What is Enlightenment? More on Williams and Sharia

The account I have already given of Williams’ speech on Civil and Religious Law in England was, despite it’s neuron-numbing length, seriously incomplete. Facing one set of Williams’ critics, I concentrated on demonstrating that Williams had not ridden roughshod over everything that secularists and advocates of universal human rights hold dear. I described his lectures as a ‘serious and impassioned defence of ‘Enlightenment values’. I stand by that – but it does need to be put in context.

I can best approach that context by quoting famous words written by one of Rowan Williams’ friends:

Once, there was no ‘secular’. And the secular was not latent, waiting to fill more space with the steam of the ‘purely human’, when the pressure of the sacred was relaxed…. The secular as a domain had to be instituted or imagined, both in theory and practice. – John Milbank, Theology and Social Theory: Beyond Secular Theology, 2nd edn (Oxford: Blackwell, 2006 [1990]), 9.

Williams shares something of the same understanding: that the ideas and practices that underpin the ‘secular’ – the ideas and practices from which we have woven a state capable of hosting multiple religious communities, and of subjecting all of them to a common framework of rights – were not miraculously chiselled on granite tablets and dropped onto the toes of a passing republican or philosophe at the start of the eighteenth century. Those ideas and practices have a history.

Like Milbank, Williams does not think that history is a story of the inevitable emergence of secularity, waiting only upon the crumbling of the sacred, as if secularity is the natural state of humankind. Rather, the history of secularity’s emergence is contingent: one can ask, Where did this come from? Why here? Why now? And, like Milbank, Williams thinks that the story one needs to tell in order to understand this contingent emergence is a thoroughly religious, theological story. The Enlightenment may emerge as a rejection of all sorts of aspects of fractious Christianity – but it is a rejection that was enacted by hands holding weapons pulled from Christian trees. (If you want a philosophically robust account of the kind of dynamics involved in this process, I’d recommend Peter Ochs, Peirce, Pragmatism, and the Logic of Scripture.)

As Williams puts it, the invention of secularity required (amongst other things)

a certain valuation of the human as such and a conviction that the human subject is always endowed with some degree of freedom over against any and every actual system of human social life; both of these things are historically rooted in Christian theology, even when they have acquired a life of their own in isolation from that theology. It never does any harm to be reminded that without certain themes consistently and strongly emphasised by the ‘Abrahamic’ faiths, themes to do with the unconditional possibility for every human subject to live in conscious relation with God and in free and constructive collaboration with others, there is no guarantee that a ‘universalist’ account of human dignity would ever have seemed plausible or even emerged with clarity. Slave societies and assumptions about innate racial superiority are as widespread a feature as any in human history (and they have persistently infected even Abrahamic communities, which is perhaps why the Enlightenment was a necessary wake-up call to religion…).

Why does this matter? Because if it is true, then any picture of a straightforward opposition between religion and the secular is a drastic oversimplification. And that means that any cry that simply says, ‘You can’t do this religious stuff; we’re secular!’ is talking as much nonsense as the cry that says, ‘You can’t do this secular stuff; we’re a Christian nation!’

To understand the history of secularity’s emergence, Williams thinks, is to see the sheer ungrounded assertion involved any simple story which sees ‘unqualified secular monopoly’ as the natural end-point of the Enlightenment, the only consistent interpretation and application of ‘Enlightenment’ principles. (And that goes for all those who tell this story with boos, as well as those who tell it with cheers.) That story-line is not built in to the very idea of the secular; far from it. And so Williams can say that to defend

an unqualified secular legal monopoly in terms of the need for a universalist doctrine of human right or dignity is to misunderstand the circumstances in which that doctrine emerged, and [to understand] that the essential liberating (and religiously informed) vision it represents is not imperilled by a loosening of the monopolistic framework.

(That sentence needs reading carefully: Williams is not denying the need for a ‘universalist doctrine of human right or dignity’, but rather denying that such a doctrine is secular-and-so-inherently-opposed-to-religion, and so denying that a militant defence of such a doctrine is at the same time a defence of ‘unqualified secular monopoly’.)


what I have called legal universalism, when divorced from a serious theoretical (and, I would argue, religious) underpinning, can turn into a positivism as sterile as any other variety.

