‘Religious Language under Pressure': Rowan Williams’ Edward Schillebeeckx Lecture

duck rabbit illusionOn 13 December last year, Rowan Williams was at the Radboud University in Nijmegen to deliver the Edward Schillebeeckx lecture, an event organised by the Soeterbeeck Programme and the journal Tijdschrift voor Theologie. In what was a very stimulating lecture – are Williams’s lectures ever otherwise! – Williams draws inspiration from Michael Leunig, Cornelius Ernst, Thomas Aquinas, Victor Preller, Buddhist meditation practices, Maurice Merleau-Ponty, and, of course, Edward Schillebeeckx.

Picking up on the theme of the lecture, Williams argued that ‘Our language becomes “religious” when it is most under pressure; when what it does, says, or expresses, or embodies, is a kind of letting go under the pressure of recognising that we have to change the discourse, that the questions no longer work. We let go and ask – ask rather than answer! – “Are there other ways of speaking or seeing or being?”‘

And he unpacks five implications:

1. Language is not just ‘stimulus and response’, a system of cause and effect. We can’t predict or control speech or the way we understand it. Language is risky and unpredictable.
2. Language necessarily has an unfinished/unclosed character about it. There is always something more to be said. One implication of this is that repetition is not really possible.
3. Language is something one does with one’s body. Speech is a bodily event, an act which takes place from a particular location.
4. We place our language under pressure so that we can think better, think more deeply, discover something new; so that we can move out of the frame we started with.
5. Silence in our speech is significant. We expect silence to do some work for us. In other words, silence is never empty. It’s not even silent.

He concludes with these words:

Our religious language is no more than our ordinary language – a simple set of descriptions. We do not look out from the castle of our brain and label that object called ‘God’. On the contrary, when we believe we have found, for the moment, an adequate way of talking about God – a doctrinal formulation, an image, a scriptural text – we need to remind ourselves of exactly what it is we are talking about; which is, supremely, the uncontrollable, the unconditioned. Like the Buddhist, faced with what comes at the far end of meditation, we have to say there are no words that are going to hold this. However satisfactory what I have said so far may appear, I have to recognise what it doesn’t say. I have to put my religious language, so to speak, under the judgement of a God who can’t be exhaustively and finally spoken of. I have to allow my religious speaking to move in and out of silence for contemplation. To put it another way: I have to put my religious language under pressure; I have to make sure that the language of my faith, my creed, my doctrine, is not left to sit complacently without that tightening of the grip of mystery on it which prevents it from being authoritarian, or oppressive; which respects that ‘openness’ (once again to use Father Schillebeeckx’s word), [which] prevents that openness surviving.

And one of the paradoxes about this, a paradox well worth reflecting on, is that instead of this meaning that our religious language is ‘a shot at the truth which makes no great claim to tell us, truthfully, something about God’, the contrary is true: the more our religious language shows that it is under pressure – under scrutiny, under judgement – the more we recognise that what we have said may be true but not adequate, the more we speak truthfully about God, the more we declare and show what God is, or who God is.

Some people speak as though a tentative approach to the language of our doctrine, our creed, our liturgy, will somehow resign all claims to truth, or revelation, or whatever, somehow blur the clear boundaries of the faith we have received. But I don’t believe that. When I say the creed, I do so without any reservation, but I try to do so without any complacency. When I make the declarations I make in the creed – about God, about the Incarnation, about the last things – I accept that these are the best words I can find to carry what needs to be carried, and precisely because of that they remain something that falls short of what is really there. And in that recognition that they fall short, and in the continuous self-examination – [and the] self-questioning that comes with that – I show that God is more than just the content of my mind, or the collective content of human minds, or a construct of the imagination.

If I am showing that it is difficult to talk about God, I am showing something true about God. Let me just repeat that because I do think it’s crucial: If I am showing that it is difficult to talk about God, I am showing what is true about God. And those who speak easily, glibly, fluently about God, may be less truthful because there is less of that openness to the infinite, unconditioned, mystery of the God we speak of. That sense of infinite, unconditioned mystery surrounding our words and our actions, soaking through the practice of our faith, spilling over in different ways into the events and exchanges of the world; that sense of where we stand, how we speak, in the presence of the difficult God was, I believe, something profoundly close to the heart of Edward Schillebeeckx’s theology. What I have shared with you this evening owes a great deal to the inspiration of a theologian who was not afraid to say ‘If it is difficult to speak God, that’s because that is the truthful way to speak of God.

