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Archbishop of Canterbury: Education based only on reason is incomplete

Posted on: September 22, 2009 3:05 PM
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As part of his week-long visit to Japan for the 150th anniversary celebrations of the Anglican Church in Japan, the Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr Rowan Williams gave a lecture on Monday 21sr to students and academics at Rikkyo Gaukin University, an Anglican university in Tokyo.

In his lecture, the Archbishop said that the recent record of the purely rational and secular approach to intellectual and academic life is problematic: 

"...the sober testimony of the twentieth century is that the rationality of secular thinking is no guarantee of universal understanding and reconciliation. A rationality that has brought us into the age of nuclear weaponry and global economic meltdown invites some sharp questions, to put it mildly ... As the Pope has argued several times in recent years, the drift towards relativism and pluralism is not the triumph but the defeat of reason ..."

And he underlines the need to preserve a sense of the sacred:

"However secular our age likes to think it is, the disastrous results of exploitative habits and of financial obsession bring people back to the recognition that they need the element of the sacred in their lives – in the sense that they need the freedom to respond to the beautiful and the puzzling and the tragic, to all the things that we do not have the power to manage." 

Dr Williams says the rational element within education should work to place us in the real world and, in consequence, in relation to God: 

"It is in this sense that a religiously grounded education is a deeply 'reasonable' one. It communicates the skills we need to inhabit the real world. That may sound a little strange at first. So often, 'living in the real world' is a phrase that people use when they want to justify ruthless competition, mistrust, low expectations. But the reality around us is not simply one of menace and uncertainty, a place in which the other is always a source of anxiety. It is a place that nourishes us and keeps us alive – through material processes and through human community, from family to society."

He said a purely functional account of education runs the risk of missing the true nature of that which is not understood:

"Relating to God requires of us a radical acceptance of the fact that we are dependent beings, that we always stand on the edge of mysteries we cannot fathom, and that the true direction of our lives is not necessarily what our own unexamined and selfish ambition might suggest. Relating to God creates in us the habits of silence and listening, the willingness to be questioned and to question ourselves. Specifically for Christians, relating to God means growing into the role of a child of God, called to maturity, to a life in which dependence and creativity go side by side, inseparably.

Dr Williams argues that the need to develop a new academic philosophy in relation to the environment is an example of how a rational approach could require urgent and radical change:

" ... if we are seeking to shape a humanity that is genuinely rational, we need to question a very great deal of what has passed as rationality in our habits of production and consumption for the last century. This is not simply about how we avoid catastrophe, though that is serious enough; it is also about what kinds of relationship with the world we live in are harmonious and proper, respectful of the material environment in a way that is in accord with the character and purpose of the creator." 

Religion, he says, must not mirror the tendency of its critics to be inflexibly dogmatic;

"It is one of the most poisonously foolish dogmas of modern intellectual life that reducing human motivation and reflection to a pattern of determinism, whether material or psychological, is a mark of liberation and maturity. And the tragedy is that often the response to this from some kinds of modern religiousness has been the equally poisonous dogma that the critical and sceptical sciences of Darwin, Marx or Freud and their countless followers and revisers must be regarded as destructive of faith and so to be reviled and rejected." 

Dr Williams argues that the place of distinctively Christian places of education is not the propagation of faith but the nurturing of an academic environment in which true rational exploration can be countenanced:

"... what distinguishes a Christian institution is not so much the doctrine as the outworking of it in the style and ethos of a community. If the whole tone of the institution is one that gives a message that risks are worth taking because there is an ultimate reality to be trusted, that is where the meaning of the doctrine is made plain. 'Faith-based' education is education in the mixture of realism or provisionality with the courage to act, discover and create, to make relations and mend them."

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Hidetsu Ohashi presents the Archbishop with an Honorary Doctorate (Doctor of Humanities)
Photo Credit: Lambeth Palace

The Archbishop also received an Honorary Doctorate (Doctor of Humanities) from Rikkyo University. 

Hidetsu Ohashi, president of Rikkyo University said "We proudly bestow this honorary degree on Dr Rowan Williams to acknowledge the contributions made by Dr Williams as a global leader working towards world peace and harmony to realise a universal value for humanity, which reflects our own university's philosophies and history."

