Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Rowan Williams meets Dostoevsky in Jamaica

Is Rowan Williams a calculating Machiavellian character or an absent-minded professorial buffoon? So is an ongoing off-line discussion now underway, sans the frothy mugs of ale that such conversations should include.

But here comes N.J.A. Humphrey who has been doing an extensive study on how Dostoevsky is influencing Rowan Williams as he weaves his way through the Anglican Communion crisis, including the debacle in Jamaica. He writes in his post Dostoevsky in Jamaica at Covenant:
What does Rowan Williams’ recent book, Dostoevsky: Language, Faith, and Fiction have to teach us about how the archbishop approaches questions of conflict and community? My thesis is that Williams’ approach to the crisis in the Anglican Communion has been greatly influenced by the fiction of Dostoevsky, and that it was no coincidence that he chose to meditate upon this author on the eve of the Lambeth Conference during his sabbatical at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C.
Later on in his post Fr. Humphrey writes:

A.S. Haley, better known to readers as the Anglican Curmudgeon, wrote an insightful analysis of the political goings-on at the ACC, and my seminary classmate George Conger posted a more first-hand journalistic account on his website. I commend both pieces to political junkies who want the blow-by-blow. Conger’s piece maps pretty closely to Haley’s analysis, and there appears to be a consensus among conservatives that the archbishop fumbled the ball (to use a sporting analogy) during the proceedings. The Anglican Communion Institute certainly thought so, and urged the archbishop to take corrective action. Stephen Noll, for his part, came up with his own game plan for the archbishop to follow.

Having just slogged my way through 243 pages of brilliant and dense prose by Rowan Williams on Dostoevsky, however, I was pretty well convinced he would not take the approach urged upon him by either the ACI or by Stephen Noll, but would respond in a typically Rowanesque mode. This he proceeded to do in his Presidential Address last night (you can listen to the audio or read a transcript of it), in which he spoke of “glorious failure” and “miserable failure,” and what distinguished the two from each other. He appeared to admit, in effect, that he (and, by extension, the ACC) had indeed “failed,” but rather than doing anything to “fix” that failure, he took a tack best called, I think, the Dostoevskian-Hegelian Kenotic Approach.

A.S. Haley (our favorite Curmudgeon) reminded readers of the Hegelian dimension of Rowan Williams’ approach to conflict by linking to a previous post wherein he shares Giles Fraser’s insights into the method behind Rowan Williams’ madness. This piece is well worth reading, because it exegetes the archbishop’s approach to conflict from the philosophical (Hegelian) side, whereas at the moment I am attempting to exegete it from the literary (Dostoevskian) side.

Rowan Williams consistently resists “fixing” things—and in so doing, paradoxically, opens himself up to the charge of trying to “fix” the process itself, that is “fixing” not in the sense of correcting, but in the sense of manipulating it. Conservative bloggers interpreted his actions as an indication that “the fix was in,” so to speak. Williams is “known” to be sympathetic to the “revisionist” agenda, and is therefore a tool of TEC, and concluded that anyone who continues to show up to play the game is a tool, as well. But Williams’ goal is not simply to keep people talking to each other, but to keep people talking until they recognize what it is they owe each other. And even if this never happens, the “failure” can still be redeemed by God so that it is a “glorious failure” rather than a “miserable one.”

Truly, Dostoyevsky was in Jamaica.

I'm inclined to agree. Looks like it's time to dig out our old copy of The Brothers Karamazov. In the meantime, here is an audio of Rowan Williams talking about his study of Dostoyevsky:

To download the talk, click here.


Dale Matson said...

"It was unhelpful to establish criteria for success or failure for Anglican meetings, Dr Williams told delegates to the May 2-12 meeting in Kingston, Jamaica said, as there was “no absolute measure for achievement."
Isn't this a recipe for inaction?

Unknown said...

The Brothers Karamazov? What about The Idiot?

Observer said...

I wish he would forget the Russians and Germans and read what St Paul wrote on similar situations (eg 1 Cor 5-6)

Matt Kennedy said...

This piece is an exercise in self-refutation. If, indeed, the ABC's goal has been to "keep people talking until they recognize what they owe each other" then, in fact, "the fix" has been in.

He has, indeed, manipulated both sides to accomplish his larger Dostoyevskian scheme. He has been dangling the "next meeting" in front of conservatives for the last 7 years while doing all in his power to keep TEC at the table.

He has in other words employed Machiavellian means in order to achieve his "Dostoyevskian" ends...

Hardly an exculpatory bit of argumentation by Fr. Humphry.

Matt Kennedy

Christopher Johnson said...

Too clever by half. What is undeniable is that Anglican Christianity is rapidly imploding and the Archbishop of Canterbury is doing nothing useful or worthwhile to try to stop it.

I don't care what my gracious lord of Canterbury's motivations might or might not be. I do know that in terms of actual leadership, he is failing and failing completely and utterly and that there is nothing noble about his cowardice.