Faith and Enlightenment: Friends or Foes?
by Dr. Rowan Williams, Archbishop of Canterbury
The Eighth Annual Isaiah Berlin Lecture Tuesday 16 November 2010
Sir Isaiah Berlin was for me, as for most academics of my generation, something of an iconic figure, and his are works I return to very regularly with enormous profit. So for me it’s one way of paying a small intellectual debt, a more than small intellectual debt, a rather long lasting one if truth be told. But it’s been made all the more pleasant by the warmth and kindness of your reception here this evening.
Isaiah Berlin is for a lot of people one of the leading canonical voices of liberal modernity; all the more interesting, then, that some of his most interesting work is about the shadowside of the Enlightenment and its legacy. In a very celebrated essay on ‘Two Concepts of Liberty’ and in several of his essays on ‘Anti-Englightenment’ or ‘Counter-Enlightenment’ intellectuals like Vico in Italy and Herder in Germany, he sets out with great clarity the quagmire into which the first generation of enlightened thinkers, in the eighteenth century, were blithely advancing, unaware of the horrors that their ideals were to generate in more recent times. The problem he identified was this: the idea of enlightened rationality was inseparable from a set of convictions about universal human values: whether at a distance of time or of space, human beings were fundamentally the same and their needs could be worked out by applying universal, reasonable principles, that in theory, anyone and everyone could have access to. Acquaintance with principles like these would guarantee the freedom to direct my life in accordance with my true nature and my deepest wants. But what Berlin draws out is the process by which this universal reasonable utopia can turn into a totalitarian nightmare; because when decision-makers have decided what is rational, sooner or later they are bound to regard any opposition as irrational and so any opposition has no legitimacy. They will embark on a coercive political education, to make citizens reasonable and to make them capable of exercising ‘positive’ liberty, in Berlin’s terms, the liberty to realise their ‘true’ nature; as defined by the people who are making the decisions, and that means sanctions against those who refuse to be taught. Not only does this enshrine ‘the rule of experts’; in one of his fine phrases, it leaves no final possible appeal to any individual right to freedom of conscience, because the irrational conscience has to be educated out of its mistake. ‘I issue my orders and, if your resist, take it upon myself to repress the irrational element in you which opposes reason’ (The Proper Study of Mankind, London, Pimlico, 1998, p.224).
So the conviction that reasonableness is one and the same in every human situation is politically and morally dangerous. Those who resisted enlightened universalism may have done so with various kinds of political agendas that are no less dangerous, but a mature liberal view has to reckon with their arguments, with their criticisms of the enlightened view of being reasonable. So Berlin identifies in the great German thinker Herder three governing notions which are clearly ‘against the main stream of the thought of his time’ (p.361) – and he calls these ‘populism, expressionism and pluralism’. Populism is being committed to a positive attitude to local and specific identity, to an historical continuous culture. It’s putting a high value on history and sometimes on ethnic history. Expressionism (not an ideal term as Berlin grants, given its got uses elsewhere) is the belief that culture is always something expressing systems of communication between people or agents; the belief that things that are made in the culture, patterns of behaviour and custom, artistic styles and so on can’t ever be abstracted from the networks of meaning they inhabit and the claim to embody fundamental identities for individuals and groups. And Pluralism is the belief that different cultures or societies have not only diverse systems and value but systems of value that you can’t really compare to one another, so there’s no way in which we could identify one universal definition of what a good life is like. As Berlin put it at the end of his ‘Two Concepts of Liberty’ essay, ‘To assume that all values can be graded on one scale, so that it is a mere matter of inspection to determine the highest, seems to me to falsify our knowledge that men are free agents, to represent moral decision as an operation which a slide-rule could, in principle, perform. To say that in some ultimate, all-reconciling, yet reliable synthesis duty is the same as interest, or individual freedom is the same as pure democracy, is to throw a metaphysical blanket over either self-deceit or deliberate hypocrisy’ (ibid., pp 241-2).
