On transcendence as the ground of political engagement

Rowan Williams may no longer be Archbishop of Canterbury but he still seems to have a penchant for courting controversy by speaking uncomfortable / unfashionable truths.

This brief excerpt from his wider piece (follow the link below) is well worth a read. Just the same, his argument begs the question of reconciling the claim of religion as an integral necessity for political engagement in the public square with the lamentable, if not farcical, carryings-on in global politics presently.

Also, I do wish Williams would do something about the eyebrows…

“… The issue is this. Apart from Christianity, what were or what could have been the factors that could drive any critique of slavery in the eighteenth century?

We think of the Age of Enlightenment as an intellectual climate in which the assumptions of modern liberal and democratic thought were first formed; and that is not wholly wrong. But you will look in vain to the secularising writers of the period for systematic criticisms of slavery, let alone campaigns for its ending.

The liberal and egalitarian principles of the French Enlightenment made not the slightest dent upon the slave system (and the post-Revolution French administrations made no move towards emancipation of their own accord). The egalitarianism of the age was like that of the Stoics in ancient Rome – a theory for the elite, unrelated to actual human relationships in the present, where, sadly, primitive justice had been rendered unattainable.

And we must not forget the ways in which some aspects of enlightened thinking could end up reinforcing attitudes of racial superiority by appeal to the normative status of European thinking and the assumption that non-Europeans were incapable of ‘standard’ reasoning. There is an uncomfortable history to be written of what might be called progressive or scientific racism as well as of religiously motivated varieties; Colin Kidd’s recent monograph, The Forging of Races. Race and Scripture in the Protestant Atlantic World, 1600-2000, is a very distinguished beginning to this study.

“What is it that moves egalitarianism from being a wistful theory to being the motive for serious political action?”

The answer is very simple: the conviction of responsibility before God.

Wilberforce and his circle were bound by that conviction; they believed that if a sinful system existed and its sinfulness implicated them as well as others, they were under an obligation to end it. God could not will sin; so if there were sin in the political and economic conditions under which they pursued their business, it was God’s will that it be eradicated. here is no place here for wistfulness or for a ‘tragic’ sense of unavoidable moral compromise. We may think this, as a principle, worryingly naive; but what is undeniable is that it motivated a series of major social changes, not only in respect of slavery.”


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