Through fire to faith? To many Muslims, the charred remnants of a Quran pose a threat. Photo: Joe Penney/Reuters
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Rowan Williams: Blasphemy can provoke violence – and be a progressive force within religion

The former Archbishop of Canterbury on how blasphamy can be a means to deeper religious understanding.

For most of human history – and for rather a lot of the world today – blasphemy is the cardinal case of saying the unsayable. What could be more transgressive than mocking or abusing the all-powerful creator of the universe? But what is interesting in the history of religions is that this isn’t always about attacking or rejecting faith itself.

One regular and significant theme in legends, religious texts and historical anecdotes is that “blasphemous” language, ­language attacking, condemning or mocking God, can be forced out of people who are so ravaged and humiliated by their ­suffering that they turn on God in fury. Ajax in classical myth, Job in biblical narrative – these are figures who say, in effect, “I haven’t deserved this and I didn’t expect this. What claim can God have to be called good or just? And if my sufferings are ­supposed to remind me that life is mysterious and God is stronger than I am and so I ought to submit humbly, I can always refuse to accept these terms. I won’t be threatened into silence. How much worse can it get, anyway? At least I can die with my self-respect intact.”

This is a fierce protest against religion, but it can also be a step towards the affirmation of belief at a new level. Job does submit in silence at the enigmatic ending of the book; but only after God has said that Job has “spoken well” of Him. Job’s brutal challenging of God’s wisdom and benevolence has been part of the process of testing the limits of what a religious tradition can make sense of. The Anglican poet and novelist Charles Williams put it succinctly in saying that God demands from us that we demand explanations from him. And the language of accusing God, holding God to account, reproaching God with neglect or abuse, has long been part of the repertoire of Jewish and Christian usage. Frank Cottrell Boyce’s play God on Trial dramatised this tradition very powerfully, retelling the – possibly apocryphal but still haunting – story from Auschwitz of the group of Jews who tried God in a rabbinical court and found Him guilty of murderous neglect and breach of promise. The play ends with all of them ­filing into the gas chambers, covering their heads for prayer.

All this represents a complex mixture of emotions and convictions. If God is real, then presumably God can cope with anything we choose to throw at Him. If God is not real, the experience of rejecting what we think we know of God is a way of discovering whether the notion of God actually matters to us. If, worst of all, God is incompetent, sadistic or indifferent, the language of protest at least allows us to die with some integrity and dignity; we have – as Ajax and Job have obviously concluded – nothing to lose.

If God is real, these “thought experiments” are all to do with testing what we really believe. The violent rejection of a God who has failed to save or protect may open up a new picture of a God who isn’t there to save or protect but just is what He is, the silent centre of a moral world: the tormented French philosopher Simone Weil argued that any picture of God that survived genocide would be almost unrecognisably different from any earlier one. “Blaspheming” against the God who fails – attacking your own religious comfort zone – can be a moment of maturing faith.

Or not, of course. Blasphemy of this kind is risky because there may indeed turn out to be nothing left on the far side. You test the limits of your faith and discover that when you have rejected the God of infantile satisfactions and securities, what remains is not the transformed and elusive God of a ­Simone Weil, but just nothing. Which is why religious institutions don’t exactly encourage these transgressive experiments, why they are so often suppressed with passionate severity and violence.

But this is where we come up against the main catch-22 of the whole thing. If you are forbidden to voice the hard questions, this might suggest that faith survives only by never being challenged. The person who actually expresses their fury or disgust or disillusion can, at least sometimes, be ­demonstrating faith of a sort, confidence that, if God is real, it is possible, even necessary, to say what you feel about Him – and that, unless you can say this, the God you started with is not worth believing in. This underpins many of the Jewish Psalms or the poems of George Herbert or Gerard Manley Hopkins. Blasphemy resists the conspiracy of silence about the agonising difficulties of belief, resists the stifling of a real and honest response to an unjust world.

It is in the light of all this that, for many religious people, legislating against blasphemy is a deeply ironic thing. The project of punishing blasphemy with the fullest rigour of the law can imply a God anxious about His safety, whose power is uncomfortably like any arbitrary human power – insecure and needing to be held in place by violence. Legislating against blasphemy is always in danger of suggesting that God needs human protection and that faith is so frail that it cannot survive exposure to honest human emotion or intelligence.

In practice, such legislation has a deeply unimpressive history. Blasphemy laws can be and have been used to ruin reputations, to settle private scores, to reinforce a regime’s unchallengeable authority. The ongoing issues with blasphemy legislation in a country such as Pakistan are not only about freedom of speech but about the blackmail and intimidation and official collusion with mob hysteria that have repeatedly cost the lives of members of religious minorities, especially Christians. They also represent a menace for Muslims themselves, vulnerable to the irrational and unaccountable workings of this legislation.