The full text of the lecture can be found below:

Archbishop of Canterbury's Lecture at Rikkyo Gaukin University

The Mission of the Anglican University in our Present Age

I regard it as a great honour to be welcomed here today at Rikkyo University and to receive an honorary doctorate. The distinguished history of the University and its current profile are an extraordinary tribute to the vision of Bishop Channing Williams and to the consistency with which his successors have maintained and developed that vision. This University still keeps its distinctiveness. And the statements I have read about the founding and controlling spirit of the institution offer several highly important clues as to what is special today about a Christian and Anglican University in a plural society that is increasingly secular in its language and habits.

Christian doctrine regards human beings as made in the divine image; and that has regularly been interpreted as meaning that human beings share something of the rational nature of God. But to use those words today instantly gives a false impression. We understand 'reason' as a way of arguing and testing propositions – usually so as to become better at manipulating the world round us. Because religious faith is not a matter of argument in this way, it is then easy to conclude that faith and reason are enemies, or at least operating in different territory. Already in the Europe of the early Middle Ages, in the dispute between St Bernard and Peter Abelard, there was a foreshadowing of this sterile opposition. Bernard complains that Abelard thought faith was a judgement that you came to when the arguments were over, an informed opinion, almost an informed guess, and that reason was no more than marshalling the evidence and learning how to tell a good argument from a bad one. But St Bernard himself held to an older and richer understanding of reason as the way in which we shared in God's vision of an ordered and connected world. You could not say that God was rational because he was good at arguing and came to well-supported conclusions: when theologians said that God was rational, they meant that he was consistent with himself and that out of his own understanding of the richness of his being he created a world of astonishing and beautiful diversity which still had a deep consistency about it.

And perhaps that is where we need to start today in thinking about the place of reason in a Christian institution. A 'reasonable' or 'rational' human being, on this understanding, is one who seeks not first and foremost to master and control a passive universe around, but one who looks for the ways in which he or she can discover the rhythms and patterns of reality and so understand themselves more fully. Certainly it implies that this kind of knowledge will be useful: it is better to work with the grain of reality in what we do than to work against it. But if the very first question is always 'What is the use or the profit of this?' we are training ourselves to ignore everything that lies outside our own immediate practical questions. That is not the spirit in which great discoveries are made; and it is certainly not the spirit in which great human beings are made. The student or researcher who is able to allow their mind and heart to be shaped by the flow and complexity of what is around, not prejudging what the important questions are but letting themselves be carried along by a certain degree of wonder and uncertainty, is the student who will be likely to arrive at innovative and creative insight. 

Thus one of the central tasks of a Christian institution of learning is to allow some of the space and freedom for students to become creative in this way. 'Freedom' is, I know, a word that matters deeply in this University – freedom of access for people who might otherwise be denied the advantages of higher education, freedom to choose a wide-ranging assortment of courses and areas of study, but also freedom to ask and to explore. This is the kind of freedom that demonstrates what our commitment to humanity in the divine image really means: we can explain it in theoretical terms as much as we like, but it will only communicate its real sense when we can show what sorts of actions and policies, individual and communal, incarnate the doctrine – what sorts of actions are appropriate if we truly believe that contemplative and creative liberty is what is most distinctive in the calling and capacity of human beings. In a context where short-term results and narrowly functional models of learning are so favoured (and I am speaking of the entire context of the economically developed world, not only of Japan), this is a powerful counter-cultural witness. A university that honours these principles will be an agent of liberation in all sorts of ways; and in the rest of my remarks, I hope to suggest what some of those ways may be.

But to put such questions into context, there is another basic point to be made. The traditional Christian account of 'rationality' was bound up with becoming properly attuned to the patterns and rhythms of reality, as I put it a moment ago. And for St Bernard and the tradition he represents, the ultimate test of being reasonable was whether you understood what your place was in the universe. A reasonable person would grasp how humanity stood between the angel and the animal, how humanity was called to a very specific way of exercising the mind in relation to the will of God. The creativity belonging to the divine image was to be worked out in the 'creation' of a mode of living that was appropriate to a being created by God – humble, attentive, responsible, capable of real choice, capable of growing as a self or soul that was patient and consistent. What would be fatally unreasonable in such a framework would be to fail to see who you were: to imagine that you could be either an angel or an animal, or to think that your life could be made independent of the providence of God and the mercy of God. The truth is that being reasonable here means being in proper, self-aware relation to reality, God's reality and the world's; and if this is so, then an education for the reasonable person is an education in relationship.

