Rowan Williams on Beauty

At the end of a discussion on the nature of human beings and their ultimate origin, (  Richard Dawkins and Rowan Williams found themselves in agreement about the beauty of the finely tuned and ordered reality that science reveals.  There is no doubt between them that scientific descriptions show something wonderful, regardless of what presuppositions we bring to that observation.  Our sense of wonder at that beauty is not new. The Ancient Greeks from Pythagoras on talked about the harmony of the spheres as they contemplated the perfect of movement in the heavenly bodies.  Where Dawkins and Williams differed was in the in the fact that Dawkins simply saw this as a fact of reality in respect of which we need not go any further, whereas Wiiliams saw it as something that was worthy of contemplation, as ‘framed by God’, as a product of love and mathematics.  What might Williams have meant by ‘framed by God’?

Since paintings when hung in a gallery are framed, let’s take a work of art as our the example.  We can offer a complete account of the work of art in terms of the artist’s conception and the materials and technical processes of producing a painting but but would this explain the power of the painting to move our consciousness?  Would this technical and academic explanation necessary move us to the intellectual and emotional (aesthetic) response for which good art calls?  Once the painting has left the studio, we might argue, it takes on a life of its own, not in any mysterious way but simply as a part of public consciousness. In order to be art it needs an audience to be recognised as aesthetically good.  As different audiences at different times and places see it, more is seen in it, more interpretations are applied. It is as if the painting grows, changes or adapts as it is contemplated by its audiences.   Is this launching of the painting into the consciousness of human beings what Williams means metaphorically,  by framing it ?  Is the painting ‘framed’ by our aesthetic contemplation of it?

Both Dawkins and Williams earlier on in the discussion agreed on the difficulties of providing a scientific explanation for that feature of human consciousness that enable us to reflect on our own being and on reality as something worthy of contemplation in its own right.  There does not seem to be any evolutionary explanation, any survival value in being able to step away from our own understanding and contemplate reality from the outside as it were.  Indeed one can imagine the awestruck cave dwelling hunter taking a moment to contemplate the power and beauty of the mammoth as it charges towards him, and consequently being run down before he has thought of launching his spear. Contemplation comes in the calm of the evening when the ‘God of mammothdom’ can be painted on the cave dwellers wall.  It may be this sense of wonder that invites contemplation that Williams describes as the first humans hearing the ‘voice of God’.

Just as we need to take a certain kind of contemplative aesthetic attitude towards a painting, in order to hear the voice of Williams’ God,  we need to take a particular contemplative attitude towards reality. This attitude is one of submission in which we cast off our mundane an relatively petty cares of day to day existence.  In the cosmic context we might seem to be very unimportant.  It is also an attitude in which we shed all our notions of what is important in terms of what we are – our sense of our possessions, our status in the world, our personal strengths. It is an attitude of self negation.  If we can achieve this then we might, in Williams terms, ‘hear the voice of God’.

As a humanist I cannot say that I have ever managed this complete self negation that is required to ‘tune in’ to God’s voice.  Maybe I am too busy trying to make my own voice heard that I have become unable to listen!  But even if we do ‘hear God’s voice’ what might it be saying to us?  The experience of Gods’ voice is elusive and ephemeral  but it has been the product of inordinate quantities of scriptural writing and interpretation. It is, what philosophers refer to as ‘over theorised’.  In our times there are five great religions in the world generally agreeing on self negation as a pathway to God but each advising us on different ways of how to achieve that and about the consequences for our lives.

As humanists we cannot deny this powerful dimension in human experience. We cannot simply say that God (or at least his voice) does not exist. The evidence that something is happening is too compelling. What we can do is discuss the different ‘God inspired’ claims and see what sense we can make of them.






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