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Talk by Dr Rowan Williams

Mark Damazer

On a miserable Friday night Dr Rowan Williams, former Archbishop of Canterbury and currently Master of Magdalene College, Cambridge, aqua-planed into the Lodge, macintosh dripping and his head half-heartedly covered by a crumpled, and ultimately defeated, rain hat. He had come by bus from London (£17 return) to talk in the chapel on ‘Faith, Science and Knowledge.’

He had been in Oxford already this term – and I had thought we might thus not be full. Not a bit of it. We had well over 300 people – every seat taken and some were standing. His lecture lasted 35 minutes, as it happens exactly the amount of time we had agreed on beforehand, with a small set of notes in front of him – which he never looked at. He had by then dried out. It was compelling.

His main theme: There is more than one sort of knowledge and more than one method for ‘going on’ (in the world) and understanding who we are and how things can be harmonised and fitted together. He began by asking us to contemplate how people acquire the knowledge to do fretwork or play the cello – and considered the issue of the time needed to improve one’s level of accomplishment. But not all knowledge is subject to this sort of endeavour – rather he wanted everyone to be more open to other avenues to acquire knowledge and self-understanding. He adamantly expressed the view that there was no contradiction between the scientific model (and indeed agreed that there were some facts and aspects of knowledge that were, if not self-contained, at least palpably ‘hard wired’) and an openness to other frameworks that would help knit together the human experience. He also addressed a question that I know he has been asked a great many times – how can suffering in the world co-exist with a beneficent God?  He agreed, generously, to allow us all to hear an extract from an electrifying radio interview he had given to John Humphrys in 2004 on Radio 4’s ‘Today’  the day after the Beslan massacre in the Caucasus.

Rowan Williams

We then spoke for about 15 minutes about whether faith can be gained through knowledge, study, prayer or struggle. Dr Williams thought that experiencing the liturgy – without belief – could be a successful pathway – but there were, of course, many other routes. He was politely dismissive of those whose faith, whatever their religion, prevented them from acknowledging the fruits of other foundations of knowledge. I saw this as a clear defence of the scientific model.

We also touched on a theme that was debated at St Peter’s when Harvard’s Professor Michael Sandel came here in May 2012. Is it true that religion has been marginalised in the ‘public square’? (Dr Williams is an admirer of Michael’s and has more than once debated with him). Dr Williams answered with his customary care and moderation. He said he did not want to whinge – and he did not. He did, though, provide a rather interesting example of a public debate that he felt would be improved with the greater intrusion of a perspective derived from faith. He believes that whatever the economic pros and cons of the immigration debate there was an important point about ‘hospitality’ – a subject he believes that has vital religious roots.

He then read one of his own poems, Emmaus, and followed that with a translation of a poem, ‘Sin’, by one of the Welsh poets he most admires, D. Gwenallt Jones.

And then twenty minutes of questions from the audience – about what is not known and a lot more about faith and science.

More or less at the point he began some nearby church bells started to peal. They pealed throughout and stopped as he left the chapel. They created a charming backdrop at a level you could always hear – but they never came close to drowning out the talk or questions.

Dr.Williams left clad in his mac and hat to take the bus to Victoria. It was a memorable evening.

More photos of the event can be viewed here.

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