Although this is part of the universal heritage of historic Christianity, the formative generation of Anglican writers showed a specially keen appreciation of this relational aspect of reason. Richard Hooker, writing at the end of the sixteenth century, addresses some of the political and church-political controversies of his time by going back to first principles, to the connection between the action of God and his nature, to the idea that the universe is grounded in the wisdom of God, so that our own rational maturity must be a growth into openness to God's nature in its beauty and harmony. John Donne the poet, a few years later, uses the ancient language of reason as a 'viceroy', a deputy within us for the sovereignty of God: our confusion and suffering are the result of this sovereignty being compromised through our breaking of relation with God, so that we are left without defence against the destructive powers that imprison our true humanity. Reason properly understood here is what ought to deliver us from this shrinking and defacing of what we are in our full dignity. At a time when many forces in the intellectual world in Europe were moving towards a more impersonal and functional view of rationality, many of the greatest minds of the Anglican family held fast to the conviction that we could make no sense of the idea of reasonableness without reference to its connection with right relation to God.

The development of a reasonable human being is the development of a human mind and heart and imagination capable of right relation. So a Christian – and especially an Anglican – University will offer opportunities for reflection on relation with others, with the whole environment and with the ultimate truth of God. It will help students understand their place and potential in society. Or, in more provocative terms (as I have argued in other places), it will make the connection between learning and political liberation: not in propagandising for or imposing any political system, but in reminding students that part of the task of the reasonable man or woman is being a citizen, exercising human creativity in the word of shared social life and policy making. As students acquire the skills of testing arguments and evidence, as they master different areas of study and research, they need also the time and encouragement to think of how these skills help them judge the needs of their society and the claims of their leaders. To be reasonable is to have a positive but critical approach to public life, opening up questions and possibilities that may not always be obvious or even welcome but doing so for the sake of the well-being of the whole social body. The rational educated person doesn't have to be a political activist in the usual sense, but does need to have a questioning and hopeful engagement with what is involved in being a citizen.

This education in public and political reasoning is of course inseparable from a mature awareness of interpersonal relations – how justice and mercy, reconciliation and the nourishment of each other's growth as human beings become natural parts of a reasoning life. A Christian institution is not necessarily one where everyone is drawn into the same patterns of moral life or discipline, but it is one where people are constantly being exposed to the challenge of living in such a way that justice and mercy and mutuality become visible. No-one should be allowed to forget that – at the very least – these things are possible for human beings; ideally, no-one should be able to forget that they have been held to be central for any lasting human well-being. Bishop Channing Williams' axiom, 'teach the way, not the self', is specially apt here: there is a moral climate in education that has nothing to do with authoritarian policies and the attempt to enforce conformity but has everything to do with making something visible, a way of being that is presented to people as inviting and possible for them.

And this is a way of being in the world, not only of being with other people. Few moral issues are as desperately urgent today as that of our responsibility for the environment. And if we are seeking to shape a humanity that is genuinely rational, we need to question a very great deal of what has passed as rationality in our habits of production and consumption for the last century. This is not simply about how we avoid catastrophe, though that is serious enough; it is also about what kinds of relationship with the world we live in are harmonious and proper, respectful of the material environment in a way that is in accord with the character and purpose of the creator. A Christian institution has to be engaged in rigorous self-questioning about its own practical polices as regards ecological responsibility. But equally it must be a context where people see, once again, what is possible for them in terms of a style of living that is fundamentally at peace with the world. Rikkyo University has long been a place that deliberately stands aside from a narrow preoccupation with material rewards, from just preparing students for the job market and rewarding obsessive and competitive patterns of learning behaviour. Just at the moment, in the wake of last year's financial crisis, people throughout the world are asking about what kinds of behaviour are life-giving and sustainable, now we have seen the effects of greedy, individualistic, self-absorbed and obsessional practice. More than ever we need educational practices and educational communities that open the door into other possibilities.