Theologians need, I believe, not to be afraid of recognising that creative, essential, difficulty as the way of finding truthfulness and, perhaps, as one way of recovering that natural theology faithful to human experience which Edward Schillebeeckx shared with us, and still does.

[HT: Thanks to Chris Green for drawing my attention to this lecture. Chris was particularly enamoured by the section around the 01:01:00 mark; i.e., with the section which I have typed up.]

Some notes from e-land

Piano

Some stuff on the stove

wood-stove

Shouldn’t Baptist churches retrieve the practice of venerating the saints, that is, engaging in corporate worship acts designed not to worship the saints, but to remember, honor, learn from, and celebrate saints from our Baptist family and from other Christian communions? Until we regularly include commemoration of the saints in our worship celebrations, we will continue to neglect the opportunity to give proper value to those from our past who have borne courageous witness to faithful discipleship. Commemorative acts done in our Sunday morning services would provide a suitable accompaniment for the tradition some have already developed as part of their Vacation Bible School program, in which stories are told of great spiritual leaders worthy of emulation … [HT: Steven Harmon]

[Image: from Old Picture of the Day]

October stations …

SAMSUNGReading:

Listening

Link love

Leunig love

Leunig-iPad-The Lost Art

Leunig - Words for mystery

[Source: The Age]

Some scribbles on the elderly as gift

632614403133_0_BGOn a recent Sunday past, I had the joy of preaching on hope and memory to a wonderful group who were, on average, and at a guess, about twice my age. Not surprisingly, I loved being among them, and felt greatly privileged to share time together with them. And being with them made me do something I used to do a lot more of than I have in recent years – pause. More specifically, pause and reflect on why I really love being among the aged. That afternoon, I returned to my reading of Rowan Williams’ recently published book Faith in the Public Square (and therein to his address to the Friends of the Elderly, also available here) wherein he writes:

[A]geing brings much that is bound to be threatening; of course it entails the likelihood of sickness and disability and that most frightening of all prospects, the loss of mental coherence. But if this is combined with an unspoken assumption that the elderly are socially insignificant because they are not prime consumers or producers, the public image of ageing is bound to be extra bleak; and that is the message that can so easily be given these days. In contrast to a setting where age means freedom from having to justify your existence, age in our context is often implicitly presented as a stage of life when you exist ‘on sufferance’. You’re not actually pulling your weight; you’re not an important enough bit of the market to be targeted in most advertising, except of a rather specialised and often rather patronising kind. In an obsessively sexualised world of advertising and other images, age is often made to look pathetic and marginal. And in the minds of most people there will be the picture of the geriatric ward or certain kinds of residential institution.

To borrow the powerful expression used of our prisons by Baroness Kennedy, this is ‘warehousing’ – stacking people in containers because we can think of nothing else to do with them. From time to time, we face those deeply uncomfortable reports about abuse or even violence towards the vulnerable. Terrible as this is, we need to see it as an understandable consequence of a warehousing mentality.

As the Friends of the Elderly make plain in their literature, even if not precisely in these terms, the question of how we perceive age is essentially a spiritual one. If you have a picture of human life as a story that needs pondering, retelling, organising, a story that is open to the judgement and mercy of God, it will be natural to hope for time to do this work, the making of the soul. It will be natural to ask how the life of older people can be relieved of anxiety, and how the essentially creative work of reflection can be helped. It is not an exaggeration to say that, in such a perspective, growing old will make the greatest creative demands of your life. Furthermore, if we are all going to have the opportunity of undertaking reflection like this, it will be important that older people have the chance to share the task with the rest of us. The idea that age necessarily means isolation will be challenged. There is a sense that what matters for our own future thinking through of our life stories doesn’t depend on the sort of things that go in and out of fashion. That is why, in most traditional societies, the term ‘elder’ is a title of honour – as it is, of course, in the Christian Church, where the English word ‘priest’ is an adaptation of the Greek for ‘elder’. A person who has been released from the obligation to justify their existence is one who can give a perspective on life for those of us who are still in the middle of the struggle; their presence ought to be seen as a gift.