What this perspective brings back into political reflection, political theory and philosophy, is a sense of the tragic: rational universalism, reasonable behaviour and ideals being the same for everyone, can’t deliver what it promises in terms of a resolution of every conflict which honours every positive moral principle, so the decisions that are made, especially in the public sphere, political decisions, are always going to involve loss, compromise, some degree of failure in responding to rational ethical imperatives. All public and political decisions are in some sense less than ideal, in some sense they involve a loss. If ‘[w]hat the entire Enlightenment has in common is denial of the central Christian doctrine of original sin’ (ibid., p.264), the pluralism that comes from this reaction to the Enlightenment brings back a sober recognition if not exactly of original sin, then of the original limits of human aspiration. The problem is that so many of the advocates of the counter-Enlightenment – the resistance to universal Rationalism say what they do with the aim of discrediting or paralysing any idea that planned social change is possible; they begin from a deeply pessimistic assessment of human capacities, so the theorists of counter-Enlightenment will regularly argue for high levels of social control, harsh penal systems and minimal social mobility. The people most critical of the Enlightenment in the early nineteenth century especially, are people with a strong vested interest with things staying as they are – so that you can’t have arguments about how to make things better: if you try to make things better you’ll only make things worse. In a nutshell you may as well stick with absolute Monarchs and lots of executions.. So, Berlin’s challenge is about how we construct some political thinking that secures not only basic ‘decency’ (a favourite word of his) but the greatest possible freedom for debate between advocates of diverse projects and priorities; the society that’s worth working for is one in which diversity is tolerated – and therefore criticism is always possible (see, .e.g., Ramin Jahanbegloo, Conversations with Isaiah Berlin, 2 nd ed. London, Halban, 2007, pp.47-8). And that aim is not vitiated or undermined by clarity and honesty about the incompatibility of certain goods with each other in any finite political settlement.
This kind of chastened liberal realism is an impressive attempt to hold a very difficult balance. On the one hand Berlin wholeheartedly embraces Enlightenment scepticism about unquestioned authority and about the need for reasoned justification of belief and obedience. Nobody is allowed or encouraged to say ‘believe it because I tell you’. Berlin’s perspective also repudiates just as wholeheartedly Enlightenment optimism about the possibility of a conclusive rational ‘roadmap’, as we might now say, for social organisation. Or to put it differently, reason is a good tool for criticism, and its power as a critical force habitually leads us to mistake it for a straighforward guide in constructing positive social goals. Reason is a very good solvent of nonsense but is not necessarily a very good constructor of sense. Society is organised not by the discovery of some ultimately organising principle that will guarantee the fulfilment of all rational aspirations – society is organised by an endless series of ‘treaties’ between aspirations, between imagined goods, and desirable states of affairs. There is no social settlement without loss and compromise; but that does not mean that any and every social settlement is a radical failure or that – to pick up another of Berlin’s leading ideas – it is unworthy of rational commitment. Reasonable commitment in a society which makes compromises allows us to recognise that our ideals may not be universally and eternally valid within a clear, comprehensive scale of values (‘Principles are not less sacred because their duration cannot be guaranteed’; ibid. p.242), we can recognise that without it making us practically indifferent. We choose our priorities in society and as individuals for defensible, discussable reasons, but we know that the discussion goes on and that what we have rationally chosen, defended and worked for may well appear differently in a different moral or intellectual environment.
Implicit in this is a deep scepticism about whether there is anything that could be called a final or optimal social settlement. With the terrible language of ‘final solutions’ ringing in our ears, we are of course likely to find this scepticism not only proper, but irresistible. But it is difficult for someone approaching these matters from a position of religious commitment to be completely satisfied; and I want to reflect a little on just why this is and whether there is an unbridgeable gulf not only between classical universal Enlightenment politics and faith but also between Berlin’s revised Enlightenment model and the language of traditional religious belief.
