The Modern Areopagus.  A lecture delivered by Abp. Rowan Williams

The Modern Areopagus.  A lecture delivered by Abp. Rowan Williams

‘Closely tracking how we speak about ethics and language; perhaps it is ultimately most engaging when it takes us back to story and practice, to the not always articulate witness of the person who offers their body as a place where God may become credible, and to the collective practice of Christ’s Body in its performance of the transforming ‘anti-sacrificial’ sacrifice of the Eucharist’ relates Rowan Williams in presenting his lecture on faith in our times of The Modern Areopagus, from his cycle of John Paul II lectures, delivered for the St John Paul II Institute of Culture.

On 15th December, by means of the internet, another lecture was provided by the St John Paul II Institute of Culture.  This lecture titled The Modern Areopagus was given by Rowan Williams – the renowned Anglican bishop, scholar, theologist, likewise poet. 

The event set off with Father Hyacinthe Destivelle, director of the Ecumenical Institute at the Papal University of St. Thomas Aquinas – Angelicum, welcoming the speakers and those present at our lecture.  Father Destivelle reminded that this event would not have taken place without the support of the following university dignitaries, Father Michał Palucha, rector Angelicum, Father Serge-Thomas Bonino, the Dean of Philosophy, and director of St John Paul II Institute of Culture, Father Ryszard Rybka.

Notable thanks go to those who founded the St John Paul II Institute of Culture including Foundation of Święty Mikołaj and Dariusz Karłowicz who was present here today, as well as Foundation Futura-Iuventa and other donors and friends of St John Paul II Institute of Culture.  After a brief introduction to the idea behind St John Paul II Institute of Culture, Father Destivelle was followed by Dariusz Karlowicz who introduced our guest speaker and the theme of discussion to lead us into Abp. Rowan Williams’s lecture.

“What you worship unknowingly, I declare to you plainly’ (Acts 17:23).  With these words of St. Paul, Rowan Williams began his lecture. The words, according to our speaker Rowan Williams, indicate something taken for granted, in that worship is one of the things that human beings do.  The question ought not to be whether worship is necessary but rather to bring to light what or who is being worshipped.  Rowan Williams notes that this shouldn’t be confused with the popular notion in liberal theological circles from the middle of the last century concerning what is of ‘ultimate concern’ to the people.  Rather what is of concern here, by definition, is what brings attention and loyalty upon people, making their sense of self cease to function, and furthermore preventing the self its freedom to define itself adequately.  Worship comes to be a very personal undertaking which requires full surrender to something that transcends us entirely.

For the aim of his lecture Rowan Williams argued to the relevance of St. Paul’s message and its contemporary force, and split it threefold.  Firstly suggesting that a robust concept of the non-negotiable dignity of the human person requires the only proper object of worship to be something radically other than the contents of the finite universe.  Secondly, showing how the phenomenon of human language, and the radical trust involved in addressing another human with the expectation of being understood entails a fundamental orientation away from the apparent naturalness of self-definition in the usual sense.  And thirdly, how once it is clear that God alone is to be worshipped, the finite agent is freed to stand in place of God without the risk of any Luciferian claim to be the object of another’s total devotion.  Central to all this is the worshipful embrace of wholehearted responsiveness.

At the centre of these three arguments, stand two relevant points.  Above all one needs to remember, that we are precluding the possibility of any type of rivalry between finiteness and infiniteness.  Furthermore, in our ability to perceive reality we cannot forget about the limitations of a singular perspective, and how all is always already seen and known by God from time eternal.  Taking as our example of St Paul at Areopagus, Rowan Williams explained that he would like to point us to our own reasoning which drives our linguistic and ethical practices, of which we may not be fully consciously aware.

