30 May 2016

A day of conversations with
Archbishop Rowan Williams

The Marino Institute of Education … the venue for a day of conversations with Archbishop Rowan Williams (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2016)

Patrick Comerford

I spent to spend today [30 May 2016] as a participant in a day of conversations with Archbishop Rowan Williams in the Marino Institute of Education in Dublin.

There were three conversations during the day. The first conversation, ‘Risking faith in conversation,’ was opened by the former Archbishop of Canterbury, and was then taken up by all the participants.

Archbishop Williams, who is now the Master of Magdalene College, Cambridge, spoke of the need to transcend static positions, rhetoric and arguments, and to overcome soundbites to that we could dig deeper in risking faith in conversation.

It was a generously vague title, but the key word was recognition, he said.

He spoke of gambling on recognition, rather than convergence, communion or agreement. It seeks to see how someone else’s thinking is continuous with how I am thinking. There may not be convergence, but recognition allows the conversation to continue.

There is a recognition of the idea that people are conversable with, and this is what brings us into the moral community.

Death, sex and memory are fairly biologically built into how we act as humans, and are dimensions of our humanity. There is a pre-existing act of faith that there will be coincidence.

We are not psychological or epistemological atoms that can say what we like, but we are always seeking to make sense. To make sense with myself alone is not communicating with others. Someone else has to understand, perhaps to say that this is rubbish, or I do not agree, but still about making sense of what I am saying.

We actively seek the challenge of other voices, and to do this takes for granted a particular type of confidence, which has enough security to disagree, and to bring conflict into focus.

We need to have challenge, or else conversation would wither and die. Good conversation balances security and challenge, and where it is safe enough to disagree we can take a step forward.

In his role as Archbishop of Canterbury, he had tried to create circumstances in which disagreement could be articulated within the Anglican Communion.

As he spoke of risking faith in conversation, he said good conversation starts from memory, narrative, where I stand, and what I believe. I continue to speak from what I believe and where I stand. What emerges will resonate, enlarge, enrich and provide material for more conversation.

When things are said, things change. Speaking changes things, by interacting and relating.

In interfaith dialogue, the point of dialogue is not to find an agreed formula or capitulation, but in putting fresh questions that take me to places that I have not been to before. It brings us back to recognition.

For example, conversations with Buddhists take us to an unexpected set of questions.

Conversations are based on where we actually are, and bring memories and convictions into public and political conversations, without any embarrassment, and without any expectation of winning the arguments.

They are not abut asserting the dominance of faith in society but about visibility, without dominance or arrogance.

We can ask, ‘Can you see what I’m seeing?’ And the reply may be, ‘No, but I can see that you are seeing something.’ Recognition is not the same as comprehension.

The afternoon opened with the second conversation, ‘Risking faith in poetry and fiction,’ with Dr Williams in conversation with Professor Declan Kiberd, of the University of Notre Dame and University College Dublin, and the writer and theologian Dr Anne Thurston, who were then joined by all the participants.

Archbishop Williams spoke out of his own experience of writing. He described how you write in order discover what you do not know what you know. It starts as a question, ‘What’s that about.’ It is an image, a picture, you walk around it.

Drama is a matter of listening, where the writer listens in to conversations. It belongs in the same territory as faith, with the same kind of unclassifiable character.

He spoke of the itch and curiosity and desire to walk into areas where there is puzzlement and something that needs to be explored. That sense of not knowing, not being in control, in a benign way, gives us something on which to build.

The third conversation in the afternoon was ‘Risking faith in philosophy,’ opened by Dr Williams in conversation with Professor Joseph Dunne of Saint Patrick’s College, Drumcondra, and Dr Clare Maloney of the Marino Institute of Education.

This was planned as a day three distinct but not separate conversations and they were cumulative throughout the day.

An afternoon break in a garden in the Marino Institute of Education (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2016)

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