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The Archbishop of Canterbury is a Welsh bard

I love the comedy of our discussion thread on "Important Research into Sophisticated Theology". Nevertheless, I have a serious suggestion which I should like to discuss, not least because I am shortly to have a public discussion with the Archbishop of Canterbury in the Sheldonian Theatre, Oxford.

My suggestion is that the best way to understand Rowan Williams is to remember that he is a poet. And maybe this is the best way to understand other theologians. When Williams speaks of “silent waiting on the truth, pure sitting and breathing in the presence of the question mark”, we laugh because we read it through rational spectacles. We expect it to mean something, in the same way as "in the presence of the Queen" means "in the same room as Elizabeth Windsor". But we wouldn't laugh at a line of poetry such as "Sailed up the sun" (Dylan Thomas) or "the winds that blow through the starry ways" (W B Yeats).

Or this, from Yeats again (from memory, so ignore punctuation):

I have drunk ale from the country of the young,
And weep, because I know all things now.
I have been a hazel tree and they hung
The Pilot Star and the Crooked Plough
Among my leaves in times out of mind.
I became a rush that horses tread.
I became a man, a hater of the wind . . .

Or indeed this, from Rowan Williams himself

Today it is time. Warm enough, finally,
to ease the lids apart, the wax lips of a breaking bud
defeated by the steady push, hour after hour,
opening to show wet and dark, a tongue exploring,
an eye shrinking against the dawn. Light
like a fishing line draws its catch straight up,
then slackens for a second. The flat foot drops,

It would be silly to complain to Yeats that he wasn't really a hazel tree, and they couldn't hang a constellation in his branches even if he were. Poetry isn't supposed to be dissected like that. I suspect that Rowan Williams's "in the presence of the question mark" is to be understood as pure poetry and not as a statement of fact at all.

But the trouble is that his congregation, ordinary churchgoing people, do interpret the sayings of theologians as though they were meant to be factual propositions. That doesn't, by itself, indict the theologian of dishonesty, but what if he knows that his congregation is interpreting it as something more prosaic than poetry, and what if he makes no effort to disabuse them? What if he talks of "Adam's sin" in some poetic sense, knowing full well that Adam never existed, but (here is where it gets dishonest) also knowing that his congregation do think that Adam existed and do think that he sinned by eating forbidden fruit and Jesus on the cross redeemed that sin?

I can remember playing that game as an undergraduate. If I wanted to say, in an essay, that benefits seldom come without accompanying costs, I might well have said something like, "Every Easter Sunday has to have its Good Friday." That would have been dishonest, if there was any danger of my reader thinking I really believed the Easter story.

More recently, I gave a lecture (reprinted in A Devil's Chaplain) on Sanderson of Oundle (1857-1922), famous headmaster of my old school, who had had advanced and humane ideas about education. Twice I used language which, if my readers didn't know better, might have led them to think that I believed in life after death.

[Sanderson's] spirit lived on at Oundle. His immediate successor, Kenneth Fisher, was chairing a staff meeting when there was a timid knock on the door and a small boy came in: “Please, sir, there are Black Terns down by the river.” “This can wait,” said Fisher decisively to the assembled committee. He rose from the Chair, seized his binoculars from the door and cycled off in the company of the small ornithologist, and – one can’t help imagining – with the benign, ruddy-faced ghost of Sanderson beaming in their wake.

Well, at least there I used the word 'imagining'. But in the next paragraph, I told a story of my own inspiring biology teacher, I F Thomas, and there I gave no hint that my intention in invoking the ghost of Sanderson was poetic rather than literal:

That story of Fisher was told by my own inspiring Zoology teacher, Ioan Thomas, who had applied for the job at Oundle specifically because he admired the long-dead Sanderson and wanted to teach in his tradition. Some 35 years after Sanderson’s death, I recall a lesson about Hydra, a small denizen of still freshwater. Mr Thomas asked one of us “What animal eats Hydra?” The boy made a guess. Non-committally, Mr Thomas turned to the next boy, asking him the same question. He went right round the entire class, with increasing excitement asking each one of us by name, “What animal eats Hydra? What animal eats Hydra?” And one by one we guessed. By the time he had reached the last boy, we were agog for the true answer. “Sir, sir, what animal does eat Hydra?” Mr Thomas waited until there was a pin-dropping silence. Then he spoke, slowly and distinctly, pausing between each word.

“I don’t know. . .” (Crescendo) “I don’t know. . .” (Molto crescendo) “And I don’t think Mr Coulson knows either.” (Fortissimo) “Mr Coulson! Mr Coulson!”

He flung open the door to the next classroom and dramatically interrupted his senior colleague’s lesson, bringing him into our room. “Mr Coulson, do you know what animal eats Hydra?” Whether some wink passed between them I didn't see, but Mr Coulson played his part well: he didn’t know. Again the fatherly shade of Sanderson chuckled in the corner, and none of us will have forgotten that lesson.

I invoked "the fatherly shade of Sanderson" because the poetry of it made me tremble with delight. It never occurred to me that anybody would think I meant it literally, although subsequent experience with quote-miners might have set me on my guard.

With theologians, the problem is that they don't mind being misunderstood as talking literally. Maybe they actively want it, maybe – and this is what really alarms me about them – maybe they really don't understand the difference between literal truth and poetry; or literal truth and metaphor. Maybe they don't think literal truth is even important. And this is where I would take issue with them, because for me a question like "Does God exist?" is not just a matter of poetry or metaphor. It has an answer, true or false (which is not to say the answer is easy to discover: it may even be impossible).

I respect people who like poetry (obviously, I am one myself) but I do not respect those who fool simple people into thinking their poetic language is to be taken literally, and I mistrust the judgment of those who go further than fooling others and even manage to fool themselves.




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