Being Human by Rowan Williams
“Not a quick read, but wonderful”
There are probably three things you need to know before you start reading this book:it says on the front cover “philosophical theology at its very best” – don’t let that put you off
- it’s small (less than A5 in size) and fewer than 120 pages, including notes and guidance on further reading – don’t let that fool you, it’s not a quick read
- it’s wonderful
I think Being Human is best described as a record of a conversation with a (in my case, admittedly much cleverer) friend. A friend who shares his learning in a way which is accessible and inspiring, leading you via writings from Wittgenstein to AA Milne, through closely reasoned argument to a place of understanding.
Williams looks at what it means to be human through the lenses of consciousness, physicality, thoughtfulness and faith; in relation to ideas about ourselves and our relationship to others, including the created world and, of course, God. In the process, he seems to reflect the human journey from childhood to maturity.
To be human is to be imperfect: we are not machines existing in a technically perfect world, but organisms which change and develop in response to stimuli which may be external (the environment, the other organisms which impact on our being) or internal (our thoughts, our fears, our spirituality). And an apparently imperfect response may well lead to something new or beautiful.
To be human is to be aware of others and in relationship with them. But of course, it doesn’t stop there: our very awareness of relationship affects who we are, how we see and how we are seen. Paradoxically, our value as individuals comes from our engagement with others, with The other – especially when that engagement is rooted in love, both human and divine.
In a world which increasingly values independence and autonomy, Williams reminds us that service is perfect freedom; that dependence can be liberation, not failure, and that, if we are willing, as we used to say, to “let go and let God” we will become fully human.
Reading Being Human as I have done in the season between Easter and Ascension, alongside the required lectionary passages from Acts, I kept being reminded of Peter: still flawed and vulnerable, but growing in confidence as he came to understand that in the extraordinary economy of heaven, God is God by being God for us, and we are human by being human for God; and all joy and fulfilment opens up once we recognise this.
Reviewed by The Revd Norma Fergusson