Theologian Examines Patterns That Keep Us 'recognizably Human'

February 12, 2003

In July 2002, Rowan Williams, Archbishop of Wales, was named the new Archbishop of Canterbury, spiritual leader of the worldwide Anglican and Episcopal Church. A former professor of theology at Oxford and Cambridge, Williams is one of the most published, thoughtful and careful theologians to occupy this important post in many years. Described in the media as a "theological liberal," he nevertheless defies easy classification. For instance, though he supports the ordination of homosexuals, he opposes abortion on demand; he vocally has opposed war with Iraq and harshly criticized a consumer culture that manipulates families and children through the false promise that prosperity can come through materialism. He does not offer the easy theological platitudes of the left or the right, and his recent book, Lost Icons: Reflections on Cultural Bereavement, is solid evidence of this fact.
What does Williams mean by "lost icons?" He is referring to those ways of thinking, talking and understanding that properly constrain how we live our lives. He is interested in patterns of thought and activity that enable us to remain within "recognizably human conversation." Such patterns include the making and keeping of promises, the regulation of sexual activity, assumptions we have about remorse and regret and the ways in which we observe and mark death. He is interested in our recognition that there are appropriately different expectations of human beings at different stages of their lives. Williams observes that all of these ways of thinking and acting "have in common the presupposition that we cannot choose just any course of action in respect of our human and nonhuman environment and still expect to 'make sense' -- that is, to be part of a serious human conversation in which our actions can be evaluated and thought through and drawn into some rough coherence."
Williams believes that these sorts of things are the points in human conversation "where our spade is turned" -- where we simply cannot go beyond and still remain recognizably human. They are neither conventions (because that implies a certain arbitrariness) nor ideals (because they are not goals to which we aspire). Williams identifies them as icons -- "structures for seeing and connecting in the light of something other than our decisions."
In our culture, we have few resources for examining the sovereignty of "choice" and "personal decision." Ours is a consumer culture, and we constantly are asked to choose between this or that product, be it a religious belief, a spouse or a detergent. We sometimes are tempted to regard choosing as the most important part of life, and to see responsibility extending only as far as our choices. We can choose whatever we want, and what we do not choose does not have a claim on us. Such a culture is post-Christian.
In the Orthodox tradition, icons enable us to see the world as it is, and thus to see ourselves as God would enable us to be. Williams' book addresses some of those "icons" that offer windows on the constraints of what it means to be human. According to him, our loss of the icons means that we are in danger of losing ourselves, our souls.
Though I sharply disagree with several of Williams' points, I am in favor of his comments on education, especially university education. Our culture of "informed consumption" can have a devastating effect on college education. Even the university increasingly describes itself as a "marketplace of ideas." What could this mean? We are not a place where ideas are bought and sold as commodities and certainly not a place in which the value of an idea is determined by the demand it commands. Some of the most important ideas taught in any university will not be popular, and in a Christian university, we will find that our most important ideas are deeply counter-cultural in a culture of consumption such as ours.
Why is this the case? Williams points to the centrality of charity -- and especially of the difficulty of imagining what charity requires. Charity is an icon that is all but lost in the contemporary university. Thomas Aquinas understood that charity was the center and focal point of all the virtues. If this is so, to act in charity is not merely to choose to act in a certain way. It is to understand a constraint that frees and opens our lives in ways that we could not have imagined otherwise. And a Christian university -- a place such as Baylor -- is uniquely qualified to offer such an education.