modern nation-state, political theology, Rowan Williams

My Presentation at the Calvin Symposium on Religion and Politics

I’ll be delivering a paper at Calvin’s Symposium on Religion and Politics, April 23-25. So will fellow colleagues and friends, Thomas and Geoff. My presentation will be a truncated version of my paper titled: “Imagination and Exploration in Church and State Relations: Rowan Williams, Sharia, Social Space, Christianity, and America.”

I believed I alluded to this paper, or mentioned it in passing, on the blog last semester while I was writing it. Still, if anyone is curious, below is the abstract and proposal. And anyone who is thinking of swinging by the symposium, I’d be interested in some constructive feed back.

Abstract:
On February 7, 2008, Rowan Williams gave a lecture entitled, “Civil and Religious Law in England: a Religious Perspective,” at the Royal Courts of Justice in London. England was in an uproar within hours. Nearly a year later, the lecture resonates within English jurisprudence discussion, while in America, the lecture is better known as his “Sharia speech.” This presentation aims to give Williams a close, fair, and accurate reading, while at the same time, imagining what it would mean to carry on his challenge in another context: the United States of America. The fruit of such exploration is not mere indulgence, but aims to help us better understand the complexity of Church and State relations today — specifically around law, sovereignty, and jurisprudence — and where relations may move, or we should push them towards, in the future.

Proposal:
On February 7, 2008, Rowan Williams gave a lecture entitled, “Civil and Religious Law in England: a Religious Perspective,” at the Royal Courts of Justice in London. England was in an uproar within hours. Nearly a year later, the lecture resonates within English jurisprudence discussion, while in America, the lecture is better known as his “Sharia speech.” This essay aims to give Williams a close, fair, and accurate reading, while at the same time, imagining what it would mean to carry on his challenge in another context: the United States of America.

From William’s speech, I emphasize two key themes: “social space” and “transformative accommodation.” He noted that law – an outworking of or a voice of the modern nation-state – can often, if not inherently, function in a coercive, monopolistic fashion. This law is more than reluctant to allow for other jurisdictions. When law acts in such a jealous fashion, coupled with an individualistic anthropology, it ignores or rejects other communities or social bodies that contribute on a fundamental level to human identity. No only does supercessionist law function inadequately, but it does great harm when its blunt universalism is enforced. The outcome, Williams argued, is the marginalization and/or silencing of entire communities, particularly communities that are not violent.

The significance of the Archbishop’s speech is his carving out a new social space, as he called for the equalizing of jurisprudence. Not only should the law critically re-evaluate itself, it is called to recognize that its generalizing universalism is incomplete and harmful. Williams seeks to make space for distinctive communities that seek the good because of their distinctiveness. Clearly by the law, there are small allowances, or deferring to religious authorities, however, these are understood within the monopoly’s categories of accommodation or expert witness, not on equal terms. The importance of Williams’ speech for this essay lies in his challenge to the law, showing its poverty and need for a re-visioning of its self-proclaimed sovereignty, while upholding the inherent value of other communities and their jurisdictions. Thus Williams’ makes room for and shows the necessity of transformative accommodation.

In an exploration of the difficulty, with its positive and negatives, of adapting Rowan Williams’ vision for American civil and religious jurisprudence, I begin with two observations: I briefly note similarities between American and English and, at greater length, the dissimilarity between Christian and State notions of justice and peace. The difference between State and Christian notions of peace and justice should make clear to the reader that Christianity attempts to go far beyond the State in the ecclesial endeavors to rightly remember Jesus (specifically in anamnesis of the Christ). Thus, when reconciliation is achieved in lieu of litigation, something better, something holistic and healthy has been achieved. Supported by Rowan Williams’ argument, this seeking of the global common good through prophetic reconciliation should be recognized as legitimate and helpful. The social body of Christianity, the church, and its jurisprudence should be recognized for the sake of the faith’s adherents (who are also citizens of the State), to avoid an oppressive exercise of law, and to embrace those who seek, and arguably achieve, the common good by peaceful means from the distinctiveness of their faith and community.

