is) the leader of the Anglican Communion doesn't start with the incarnation and revelation of God. However orthodox Williams' concept of Christ may be, it can hardly be said that Christ is 'front and centre' in his thinking about how God is to be made known. As to when Williams mentions Jesus, I'm listening again to the long version and at 7' 40" Williams says "what is ultimately there is God - as a Christian I would say [God is] God the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit," but then he simply moves on to talk about God in general terms. Can anyone tell us, definitively, at what point in the interview the word "Jesus" is first mentioned?

Posted by John Richardson at Thursday, 2 November 2006 at 10:55am GMT

given the importance of the subject, I cannot recommend this book more highly - written by a professor who takes the subject head on

Posted by NP at Thursday, 2 November 2006 at 11:05am GMT

To know and follow Jesus of Nazareth is perhaps something distinct from knowing and/or pledging allegiance to this or that piece of doctrine, elaboration via tradition, or inference about Jesus of Nazareth.

The possible importance of this conversation is that it maybe helps to recover the benighted and backgrounded sense of faith as pilgrimage or journey, open-ended - rather than the going coin of new conserved belief systems (in which faith is almost always definitively presumed to be a final and closed sense of certainty).

Posted by drdanfee at Thursday, 2 November 2006 at 3:30pm GMT

People come to Christ in different ways: not every conversion is instantaneous, and many need to be led gently to faith. Unfortunately some evangelicals think the full-frontal assault is the only way, when a more subtle approach, such as that employed by Rowan, is more effective.

Gerard Manley Hopkins observed in "The Wreck of the Deutschland" how responses to the gospel vary widely:

Whether at once, as once at a crash Paul,
Or as Austin, a lingering-out sweet skill,
Make mercy in all of us, out of us all
Mastery, but be adored, but be adored King.

Posted by Alan Marsh at Friday, 3 November 2006 at 10:19am GMT


I totally agree. Just as God has given us different gifts and temperaments, so it is that we find our way to God through different journeys and experiences. What sends one soul into dancing with delight can lead another soul cowering in a corner. I know that I have seen many a soul cringe away from public zealotry who when spoken to quietly and privately have internalised core biblical tenets into their personal morality. Zealots deny they recognise God, but God knows who has chosen to respond to His call. God also knows that none of us are perfect, and that we often stumble, especially when God earmarks us for futher refinement. Compassion is partly being kind to other souls during a difficult refinement period in the hope that you will be given some compassion when your own hard times come around.

Posted by Cheryl Clough at Friday, 3 November 2006 at 9:29pm GMT

We are told that God is non-interventionist. That humans must decide between good & evil. But we are told that happy events such as The Miracle of Stairway B at the WTC, when 25 firemen survived the collapse of the buildings, are as a result of the direct intervention by God. Can someone explain why he didn't intervene on behalf of the 2973 who actually perished, or shall we allow God to abdicate responsibilty for their deaths, but to claim credit for the lives of the 25. Rather like having your cake & eating it, methinks.

Posted by Kevin A. Hill at Sunday, 5 November 2006 at 9:39am GMT

Kevin's comment needs to be taken seriously (it echoes one from classical times about portraits in a temple of Neptune of those who had appealed to the god and been saved from drowning. "And where are the portraits of those who appealed to the god and were not saved?") but it is not a completely insuperable problem. It may be that the Johannine idea of 'signs'still has something going for it. Where it really goes adrift is where some enthusiast claims that miracle is the normal way of God interacting with the world, as did people like the late John Wimber.

Not that an interventionist God is an easy theological option at the best of times - one is always into the scandal of particularity, but at least that's a theme addressed in Christian tradition.

Posted by David Rowett (=mynsterpreost) at Sunday, 5 November 2006 at 5:44pm GMT

I would be interested (if it wasn't intrusive or impertinent) in the spirituality of John Hymphrys himself........ I wouldnt see him as deficient or 'empty'. I'd want to 'do theology'by reflecting on the materials of his life journey; and inner life. That is if he would welcome that, himself, at this time.

Posted by laurence at Monday, 6 November 2006 at 12:28pm GMT

Has anyone got any thoughts about the second interview, with Tariq Ramadan? I am just listening to the long version for a second time.

Posted by John Richardson at Tuesday, 7 November 2006 at 10:44am GMT

I haven't listened to any of the longer versions yet.

However, I notice that the programme's website (link added to main article above) now has TWO extended interview files for Rowan Williams. Perhaps somebody else has more time!!

