Cross purposes - Guardian article
Wednesday 8th October 2008The Archbishop talks to Stuart Jeffries about his book Dostoevsky: Language, Faith and Fiction.
by Stuart Jeffries.
The Archbishop of Canterbury will face questions for only half an hour. So there won't be time to ask him about gay bishops, his touching fondness for early Incredible String Band songs or eyebrow grooming.
Instead, we must focus on his book Dostoevsky: Language, Faith and Fiction. It's a learned literary-theological study that suggests not only do the great Russian's novels have a kenotic dimension (kenosis, roughly, is the spiritual emptying of one's will to become receptive to God) but also stresses what Russian Christianity inherited from the apophatic tradition (apophasis, roughly, is an inductive technique used by eastern Christians to demonstrate God's existence). So I scratch the question about who would win a beard-off between him and Dostoevsky.
Instead, I ask why Rowan Williams took three months off last summer to write this book. What is the relevance of Dostoevsky for us Mammon-obsessed westerners in a credit crunch? And is the book the archbishop's riposte to all those monsters of triumphalist atheism such as Richard Dawkins, AC Grayling and Christopher Hitchens?
Before the archbishop can answer, we have to hurry through Lambeth Palace's corridors for the photo-shoot in the chapel. As we go, Williams tells me he was hurt by the Guardian review of his book in which Andrew Brown wrote: "I wondered whether I was struggling through the worst prose ever written by a poet. [The archbishop has published several collections of poetry.] Sometimes the thought disintegrates entirely, like a jellyfish dropped in a jacuzzi."
"He thinks I struggle with my sentences," says Williams. "Which is true, I do." He shrugs and throws me a hapless Norman Wisdom smile. This is classic Williams: accepting the wound rather than replying in kind. If it's any consolation, I tell Williams as we enter the chapel, I liked the book and am planning to re-read The Karamazov Brothers as a result. "Oh good," says Williams, mugging like an ecclesiastical Frankie Howerd. "That's reassuring." Sarcasm from an archbishop - this is a career first.
Later in his study, he explains why he cast off his duties to write about a Russian novelist. "Both my predecessors have taken short periods of sabbatical and the general feeling was that before we got into the run up to the Lambeth Conference it might be quite a good idea to take some time out. I'd been reading around Dostoevsky for years and I thought, 'OK let's give myself a task and write the book.'"
This underplays Williams' lifelong interest in Russian spirituality. He wrote his doctorate on Russian Christianity. Before that, Williams became obsessed with the religious themes of Dostoevsky's The Karamazov Brothers, which contains an episode he thinks was formative for his faith. In the Grand Inquisitor episode in Dostoevsky's masterpiece, Ivan Karamazov imagines Jesus's second coming. Christ has made his earthly return to 16th-century Seville at the inquisition's height. He does not stop the burning of heretics but is arrested for performing miracles and tomorrow morning will burn himself. The Inquisitor tells Jesus in his cell that the church has made humanity happy by hoodwinking it with miracle, mystery and authority. Christ, by contrast, offered the masses not happiness, but a more frightful gift, their freedom. The Inquisitor explains that the Son of God is too reckless a character to have around risking the church's good work.
Admittedly this Inquisitor episode is Ivan's atheistic fantasy, but shouldn't Christ have challenged the inquisitor? Shouldn't he have behaved more like Christ in the Bible, who threw the moneylenders out of the temple? "If you pressed Dostoevsky on that he might have said: 'When Jesus starts throwing the Inquisitor out, Jesus becomes the Inquisitor himself.'" Instead, arguably, Jesus follows the more difficult path: that of clasping even those you might be expected to detest most to your heart. It's a path, we'll see, that Williams follows himself.
Why was the moment when Jesus, perhaps out of compassion for the tormented Inquisitor, kisses the man and then is allowed to slip from his cell into the Seville night, possibly never to be seen again, so important for Williams? "Dostoevsky has no easy answers, but what struck me when I first read the Grand Inquisitor episode was there is absolutely no form of words that can give a solution to suffering. Absolutely none. That's why what ends the arraignment of the captive Jesus by the Grand Inquisitor is silence - and then Jesus kisses him. When I read it I had the dim sense that there was something very important in that what you look for in faith is not solutions but a certain relationship." And that's why Dostoevsky's appeal has endured for Williams: he offers no closure, no authorial master-voice, but an endless dialogue where no one wins the argument but everyone is connected. In the book, he writes that Dostoevsky's fiction is like divine creation, "an unexpected unfolding with no last word". That might make divine creation sound akin to natural selection, but it's how Williams sees God's universe.
Throughout the book Williams stresses Dostoevsky's contemporary relevance. "I first read Devils [Dostoevsky's novel about a revolutionary cell led by a cynical manipulator] in about 1971 and one thing I remember very vividly still is that the depiction of radical students' meetings was horribly recognisable. The kind of arguments, the personalities, the obsessional quality of it.
"In Devils you have a reduction of politics to management, and the giving-over of that management to people who have no moral hinterland. It rings a few bells in the contemporary world, because the person who emerges triumphant from that dreadful book is the manipulator-in-chief. When you don't have real shared values, real common goals in society, how do you avoid politics falling into the hands of the person who can push the most right buttons, but who has no particular goals or aims?" As the archbishop speaks, I can't get David Cameron's image out of my head.