However secular our age likes to think it is, the disastrous results of exploitative habits and of financial obsession bring people back to the recognition that they need the element of the sacred in their lives – in the sense that they need the freedom to respond to the beautiful and the puzzling and the tragic, to all the things that we do not have the power to manage. A context that helps us see something of this in our relation with the material world at large is a place of real hope. But this is, of course, only one aspect of that most comprehensive question about relation or relatedness, within which all the others find their place. In the history of this University, Bishop Reifsneider's insistence on the priority of spiritual education underlines this point. Unless the whole work of the institution somehow prepares the way for the final issue of what it is that all reality relates to as its source and ground of meaning, there is nothing substantial to provide a rationale for all the other kinds of education going on. For the Christian, as for believers in other religious traditions, it is when we are rightly related to this source of all things that we learn how to relate to one another and to the world. Relating to God requires of us a radical acceptance of the fact that we are dependent beings, that we always stand on the edge of mysteries we cannot fathom, and that the true direction of our lives is not necessarily what our own unexamined and selfish ambition might suggest. Relating to God creates in us the habits of silence and listening, the willingness to be questioned and to question ourselves. Specifically for Christians, relating to God means growing into the role of a child of God, called to maturity, to a life in which dependence and creativity go side by side, inseparably. Called to mature into a life that reflects that of Christ, the Christian believer seeks to live at once in a deep humility that is constantly aware of the possibility of failure and the reality of not-knowing, and in a sense of liberty, dignity and worth, grounded in the trust that God looks at each human person with an endless loving respect and a desire to nourish and fulfil that person.  Out of this comes a whole scheme of ethics, a patient respect for one another and for the material world, a realism and a sense of the provisional that never simply gives way to cynicism or despair.

It is in this sense that a religiously grounded education is a deeply 'reasonable' one. It communicates the skills we need to inhabit the real world. That may sound a little strange at first. So often, 'living in the real world' is a phrase that people use when they want to justify ruthless competition, mistrust, low expectations. But the reality around us is not simply one of menace and uncertainty, a place in which the other is always a source of anxiety. It is a place that nourishes us and keeps us alive – through material processes and through human community, from family to society. We cannot survive on a diet of fear, however much we rightly register the frailty and danger of our situation (including the frailty of families and societies and the risks that personal relationship involve). We are bound to step out in trust, otherwise we shall starve, physically, emotionally and spiritually. Perhaps what an education in being reasonable means is an education in the unavoidable nature of risk and of trusting our environment.

We speak a great deal in Europe about 'faith-based' education, 'faith schools' and so on. What most people hear in this phrase is the notion that this is an education in fixed religious principles. But this is not quite the point. Religiously grounded schools and colleges and universities certainly have at their basis a number of clear doctrinal commitments; as I've suggested, the belief that we are made in God's image is a clear and specific doctrine, and the Christian creed simply spells out some of what such a belief implies, by telling the story of how God is so deeply committed to the image he has made that he spares no cost in restoring that image in the life and death and resurrection of Jesus. But what distinguishes a Christian institution is not so much the doctrine as the outworking of it in the style and ethos of a community. If the whole tone of the institution is one that gives a message that risks are worth taking because there is an ultimate reality to be trusted, that is where the meaning of the doctrine is made plain. 'Faith-based' education is education in the mixture of realism or provisionality with the courage to act, discover and create, to make relations and mend them.

