Rowan Williams’s Legacy: Christianity Is a Cultural Tradition, Not a Big Idea

That’s the message of British theologian, Theo Hobson:

To put it bluntly, [Rowan Williams] has helped me to see that Christianity is not essentially a big idea that we must try to spread, by arguing for its truth, but a cultural tradition, centred on the church’s ritual. In other words, he has helped me to see the intellectual strength of Anglo-Catholic tradition.

It took me a while to come round to this view. When I started thinking about religion, in my teens, it seemed obvious that the overlap between Christianity, morality and reason should be emphasised. Christ should be presented as a revolutionary moralist, and supernatural belief should be sidelined, reformed away. So should church ritual – it obscured the radicalism of the gospel with nostalgic flummery. I was a liberal Protestant. Soon I was impressed by Protestant voices that rejected such rationalism – Kierkegaard, Barth, Luther – voices that emphasised defiant faith, and scepticism towards liberal progress. But I remained semi-sceptical about church and ritual. Then I began, slowly, to admit that ritual practice was absolutely fundamental to Christianity, and, even more slowly, that it was time to repent of my late-teenage aversion to church. Williams’s work helped me towards this realisation.

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  • Curtis

    Exactly. That is why “Christian” is not open to be re-defined by whoever thinks they know a better truth. Christianity is a cultural tradition that has been carried forth since the earliest centuries, not an idea that needs to be proven or dis-proven

  • Evelyn

    The archbishop’s view of sexuality described in that blog post is akin to a dentist giving candy to a child. If the child has cavities, he needs the dentist. If a person thinks they are entitled, by the church, to sex for pleasure (even within marriage), they will so confuse and complicate their lives that they will keep thinking they need the church to set them straight. The church needs to stay out of promoting ANY type of sexuality but deal compassionately with the problems created by the inevitable.

    • Curtis

      What you are proposing, the Church stay out of any conversation about sexuality, is akin to a dentist wiring a kids mouth shut to preserve his teeth.

      The archbishop does not tell the church it is okay for culture to do anything they want, as your analogy about a dentist giving kids candy indicates. The archbishop states “The Christian should approach the question of sexual morality by means of communication”, which is exactly what you and I know a good dentist does.

      If a dentist were King, he may want to outlaw candy. But in a real world, a good dentist enters into a conversation with children and parents about how to keep teeth healthy even if they occasionally eat candy.

      • Evelyn

        I have no problem with “communication”, Curtis, but the blogger goes further than that when he says: “The Christian should approach the question of sexual morality by means of communication, sign-making. The sexual impulse invites us to semiotic anarchism: casual sex hints at huge meanings that we don’t mean; it is not safely “meaningless”, but is meaning-shaking. Miraculously, the tables can be turned on the semiotic anarchism of sex: a disciplined approach to it (which does not deny but affirms its goodness) is perhaps the loudest communicative tool available to us. Sex is redeemed.”

        He seems to be saying that the archbishop is promoting engagement in “disciplined” casual sex for the purpose of making signs and that this having of sex is a good thing.

        I’m having a hard time trying to figure out what this “disciplined” approach is and how Hobson would think we could figure out the rules to this discipline for all people at all stages at all times. It’s one thing to accept that sex happens but it’s another entirely to suggest that it’s a type of spiritual practice that everyone should engage in (because it’s good) and that the church should have jurisdiction over. Sex is much to personal for that.

        • Ric Shewell

          I don’t know what you mean when you say “Sex is much too personal for that.” Sex is not as personal as our modern society wants us to think it is. Sex is extremely social, for reasons beyond the obvious. Who I have sex with matters greatly to a great number of people. Williams and Hobson, here, are describing sexual behavior for Christians. I’ll assume they mean baptized people. When you are baptize into the Christian faith, you confess that you are no longer your own, but that you belong to Christ and Christ’s body, the Church (a community not some government). When you are baptized, you have a new family that is concern about your whole life, including who you have sex with. If you don’t like it, then don’t get baptized. Easy peasy

          • Evelyn

            Thanks for pointing out those issues, Ric. The way I see it, human sexuality is a complicated issue whose main purpose is procreation but it is also used in the establishment of social relationships and physical pleasure. Procreation is a good thing as long as a woman isn’t used as a baby factory and the parents of the children can financially support a family without suffering hardship. Social relationships are good when they hold together the fabric of society but are bad when they are used to oppress, abuse, violate, or become ego-massaging partnerships used to justify bullying of others or are attempts to portray a reality that doesn’t really exist to make others feel badly about themselves. Physical pleasure is a good thing in moderation – sex can be both meditative and a good workout – but the danger is that you turn your partner into an object for your physical gratification and only that rather than seeing them as the human being that they are.

