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Fall 2021 · Vol. 50 No. 2 · pp. 233–235 

Book Review

Justice and Love: A Philosophical Dialogue

Mary Zournazi and Rowan Williams. New York; London, UK: Bloomsbury Academic, 2021. 205 pages.

Reviewed by Paul Doerksen

This book consists of a series of intermittent conversations (2015-2020) that took place between Rowan Williams, former Bishop of Canterbury, and until recently, Master of Magdalene College, Cambridge, and Mary Zournazi, an Australian filmmaker and philosopher. Broadly speaking, the conversations seek to explore and deepen our understandings of justice and love in the midst of a society that stands in need of constructive imagination and social healing.

The dialogical format of the book lets the reader listen to a conversation between a leading Christian theologian and an atheist philosopher, both of whom are keenly interested in understanding each other, the world in which they find themselves, and refining and deepening ways in which our shared world might be made a better place. These occasional conversations took place while significant “world events unfolded, from the Syrian refugee crisis, Paris bombings, ISIS attacks, Brexit, and US elections to the ongoing economic and humanitarian crises in Greece and other European countries” (62). As Ben Okri (Nigerian poet and novelist) says in his compelling introduction, the best dialogues “are not just two people investigating a subject, spiraling round themes. The best dialogues are revelatory. With rigorous logic they investigate urgent questions at the heart of our lives” (viii), which serves as an apt description of the dialogue under consideration here.

Justice and Love is organized according to the chronological order of the conversations between Williams and Zournazi, and also divided into three discreet parts of several chapters each, including a contextual introduction to each of the three parts (Part 1: Justly Looking; Part 2: Reckoning; Part 3: Love). In addition to Okri’s introduction, the book includes a prologue by Zournazi, an afterword by Williams, and a final exchange of letters between the two key interlocuters. However, while there is an obvious structure to the book and the material is well-organized, the reader will not find a strictly linear argument pursued throughout. To be clear, I find this to be a strength of this book, since it is the nature of most conversations to ramble a bit, to begin talking about some topic, and find that while ostensibly having moved on to another issue that the talk circles back and picks up threads that were introduced earlier. Therefore, this book-length dialogue with its attendant explanatory features does not presume to offer complete answers to address the challenges under consideration. As Okri points out, to ask that of the dialogue would be to pose the wrong question. Rather, “They do not give answers as such. They {234} provide an orientation. They provide better questions. They provide a more intelligent framing of the questions. They gift us new perspectives” (xiii).

Their pursuit of the reframing of issues, providing appropriate orientation to issues surrounding justice and love, means that these notions cannot be understood primarily as some “idea of universal right and justice that treats all human agents primarily as abstract possessors of universally enforceable claims” (177). Instead, notable throughout these conversations is a heightened focus on the relational dimensions of love and justice, which are seen as “inseparable from the task of responding ethically to each other and to the world” (126). To provide one specific instance of this dynamic, throughout the book the concept of justice is reconsidered as something that is not primarily the satisfying of claims, the balancing of the scales, or people getting what they “deserve”; rather, justice is reframed as something like alignment, as seeing clearly, compatibility with what is right, mending relationships. It is that kind of reframing that makes this such an engaging book—the emphasis is not so much on the unsatisfying impact of law, but on deeply human dimensions of beauty, love, grace, reckoning, paying attention, exercising discernment, reaching beyond ethics as merely reactive to a crisis that calls for decision.

A significant component of the depth and range of the reframing and reorientation work being done in these conversations is the thoughtful drawing on literary sources, not only as illustration or catalyst but as substantial content of these reflections. Therefore, while philosophers and theologians make their appearances, writers such as William Shakespeare, Iris Murdoch, Simone Weil, Flannery O’Connor, Marilynne Robinson, Fyodor Dostoevsky, and Leo Tolstoy feature prominently, as do plays, movies, and other creative media. Williams and Zournazi are fine writers in their own right, resulting in wonderfully interesting discussions that draw on sources in a way that provides either new insight into authors already familiar to the reader or sends the reader scurrying to locate sources for further study. (For example, I have begun reading Australian novelist Christos Tsiolkas because of references in Justice and Love.)

While it is impossible to provide an account of the many dimensions of love and justice discussed by Williams and Zournazi, I want to highlight one which stands out as especially important. First, the authors emphasize the dependence of love and justice on a sustained paying of attention, a patient looking and listening to that which is before us, to the real details of life and experience, attention that allows us to read situations and people in ways that can then shape our responses at the appropriate time and in the right way. Understood in this way, education becomes “training in the habits of attention, the habits of seeing the everyday” (145). We have become impatient with the process of learning, claim the authors, and thus we have closed ourselves off from the possibilities of imagination, {235} empathy, and belonging; therefore, our thinking along with the practices of justice and love have become truncated (settling of claims rather than relational alignment, for example). A lack of attentiveness leads us to forget the possibilities for love and justice inherent in spaces such as the church, the university, and the family, all of which can serve as witnesses to enriched possibilities to the wider world.

Overall, this series of conversations is provocative, engaging, and finally hopeful. We are pressed to reconsider what is often the starting point for moral discourse and action and “begin our moral planning from somewhere that isn’t just the stale and sclerotic territory of our individual agendas” (186). And despite some repetition and circularity in these conversations, the book offers profound hope, not least in the dialogue itself. In Okri’s words, “That Rowan Williams, a man of intellect and faith, and Mary Zournazi, an atheist and humanist, could come together in a spirit of inquiry is in itself a sign of hope for our times” (xiv).

Paul Doerksen
Associate Professor of Theology and Anabaptist Studies
Canadian Mennonite University, Winnipeg, Manitoba

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