Incidentally, one of the most worrying problems in the impact of Western modernity on traditional culture is that it quite rapidly communicates its own indifference or anxiety or even hostility about age and ageing. Generation gaps open and it is no longer clear what there is to be learned. On our own doorsteps, we now have to confront a situation in, for example, the British Muslim community, where the status of older family members has been eroded by the prevailing culture around, creating a vacuum: of course it is natural and in many ways healthy for the young to examine and explore the received wisdom of their elders as they move towards maturity but when younger members of a community are left without signposts, they are more easily shifted towards extreme behaviour of one sort or another. It is as if, in the crises of these communities and the challenge they pose to the rest of our society, we see an intensified image of the tensions and unfinished business in our whole attitude to age and ageing.

We must not be sentimental. Age doesn’t automatically confer wisdom, and the authority of ‘elders’ of one sort or another can be oppressive, unrealistic and selfish. But when we completely lose sight of any idea that older people have a crucial role in pointing us to the way we might work to make better sense of our lives, we lose something vital. We lose the assumption that there is a perspective on our human experience that is bigger than the world of production and consumption. Work, sex, the struggle to secure our position or status, the world in which we constantly negotiate our demands and prove ourselves fit to take part in public life – what is there outside all this that might restore some sense of a value that is just given, a place that doesn’t have to be earned? A healthy attitude to the elderly, I believe, is one of the things that can liberate us from the slavery of what we take for granted as the ‘real’ world. Giving dignity to the elderly … is inseparable from recognising the dignity of human beings as such. Contempt for older citizens, the unthinking pushing of them to the edges of our common life, is a sure sign of a shrivelled view of what it is to be human. (pp. 244–46)

Here, Williams does a characteristically stellar job celebrating the invaluable gift that the elderly are to human community, and that while avoiding any sense of either reducing old people to commodities or apotheosizing them with a romanticism that seeks to shroud some of the ugliness that characterizes all human being.

From time to time I get asked how I feel about being part of an ‘ageing’ (which seems to be code for ‘dying’) institution like the Presbyterian Church here in New Zealand. One thing that immediately comes to mind is the incredible depth of memory that characterizes such a community, storied memory that helps us to understand who we are, why certain things matter, and why ‘realities’ like consumerism represent such an empty lie. Of course, I am grieved too that such an ageing community has fewer and fewer people each year to share its memory with – memory shaped by, among other things, decades of mistakes that need not be repeated, but will be.

This is part of the obligation laid upon the elderly; an obligation which, in my experience, too few rejoice to take up, and that for a great number of reasons that we need not go into here. But some do, of course, and in many such instances provide beautiful illustration of the claim that one really can teach an old dog new tricks; and, what’s more, many have learnt by now that there’s a joyous freedom in so learning some such tricks, and that not because by such one might progress anywhere but simply because learning new tricks can be surprisingly hilarious – the boisterous merriment of the Spirit. More importantly, such learnings-in-community – and the stories that accompany such – celebrate the relationality that lies at the deepest recesses of the universe’s grain.

Another great thing about being part of an institution filled with old people is that one is surrounded by so many more people who can teach me how to die – who have been given the time to teach me how to die and, hopefully, how to die well – and thereby be liberated from the horrible burden of having to always act as if one were younger, or older, or more indispensable, than one actually is. Exactly how this happens remains a mystery to me, although there seem to be conditions that surround the life of the aged that make such virtues real and not merely abstract possibilities. These include friendship, a humble assessment of human vocation, hope that rests in the all-embracing love of God, and a manifestly genuine aversion to twaddle.

But, to repeat, it’s not like this for all. Some old people live with consciences and hearts which have become so calloused over many years – through, among other things, the skill of self-justification – that it seems that it will take as long in the time beyond this time to soften such sisters and brothers enough that healing might take place and growth begin again. To employ a different metaphor, it is no slack knot that grace must undo; and for the elderly this knot has had longer to tighten. For the elderly, as for all – Peccator in re, iustus in spe! Of course, one need not squint too hard to see how industrialisation has contributed too to the very environments in which such knots are formed and then made to be what seems permanent. Consider, for example, words penned by Helmut Thielicke as he reflected on his first visit to the United States in the Spring of 1956, and in which he diagnosed a dire picture:

Elderly Americans constantly made a depressing impression upon me. I can still see the large hall of a hotel on the coast before me. Old ladies were sitting there with wrinkled faces that were not just made up but, frankly, plastered with cosmetics. To me they seemed like masks, consumed with boredom. They stared straight ahead, or looked with unseeing eyes through the gaps in the sun-blinds onto a street where nothing ever happened, or sat for hours in front of the television. A few of them played patience. The same was true of the old people with whom I lived in a house together for a few days. None of them ever read a book, at the most they might occasionally read a magazine. And always that unseeing stare and always television as a desperate protection against drowning in boredom. Some friends confirmed the correctness of this impression to me.

What is the origin of this despairing attitude to old age? One of the reasons is certainly not least the fact that people’s exclusive dependence upon the car kills any real attachment to the countryside. One can indeed wander all over nature and get to know it inside out, but despite this never actually experience it. When Moltke retired he was asked what there was now left for him to do, since he had always been such an active man. He replied: I shall watch a tree grow. How many elderly Americans could give a similar answer? (This question could, of course, also be directed at many elderly Europeans.)

The life that is determined exclusively by external influences prompts a sham vitality on the part of the individual. However, when contact with the outside world becomes weaker as the individual’s receptivity for impressions decreases and he is forced to have a life of his own, the pseudocharacter of his vitality inevitably becomes apparent. The friendly manners in America only inadequately disguise the fact that elderly people are often regarded as a burden. ‘But we don’t have elderly people like in Europe’, a clever woman once said to me with whom I had been discussing this problem and whose memory had perhaps caused her to idealize the Old World too much. ‘Such a thing as the serenity of old age is here rather the exception’, she said. Alongside this, there is also a sociological side to the problem of aging. This takes the form of an idolization of youth. After the loss of youth, life is regarded as a decline and people live in fear of this. That is why people basically do not have a positive attitude towards aging and do their utmost to conserve their youth. (Notes from a Wayfarer, pp. 311–312).

Once upon a time, in the time when we (in the West, at least) were less eager to shove our aged into holding pens, or what Williams refers to as ‘warehousing’, to await their death (these pens are sometimes called ‘nursing homes’), we were more likely to grow up alongside those living in the winter of their lives; that is, alongside those who are moving to die, alongside those who appear to be beginning even now to undergo a translation of life from time (i.e., time as we know it) to eternity (i.e., time as we will know it). Insofar as this is true, the elderly, or at least those elderly who have ceased engaging in the kinds of groping for justification and celebration of independence so characteristic of other adults, are among us as a kind of ‘sacrament’ of true being before God, as icons of God’s presence in frail flesh, as parables of the truth of human being-in-dependence-upon-the-other, and as signs that ‘the glory of human beings is not power, the power to control someone else … [but] the ability to let what is deepest within us grow’ (Jean Vanier, Befriending the Stranger).

In his final book to be published during his lifetime, P. T. Forsyth testified to the ways that ageing can also occasion immortal things becoming more real to us, of eternity being more deeply set in our heart. ‘We become’, he says, ‘more alert in a certain direction. We become more sensitive to what is deep than to what is lively, to a searchlight than to the flares, to what is the sure, permanent, and timeless thing in all movement’ (This Life and the Next, 54). This description does not tell the whole story, of course, but it does tell the story of some, perhaps even of many; and I consider myself blessed to be doing life among those who are alert in this way.

To be continued …

‘A Reflection on Advent’, by Rowan Williams

pregnant mary‘I suppose if you did one of those word association tests on “Advent”, the other word you’d come up with straight away would be “calendar”. That’s all that most people these days are really aware of where Advent is concerned. Advent is a time when you have calendars, and the Advent calendar is a countdown to Christmas, and it means daily sweets and chocolates.

It’s a slightly thin and rather inadequate account of what has for a long time been one of the most important and significant times in the Church’s year – a time of waiting, we sometimes say. But once we’ve said waiting, of course that’s not a very attractive word. We’re not a culture that’s very used to waiting. “Take waiting out of wanting” – that’s a slogan that was very popular some decades ago – and it still governs a great deal of the way we behave. We’d quite like to have things when we decide we want them. And so waiting seems negative, waiting seems perhaps passive, unexciting, the boring bit before we get to the exciting bit. So if there is a period of waiting, getting ready for Christmas, we pad it out with the daily chocolate, to make sure that we’re not feeling too miserable.