            Regardless of your possible attempts to portray them as communities of love and perfect reason, Christian communities and their leaders are often dysfunctional and the negative aspects of sexuality are constantly used to make some people feel better about themselves (a high that NEVER lasts, by the way) at the expense of others (the apparent SINNERS).

            If I could find a community of people who perfectly understood sexuality, did not have any selfish motivations, and really truly cared about me in a Godly way, I might hand over the reigns to my sexuality. Unfortunately, humans being the broken sinners that they are, a community like this does not exist. The Spirit takes care of guiding each and every one of our sexualities. There are real life punishments for sexual deviancy, in the form of suffering, that don’t need to be and can’t be intellectualized and implemented properly by human communities. On the flip side, there are real-life fruits of the Spirit for those of us who handle our sexuality properly.

            And thank you, Ric, you just gave me a damn good reason for never baptizing my daughter and letting her make her own decision on this issue when she is sufficiently mature.

          • Evelyn

            In the last sentence of the above comment, the “issue” with regards to my daughter that I am referring to here is the issue of whether to get baptized or not.

          • Ric Shewell

            I think it’s a fine choice to let your daughter choose for herself. I don’t know the age of your daughter, but when young children and infants are baptized, they are usually asked to affirm the baptismal vows when they are old enough to understand them. At that time, they are also welcome to deny them.

            Anyway, I try not to paint with a broad brush. I know not every Christian community exemplifies the sacrificial love of Christ, but I am always working in the community I’m a part of in hopes of being that family for people.

  • But Curtis, I think you misunderstand “tradition”. Tradition is a set of practices and beliefs that are handed down, but as each generation touches them, they change. We lost sight of how it is supposed to work when copying words on paper became so easy, but really that only made it so we can trace who made the changes.

    If there were never any changes in tradition, then where would the stories come from? The Abraham story begins with him walking away from his traditions. Hanukkah comes from the 2nd century BCE, long after most of the OT was written.

    I see tradition as a discussion that we carry on across generations about the things that take longer than one lifetime to figure out.

    • Curtis

      I largely agree with you. But I think cultural traditions are more stable than you give them credit. Yes, there is variability as a tradition moves across generations and across cultures, but the fact that Christians still follow the same order of worship today that they practiced in 500 AD, and the fact that the same worship traditions are practiced among Christians today across all nations of the globe, speaks to some kind of living, evolving but still continuous culture.

      You are right to pin Hanukkah at around 2nd century BCE, but remember, that is about the time that Judaism became a unique religious identity. The word “Judaism” itself originates from around the same time.

      Certainly, it is possible for a new, distinct, religious cultural identity to emerge, even today. Mormonism is less than 200 years old, for example. But as long as a group of believers adheres to the 4th century creeds and sacraments of the Christian tradition, those believers are part of the Christian cultural tradition, despite the numerous variations to that tradition that may occur.

  • I see it as a continuum, but not continuous. If it were continuous then there would not be so much arguing. In a continuum, it is difficult to tell the difference between each successive part, but at some point you can identify parts that do not belong. Mormonism would be a good example. Or to be more clear The Da Vinci Code is not part of Christianity.

    You pick the easy stuff, like order of worship, but you seem to be leaving the door wide open to cherry picking, allowing anyone to claim that their definition of Christianity is the right one. I say no one can do that, it is always open for debate. That’s not relativism, that’s being allowed to think. It might open the door to more arguing, although I doubt it. It closes the door for the Westboro Baptists of the world, which is more important.

    • Curtis

      I also mention the creeds, which leave less room for cherry picking.

      • The Apostle’s Creed is one of the worst. It focuses on belief in the miracles surrounding Christ’s death and then a vague statement about judgment and belief “in the church”. A lot of Catholics practice birth control, and just voted “NO” to the Marriage Amendment here in MN, so apparently THEY see some wiggle room.

        • Curtis

          There is plenty of wiggle room and debate. But even Catholics who vote “no” and use birth control have some sort of understanding of and belief in the Apostle’s Creed.

          • Exactly, as in, I believe some of those things, but not all of them. So, either we keep arguing about which ones are true and which aren’t, or which ones apply universally and which don’t, or we go all the way and say let’s apply all of our accumulated knowledge and determine truth using the best methods available to us in this time.

          • Curtis

            Well, the search for “truth” gets away from the original point, which is that Christianity is a religious, cultural tradition, not a truth.

            I can argue that there are many parts of my cultural tradition that are plain wrong, without rejecting my cultural tradition. The same is true with religion.

            I can argue that the creeds have been misused, and understood by some people in ways which are untrue, without rejecting the creeds. We can argue about *in which way* the creeds are true. But if we reject the creeds, if we reject our cultural tradition, we are no longer a part of that tradition.

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