Film and Book Reviews

The Divine crucial to being truly human

BookBeing Human: Bodies, minds, persons, by Rowan Williams (SPCK, London 2018)

By Chris White

November 5 2018Rowan Williams has written with such perceptiveness over the decades that we are hardly surprised any more at his erudition.  This short book (of a little over 100 pages) is an edited collection of five of his talks and reflections, plus an epilogue, and is full of challenging insights about the contemporary human condition, and its implications for people of faith.  Despite its brevity, it is deep: without wishing to deter potential readers, the book will, as they say, “repay careful study.”  Thus a quite comprehensive review seems required. 

His first chapter is entitled What is consciousness?  Williams points out that such a fundamental question is best and most effectively addressed at the frontiers of multiple disciplines – physics and neuroscience particularly, but also philosophy and psychology amongst others.  The recent widespread (but, he suggests, limited) scientific/philosophic consensus that the mind is a kind of machine is to misuse the metaphor: a machine exists to solve problems extraneous to itself, whereas the mind is an organism which exists to solve its own problems.  He also critiques the (related) idea that consciousness itself is a mistake, pointing out that thoughts are intentional, they are about something.  Even the thought that consciousness is a mistake imports consciousness into the word “mistake.” 

Rejecting these reductionist concepts, Williams goes on to examine consciousness positively, and in similar depth: it is located, it is relational, it is a continuous narrative, it is a shared language.  He finishes the chapter by asking where the contemporary reductive passion comes from; why (for example) the late Stephen Hawking said “The human race is just a chemical scum on an average-sized planet, orbiting round a very average-sized star, in the outer suburb of one of a hundred billion galaxies.”  Williams disarmingly and tellingly debunks the simplicity (even simple-mindedness) of such reductionism; he suspects that certain kinds of scientist and philosopher bear some animus towards the idea of consciousness because it “intrinsically leaves the question of the sacred on the table.”

Williams turns to the question What is a person? in his second chapter.  He starts from the premise that a person is not simply the sum of a set of facts that distinguish one unique human being from another, and hence to be accorded personal dignity and worthy of respect.  As a person, I stand in the middle of a network of relations with others; thus the facts around me are constantly evolving with those relationships.  But there is still “the elusive mysterious area … not just a fact about me … something not open to third person analysis.”  So while communication and relationality are important in his concept of personhood, there is still more he struggles to put words around.  As a Christian, Williams wants to affirm that those not yet born, the severely disabled, the dying, are still persons, and his definitional struggle certainly helps focus our attention on what’s at the core of the contemporary biomedical ethical challenges.

He thinks that the contemporary alternative focus of the individual vs the community is the wrong place to start: it should be on the individual vs the person (despite the definitional problems).  But before anyone is in relationship with anyone else, they are in relationship with God, and because everyone else’s first relationship is with God, my relationship with others is secondary.  So this is a “fundamental difference between an individualist and personalist perspective … on our lives … Human dignity, the unconditional requirement that we attend with reverence to one another, rests firmly on this conviction that the other is already related to something that isn’t me.”  The contrast is between the personalist approach, where we seek to engage, to establish a relationship on the one hand, and the individualist approach where we take those like us for granted and ignore those not like us, and we negotiate our relationships with others ignoring that we belong to each other, on the other.

In Bodies, minds and thoughts (the third chapter), Williams relies on the very important work, The Master and his Emissary, in which neuroscientist, psychiatrist and literary scholar Iain McGilchrist examines the way in which the different foci and interaction of the brain hemispheres have profoundly affected Western culture.  McGilchrist argues that the more analytic, problem-solving left hemisphere is more inclined to be focused on fairly small scale, specific challenges and the appropriate responses, which make us competent agents, people who know how to do things with things.  The right hemisphere, on the other hand, is more focused on the broader picture and building larger, visionary models, making connections that are not just argumentative, functional or practical.  However when things go wrong, the left brain tends to dominate and our horizons shrink, reducing our capacity to formulate and understand the very problems that we’re out to solve.  It’s McGilchrist’s argument that this imbalance has become a significant problem in our contemporary technologically-developed society.  

Using this analysis, Williams adopts the image of a lighthouse beam in our minds, focusing on a problem and drawing in our horizons, concentrating on function rather than vision, and finally making us less recognizably human than we would otherwise be.  He is particularly concerned with the way this imbalance tends to narrow our range of responses to the intellectual at the expense of learning through bodily experiences; he argues that we need to “reinstate the connectedness of the body and the mind.”  With education, Williams notes the tension between children acquiring easily checkable skills in strict succession and tested relentlessly on the one hand, and a focus on the “embodied mind” of the developmentally rounded child in which play, leisure, music, sport and drama have an important role on the other.  And in a few pages of theologically-related reflection (which can’t be covered adequately here), he touches tantalisingly on the importance of bodily experience in spiritual transformation, the enduring dream of “liberation” from our mortal bodies (such as the contemporary interest in “transhumanist” technology), and the human tendency to seek “ways of knowledge, ways of mastery, which didn’t depend on the contingency of taking time, on the labour of finding one’s way around, and indeed therefore on the difficulty of inhabiting our environment.”