It often looks as though Muslims have more of a problem than some other religious groups about blasphemy. But this is a slightly misleading judgement. Apart from the fact that Christians past and present have sometimes been as sensitive as any Muslim, we need to keep two things in mind. One is that the whole of Islam is based on a fiercely consistent refusal of idolatry – confusing God with things in the world. If a narrative or a picture is thought to be doing this, it will arouse maximal resistance, even from those who turn in disgust from violence and bloodshed. It strikes at something central. The other is that, while Judaism and Christianity often talk about God in terms of paradox and irony, Islam would regard this as a self-indulgence: the language of the Quran is believed to come directly from God, so that the idea of a God who speaks through irony or indirection seems to Muslims like an evasion of plain truth or the rejection of a generous and straightforward gift.

And it should be clear that the ­blasphemy we have been discussing is something a bit different from the casually irreverent phrase, the mocking caricature of belief, the “offensive” image or narrative such as Scorsese’s Last Temptation, or Jerry Springer: the Opera, or even Life of Brian. These are “transgressive” only in a rather thin sense. For most contemporary western commentators, these things offend people who are not “us” – not privileged and semi-detached heirs of the Judaeo-Christian tradition. They don’t touch real issues of conflict, power or change within the “modern” belief system. Most of us find it hard to imagine that religious language and imagery could matter in such a way that it would be ­urgent and imperative either to protest or to suppress the protest. When we encounter those for whom it matters intensely and who have no scruple in defending their God with the utmost violence (as in the Charlie Hebdo killings or the more recent ­murders in Bangladesh), we are repelled and bewildered.

So there is something of a paradox here, too. If we want to understand why casual blasphemy causes such homicidal frenzy, we badly need to understand and imagine better why and how faith matters. But one of the things that tells us most about this, from the imaginative point of view, is the way the blasphemy of angry protest, bitter satire and disillusioned rejection works within religious traditions. Herbert, Job and some of the Psalms remind us that sometimes the seriousness of faith is most effectively explored precisely in the risky business of testing the limits. And without such testing, such forcefully expressed doubt, you may never know the real strength or weakness of what you claim to believe. The secularist needs to understand some of the internal critique that faith is always struggling with; and the believer needs to recognise that blasphemy isn’t necessarily a matter for panic, let alone violence. It may even be a gateway into a larger and more durable commitment. 

Rowan Williams is an Anglican prelate, theologian and poet, who was Archbishop of Canterbury from 2002 to 2012. He writes on books for the New Statesman

This article first appeared in the 27 May 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Saying the Unsayable

Ralph Steadman for the New Statesman.
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Tim Farron: Theresa May is "the prisoner of the Ukip wing of her party"

The Liberal Democrat leader on his faith, Blairism and his plan to replace Labour as the opposition. 

This is Tim Farron’s seventh general election. His first was in 1992, when his Tory opponent was a 36-year-old called Ther­esa May. He was just 21 and they were both unsuccessful candidates in the Labour fortress of North-West Durham. He recalls talking “to a bunch of ex-miners who weren’t best pleased to see either of us, some kid Liberal and some Tory”. Now he sees his former and current opponent as “the prisoner of the Ukip wing of her party . . . I think it has rendered Ukip almost pointless – she is Ukip now.”

May was elected to parliament in 1997, but it took Farron until 2005 to join her. She leads the dominant Conservatives while he heads a party of only nine Liberal Democrat MPs. Still, their reversal of fortunes gives him hope. “After the 1992 election, every­one said there’s no way for a non-Tory government, and it turned out there was. So let’s not assume it’s a given there’s a Tory government [for ever].”

In April, I accompanied Farron to Manchester Gorton, in the lead-up to a by-election that was cancelled by May’s decision to call a snap election on 8 June. Still, the 46-year-old’s party has been in campaign mode for months; Lib Dems spoke of using last December’s Richmond Park by-election to test their messaging. It clearly had an effect: the incumbent Conservative, Zac Goldsmith, lost to their candidate, Sarah Olney.

Brexit, to which the Liberal Democrats are vehemently opposed, will be a dominant theme of the election. Their party membership has just exceeded 100,000, close to an all-time high, and they have enjoyed much success in council by-elections, with more to come in the local elections of 4 May.

However, any feel-good factor swiftly evaporated when Farron appeared on Channel 4 News on 18 April. He was asked by the co-presenter Cathy Newman whether or not he believes that homosexuality is a sin, a question that he answered obliquely in 2015 by saying that Christianity started with acknowledging that “we’re all sinners”.

This time, he told Newman, he was “not in the position to make theological announcements over the next six weeks . . . as a Liberal, I’m passionate about equality”.

The Channel 4 interview divided opinion. One Liberal politician told me that Farron’s stance was “completely intolerable”. Stephen Pollard, the influential editor of the Jewish Chronicle, described it as
“a very liberal position: he holds certain personal views but does not wish to legislate around them”. Jennie Rigg, the acting chair of LGBT+ Liberal Democrats, said it was “as plain as the nose on my face that Tim Farron is no homophobe”.

Farron declined the chance to clarify his views with us in a follow-up phone call, but told the BBC on 25 April: “I don’t believe that gay sex is a sin,” adding, “On reflection, it makes sense to actually answer this direct question since it’s become an issue.”

For his critics, Farron’s faith and politics are intertwined. He sees it differently, as he told Christian Today in 2015: “. . . the danger is sometimes that as a Christian in politics you think your job is to impose your morality on other people. It absolutely isn’t.”

