Tuesday, October 31, 2006

Humphrys in Search of God - to an extent

If you are going to ask somebody to try and convert you, it is unlikely to be the Archbishop of Canterbury. But then, neither are you likely to make a radio programme out of the conversation. These were two somewhat flawed premises of what was nonetheless an interesting programme on Radio 4. John Humphrys, a well-known and acerbic radio journalist, is inviting leaders of the three monotheistic religions to “convert” him in a half-hour radio programme. If you want to listen for yourself, you can listen to an extended version of the first interview through the link.

When Rowan Williams was appointed Archbishop of Canterbury – probably one of the most intellectual of the bishops in the Church of England, following George Carey who was considered to be an evangelical – many evangelicals had serious concerns that the church would be led abruptly in a liberal direction. We picked up various papers and talks he had given in the past in support of this view. But at least in this conversation, the archbishop presented Christianity in a form which, whilst perhaps not exactly as many evangelicals might have hoped for, was certainly as close as many of them would expect to get in a similar conversation at work, or down the pub.

What Rowan Williams did say.

He defended evil as the outcome of genuine free will. Along the lines of: “If God is going to give creatures free will, then there has to be a sense in which the outcome of this may be evil.” He nonetheless sought to defend the sovereignty and goodness of God. Whilst not quite saying that “death isn't actually the worst thing that can happen to somebody”, there was certainly that sense in what he did say. And whilst not quite saying that God has an overall plan which is good, there was again this sense in what he said.

He also didn't shy away from the exclusive claims of Christianity – in a setting in which it would have been easy and acceptable to do so. In talking about how he would engage with people of other faiths, he pointed to the fact that even in the New Testament (Paul's engagement with pagan cultures), engagement with different cultures was a process, not a simple assertion. Given his position, it would be difficult politically to go much further.

From an evangelistic point of view, he was also good at not offering formulaic answers, but getting John Humphries to explain what he thought – what it was exactly he “lost” when he lost his belief in God; what exactly he thought was the “faith” he was looking for (which to an extent, underlined the fact that this programme was somewhat artificial in its concept).

He also pointed out that, in considering the problem of suffering (why bad things happen to good people), there was a difference in thinking about it as an intellectual issue and as a pastoral issue.

What Rowan Williams didn't say.

He didn't mention Jesus in the whole programme, I think. He talked about the love that God has for people – without saying how that love is most visibly expressed.

He didn't mention eternal judgement (I don't think). Humphries tried to pin him down towards the end of the interview about this – but Williams leaned towards the idea that even after death, we still have the opportunity to respond to God. Similar ideas seem to be expressed in, for example, “The Great Divorce” by C.S.Lewis – but the weight even of this book is that the patterns that are established before somebody dies are pretty much final, and this is probably as far down the line of “non-final-judgement” that any evangelical would be prepared to go. In the archbishop's position, I would probably have wanted to point out that if somebody has rejected God throughout their life, then separation from the presence of God (which is part of the imagery of God's judgement) would seem as much an act of mercy as judgement. Also, God's love and the death of Jesus in place of the sinner are somewhat meaningless if you take away the idea of God's judgement.

This was an interesting programme, even though it had its flaws. I have no doubt that there will be other evangelicals who will be profoundly negative about what Rowan Williams said – but I thought it could have been an awful lot worse.