Dostoevsky is renowned for his remark, "Without God, everything is permitted." Does the archbishop agree? "He's saying not so much that without God everyone would be bad, as without God we have no way of connecting one act with another, no way of developing a life that made sense. It would really be indifferent whether we did this or that. And it's that sense of God being part of what you draw on to construct a life that makes sense."
I take that to be a "yes", not least because Williams writes in the book, glossing Dostoevsky: "Only love directed towards the transcendent can generate effective unselfish love in the world." Is that his view? "At the end of the day, yes it is because I believe that's how the universe is. I believe that God has made the world such that this is what we're for. Even when [people] reject that at the ideas level, they can sense that's how it is, they can act as if there were an infinite. That's one of the things that keeps the world going."
But the apparently barmy faith-based ethical systems in Dostoevsky, which Williams takes seriously, seem to make moral life unworkable. For example, I was struck by the way he treats a notorious deathbed scene in Karamazov where a character called Markel tells his mother: "Everyone is responsible for everyone in every way, and I most of all." I tell the archbishop that when I studied philosophy, this was held up as an absurdity by my teachers. How could one devise a practical moral system based on the impossible demand of being responsible for every one? "You're right - the way Markel talks about responsibility for all, it's not a practical programme. I don't think it's meant to be. In the long run Dostoevsky's world is one in which what's bad and destructive for Sri Lanka or Burundi or Guatemala is bad for humanity. Because there is this call to live your way into mutuality, there are no bounds to that."
Williams says the doctrine of personalism that underscores much of Dostoevsky's work is important in this regard. What is personalism? "It's a tradition in Russian philosophy, hugely powerful, from Dostoevsky's friend Solovyov right through to some of the underground Russian writers of the Soviet days and a lot of the emigres. You have to have a way of telling the difference between a person and an individual. An individual is someone who occupies space. To be a person is to be someone who hears and answers, to be someone who doesn't occupy a territory but much more a place in a network.
"Personalism says the human enterprise is about those exchanges and relations whereby we build one another up, we take responsibility for each other's flourishing." He takes this as key for Christian ethics. But is it also important as a critique of selfish western individualism right now? "Anything that challenges the idea that the primary imperative is always going to be the protection of my territory is bound to be."
Recently, Williams cited Karl Marx in his critique of selfish capitalism. It was, to say the least, unexpected. "The idea that most struck me when I read Marx years ago was that unbridled over-ambitious capitalist ventures would lead you - in the jargon - to reify money. It's treated as though it has a life of its own and Marx is pretty sharp on that. He saw the capitalist error as rather like what he would see as the religious error - treating something as though it had a life of its own. For Marx, God is just a function of how we relate to each other, money is just a function of how we relate to one another. Now obviously I think he was wrong about God, but some of the things he said about money were right. He just put his finger on that temptation to treat what's actually within our reach and agency as if it's outside."
The blurb says this book should be heartening to Christians. Is it? "I hope it encourages them to be aware that there are writers and thinkers who've plumbed the depths, who've looked at humanity in its shadows as well as its triumphs, but who still think it's worth sticking with the Christian gospel."
Christians may also find encouragement from Williams' preface, which argues all those recent books hostile to religious faith will be tomorrow's sociological curios. He's presumably talking about Dawkins, Grayling and Hitchens. But aren't they thinking you're the sociological curio? "They undoubtedly are. The answer is not to say, 'Let's once and for all have the religious reply to it,' it's to go on patiently saying, 'Look, what is it that Christians who are not cheap or trivial are saying?' and work from there rather than the surface level.
"In The Idiot, Prince Myshkin says, 'When I hear atheists talk about Christianity, I don't recognise what they're talking about.' I often feel when I read Richard Dawkins or Christopher Hitchens that this isn't quite it. I thought it might not do any harm to put down a marker about that and say: 'Here is a form of Christian engagement with the world and with the complexities of human experience that may be radically wrong but is not cheap or glib and any critique has to deal with this just as much as it has to deal with a southern baptist.'"
He also tilts in the book at the pretensions of science, and by extension scientists such as Dawkins: "Science is a set of brilliantly successful methods producing brilliantly successful hypotheses about how things work. What it's not is a picture of reality. It will give you a very significant purchase on reality. But it's not an ethic, not a metaphysic. To treat it like that is a kind of idolatry."
Our half-hour is up. As he signs my copy of his book, Williams tells me he invited the philosopher AC Grayling, baiter of the faithful, to the launch party. "I tell Williams that the last time I spoke to Grayling he was just about to publicly debate with Rabbi Julia Neuberger the motion We'd Be Better Off Without Religion. He won. "Oooh," says Williams, going all Frankie Howerd again, "I bet God's worried. 'Damn, I'd better retire.'"
As he escorts me from his study, he tells me he admires Dawkins. "There's something about his swashbuckling side which is endearing." He invited atheism's high priest and his wife to a Lambeth Palace party last year. "They were absolutely delightful." Again, classic Williams: the better man being nice about his foe. There's nobody he won't clasp to his bosom. It can only be a matter of time he goes on the lash with Hitchens.
But the real reason the Dawkins were invited is unexpected. "My son wanted to meet Mrs Dawkins." Why? "She was in Doctor Who." Really? "Oh yes. She played an assistant when Tom Baker was the Doctor." For a moment the archbishop looks like a greying sci-fi nerd. He would definitely win that beard-off.