Latest Courier article – bit philosophical.
Our former Archbishop Rowan, for whom I retain a great deal of admiration and affection, was often criticised for being unclear. In part this may well simply have been the natural consequence of someone with a world-class intellect trying to explain something complicated, but I don’t see this as the whole reason. After all, when he needed to – as with some of his marvellous shorter books – Rowan could be incredibly compelling and lucid. I believe that part of his perceived ‘lack of clarity’ was actually rooted in a particular intellectual stance that he held and believed in strongly, and it is something that has its roots in the thinking of the German philosopher Hegel.
I would summarise one of Hegel’s key notions like this: there is a ‘thesis’ – a particular way of thinking or living, possibly expressible in some sort of philosophical maxim or aphorism, such as ‘men should be head of the household’. Over time, this thesis will collide with reality and human nature in such a way that it will develop tensions and contradictions, out of which will come an ‘antithesis’, which is again expressible – say ‘women deserve equal rights and responsibilities’. The thesis and the antithesis will inevitably conflict, and in human culture this will take time, and often have very visible form, such as when a suffragette chains herself to railings. Hegel labelled this conflict ‘dialectic’, taking over that term from its original use in Greek philosophy. Furthermore, as this dialectic continued, it would eventually settle in a new understanding and cultural form which took elements from both the original thesis, and the antagonistic antithesis, and combined them into a new synthesis. This synthesis would then itself become a ‘thesis’ of its own, and the cycle would continue. These repeated cycles of thesis – antithesis – synthesis formed, according to Hegel, the way in which a culture moved forward and progressed. Hegel’s thought was very influential, especially on Marx – Marxism can be seen as a type of ‘applied Hegelianism’ – and it underlies a very great deal of contemporary political thought, especially what is considered to be ‘progressive’ – that very term revealing the link.
Rowan is undoubtedly a Hegelian, and was always very conscious of the way in which any particular argument called forward an antagonistic response. Where many in the church wanted Rowan to give a strong, clear and principled lead – in other words, to nail his colours to the mast of one particular ‘thesis’ – Rowan wished, instead, to preserve the ongoing dialectic between thesis and antithesis, in pursuit of a new synthesis. Most crucially, in church terms, Rowan refused to place any of the various contenders for thesis or antithesis outside of the boundaries of the church. He insisted that every member of the group mattered, and he did not wish to see any group scapegoated (whether he succeeded in that desire is, in my view, something of an open question). In other words, the reason why Rowan was often criticised as being ‘unclear’ was because he went out of his way to include references to, and respect for, positions that contradicted each other. He did this not because he was himself intellectually confused but because he was himself seeking a new synthesis, and not wanting to be tied down to a thesis or antithesis which was politically convenient for whichever political group was pressuring him at the time. I do believe that history will be much kinder in its assessment of his leadership than his contemporaries have been.
Rowan’s time was marked – scarred! – by disagreements about sexuality and gender, specifically the questions around women’s ministry and homosexual clergy and marriage. This is a good example of the Hegelian process. The original theses, still most clearly expressed in official Roman Catholic teaching, had the following elements: sexuality is solely for the purpose of procreation; any form of sexuality which is not open to procreation is inherently sinful (and homosexuality falls into that category, along with other forms of sexuality, eg the use of contraception). In addition, human gender relations are ordered ‘by nature’ in such a way that men and women have distinct and different roles. This is best expressed and visualised in terms of a marriage which is open to procreation and the raising of children, within which a man will be the provider (which is about authority and direction as much as giving resources) and the woman will be the principal nurturer and carer.
At present in our society that thesis has been largely rejected and, as a dominant cultural form, effectively been abandoned. The antithesis, in so far as it can be articulated, would assert that: sexuality is not just (or even primarily) about procreation, but is most fundamentally about self-expression within the context of human relating, that is, it is one of the principal ways in which we as human beings bond with one another. Hence, any form of sexuality which accords with that aim is good. Marriage is the celebration of that bond and exhaustively defined by it. Where the bond of love breaks down, the marriage itself comes to an end (in other words, the marriage is no longer any form of contract). Children will fit in and cope with these arrangements as determined by the extended families.
At the moment we are in a position with regard to gender and sexuality of waiting for a new synthesis to be formed and adopted. I suspect this will only come when both sides, thesis and antithesis, are exhausted. Both sides to the argument have some merit, both have significant flaws and it was one of Rowan’s great strengths that he held on to that tension in the hope that a new resolution would eventually come forward, which would allow the best preservation of the good things whilst eliminating or reducing all the bad. From my point of view I believe that this synthesis has to begin with placing our created human nature first, rather than thinking in terms of ‘men’ and ‘women’. If we ask what will enable one particular human being to flourish, I believe that we will get further than if we start by wondering what will enable these particular ‘members of class X’ to flourish – whatever category X might be, of gender, race, orientation or otherwise.