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Interview: Rowan Williams

I am a fairly proud secularist and atheist so I was struck by a certain irony when Rowan Williams granted me an interview, Richard Dawkins having only mocked me when I asked him for one. He told me that I couldn’t pronounce the paper’s name – “Its Cher-well, not Char-well or however you say it” – and said that “everything he had to say had already been said.”

So I interviewed the ex-Archbishop. I thanked him for his kindness in visiting my home city of Christchurch, New Zealand after its devastating earthquake, but also challenged him with Voltaire’s great poem on the Lisbon Earthquake of 1755. “Did fallen Lisbon deeper drink of vice/Than London, Paris, or sunlit Madrid?”

Rather than re-hash the old cliché of asking a theologian for a solution to the problem of evil, I ask him where in literature can he find the best place to grapple with these questions.

“It’s an interesting place to start, because scroll back to the New Testament and you find Jesus himself saying, ‘do you think those who died in the disaster were any more wicked than those who didn’t? Of course not.’ And then you scroll back the book of Job, which is almost entirely a passionate protest against the injustice of god; so you can’t say it begins with Voltaire. But in modern literature, the classic place for this is in Fyodor Dostoevsky’s Brothers Karamazov.

“Dostoyevsky took great pride in saying ‘I’m going to put a better case against God than any atheist can’ and laying out the horrors of murder and child abuse. And he would just say, ‘well there isn’t really an explanation. What I’m offering you is not a theory, not an explanation; I’m offering you a story about people who can live with it’.

“That’s one of the things literature can offer you,” Williams explains. “it doesn’t say here are the answers to your problems; it says here is a story about people living with certain kinds of conflict and tragedy and you have to think; if they can do it, can I?”

As Williams is an expert on Dostoyevsky – he learned Russian to read the author in the original – I ask him to elaborate on what makes an infamously misogynistic drunkard with a lifelong gambling addiction still one of the greatest of all spiritual writers.

“He doesn’t come from the traditional background of the Russian intelligentsia, he’s a young radical who is imprisoned and then has his horrendous near-death experience chronicled in his great prison novel The House of the Dead. It gives you a very poignant picture of someone struggling with the very diversity of human experience, the absolute failures and horrors of human experience, having his nose rubbed in the unmanageability of the world.”

“So when he comes out with some kind of renewed faith, as he says, it’s a faith that’s been through the crucible; it’s been burned pretty severely; it will never be about glib happy endings.

“He has this double attitude towards the people of Russia; he has a great mystical faith in the innate spiritual wisdom of the Russian peasants, but he is also well aware that the average Russian peasant is a slob perfectly capable of drunkenness, rape and murder. The fact that he has these two eyes focusing on each side of this paradox constantly makes him aware of the uncompromisingly tragic, he sees a little bit further into the dark and this makes him bigger than perhaps even Tolstoy.”

He points out that one thing all religious writers must grapple with is the simultaneous salvation and futility of faith and grace. He mentions Catholic authors Graham Greene and Evelyn Waugh.

“In both of them they must grapple with an awful paradox; how is it that you can think of divine grace as absolutely real, and yet not feel it making any difference to you, not dealing with your compulsions, your failures, your dark side.”

As someone deeply suspicious of religious faith, I find myself often more in sympathetic with one of Dostoyevsky’s greatest sceptical characters, the dour intellectual atheist Ivan Karamazov. So I put to him the question; what if we choose to read Dostoyevsky as an atheist?

“Of course his novels are structured so that you can read them this way. He never gives you a meek let out either way, and one of his greatest messages is to say that there’s never going to be a single image, a single gesture a single story that is going to settle the question.”

Williams is clearly very taken with religious authors, so I ask him slyly whether there any actual correlation between religious faith and literary ability? He laughs. “God doesn’t say to a poet ‘well done, you’ve behaved and believed very well, and now I’m going to make you a great writer, abracadabra.

“I don’t think there is; quite often people who become Christian don’t become great writers, they become worse writers; the mature Wordsworth writes terrible stuff, because he’s become a rather conventional Christian. Siegfried Sassoon is perhaps another case; his later Christian poetry has none of the edginess of what he wrote in the war. But you can take someone like W. H. Auden whose a much more interesting case; his convesion to Christianity allows for poetry of hard, but accepting, self-awareness and a sense of absolution mysteriously granted in advance.

“There are many people without religion who write brilliantly, and many with faith who write badly.

“But the very best poets, no matter their faith, are those who push the envelope, who are behaving as if our human experience were framed in something much more mysterious and unmanageable, which is something to do with religion.”

We move onto something that many secularists have a striking objection to: the religious education of children. What, I ask him, is his take on teaching children religion from a young age?

“By all means tell children bible stories early on; whether you’d like to admit it or not, they are part of the mental furniture of our civilisation, you need to know why and how this story shapes so many others.

“They are not stories about divine intervention, but about how people’s utterly chaotic and unexpected and bumpy personal histories somehow attach to the purposes of god, but you are left to make your own judgement.

“Here’s a story about someone who was bought up to be king of God’s people, but then murders, betrays, fornicates his way around the Holy City, whose own sons turns against him, then you have the heart-breaking passage where David weeps over the son who betrays him and you think, this is a picture of humanity that is pretty comprehensive and pretty nuanced. I’d tell people stories like that, simply to show how a story should be told.

“But the purely religious question is a harder one. I think it’s important to give children a sense of what it means for someone to say they are religious. Show them people who are praying and ask them what they think those people they are doing?’. The purpose of education is to open people’s minds to the varieties of human experience. We can’t be so tactful and restrained that we dont expose children to this kind of thing.”

I ask him where is the best place to start looking for answers if we are struggling with faith.

“The most important thing to know is that this takes the time it takes; you can’t force yourself to its conclusion. But what you need to do is find people of faith that you trust. They can be living, or they can be writers from an age ago; but you must find people who are not interested in taking the easy shortcuts; it’s a journey that we must all take in some way. You may not find you end in the destinations they do, but it’s vital to at least travel with them.”

He ends by talking about his debate against Richard Dawkins in Cambridge.

“There’s one thing that Dawkins passionately insisted upon – and if nothing else he’s a very passionate man – he says, ‘here’s this world with all its complexity and beauty and majesty; why do you want to complicate it by throwing God in?

“I didn’t think of the response at the time, but this is what I would have said. Take Bach’s St Matthew passion, or a Mozart symphony; does it complicate it to say it was written by Bach or Mozart?

“There’s a huge creative imagination holding all this together; it doesn’t complicate it to say there’s a God involved. Bach’s passion lies in the heart of Bach, and the world lies in the heart of God.”

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