Monday, July 09, 2007

Streetwise: Rowan Williams on Sacraments and society

A couple more salutary quotations from Rowan Williams in On Christian Theology, this time from the essay 'Sacraments of the New Society'.

'Sacramental practice seems to speak most clearly of loss, dependence and interdependence, solidarities we do not choose: none of them themes that are particularly welcome or audible in the social world we currently inhabit as secular subjects. We are told, in effect, that the failure to see ourselves and find ourselves in one or another kind of corporateness is a failure in truthfulness that is profoundly risky. Our liberty to choose and define our goals as individuals or as limited groups with common interest is set alongside the vision of a society in which almost the only thing we can know about the good we are to seek is that it is no one's possession, the triumph of no party's interests. The search for my or our good becomes the searc for a good that does not violently dispossess any other -- and this not on the basis of rights who balance must be adjudicated, but because of a conviction that the creative regard calling and sustaining myself is precisely what sustains all. And what make this something different [than] an imposed collectivism is the fact that it is appropriated by no force but by trust, by the recognition of the hidden unities of human interest: our own transition, our own 'passover', into the need of the other, whereever and whoever the other may be.' (p. 219)

'It is this capacity to imagine a 'faithful people' [which the sacraments bring] that seems to me the most significant irritant offered by sacramental practice to the contemporary social scene. One of the most ill-disgnosed features of the present crisis in capitalist society (fast being exported to aspiring capitalist societies everywhere) is the decline of trust. Privation today brings cynicism in its wake: there is little reason for anyone to believe that others are dependable, that resources work for the common good. If this is a fundamental perception or experience of the social order, it becomes practically impossible to 'socialize' people who see their world like this -- the young or the old, marginal or suspect communities of any kind, those in prison, the disabled. This invites an adverserial relation to those institutions felt to have betrayed the disadvantaged, directly or indirectly (why are schools in impoverished areas regular targets for arson?) We can easily misunderstand the much-discussed problem of a so-called 'culture of dependency' among the disadvantaged. It is not, surely, that the ideal of collective welfare as such is disabling: welfarism becomes disabling when society is such that recipients or clients of social and health services are frozen in the attitude of suppliants, never becoming fellow-agents with those administering aid. They need but are not needed. It is not surprising, in such circumstances, that a discourse of rights and claims becomes more and more strident and -- often -- uncritical, unexamined.' (p.220)

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