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Rowan Williams and our sentimental age

Former archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams.
Former archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams. | (Photo: Reuters)

Today, as in the days of Plato, rhetoric is what moves the crowd. But as Plato knew, truth, not rhetoric, is the task of philosophy and philosophers. That is why the latter are so important. Sadly, many in today's philosopher class — the intellectuals — seem to have forgotten Plato. They now find rhetoric more attractive than truth.

Early April provided yet another example of this when a number of British religious leaders signed a letter to the prime minister, Boris Johnson, calling for transgender people to receive the same protection from “conversion therapy” as other LGBTQ+ individuals.

The letter is a good example of how sentimental mush has come to replace careful moral reasoning in the minds of so many. The usual therapeutic patois is on full display. The language of becoming whole, of safe place, of affirmation, is strewn throughout the piece, and the postmodern ethicist’s empty-but-persuasive word of choice, “journey,” appears twice, once even qualified with the adjective “sacred.”

The letter is light on actual theology but does make peculiar comment on conversion therapy and prayer: “To allow those discerning this journey to be subject to coercive or undermining practices is to make prayer a means of one person manipulating another.”

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The logic of this sentence seems to imply that to pray for a transgender person to become comfortable with his biological sex is a form of “conversion therapy.” As such, prayer is to be equated with coercion and bullying. Do these religious leaders think that prayer changes nothing and that any claim otherwise makes it simply a tool for exercising psychological power over another? Or do they think that the only petitions that should be made on behalf of trans people are those that confirm their self-diagnosis? If the former, then why bother praying for anything at all? If the latter, what about the growing number of de-transitioners, many of whom would no doubt have been grateful if somebody had prayed for them and also intervened in some other way before they permanently mutilated their bodies?

Yet as confused as that sentence is, it is not the most disturbing aspect of the letter. That honor must be given to the presence of Rowan Williams’s signature.

It should be no surprise to anyone familiar with Williams’s history that he supports the LGBTQ+ movement. His views on homosexuality, for example, have been liberal since at least the 1980s. What is surprising is that he has put his name to a document whose moral reasoning is, as I noted above, mere sentimental mush. It is not a shock to see Steve Chalke’s name on such a letter. Chalke is a popular church leader but an intellectual lightweight. The former archbishop of Canterbury, however, is a very serious scholar.

Williams has written substantial books on Arius, on Dostoevsky, and on Augustine. He also recently wrote a dense volume on the classical Trinitarian God, Christology, and creation. That is just a taste of his scholarly output. He is a well-read, learned man with a breathtaking range of interests and intellectual competencies. Yet here he has lent his reputation as a serious thinker to a piece of woke whimsy whose force relies on nothing more than emotive rhetoric that happens to accord with the tastes of the times. After all, the claim “I am a woman trapped in a man’s body” is rationally empty. But its emptiness belies its power, a power drawn from the fact that it gives expression to the Western notion of individual freedom and self-determination. And that power seems to have co-opted Williams for the trans cause.

This is a serious development. When the intellectual elites of our culture allow sentiment to supplant reason, then the discourse of public life is in grave trouble. We should know this from seeing what happens when sentiment comes to dominate other branches of our culture. Art becomes kitsch. And ethics becomes a matter of responding to the latest sob story and the immediate appetites of the moment without reflection on broader social needs, goods, or consequences.

That is why it is useful to have elites that keep themselves aloof from this, who understand the present moment in the larger context of history. Their task is to preserve society from the ephemeral nonsense of the present moment, not affirm its latest excesses.

As Philip Rieff noted, in traditional cultures, the role of the elites is to transmit society’s values and beliefs down through the generations, ensuring continuity and stability; in our modern age, however, he observed that the elites had adopted the opposite calling, that of irresponsible iconoclasts who saw their task as one not of preservation and transmission but demolition and negation. And we have a prime example in Williams’s complicity in demolishing even what it means to be an embodied person, transforming it from an objective given into playdough, the raw material of a sacred — or perhaps better, sacrilegious — journey. 

Some years ago I was sitting outside a pub in Cambridge, having a drink with my youngest son, when Rowan Williams, by then a university don and no longer archbishop, walked past. “There’s a man who is back doing what he does best,” I commented. “Not wasting his talents trying to govern an ungovernable church but writing profound books and teaching great ideas.” Sadly, my judgment was premature.

In the face of the trans moment, Williams seems to have abandoned serious thought for sentiment. Learned he may be, but the letter to Boris Johnson reads as little more than the death notice of a once great mind. And if he is representative of our intellectual elites, it could well be the obituary of our once great culture.

Originally published at First Things. 

Carl R. Trueman is a professor of biblical and religious studies at Grove City College. He is an esteemed church historian and previously served as the William E. Simon Fellow in Religion and Public Life at Princeton University. Trueman has authored or edited more than a dozen books, including The Rise and Triumpth of the Modern SelfThe Creedal Imperative, Luther on the Christian Life, and Histories and Fallacies.

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