One of the paradoxes in this particular bit of intellectual history is that the Enlightenment of the eighteenth century didn’t give up in its language on the register of eschatology, that is the hope of a final resolution of historical conflicts, even when they reimagine that final resolution as the coming reign of universal reason. Enlightenment language in other words, is still language about the hope for something, and for something that is not just local and not just transient. Think of the French Revolution, which deliberately made up a sort of mythology about itself, enthroning some human figure as ‘Reason’ in Notre Dame Cathedral at a ceremony and restarting the calendar and renaming the months of the year. History was over; the bloody birthpangs of the new order were still going on, but a new age had definitively started. Now I think that a significant part of what Berlin is trying to do is to wean us off eschatology. That is to put before us the challenge of whether we can get along without that kind of hope for a universal lasting mopping up operation – a restarting of history. There is no end of history – whether that delusion is proclaimed by communist or capitalist (and I think Berlin would have been surprised and rather amused to hear the capitalist versions of it that gained some currency in the 1990’s), talking about the end of history is always mistaken and almost always oppressive in its implications. We don’t have a handle on the future and we have to accept that the ‘judgement of history’ is entirely outside our view. So in the light of this, even our dearest convictions have to be held with some degree of ironic self awareness.
But for the Abrahamic religions, eschatology is a major aspect of their frame of reference. Sometimes of course, it has been used in corrupt and corrupting ways – it’s been used as an excuse for not addressing injustices now (because it will be sorted out hereafter) or it’s been used as a way of giving a kind of theological justification for religious tyranny which claims to be the ultimate and definitive state of human politics. You might think of the very curious confusions that are around Iranian politics, about what the status is of the Ayatollah, who was for many people of course, a manifestation of the hidden Imam, who represented the end of history, and the beginning of the new age. And while Iranian society is in practice as confused and conflicted as anyone else, nonetheless there remains in the rhetoric of some of that society a very interesting trace, a kind of thumbprint of the theology of the end of things and of the beginning of the new age. Of course, trying to introduce that into ordinary political discourse has problems which I think we’re all rather familiar with in that instance. So, the language of eschatology can be used in very bizarre ways, but remember at the same time that eschatology has often been a negative and critical element which says every imaginable ‘judgement of history’ is overridden by something on another plane; no imaginable state of society is going to deliver what the true end of things promises, because no human power can anticipate the judgement of God. In other words, eschatology, the hope of the end of things, the final solving of conflicts may in the hand of God, be used oppressively, but it may also be used critically and in a liberating way. You could say, there’s just as much room for irony here as there is in secular scepticism. But there is also something on the far side of irony. There is indeed, says the eschatology of the Abrahamic religions, an optimal or a final human condition, there really is a final state of affairs in which human agents are related to each other and to their world in the way they were meant to be related; and that optimal desirable condition depends on the realising of a relation to the maker of the universe. Because that relation is always in process of formation, always vulnerable and fragile, while human life continues, it is never going to be simply, solidly fleshed out in a social settlement within history. It is not even the case that successive settlements can be guaranteed to create a gradually improving approximation to it: our capacity for brutal and radical error grows no less as time goes on. Yet there is an imagined state of affairs, one day to be realised but not in any way we can anticipate or control, an ultimate state of affairs by which we map and assess our current achievement. And that means that we can’t afford a completely ironic attitude to our convictions. Or rather we cannot afford a completely ironic attitude towards the hope of something like a comprehensive healing or homecoming for all human beings. And what our current ideals and convictions and policies have to be tested for is how far they take us towards or away from those reintegrated relations we imagine in the context of a restored relation to God; how far they take us ‘homewards’ or otherwise.
I want to argue that this is a very different way of characterising the idea of a ‘unified’ social vision from the one that Isaiah Berlin uses. Typically, Isaiah Berlin’s case rests on the impossibility of realising all your ideals at the same time – maximum freedom, maximum equality and so on. He wasn’t the first and he won’t be the last to point out that maximum freedom and maximum equality don’t sit comfortably in the same room. He assumes, quite correctly, that we couldn’t ever provide a coherent account of a society in which you had both unqualified liberty and unqualified equality. And on that basis he concludes that any notion of an optimal social settlement is going to be incoherent in theory and totalitarian in practice. But now what if we come at this from a different angle? What if the unity we are looking for in society is not realising an abstract ideal, a supreme ideal in which everything desirable is contained, what if it’s a condition in which person is fully cognisant of what is needed for each specific neighbour’s welfare and each person is committed to make that possible? That, I think, is not to measure social achievement against an ideal embodiment of some supreme good (freedom, equality and so on) it’s to think critically about it in the light of what the maximal welfare of each citizen, within the constraints of the life we share, potentially competing needs and finite resources, what the maximum welfare of each might look like. It is also to assume a shared willingness to bracket out any fantasies of what would maximally fulfil my wishes as an individual and to allow those to be overridden by the vision of a possible common good equally owned by myself and my neighbour. For each social agent, the sacrifice that may entail is made bearable by the confidence the whole interlocking pattern of social relations will secure attention to my interest in the same terms as I give attention to the neighbour’s interests. So what I’m outlining is a social unity or harmony, not in terms of realising a single ideal, but in terms of a mutuality of care and attention, as the cement of a society that can last and can claim to be just.