Sadly, there are many in our contemporary culture who believe that because religious faith is not rational in their sense – simply a judgement based on evidence and argument – it is bound to be something that breaks relations and nourishes violence. But the sober testimony of the twentieth century is that the rationality of secular thinking is no guarantee of universal understanding and reconciliation. A rationality that has brought us into the age of nuclear weaponry and global economic meltdown invites some sharp questions, to put it mildly; which has something to do with the revulsion in some quarters against the very idea of reason, against science and the notion of universal values and much else besides. As the Pope has argued several times in recent years, the drift towards relativism and pluralism is not the triumph but the defeat of reason; and as he has also insisted, the response of religious faith should not be to glory in the overthrow of rationality but to reclaim the idea and set it on its ancient foundations once more. To go back to where we started: for the Christian, the idea of the reasonable person is bound up with the conviction that humanity is in the image of God, capable of real and intelligent action, not merely instinct. And that intelligent action is fully itself when it is rooted in self-awareness – which in turn includes the awareness of where we stand in relation to the rest of the universe and, most importantly of all, in relation to what gives the universe itself coherence and harmony, the wisdom of God. Once grant this, and much else follows – the possibility and the significance of the scientific method, the possibility of critical and flexible politics, the possibility of something like truthful, however incomplete, self-knowledge. Darwin, Marx and Freud all have their debt to Christian theology in this sense. Each on their own, with their different kinds of reduction of human complexity, will eventually cut off the branch on which they are sitting; but their insights can find a place within an intellectual world framed by trust in the wisdom of God and the destiny of God's created image.

It is one of the most poisonously foolish dogmas of modern intellectual life that reducing human motivation and reflection to a pattern of determinism, whether material or psychological, is a mark of liberation and maturity. And the tragedy is that often the response to this from some kinds of modern religiousness has been the equally poisonous dogma that the critical and sceptical sciences of Darwin, Marx or Freud and their countless followers and revisers must be regarded as destructive of faith and so to be reviled and rejected. In response to both sorts of intellectual tyranny, there remains a powerfully necessary role for what is often called 'Christian humanism'. This is not a vague liberal affirmation of the goodness of the human self or the genius of the human imagination, though it has sometime been used to mean this. A Christian humanism is a perspective that cuts against all such illusions and faces the tragic and the unresolved in human affairs with honesty. It is 'humanistic' simply in that it recognises utter and lasting worth in human beings because of how God has dealt with them. But because it is based in this way on God's dealings, it appeals to some comprehensive, absolutely free and transcendent reality about which – astonishingly – we can make some true statements. It challenges both the humanism that claims an absolute value for humanity to be self-evident and the relativism that makes such a statement of value no more than a strong expression of emotions of solidarity. It implies that what is good for humanity is truly a universal destiny, on which the minds and hearts of all people can converge; and thus it is a fundamentally non-violent humanism, seeking the grounds for reconciliation by insisting that what is good for one person, community or civilisation has somehow to be integrated with what is good for another. Friendship and converse between persons, justice and peace between communities, between ethnic and national groups are the fruits of this universalism.

And this surely is the 'reasonable' world that is an appropriate home for persons made in God's image. The Christian school, college or university in our world, by nurturing trust, the capacity for relation to God and the world, and the confidence that the future of the human family may yet be convergent not fragmented, has a vital part to play in the health of every society. It sets before that society a picture of the genuinely rational person a one capable of intellectual searching and innovation, just as much as any secular account of rationality might do; but it adds the essential extra insight that rationality is about reverence, healing, humility and, ultimately, love. Universities can't teach love; yet an institution that stifles all the things that nourish love would be a menace (and there are some of those around in our world). Education is properly to do with the growth of an emotionally as well as intellectually mature self, and the nurture of the rational person needs at least to point to what love might mean, not as a particular passing state of feeling (our Buddhist friends have some very perceptive questions to ask about love if this is all it means) but as an entire environment for thinking and relating. And this is where a university like this one, with its persistent but gently understated commitment to Christian faith, has a great gift to offer, in that it rests its hopes and visions on the ultimate definition of love – what we might call the self-definition of love itself, in the self-emptying of the divine into the form of our humanity so that we might be restored in divine likeness. 

Perhaps you may feel that there is a great distance between this raw theological claim, with all its intellectual mysteriousness and all the devotional elaboration that has grown around it, with all the further questions it raises about the relation between the Christian claim and those of other faiths – between this and the day to day business of organising an institution of higher education, the struggles for funding, the planning of courses, the refinement of admission policies. Yet from the beginning of Rikkyo University, these things have not been seen here as belonging in different worlds. And if universities work, as in some degree they must, for the sake of the shared good of their societies, then it matters that at least some of them bring to that work a clear and radical sense of what that good is and where its foundations are to be sought. So we acknowledge gratefully what has been done here to give body and presence to that vision of the good; and we commend the future to God's hands in rational confidence. 

© Rowan Williams 2009