"Icons" are used in the Eastern Orthodox Churches but the term connotes a media celebrity or a computer symbol these days. Rowan Williams recognises this, but defends using "icon" as the dominant motif in this collection of essays, redefining it as a concept that helps us to look afresh at ourselves, and our society, with some sort of objectivity or detachment, or at least moral coherence. An icon casts "fresh light" on personal or social problems made murky by self-interest, conflict or even over-familiarity.
So far so good. The book's subtitle (Reflections on Cultural Bereavement) gives us a clue about the specific direction this fresh look at ourselves will take. Williams sees contemporary North Atlantic society as moribund. Our "bereavement" consists in the loss of these icons that helped our ancestors "make sense" of themselves and their societies. Later in the book, Williams goes on to liken these lost icons to skill-sets, bundles of social cognitions and cultural perceptions that promoted healthy and harmonious social living. In the space left by the lost icons, dark forces multiply. The author deplores "the sheer unsafety of the child today" [p58] and the constant "struggle for precedence" [p104] that typifies Capitalist lifestyles. Child abuse, domestic violence, lawlessness and greed: Williams sums it up as "the barbarising and trivialising of social experience in the acquisitive-competitive mode, caused by the corruption of our awareness of ourselves" [pp114-5].
Right, everything's going to the dogs, then; just like the Daily Mail's been telling us. With the Babylonians pressing on hard, Rowan Williams casts himself as Jeremiah, trying to recall this faithless generation to covenantal living. Except no, not really. Though Williams may share a tabloid diagnosis of how `Fings Ain't Wot They Used To Be', he's no traditionalist and will not be offering traditional panaceas, the 3-C's of cold showers, corporal punishment and conscription.
"Ponderous" is the adjective here, in every sense. Nevertheless, Williams wears this as a badge of pride, explaining that the book has its genesis in a sequence of independent essays, each tentatively exploring related issues, offering ideas and touchstones. "Come," the author seems to be saying, "Let us reason together". For some readers this tone, both intimate and yet exacting, will feel nuanced and empathetic. For others, it will just be meandering and monotonous.
Williams' first topic is childhood. The icon here is notion of `play' which is, according to the Archbishop, in danger of vanishing from children's lives. In its place, children are early on becoming consumers which in turn, he argues, places them in the unsafe position of being both economic and erotic competitors for adults who, unsure of the boundaries of both childhood and play, are increasingly incapable of acting as nurturing parents or gatekeepers. Williams draws for examples on the depiction of childhood and children's choice in fiction. However, the most recent book mentioned is Alan Garner's Red Shift
, first published in 1973. Now, the Archbishop would perhaps have been prescient if, submitting this book for publication in 1999, he could have foreseen the immense significance of J.K. Rowling for a generation of children, but what about Jacqueline Wilson, Sue Townsend and R.L. Stine's Goosebumps horror novellas, all of which dominated children's reading in the 1990s? This is an essay on childhood and if it's not about the childhood actually being enjoyed by actual 1990s children, then whose childhood is it about?
One is tempted to reply: Archbishop Williams' own childhood. The sacred space of play and the innocent literature that inducted more fortunate children into the adult space of choices and consequences are to be found in the late `50s and 1960s - by no coincidence, when the Archbishop himself was growing up. The happy decades following the Second World War are, in A.E. Housman's memorable phrase, the "land of lost content". The Archbishop shows little awareness of or interest in the childhood icons of the 1990s: the Playstation, Disney Singalong, Teletubbies, Tamagotchis, Pokemon, Take That, the Spice Girls and the Apple Mac. Why should we trust the judgement of a 50something cleric on children, whose notion of childhood experience seems to end in 1973?
The same problem occurs in the next essay, which looks at "Charity", redefined by Williams as "a sense of integration, of belonging with an entire social body extending far beyond one's choice or one's affiliations of interest and `natural' loyalty" [p67]. To illustrate this, Williams makes free use of John Bossy's 1985 study of medieval urban guilds and rural communes. These institutions secured civil peace by formalising confession, mutual forgiveness, sharing resources and organising corporate festivals. But now the "land of lost content" has been pushed back to the 12th century.
The good news is that, as tempers begin to fray, Williams' third essay is his best: well-written, trenchant and incisive. The topic is "Remorse" and, perhaps because we are now straying into more explicitly Christian territory, Williams is able to rally his arguments. He sifts through various strategies by which individuals and communities try to assert control over or reclaim their sense of Self, and deny complicity in the voices of injured others, into whose self-representations we become ineradicable but unwelcome lodgers. There is much wisdom here, whether it's in Williams' analysis of the flaws of nationalist or Fascist discourse or the successes and failures of the Commission for Truth and Reconciliation in post-Apartheid South Africa.
Williams' final essay, "Lost Souls", draws together arguments that have been hitherto embryonic. For Williams, as for Aristotle, "soul" is something we do. We do not have souls but instead we become souls through meaningful interaction with others. The Archbishop has many criticisms of a mischievous popular notion of a "transcendent" and "unchanging" Self, a Self "outside space and time" that is free to adopt and discard identities as disguises in its self-representation to others. He concludes in the psychological need for a supreme other, the "absent Other", in whose gaze one can honestly self-represent without rivalry or fear. Ex hoc dicemus Deus.
Frankly, we've waited a long time for God to make an appearance. The result is, if I'm honest, bathetic. Williams' "absent Other" is essentially mystical, however much it might be clothed in the language of psychoanalysis. This ideal life, lived in unqualified acknowledgement of the "moral other" that is each other person and the "absent Other" that is God, is a programme for spiritual gymnasts of Olympic standard. Moreover, the "absent Other" is a far cry from the God of mainstream Christianity, the creating, commanding, judging and intervening God of the Bible. The whole point of the "absent Other" is that it doesn't DO anything. What we've arrived at with Williams is somehow less than the God we were looking for. In effect, Rowan Williams has discovered a God that only archbishops can believe in.