Posted by Simon Sarmiento at Tuesday, 7 November 2006 at 7:09pm GMT

I heard Tariq Ramadan on the radio. He struck me as very moderate, conciliatory and apologetic. He could almost have been an anglican bishop. I took it , that he was watching his words, and that his private views would be even more open.

I was struck by his unwillingness to comment on the eternal destiny of non-Muslims and others, John H. included --- leaving it to the wisdom and mercy of Allah.

Also, I was struck by his opposition to the death penality, amputation and other aspects of the Sharia.

He certainly presented a thoughtful and kindly face of religion, from which many hard-line christian leaders have much to learn.

Posted by laurence at Wednesday, 8 November 2006 at 3:30pm GMT

RW's answer to JH's question "Do you believe Christianity is the only path to God?" astounded me. RW said, "It is clearly NOT the only path to God..." He then goes on to say that to experience the "fullness" of a relationship we should believe as he does. The problem is, there is salvation found in NO OTHER name than Jesus Christ. He alone is the way, truth, and life. There is no such thing as a lesser degree of relationship. Either a person is a born-again believer or not. There is no such thing as partial relationship. Nobody is partially adopted as a son into God's Kingdom. Jesus does not take a partial Bride. It grieves me that RW is often thought of as the voice of Christianity when he doesn't believe his own Bible.

Posted by Matt Kottman at Tuesday, 14 November 2006 at 8:51pm GMT

I was involved in producing The Miracle of Stairway B and none of the 12 firefighters involved believed that God saved them as this would mean he let their brother officers die.

Posted by David L at Thursday, 16 November 2006 at 1:30pm GMT

I feel that I have some credentials to comment on John Humphrys' interview with Rowan Williams in that I am a practising Christian but also have incurable cancer. I have known severe pain (although not comparable with those for whom modern, Western pain relief is unavailable) and my parents are facing the very high probability that I will die before them. Although I'm not a child, I can assure you that this is hard for them to bear.

Like John, I was brought up in a Christian environment, but I have, from an early stage, questioned my beliefs. Until recently, I would say that it has been more important to me to believe that Theism (and particularly Christianity) is intellectually defensible and rigorously logical, than to subscribe to blind faith. Knowing now the immense comfort I have received from God during my illness, due in some measure at least to others' prayers, I would say that I now have a more emotional (or, hopefully, spiritual) faith in addition to the rational belief I already hold.

Much of my rational belief owes an immense debt to C.S. Lewis, both through his popular apologetics and his works of fiction and I am sure you will detect echoes of his work in much of what I say. If anyone is interested, I would recommend "Mere Christianity" as a starting point, although the tone of Lewis' text is quaintly 1940s and the style somewhat robust. Set these "defects" aside and listen to his logic!

The common thread in John Humphry's questioning of belief seems to me to be the apparent incompatibility of believing in an absolutely loving and absolutely all powerful God and seeing a world which contains a heart breaking quantity and quality of human suffering.

The logical (although apparently emotionally heartless) defence of this, for me, is that if God chooses to create a world in which there is free will, and also if He allows free choices to have consequences (and how can free will be meaningful otherwise?) then wrong choices must have adverse consequences. Given that these consequences exist at all, how (logically, not emotionally) can we determine what limit, either in quality or scale, God may place? Dr Williams touches on this defence, but perhaps assumes too much prior knowledge from his listeners!

Perhaps the next most difficult question is to ask (arising, perhaps, from emotional reaction) is where justice lies when the suffering does not appear related to the sin of those who caused it. In the Bible you will certainly find examples of suffering as a direct consequence of the behaviour of those suffering. However you will also find examples where the suffering is not related to the sin of the sufferer (e.g. Jesus' examples of the healed blind man and the disaster at Siloam). On this issue I therefore find myself aligned (if I understand them correctly) with all three interviewees in that we must accept it as a tenet of faith that God's plan is beyond our simple understanding, since we cannot know all of the factors and outcomes involved and also, as Neils Bohr reportedly said, "Einstein, don't tell God what He can do".

The above seems, perhaps, coldly logical. However I can only say that, for me, pain and suffering seen from the inside is different from pain and suffering seen from the outside and it has strengthened, not weakened my faith. Although, as John says, prayer often seems like launching a message into nowhere (it often has for me), it is also sometimes answered and accompanied by an unmistakeable conviction of God's presence. Don't give up!

"O taste and see how gracious the Lord is. Blessed is he that trusteth in Him".

Posted by Arthur Christian at Friday, 15 December 2006 at 2:46pm GMT
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