You may notice that here I’m building to some degree on ideas eloquently developed by the Chief Rabbi in many books over recent years, and I’m happy to acknowledge that debt as well. I think it offers an account of optimal social unity in terms of covenantal mutuality, the promise of attention to one another on the grounds of the belief in unqualified promised attention from the maker of the universe. What I have called the ‘revisionist Enlightenment’ model of Berlin’s liberalism very importantly rules out defining an optimal social state as one in which a rational solution to all problems has been permanently established, so you can discount any opposition as irrational or worse. But accepting that, we are not then restricted in our discussion of social goods simply to an unending series of short-term compromises. It is possible to think about a convergent condition of society not in terms of something delivered by universal reason but as what I’d like to call a habit of commitment to the good of the other, and that creates and sustains mutual trust – interesting that trust is not a virtue much celebrated by the Enlightenment. And we are in some degree living with the consequences of that in many areas of our life. To be ‘covenanted’ to each other is to promise that no-one’s interest is written out of the social script and – crucially – that a long-term perspective on social needs is being taken for granted – along term perspective, not just an electoral cycle. In practice, this will of course involve what I have called ‘treaties of compromise’, just like Berlin’s scheme, carefully crafted compromises in which there is a serious effort to avoid unfair distribution of the cost and enough of what everyone needs and hopes for to make a settlement sustainable. The difference is that if we approach this from a standpoint of faith, the overriding imperative is to scrutinise the way in which any settlement deepens those relationships in society which will do the active long term sustaining – how far such relations are likely to shape the habit of attention to the neighbour, the habit of promised attention which gives some long-term ground for trust in society. Or, in other words, the aim is not just pragmatically avoiding unmanageable conflict, the aim is the formation of political character; and in the fullest religious context, the formation of political character, political virtue, virtues we exercise in public as well as in private relationships, that’s actually an aspect of developing relationship with God, upon whom ultimately depend those other dimensions of healed or healing relationship.
One of the weakest points of Enlightenment politics, even (I dare to say) Isaiah Berlin’s version, is the absence of much interest in political virtue, in the question of what kind of human agent is being nourished and encouraged by this or that piece of public policy. If you make this or that decision in terms of policy, what kind of human being are you encouraging to emerge? Recently there has been a welcome revival of interest in questions like this, strongly spurred on by the perception that economic habits in particular had long since ceased to be related to questions about what kind of human being it might be desirable to nourish in society. Sir Isaiah’s ironic and modest pluralism is extremely suspicious of any political philosophy that promises to deliver a new kind of human being; and that is understandable, given the aspirations of a certain kind of radicalism to reinvent what human beings are like. But without some compass here, political decision-making becomes no more than damage limitation. To say that a society can and should allow consideration of what sort of human character is being formed by its public practices as part of its decision making does not mean that societies have to adopt an orthodoxy about what is best for all human beings in all situations. It’s just to be aware that there are public policies and habits that significantly close down possibilities – sometimes by neglect, sometimes by assuming the most selfish or short-term motivations in citizens. To take some examples that are not just academic in the light of the last decade or so, this ‘closing down’ of possibilities might be evidenced in policies that restrict access to or support for public educational facilities like libraries and galleries; in employment regimes that reward patterns of work that undermine family life; in the encouragement of unmanageable debt; in the scapegoating, in general social attitudes or in policy, of refugees; or in the pressure for the kind of savings in public care budgets that further centralise and bureaucratise contact with physicians and narrow the pastoral or personal responsibilities of the nursing profession.