The narrative that Williams is offering as an alternative to the simplistic secularity-versus-religion narrative can, if taken seriously, enable one to name a form of oppression that would otherwise slip through our conceptual nets: the oppression of a sterile positivism which denies all possibility of – at very least – conscientious objection.

Let me explain that last comment a bit further. In the famous radio interview, Williams said:

a lot of what’s written suggests that the ideal situation is one in which there is one law and only one law for everybody; now that principle that there’s one law for everybody is an important pillar of our social identity as a Western liberal democracy, but I think it’s a misunderstanding to suppose that that means people don’t have other affiliations, other loyalties which shape and dictate how they behave in society and that the law needs to take some account of that. An approach to law which simply said: “There is one law for everybody and that is all there is to be said.” I think that’s a bit of a danger.

I read several comments in the aftermath saying something like, ‘That there is one law for everybody, and that that is all there is to be said, is and should continue to be the essence of our legal system’. But the language of ‘conscientious objection’ (that Williams uses in that article) points us to at least one example that is not so easy to ridicule. Suppose conscription were introduced again in some future state of war. Should that law make any provision for conscientious objection by pacifists of various kinds (including, but not limited to, religious groups like Quakers)? That is, should the law allow certain kinds of exception, based on the ‘consciences’ of the people in question? Or should it simply say, ‘No, there is one law for everybody and that is all there is to be said. Pick up your gun, soldier!’?

However, the point I want to focus on here is that at the heart of Williams’ strategy for advocating this as a valid interpretation and fulfilment of what is best in the Enlightenment project is an interpretation of the emergence of that Enlightenment – an interpretation that sees that it is made possible by certain crucial theological developments. Indeed, Williams is going further: he thinks that what is properly central to the Enlightenment, properly at the heart of secularity, is an ‘Abrahamic’ insight: ‘a commitment to human dignity as such‘. And so Williams is a defender of this core of the Enlightenment heritage because he is a Christian, and he is advocating ‘interactive pluralism’ as an interpretation of the Enlightenment heritage because in defending these aspects of the Enlightenment heritage he is doing his job: he is asking how the implications of the Christian Gospel can be worked out in the world. Far from proposing a solution that ignores the Christian heritage of this country, he is taking that heritage far more seriously than those who think it sets up some kind of magic magnetism that repels any negotiation with, or recognition of, Muslim consciences.

(Just as an aside, it’s worth noticing an interesting symmetry in Williams’ argument. It is only by understanding the emergence of ‘Enlightenment values’ – the tradition of theological and moral inquiry from which they emerge – that one can understand what are appropriate and inappropriate ways of defending them. It is only by telling the story so far that one can make judgments about what is central and what is peripheral, and so know how to go on in difficult circumstances. And just so with sharia: Williams suggests that it is only by a nuanced understanding of the contexts of sharia’s emergence and deployment that one can make appropriate judgments about what is central to it and what peripheral, and so know how to defend it in difficult circumstances.)

Of course Williams does not think that only Christians (or Jews or Muslims) can be truly committed to the Enlightenment project. Of course he does not think that no one else really cares about human dignity as such. Of course he does not think that Christianity (or Islam or Judaism) has a great record when it comes to the actual upholding of this idea. Nevertheless, he believes it is an idea that grew in theological soil – and so an idea that might still stand to be illuminated by theological exploration.

Of course, this particular lecture (not delivered to a particularly theologically aware audience) leaves the details of Williams theological case rather sketchy. I’m looking forward to finding out more, because it seems to me that there’s an interesting distance between Williams and Milbank emerging: on the face of it, Williams seems to be advocating a more positive account of the theological roots (and routes) of the Enlightenment, and of liberalism, than I’ve seen from Milbank (and yet doing it in terms which at heart are not obviously inimical to Radical Orthodoxy). The most pregnant hint in the lecture is Williams’ comment about ‘universal law and universal right’ being ‘a way of recognising what is least fathomable and controllable in the human subject’ – i.e., a way of recognising the ways in which human beings exceed any of the particular contexts in which their identities are formed. (I’m reminded of Susannah Ticciati’s Job and the Disruption of Identity, which would, I think, say that this is the realm of the ‘for naught’ and ‘for God’s sake’ of human identity.) As Williams says,

theology still waits for us around the corner of these debates, however hard our culture may try to keep it out. And, as you can imagine, I am not going to complain about that.

Me neither.

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