Tim Farron joined the then Liberal Party at the age of 16 but didn’t become a Christian until he was 18. Between completing his A-levels in Lancashire and going to Newcastle University to read politics, he read the apologetics, a body of Christian writing that provides reasoned arguments for the gospel story. “I came to the conclusion that it was true,” he told me. “It wasn’t just a feel-good story.”

In speeches, Farron now takes on the mannerisms of a preacher, but he had a largely non-religious upbringing in Preston, Lancashire. “I don’t think I’d been to church once other than Christmas or the odd wedding,” he says. “I went once with my dad when I was 11, for all the good that did me.”

When we meet, it is Theresa May’s religion that is in the spotlight. She has condemned the National Trust for scrubbing the word “Easter” from its Easter egg hunt, a row it later emerged had been largely invented by the right-wing press in response to a press release from a religious-themed chocolate company.

“It’s worth observing there’s no mention of chocolate or bunny rabbits in the Bible,” Farron reminds me. “When people get cross about, in inverted commas, ‘us losing our Christian heritage’ they mean things which are safe and comfortable and nostalgic.” He pauses. “But the Christian message at Easter is shocking, actually, and very radical.”

British politics is tolerant of atheists (such as Ed Miliband and Nick Clegg) alongside those who, like David Cameron, are culturally Christian but whose faith is “a bit like the reception for Magic FM in the Chilterns: it sort of comes and goes”. But the reaction to Farron’s equivocation on homosexuality prompted many to wonder if a politician who talks openly about his faith is now seen as alarming. Nebulous wishes of peace and love at Christmas, yes; sincere discussions of the literal truth of the Resurrection? Hmm.

Tim Farron’s beliefs matter because he has a mission: to replace not only Jeremy Corbyn as leader of the opposition but Theresa May in Downing Street. Over lassis at the MyLahore curry house in Manchester, he tells me that Britain is facing two calamities. “One is Brexit, indeed hard Brexit . . . and the other is a Tory government for 25 years. We have to present a genuine, progressive alternative that can not only replace Labour as an opposition, it can replace the Tories as a government.” This is ambitious talk for a party with nine MPs. “I understand the ridicule that will be thrown at me for saying those things: but if you don’t want to run the country, why are you in politics?” He pauses. “That’s a question I would ask most people leading the Labour Party at present.”

What does he think of May, his one-time opponent in North-West Durham? “She strikes me as being very professional, very straightforward, somebody who is very conservative in every sense of the word, in her thought processes, her politics, in her style.” He recalls her 2002 conference speech in which she warned Tory activists: “Our base is too narrow and so, occasionally, are our sympathies. You know what some people call us: the nasty party.”

“In many ways, she was the trailblazer for Cameron in being a softer-focused Tory,” he says. “It now looks like she’s been trapped by the very people she was berating as the nasty party all those years ago. I like to think that isn’t really her. But that means she isn’t really in control of the Conservative Party.”

Voters, however, seem to disagree. In recent polls, support for the Conservatives has hovered between 40 and 50 per cent. Isn’t a progressive alliance the only way to stop her: Labour, the Liberal Democrats, the Greens, the SNP and Plaid Cymru all working together to beat the Tories?

“Let’s be really blunt,” he says. “Had Jeremy Corbyn stood down for us in Richmond Park [where Labour stood Christian Wolmar], we would not have won. I could have written Zac Goldsmith’s leaflets for you: Corbyn-backed Liberal Democrats.

“I’m a pluralist,” he adds. “But any progressive alliance has got to be at least equal to the sum of its parts. At the moment, it would be less than the sum of its parts. The only way the Tories are losing their majority is us gaining seats in Hazel Grove –” he ticks them off with his fingers, “– in Cheadle, in the West Country and west London. There’s no chance of us gaining those seats if we have a kind of arrangement with the current Labour Party in its current form.”

What about the SNP? “Most sensible people would look at that SNP manifesto and agree with 99 per cent of it,” Farron says. “But it’s that one thing: they want to wreck the country! How can you do a deal with people who want to wreck the country?”

There’s no other alternative, he says. Someone needs to step up and offer “something that can appeal to progressive younger voters, pro-Europeans and, you know, moderate-thinking Middle England”. He wants to champion a market economy, strong public services, action on climate change, internationalism and free trade.

That sounds like Blairism. “I’m a liberal, and I don’t think Blair was a liberal,” he replies. “But I admire Blair because he was somebody who was able to win elections . . . Iraq aside, my criticisms of Blair are what he didn’t do, rather than what he did do.”

Turning around the Tory tide – let alone with just nine MPs, and from third place – is one hell of a job. But Farron takes heart from the Liberal Party in Canada, where Justin Trudeau did just that. “I’m not Trudeau,” he concedes, “He was better-looking, and his dad was prime minister.”

There is a reason for his optimism. “I use the analogy of being in a maze,” he says, “You can’t see a way out of it, for a progressive party to form a majority against the Tories. But in every maze, there is a way out. We just haven’t found it yet.” 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.

This article first appeared in the 27 April 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Cool Britannia 20 Years On

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