The first step in this path, is an analysis of human rights as a concept that is today often criticised and doesn’t find an adequate footing in the Bible.  Rowan Williams, referred to the criticism of this term both legally and in its standard usage, pointing out that a key element here is showing how the moral status of a given person cannot depend on another person.  The thing not to be confused here, is the assumption that we are dealing with various differing obligations towards other people.  Human rights turn out to be primary in this definition, and take priority towards any relation, interaction or meeting of any sort.  This is due to the moral status of the next person not being something that we can in any way be accountable for.

Looking on the uncomfortable contemporary issue of ‘eliminating’ the condition of Down’s Syndrome, where the national policy in Iceland has led to a near-total eradication by means of selective abortion, Rowan Williams presented his conception of how we can defend human rights.  Such a discussion would not allow for the suggestion that before coming to an understanding of the moral status of another person, we are able to judge the moral relevance and rights of that person.  Rowan Williams noted ‘a classic form of an unjust and unrighteous case is when one side imposes upon the other a role which he himself defines and provides limits for […] The thrust of moral truth in words pertaining to human rights are actually concealed in the intention of assuming that expecting respect and care and regard is independent from the end result of our aims.  Put differently, Rowan Williams draws attention to how the real moral energy of human rights language is an attempt to secure the expectation of respect and nurture independently of successful performance.

In the next part of the lecture, Rowan Williams brought up the anthropological concept of the mimetic mechanism noted by Rene Girard, known as the mimetic spiral, to help cast light on the paradoxical ways which govern how a person tries to guarantee his own human rights. And here we return to the earlier mentioned point of worship. ‘The second person becomes the object of “worship” in the sense that we focus all our attention and conceptual apparatus in defining our own needs and desires.  We start to imitate and at once feel an aversion to the person through a kind of rivalry.  And in doing so, this double-sided relation allows for the  scapegoat approach.’  Rowan Williams presents the aforementioned theory of ‘mimesis’ through the prism of St. Paul’s speech given at Areopagus, in order to explain that ‘our collective life as humans is haunted by the compulsive pressure towards absorbing and, at best, immobilising or silencing one another; and in times of serious social crisis, this pressure leads to the scapegoating and expulsion – often the murder – of those who cannot defend themselves against the projection of frustrated desire.’ 

A more promising outcome on the latter argument would be to work towards a conception in which we would no longer perceive the next person in such mimetic category, thus meaning as a model, rival or something standing in the way of our desires and needs. In a phrase, seeing in the other person as something more than just who he is and what he means for me.

The next issue taken up by Rowan Williams that was mentioned at the outset, is to reflect upon the non-rivalrous nature of God, who unlike us does not evolve in a mixture of initiative and reaction, and without rivalry in no way is conditioned by that what happens in the continuum of this universe.  From this we arrive at the conclusion that divine regard from God is never to be earned, we cannot just earn it.  And here we can call back the earlier mentioned teachings of Rene Girard, in that, according to Rowan Williams the crucifixion of Jesus reveals to us the contradictory and arbitrary nature of scapegoating.  This act or mechanism ‘exposes the ultimate toxicity for the human world and its refusal of its own foundational reality, and uncovers the character of the creative act that is beyond rivalry and is so universally affirming and compassionate’.

In regards to this act Rowan Williams connects the inherent value of every human being for whom the foundation of our identity is God’s divine providence.  And from this is borne the impossibility of existence of another object of worship other than God.  Surrendering to this, is acceptance of what is already the self’s actual and radical identity which is encapsulated by the familiar words ‘the one who loses their life will save it’.

In the succeeding part of the lecture, Rowan Williams placed his focus on linguistic issues as well as those connected to reasoning and self-understanding.  Calling to mind phenomenology of St Edyta Stein, Merleau-Ponty and the later philosophy of Ludwig Wittgenstein, Rowan Williams reflected upon his conception of communication in which a person comes to know his own self as someone who is potentially always an object for another person.  The views presented by these thinkers certainly distance themselves from popular philosophical language and concepts that seek to absolutise awareness and consciousness.  As Rowan Williams mentioned ‘self-awareness is necessarily incomplete and the sensorium of an individual body alone cannot deliver a coherent picture of the world or a coherent account of the body’.  Such an approach intimates to the the ethical conception (taken here to an extent form the thinking of Edyta Stein) which ‘requires corporate labour and the relinquishing of any aspiration to create a moral schema by the exercise of my will’.  As Rowan Williams further notes, a required element for this process is the seeking out mutual understanding.