I mention these examples as examples of policies that actually narrow the range of what human beings can reasonably expect in public life and public services. They are the sort of issues that are not all that well dealt with in the framework of a purely liberal political culture; addressing them adequately requires a clear sense both of the nature of the social good (one that can only be achieved by mutual collaboration) and of some picture of human flourishing, human wellbeing that is not reducible to a fairly peaceful adjustment of competing individual needs. I think issues like this require a political perspective in which the quality of relations features; politics of relationships. And that’s not provided for in any clear way by a discourse in which ‘value pluralism’ is left as an unquestioned and fundamental feature of social thinking. Which is why I’m very interested in what social scientists like Michael Sandel or Richard Sennett have argued very recently, a lively and critical political language is more likely to be one that draws in discussion, even argument, about patterns of human habit and character, rather than one that leaves value entirely as a matter of individual conviction. To allow for this is not giving way to the poisonous universalism that ends up excluding or penalising dissent, what Sir Isaiah was most afraid of. It is does not oblige us to believe that we are capable of realising an optimal moral society according to principles that everybody ought to be able to assent to. It just invites us to include in political argument considerations about how a particular course of action, individual or public, impacts on the character and habits of social agents and how far it reinforces the habits of mutual attention that provide the only secure ground for trust.
The Enlightenment society, whether in classical or revisionist mode, doesn’t pay a great deal of attention to this issue of social trust; after all, being reasonable is not a matter of trust but of clear demonstrability. Because invitations to trust were in the pre-modern period so closely allied with appeals to unreasonable and oppressive systems of authority, early modern culture turned away from that sort of language. But the result is a twofold problem. On the one hand, truth comes to be seen as something discoverable by essentially impersonal means, by arguments and observations anyone can use. Each individual may calculate their duties and their rights without having to relate in any particular way to anyone else except within a general rubric of tolerance. The notion that there is a kind of skewing of perception, that comes with purely individual accounts of who and what I am and what I want is alien to this way of thinking. So whatever you make of Hegel as a social philosopher, one of his great insights was that our original prereflective, self-oriented account of who we are and what we want is actually exactly what we have to let go of and allow to dissolve as we learn what it is to think and therefore to act humanly -because you think and you act in the stream of relation. So if you only have scepticism about authority, that can take you back to a kind of fundamentalism about individual rights, and lead to a very fragmented society indeed. But the answer is not to turn the clock back to authoritarianism but to work at social and personal practices of mutual challenge and scrutiny, critical and intelligent conversation, with the assumption that relations of a certain kind are inseparable from access to certain kinds of truth. That is you only get to know certain kinds of truth when you are in certain kinds of relation – that takes us back to the covenantal model. Impersonal truth implies that particular personal and local perspectives are at best decorative extras and at worst distortions. That’s partly where the ‘end of history’ language comes from: it’s as if to say that you believe something because of what you or your ancestors have learned, sometimes informally and unsystematically over a long period of history, is never going to be good enough as a justification, and that can have some rather bleak implications.