Well it’s that kind of waiting that Advent is about. We remember in Advent the time of waiting before the birth of Jesus, and we remember that time of waiting as the Bible shows it to us – as a time when people were indeed longing for something that would change everything, and yet at the same time not quite knowing what that something would be.

During Advent, Christians go back to that time of waiting as the Bible shows it to us. They read again the prophecies in the Hebrew Scriptures and the Old Testament. They read about how people were longing for an end to slavery, longing to be back home in some sense, longing to be at home with God again, longing for reconciliation. And all of that is expressed in the most powerful metaphors, especially in the prophecies of Isaiah; metaphors about the desert blossoming, metaphors about the rain falling, metaphors about day dawning after there’s been a long, long night.

So during this four weeks before Christmas, that’s what Christians are reflecting on. When Jesus comes into the life of the world with something unplanned, overwhelming, something that makes a colossal difference, we long for it and yet we don’t quite know what it’s going to involve. But this is a bit odd isn’t it, you might say. Surely Jesus has come into the world and by now we ought to know what sort of difference he’s made. But the truth is that we don’t yet know the difference Jesus might make. We know some of the difference he’s made to our lives as individuals, to the life of the Christian community, the Church, to the whole world. And yet there’s more. We’re still waiting to see what might happen if Jesus was allowed into our lives that bit more fully; that bit more radically.

So again for Christians Advent is a time when they do a bit of self-examination. Have I allowed Jesus in yet? Has the good news really made the full impact it might make, or is my life still locked into old patterns, into darkness, into slavery, into being not at home with myself or God or with other people? It’s a time of self-examination, of repentance indeed, facing myself honestly and saying sorry for the things that don’t easily face the light. And it’s a time of expectation and a time of hope. A time, therefore, also of quiet.

It’s been said so often it hardly needs saying again, but it is rather a pity that for a few weeks before Christmas we are saturated with Christmas carols. We don’t have quite the sort of quiet we need to think, “Well what would it be if Jesus really came as if for the first time into my life? What would it be for the good news really to change me?” Because for that to happen I need some reflective time; I need some peace; I need to slow down; I need, you might say, to take my time about things. And so all those bits of our contemporary culture which are about rushing to get gratification, getting the results straight away; all those habits in our culture which so drive the crises of our culture, whether it’s the credit crunch or the environmental crisis: all those things we have to cast a rather cold eye on during Advent and say slow down, take time, let yourself grow and open up, rather like a flower coming to blossom. It is a time of expectation, a time of excitement, a time of waiting, a time of peace, a time when we’re clearing our hearts and our minds a bit so we really can see clearly when Jesus arrives, and feel fully the impact of his coming.

It’s a time, as I’ve said, for going back to the prophecies, the foreshadowings of Jesus’ comings that we find in the Bible, and a time when two figures above all are representative of how we’re thinking and how we’re feeling. In the New Testament those two figures who are there right from the start of the Gospel story are

John the Baptist, Jesus’ cousin and forerunner, and the Blessed Virgin Mary, Jesus’ mother. John the Baptist, you might say, sums up the whole drive, the whole story of the Bible so far. “Yes,” says John the Baptist, “something is about to happen and you’ve very little idea what it is and you’ve no idea how radical and how complete a change it will involve.” So John the Baptist can say when the Promised One arrives, “I won’t be worthy even to untie his shoe. He belongs in a different world; a different league.” So John the Baptist is pointing forward and saying, “Everything you’ve always hoped for, everything you’ve longed for, the change, the freedom, the peace, is about to come. It will be a shock coping with that. Get yourself ready. Make straight the Lord’s path”, says John, quoting the old prophecies. And Mary, who in many icons of ancient Christian art stands on the other side of Jesus from John the Baptist, the two of them flanking the figure of Jesus – Mary is the one who quietly receives into herself, into her body, heart and mind, the full reality of what’s coming. She receives it so deeply that the promise becomes real, physically real, in her; it becomes the child that’s going to be Jesus. And she has to wait with the long nine months of pregnancy, faithfully, quietly, waiting to see what comes, ready to be changed as every mother is changed by the birth of a child.

