Book Review: Being Human

Rowan Williams Being Human Book Review

Having read, reviewed and enjoyed (in different ways and very different situations/seasons!) Rowan Williams’ little books Being Christian and Being Disciples, I was very excited to be in the meeting where SPCK decide to publish Being Human. Having left SPCK, and continued to read around the topic, I’m really rather glad that Rowan has written a good book on the question that I hope to write a PhD on.

But I digress.

Let’s introduce this review in Rowan’s own words:

This book completes a sort of unintended trilogy, following earlier books, Being Christian and Being Disciples. It is 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


And yet.

love the idea of an unintended trilogy (maybe like an unintended tradition?), and think that Being Human is definitely the logical follow-on to Rowan’s two previous books in this little series. I also like the recognition that this book, in moving from practical theology actual (And arguably, but not totally, philosophical theology) is starting to engage with some bigger questions about what humanity is.

But I digress.

Rowan writes a good book. By asking some key questions – What is consciousness?What is a person? (I think he gets that wrong, but that’s another conversation), and thinking about some important groups of questions: Bodies, minds and thoughtsFaith and human flourishingSilence and human maturity, Rowan and his team of editors have crafted a book that is beautifully tantalising but ultimately unsatisfying.

I tried to take the question of ‘play’, which Rowan touches on, into a recent conference paper at SST in Nottingham. This echoes the important language of constraints, which Rowan continues to engage with:

Time is a rich and complex gift; it is the medium in which we not only grow and move forward but also constructively return and resource – literally re-source – ourslves

In Being Human, this author considers questions of inter/multi-faith dialogue, (Faith and Human Flourishing, p. 85), the value of silence (Silence and human maturity, p. 98), the value of prayer/meditation/contemplation (Silence and human maturity, p. 101) and the potential value of a Calvinist/Alcholics Anonymous view of the divine:

We’re letting God be God, and in the process we’re letting ourselves become more fully human, because, 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

Rowan closes with a wise epilogue, focusing on the Incarnation, the Holy Spirit, and ultimately the life-filled idea of God as Trinity.

To be honest, this is a niche book.

It is less relevant to most of my Christian readers than Being Christian and Being Disciples.

It is more relevant to my friends who try to think, but haven’t yet realised that there is more to life than rational reasoning.

So, how would I rate and review this book?

Rowan Williams Being Human is a fitting conclusion to an unintended trilogy. It is a powerful piece of philosophical theology, as England’s Chief Rabbi notes. It is also quite a good book. If, like me, you end up reading it cover to cover, I’d love to hear from you. It really isn’t quite as good as last year’s God With Us.

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