From these elements in the Enlightenment spirit come the opposite menaces of individualism and totalitarianism. Berlin is eloquent as a diagnostician of the second, totalitarianism, but not always so alert to the first – to the risks of a society in which everyone’s relations to everyone else are basically formal, legal or commercial, the relations of selfcontained agents negotiating their separate space. The Enlightenment turned on religious dogma as the single most offensive example of irrational and tyrannical assertion. The reaction was quite understandable in many ways but the effect was to confuse this suspicion of unchallengeable authority with scepticism about the unavoidably social elements in our learning and our discovering of our humanity by rejecting the first unchallengeable authority, and obscuring the importance of the second – the way in which we learn certain truths only in certain relationships. The counter-Enlightenment, the conservative figures I mentioned at the beginning, who so fascinated and often repelled Isaiah Berlin, those thinkers often tried to salvage the second, social traditional elements of knowing, by trying to reverse the first; taking us back to authoritarianism and the ‘revisionist Enlightenment’ thinking. Isaiah Berlin in his most famous work accepts the counterEnlightenment criticism of rational universalism but doesn’t identify whether there are other kinds of universalism possible. And what I’ve been arguing so far is that the relation of religious faith to this postEnlightenment world is a bit more complex one than has sometimes been acknowledged. It is not a matter of straightforward opposition: faith should in fact be sympathetic to the criticism of ungrounded unchallengeable authority; and, as the present Pope is fond of pointing out, the very idea of universal reason has theological roots – though the definition of reason is not quite what a Voltaire might be happy with. The idea that human maturity involves challenges to unchallenged power (as with the stories of Daniel in Hebrew Scripture or the records of the Christian Church in the Roman Empire) that idea is not at all inimical to faith. The idea that power has to explain itself and justify itself to all through recognisable public argument, that is a sound moral and religious principle, and many of our narratives underline it. But what religious practice claims, and what separates it from some sorts of universalism, is that public argument need not rule out discussion of tradition, of the histories of learning and usage that locate certain ideas in the fabric of corporate life, of the images we inherit and develop of life well-lived and relations working creatively. The universal horizon is a vision not of fully agreed final rational discourse that guarantees a right answer to everything and the fulfilment of all reasonable aspirations. What we hope for is a shared work of discernment in which no voice is silenced in advance and each participant is able to trust that they are the object of unselfish attention. The Jewish model of a community of covenant is fundamental for such a vision; likewise the Christian model of the Church as Christ’s Body builds on this and takes the metaphors of interdependence to another level. The universal horizon we’re looking is one of sustainable mutual generosity – which is understood, by individuals of faith, as part of the journey from and towards integral relation with the maker of the universe.
But why exactly does it matter to keep some sort of universalism on our radar, intellectually and morally? Because once we give any house room to the idea that some claims about humanity might be open to radical revision, once we leave negotiating space around commitments to human dignity as a fixed matter, we risk making human dignity a matter of our own choice. This is how we elect to see the world; it’s just a fact about how we see fit to live our lives. But if so, then defending human dignity gets entangled with defending ourselves, our freedom to choose; it becomes bound up again with issues of power and competition, a form almost of self-assertion. But human dignity understood as something beyond negotiation is something that demands our loyalty quite independently of our interest or advantage. That’s significant. It removes human dignity simply from quarrels about who’s in charge, or who gets to set the terms of the argument. It allows us to contemplate the idea of human fulfilment, an ‘optimal’ state for human beings as a vision that could survive any amount of pragmatic defeat and any amount of local and cultural diversity in expression. In religious terms, it appeals not to some static definition of human nature in the abstract, it appeals to the conviction that God values human persons without limit or qualification – that in the words of Proverbs 8, ‘divine wisdom rejoices in humankind’.
Charles Taylor, a critical admirer of Isaiah Berlin, in his enormously wide-ranging study, A Secular Age (Belknap Press 2007), examines what motivation you might discover for systematic and unrestricted love for humankind. ‘How can we become agents on whom misanthropy has no hold, in whom it awakens no connivance?’ he asks (p.701). Part of his very subtle and engaging answer is that a motivation that stresses the uncaused or gratuitous nature of philanthropy, the nobility of our readiness to do without metaphysics or transcendental rewards, actually privileges one kind of virtue over others – a sort of individual heroism that may be admirable but is essentially solitary. If I’m good for no reason, if I’m good because I choose to be good, never mind rewards, never mind what the universe is like, the trouble is that I end up presenting myself as a hero. And Charles Taylor says heroism isn’t what we want, we want goodness, and they’re rather different.
