How can Rowan Williams reconcile his Christianity with the Greek tragic vision?by Edith Hall / November 17, 2016 / Leave a comment
The Tragic Imagination by Rowan Williams (OUP, £12.99)
Can there be a Christian reading of tragedy? Can a pre-Christian, pagan, literary genre, which confronts the gross unfairness of human pain, be reconciled with the idea of a loving deity? Expectations must be high of a book about tragedy professing to explore these questions by Rowan Williams. He is the most intellectually renowned British churchman alive, a former Archbishop of Canterbury and now Master of Magdalene College, Cambridge. He has always enriched his prolific theological and church-historical studies with intense reflections on philosophy and literature; in addition to his more than 30 volumes on Christianity, he has published on Fydor Dostoyevsky and WH Auden and even volumes of his own poetry. The Tragic Imagination is a short monograph, a little over 40,000 words, arguing for the past and continuing importance of tragic drama and its compatibility—indeed affinity—with a philosophically inflected Christian outlook.
As Archbishop, Williams elicited criticism from Anglicans who regarded him as too scholarly to be an effective leader, and too interested in analytical complexities to be an effective interpreter of the Gospel. On the other hand, he disappointed the political left, who felt he failed to deliver on the hopes inspired by his sensitivity to interfaith issues, apparent preparedness to embrace a degree of cultural relativism, and well-known sympathy with the poor.
The overall effect of The Tragic Imagination will do nothing to alter the public perception that Williams instinctively rejects clarity in favour of sitting on intellectual fences to ponder arcane points of metaphysics and excavate the views of obscure thinkers. The book is difficult and, ultimately, frustrating. It leaves an agnostic such as myself still failing to understand how such a committed Christian as Williams can reconcile his faith with what seems to be a complete lack of belief in a “happy ending” for any individual or for the human race as a whole.
Williams traces his lifelong fascination with tragedy to two watersheds in his intellectual development. He was struck, when he was introduced to King Lear at secondary school in Swansea, by the play’s shocking refusal of “anything resembling a resolution, a message, or a promise of a more obviously reconciled future.” He is…