The last two sections briefly address how each institution must begin the transformation to meet Williams’ challenge. There will certainly be difficulties in a move towards transformative accommodation and equal jurisprudence. I therefore address what I take to be the two biggest hurdles for the State: sovereignty and civil religion. Yet, there is also much for faith communitites to do, namely a greater emphasis on ecumenical responsibility, inter-faith dialogue, and inter-community cooperation. The fruit of such exploration is not mere indulgence, but aims to help us better understand the complexity of Church and State relations today and where they may move, or we should push them towards, in the future.

Advertisements
Standard

3 thoughts on “My Presentation at the Calvin Symposium on Religion and Politics

  1. Samuel says:

    Out of curiosity, at what level would you summarize you knowledge of 1) British and American law ane legal systems, 2) The history of Islam with specific reference to its presence in modernized contexts, and 3) Islamic theology in the Shia and Sunni traditions and, finally, 4) the role and interpretations of sharia in those theological traditions.

    I ask because many today speak and write about theology and politics who know nothing about politics, or nothing they should get away with writing about. I gather you are not like that, so I am wondering how you prepared for this lecture (e.g. Islamic studies at Marquette?).

    • I do not mean to simply avoid your questions Sam, but the reason why I even felt I could write this paper and give part of it is because 2-4 are largely irrelevant to Williams’ speech. In fact, to assume that Williams is saying a great deal about Sharia is to misunderstand his project: conflict (or actually lack thereof) on a specific level between civil and religious jurisprudence. Williams uses Sharia as something of a case study, it wasn’t actually the main focus of his speech.

      Importantly, I am prepared to give this presentation from the point of a Christian who is saying virtually nothing about Sharia. Why? Because in my discussions with Prof. Omar here at Marquette, it seems that some of what Williams did was unwelcomed by some, and perhaps also unhelpful as well: he is someone not in the Islamic community, but still weighed in on a subject that is far from consensus.

      And so then what is the point of this presentation? Well, part of the point of the presentation is not to repeat his potential mistake. Thankfully I don’t think that Williams has much to say himself about Sharia, but again, much more about the law needing to change, and therefore the law’s understanding about it self. The ramifications for this reverberate across the Atlantic pond where we likewise still maintain a modern nation-state with monopolistic jurisprudence and similar philosophical concepts about the state, like raison d’état.

      What is so helpful about Williams is his call to the state to change its understanding of power. Williams sees this as helpful for Muslims in England, and other faiths as well actually, he repeatedly said, and I do some theological work as to why his points are helpful here, from a Christian standpoint that looks to the good in other faiths as well. Here, in the paper, I come back and end with interreligious dialogue from one’s distinctiveness without the state’s notion of power of one community over the other. And so, if this exploration is implemented, Christianity is oriented in such a way to work with the Islamic community in America.

  2. That’s been my general response too, David. I’d readily admit a good bit of ignorance on some of the issues that Samuel brings up, but I think that there is a good deal to be said about what Williams points out with regard to modern political liberalism in itself. It’s been interesting to read some of Williams’ critics, where the response isn’t “that’s undemocratic” (although this critique comes up), but rather, “that’s not British”. When the argument starts to head in this direction, you begin to realize the tradition-specific grounding that is present in civil law and that could more generously accommodate other traditions and communities. Whether or not sharia as it is understood by particular practitioners would work well in any given situation is largely beside the initial critique that’s being made here.

    One worthwhile place to look on Williams’ speech is the Ecclesiastical Law Journal, where they’ve had a few responses to it, one from John Witte w.r.t. the American situation (this issue is free viewing, to boot!):

    http://journals.cambridge.org/action/displayIssue?jid=ELJ&volumeId=11&issueId=01&iid=2871632

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s