In the last part of his lecture, Rowan Williams pointed to the way in which the paradigm of thinking that was shaped in Areopagus perceived through the Girard lens can help us understand a certain truth anew, and that being ‘if we step back from perpetuating the mimetic spiral, our interdependence does not have to be violent, toxic and destructive. To identify with the act that breaks the mimetic spiral in Christian doctrine, the Creator’s self-identification with the guilty and suffering creature – is the way in which the hidden truth of our humanity is allowed to come to light, its destructiveness and its intrinsic relational connectedness’.

In summarising Rowan Williams brings to mind other examples that refute mimetic identity in other places than Christianity.  He made mention of Etty Hillesum, whose notes documented during the concentration camps of World War II provide a rather unique account on how ‘God lived even during those times’.  Looking back on the various reflections presented here it can be concluded that her diary entries give a wonderful example in giving worship to the creator by surrendering entirely to him.  As Rowan Williams points out on Etty Hilesum in her writings about and from Westerbork, which was the holding camp for those who were to be transferred to Auschwitz, declaring that there must be shepherding and safeguarding of the divine she writes of ‘letting go of whatever in her might stand in the way of God being credible and palpable to her neighbour, and this is the essence of the worship she offers’.

The reflections presented here by Rowan Williams of Girard, Edyta Stein and Etty Hillesum, show the many ways of combating the paradigm of a life focused entirely on self-interest.  Seeking the path of God, which by nature does not partake in any type of rivalry, we are presented with the chance of liberating and freeing ourselves from the destructive mimetic spiral of rivalry.  In consequence Rowan Williams proposes a change of formula of human rights, as the seeing in somebody else of one who ‘needs me as an acquisitive or self-defended individual to step out of the light and allow God to be visible to them – a particularly focused form of attentiveness and service.  It also assumes that my own growth into humanity needs always to be nurtured by the divine act and image in the neighbour, and that my receptivity to this is the key to my own release’.

In his final comments Rowan Williams returned to the question posed at the outset that of worship that absolutely has no rivalry in its orientation to God.  The answer to this key question, who in today’s contemporary Areopagus do we give worship to and try to justify our worship for, is clarified in Rowan Williams’s statement ‘it must return again and again to the clarifying of the underlying grammar of what the Jewish and Christian tradition says about God; and it must find ways of displaying how that tradition charts the way of liberation from a world in which the non-negotiable worth of human subjects is repeatedly eroded’.

Once the presentation came to an end – several questions were posed by the public, who were particularly interested in aspects of contemporary philosophy and culture that are difficult if not impossible for Christians to accept (for St. Paul this would have been idolatry and polytheism).  Moreover that which is most difficult in Christianity today and being accepted by today’s contemporary ‘Areopagans’ keeping in mind that for the Stoics and Epicureans standing together back in the day at Areopagus in Athens, it was the resurrected Christ.  The second question pertains to secular thinking, since during the Areopagus sermon we had the first – archetypal even – coming together of Christianity and Greek philosophy and thinking that was secular.  That meeting ended rather bleakly, where only two of the listeners decided to follow St. Paul.  Would this mean, in turn, that our dialogue with secular thinking today as with the secular world likewise is for nothing, or rather could it be something potentially fruitful and enriching?

In the final segment of our event, Dariusz Karłowicz thanked Abp. Rowan WIlliams and invited him to give another lecture in the cycle of lectures on John Paul II titled “The identity of Europe. North and South – the main line of divide” held by Professor Mark A Cichocki, and will take place on the 21st December at 2:30 pm (CET).

Hanna Nowak

English translation by Tomasz Sosnowski