Williams’ fourth chapter (Faith and human flourishing) starts with the observation that religious identity is often seen as inevitably involving repression, one’s being subject to the will of a divine power, and therefore called to self-sacrifice.  On this view, faith and human flourishing are uncomfortable bedfellows.  Counter this view, and taking divine power to be absolute freedom to bring the other into being, he discusses human flourishing under four headings. 

Dependence and autonomy: Dependence is an inevitable feature of human existence (generally, our dependence on our environment, as well as in specific situations – such as when young); Williams acknowledges we can be angry when our attempts at “self-creation” are frustrated by our dependence.  However religious faith helps us understand our dependence on divine liberty, which is part of what sets us free “because it acquaints us with what is true about us; we depend on what is not ours, what is not us, our will, our hope, our achievement.”

The education of passion: In the Christian tradition, “passion is … that response to an environment that is concerned simply to own and absorb, that is incapable of seeing what is, in its own right, in its own dimensionality.”  “The uneducated passion can confirm our ‘unfreedom,’ our moral and spiritual slavery.”  Frequently we have either uncritically affirmed the ego and rationalised the impulses as needing to be fulfilled, or else positioned the ego in a state of struggle and rivalry.  The Christian (also Buddhist) tradition is not simply eradicating but understanding passions, and rerouting some of their energy away from that conflictual world.

Taking time: The way we increasingly spend time in mature late capitalism is a significant collision point between religious and anti-religious mindsets.  Williams points out that the cycle of the religious calendar, the rhythm of work, leisure and worship in the former contrasts with time in the latter as a scarce, valuable resource to be spent serving the market (exemplified by the disappearance of the weekend).

Accepting our mortality: Anxiety about death is the deepest question of these issues.  “… denial of the knowledge of mortality returns us to false, destructive models of power.”  Rather, the religious response is about a balance between attention to the needs of the present, along with an acceptance of finitude.

Denial of the significance of any or all of these four issues can contribute to individual and/or community dysfunction.  However Williams points out that a religious response can be a distortion and misrepresentation: what he calls “non-disabling dependence” can be replaced by an infantilised love of dependence for its own sake; passions can be controlled by emotional repression; the use of time can become ritualistic and inflexible; and religion can exacerbate fear of death or neglect of the present for the sake of an idealised future.  He emphasises that dependence on God in addressing these traps, both secular and religious, is not about losing control, it is about gaining freedom.  And while all religions are emphatically not the same (doctrinally certainly, but also in various forms of cultural embeddedness), as Williams says, there is much to be said for “a dialogue among faiths that works hard at the processes of human formation, asking together about the kind of human face the habits of faith uncover.”

In Silence and human maturity (the fifth chapter), Williams reflects on the circumstances in which silence is the appropriate response, albeit in some people, such situations can produce an endless flow of chatter.  Also, people who have answers for every questions and plans for every contingency he sees as slightly inhuman: if we believe our humanity is constantly growing, there must be moments when we are taken beyond the controllable and the familiar.  If we are to grow, we must learn how to cope with the extraordinary; this is the challenge of the life of faith, in that we are becoming extraordinary, usually rather reluctantly.  “Being Christian requires us more than ever to come to terms with those moments when silence is imposed on us, when we face what we can’t control.”

Jesus’ interrogation by Caiaphas and Pilate puts him in the position of someone reduced to silence by the violence and injustice of the world, but his refusal to answer their questions turns that silence into “a place in the world where the mystery of God happens.”  And so the silence of someone praying or meditating can invoke the presence of God.  In our corporate worship we can fall into the trap of anxiety about silence, of feeling the need to fill up the spaces with words or symbolism, whereas it is the appropriate balance of words, symbols and silence which truly makes worship alive.  Finally, Williams gives some practical hints of how to settle into a place of deep silence before God, the objective being letting ourselves become more fully human.

Williams encapsulates these five chapters in a brief epilogue (Humanity transfigured), which starts with Jesus’ ascension, the “extraordinary fact that our humanity with all its variety and vulnerability has been taken by Jesus into the heart of the divine life.”  As well as being good news for humanity, stained, wounded, imprisoned, it also includes our so very human words.  He reflects on the psalms, which are “not always fit for polite company, they are full of rude, angry, violent, hateful remarks” and are as human as it gets.  Quoting Augustine, he points out that “God has actually taken an initiative in making our language his own.”  It doesn’t mean Jesus, who would have said these violent etc words in the temple and his private devotion, endorsed revenge on enemies, or shook his fist at God.  But it does mean “he treats us, our feelings, our tumultuous personalities, as real.”  He brings us, not a pretty sight, home to God, for healing and transformation. 

As the endorsement on the back cover of Rabbi Jonathan Sacks has it: “In Being Human, Rowan Williams, one of today’s most brilliant and profound thinkers, has produced a rich and thought-provoking meditation on the themes of consciousness, language, relationship, speech, silence and what it is to be a person.”  Despite the length of this review, there is much more gold in this little book than that outlined.  You should read it.

Following his full-time career as an actuary, Dr Chris White has studied and taught ethics in various contexts, most recently in his doctoral work on Christian ethics and economics.