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.
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.
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.