Rowan Williams – Being Human [Feature Review]

October 4, 2018 — Leave a comment

 

What it Means to be a Person
(Rather than an Individual)

 
A Feature Review of

Being Human:
Bodies, Minds, Persons
Rowan Williams

Paperback: Eerdmans, 2018.
Buy Now:  [ Amazon ]  

 
Reviewed by Rob O’Lynn
 
 

*** Our Video Intro to 
Rowan Williams’ work

 

Being Human is a collection of five essays that focus on various aspects of theological anthropology that were given over a period of four years.  A brief introduction begins the volume, in which Williams notes that this “unintended trilogy” has been “less about the basics of Christian belief and behaviour and more about the sort of questions in our culture that make us wonder what ‘real’ humanity is like and whether our most central ideas about what is human are under threat in this environment” (vii).  Williams’ argument specifically in Being Human is that answering the question of what defines a human is now more complicated than ever.  “No need to panic,” Williams notes, because “we do need more clarity than our culture usually gives us as to what we think is ‘more’ human” (vii).  The volume seeks to be somewhat apologetic, although in a more philosophical sense, in that “sources of contemporary confusion” regarding what it means to be human will be addressed so that the reader can find herself more “in alignment with the grace and joy of what is ultimately true—with God and with the will of God, as Christians would say” (vii).  In short, Williams seeks to examine some of the different pressures that are pressed upon the human in order to determine how these pressures shape us into or distort us out of the will of God.

The opening two chapters are of particular note.  Chapter 1 examines the concept of consciousness, specifically how humans should understand themselves as being conscious and self-conscious.  Williams argues against the two commonly-held views regarding the brain, that it is a machine.  Williams challenges the contemporary, technological image of the brain as a computer, saying that to only see it as a computer is reductive because it misses out on the living nature of the human brain.  Williams seeks to correct this view by expanding on the brain’s function, seeing it as more holistic rather than just an engine part.  Williams puts forward a four-pronged argument that consciousness is located (in the brain), relational (oriented to those around us), a continuous narrative (built from collaboration) and a shared language (our shared attempt to interpret the reality we find ourselves in through symbols, metaphors and stories).  This is, in the opinion of this reviewer, the strongest of the essays included.

Chapter 2 continues the conversation started in chapter 1 by asking what is a person.  This question is more relevant to the contemporary conversation that the question posed in chapter 1, although the conclusion reached in the chapter are just a hair less specific than those reached in the opening chapter.  The strength of the chapter, however, is in Williams’ confrontation of two dysfunctional elements of contemporary identity culture—the need to label ourselves and the continued movement toward individualization, both of which, Williams argues, are actually contradictory notions.  A “person” is more than a set of labels, however a “person” is also more than an individual.  A person is personal, interconnected to those around us, drawing love from and sharing love with those around us.  In doing so, Williams argues, we discover the meaning of what it means to be a person rather than an individual.






Overall, Being Human is a thoughtful and thought-provoking philosophical meditation on the nature of humanity.  This is the basic thrust of the discipline of theological anthropology, a tricky wicket of a theological discipline because it based more in cognitive discussions and rhetorical wordplay than in exegetical study.  That being said, this volume provides several talking points for advancing the conversation between Christians and non-Christians regarding the nature of humanity.  It provides the theological framework that is missing in Viktor Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning, the clarity that is missing in C.S. Lewis’ The Abolition of Man, the simplicity that is missing in Hans Urs von Balthasar’s A Theological Anthropology or Hans Schwarz’ The Human Being, and the orthodox position that is missing from David Benner’s Human Being and Becoming.  Williams is certainly a proponent of the doctrine of imago Dei and seeks to integrate psychological, neurological and theological studies in order to bring the reader to a similar conclusion.

This does mean, however, that Being Human is not without some issues.  The main concern with this volume is the lack of connectedness between the content.  As he mentioned in the introduction (and was cited above), Williams did not intend to create a meditative trilogy when he set out to write Being Christian.  As such, it is difficult to see how this volume connects to the previous volumes.  Additionally, this present volume is a compilation of lectures given by Williams over a four-year period, of which none are seemingly connected.  The sermon was preached several years before.  And while it serves as some of Williams’ best exegetical work in the volume, it is a true appendix, in that it has been added yet does not add to the overall discussion.  However, these concerns do not outweigh the strengths of this volume, and I would heartily endorse it to any reader looking for something in the area of theological anthropology.
 
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Rob O’Lynn is Assistant Professor of Preaching and Ministry and Director of Graduate Bible Programs at Kentucky Christian University.

 

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