Religious faith sustains the possibility of talking intelligently about what some have called ‘the solidarities we did not choose’. It insists that those solidarities are not transient passing matters, vulnerable to cultural changes, able to be defined out of existence, and equally that they are not just biological matters. Czeslaw Milosz, in his essay, ‘Speaking of a Mammal’ (reprinted in Proud to Be a Mammal. Essays on War, Faith and Memory, Penguin Classics 2010) discusses Bertrand Russell’s appeal to recognition of our solidarity as ‘members of a biological species’ as the ground of universal sympathy and universal morality, and responds to Russell’s brave and rather naïve position by insisting on the ineradicable presence of culture and politics in our account of humanity. ‘No prisoner in a concentration camp of our era’, he says, ‘would dream of asking pity for himself in the name of biological kinship with those who condemned him; he knows that he was discarded by them as historically harmful, and it is that harmfulness which defines him in the first place, and not his membership in the tribe of Homo Sapiens’ (pp.186-7). We need something more than biology, we need some imagined community of mutual recognition of human dignity; and that is what faith proposes, in various forms, and always steers us towards the realisation that we are recognisable to each other because we are first recognised (affirmed, valued, loved) by God.
This is the point at which we have to grasp that religious language isn’t either pro- or antiEnlightenment in the usual sense. It picks its way around the Enlightenment’s central ideas and says that some of the ways in which Enlightenment set up the problem are misconceived: if we are faced with a choice between coercive universal reasonableness of the kind that was such a conspicuous success in the Soviet Union and pre-critical authoritarianism, which was such a conspicuous success with the French Monarchy of the eighteenth century, you may well ask if the argument has been properly set out in the first place, if those are the only options. And if the only third alternative is a pluralism that cannot ultimately give much account of convergent and mutually created goods for humankind, an account of character and habit formed by participating in communities of meaning and cultural symbolism, the outlook is not promising. Religious faith – and in a very particular way the ‘Abrahamic’ faiths – ought to be capable of absorbing the Enlightenment critique of unchallengeable human authority in the name of the transcendent moral reality that can’t be fully expressed or overridden or relativised by the pragmatic calls of the moment or the immediate setting in human history. Because the idea of a divine calling is so basic in all the languages of the Abrahamic faiths – Jews, Muslims and Christians, there is always a dimension of faith that acknowledges one at the same time a sort of agnosticism about the full and exact scope of what we are summoned to and at the same time an austere appeal to obedience and selfforgetting. That appeal cannot ever be reduced, though plenty of attempts have been made, to a straight defence of the positive law of the religious institution – partly because eschatology keeps coming back, the conviction that the final resolution of the world’s crises is not in human hands.
What I’ve been trying to do is slightly dismantle the terms of reference of Enlightenment and postEnlightenment and counter-Enlightenment, to suggest that a great deal of what the Enlightenment was against, it was quite right to be against. And a great deal of what the Enlightenment was for landed us in a really rather substantial set of moral and political dilemmas. It left us with a dangerously individualist, distortedly rights focused, relationship light and trust indifferent set of habits and attitudes. We ought to be able to do better. We don’t do better simply by turning the clock back, and saying: what we now need is another sacred authority to tell us what to do – we do better perhaps by absorbing more deeply the critical and relation building aspects of our covenantal faith. We do better by imagining an eschatology, a final stage of human society, in which human beings promise to one another, in the light of God’s promise to all of them, in such a way that they trust one another, and trust one another to the degree that they are able to attend selflessly to each other without fear.
At the end of his superb essay on Tolstoy, Berlin describes the Russian novelists and the French conservative polemicist Joseph de Maistre as both ‘observers utterly incapable of being deceived by the many subtle devices, the unifying systems and faiths and sciences, by which the superficial or the desperate sought to conceal the chaos from themselves and from one another’ (The Proper Study of Mankind, p.497). I must say that when I first read that great essay as a graduate student it made an immense impact on me, and whenever I go back to it the sonorous music of sentences like that still stirs me very deeply. What I have been trying to suggest is that faith, while it does offer a unifying perspective and a unifying goal for the human community, doesn’t mean adopting a superficial or desperate concealment of the difficulty of hearing one another and working with one another. If – and it is admittedly a large if at times – faith is a unique resource for the nourishing political as well as private virtue, and if such virtue requires us to make sense of our solidarities and our traditions rather than either discarding them or fighting for them, there is a step that can be taken beyond Isaiah Berlin’s scepticism; a way of allowing some critical solidarity, as we might say, between faith and Enlightenment after all. © Rowan Williams 2010