These are the two figures that Christians think about a lot in Advent. When you light Advent wreaths in churches, two of the candles represent Mary and John the Baptist. In Advent, Christians have for centuries thought about death and judgement, about heaven and hell. They’ve thought about the way in which, when we’re up against the truth for the first time, when we really see what the reality of God is like, it will be a shock to the system. It may be deeply painful as well as deeply joyful. Death and judgement, and hell and heaven. It will be that experience of confronting the truth in such a way that you’re changed for good. We say yes to all of that, even with the pain and the risk. Or, God forbid, we say no, we can’t cope with the truth, we’d prefer our own darkness. And so part of our self-examination during Advent is looking into ourselves and saying, “Can I get myself to the point where I can look at God and say there’s truth and there’s beauty and light and love and it’s painful for me, weak and stupid though I am, to face that, and yet I’d rather be there with the truth, however much it costs, than be locked up with myself?”

During Advent, we try to get ourselves a bit more used to the truth – the truth about ourselves, which is not always very encouraging, but the truth about God above all which is always encouraging. The One who comes will come with a great challenge. It will be like fire on the earth, as the Bible says. And yet the One who comes is coming in love. He’s coming to set us free. And that’s something well worth waiting for’.

– Rowan Williams, ‘A Reflection on Advent’ in Darkness Yielding: Liturgies, Prayers and Reflections for Advent, Christmas, Holy Week and Easter (London: Canterbury Press/Cairns Publications, 2009), 6–9.

Advent as learning something of God’s own simultaneous ‘Yes’ and ‘No’

ambiguity‘Advent pulls the imagination in two directions. We turn our minds to the universal longing for God that is given voice in the Jewish scriptures, the yearning towards the ‘desire of all nations’; in the cycle of the great Advent antiphons that begin with O Sapientia on 16 December, the phrase come twice, in the sixth and seventh texts: O Rex gentium, ‘O King of nations and their salvation’. Christmas is the moment of recognition, the moment when what we have always secretly known is set out in plain and freshly terms. And at the same time, “Woe unto you who desire the day of the Lord” and “Who may abide the day of his coming? For he is like a refiner’s fire” … Christmas is a beauty that is the beginning of terror: the Burning Babe, who has come to cast fire upon the earth, Before his presence, the idols fall and shatter.

In other words, Advent is about the essential ambiguity of our religiousness. We live, as human beings, in an enormous hunger to be spoken to, to be touched, to be judged and loved and absolved. We live – at some level – in the awareness that there are things we cannot do for ourselves. No human being alone can teach himself or herself language; no human being alone can know himself or herself loved. And the whole human race alone cannot assure itself of its worth or interest, its dignity and lovableness, its responsibility. When no reality over against us pronounces a word of judgement or a word a word of affirmation, how do we know we are worth judging? The twentieth century has been in full flight from certain conceptions of personal morality, but what age has ever suffering from so acute an awareness of collective responsibility? Who shall absolve us from the guilt of the Holocaust? Colonialism? The Enlightenment? The failure of the Enlightenment? Who could absolve us from the guilt of a nuclear catastrophe? The appalling moral anxiousness of our age is an oblique recognition that the human being as such waits to hear something; and when we have collectively denied the possibility of hearing something from beyond our corporate culture, we expose ourselves to deep worries about our humanness …

We long to know we are addressed. And this is where the ambiguity comes in: we fantasize about what such an address might be; we project on to the empty space before us the voices we need to hear. Close Encounters of the Third Kind remains a haunting fiction – a story of extra-terrestrial visitation in which the ‘aliens’ turn out to have the ghostly shapes and faces of our lost childhood. The menacing stranger is, after all, only our forgotten innocence. It is a striking secular parody of the Christmas story, and one that points up the questionableness of our desire. What if our longing to hear a word spoken to us from beyond simply generates a loud echo of our need to be told we are all right, we have never fundamentally gone astray, we have never really left an undifferentiated Paradise? …

Our longings remind us of the essential human fact that we are talked and touched into life, and that a human race struggling to do all its talking and touching for itself faces a paralysing unhappiness and anxiety. And these longings are also fraught with the danger of illusion, the making of idols to meet our needs. The Israelites pour their treasures into a mould and out comes the Golden Calf; as if surprised, they cry, “Here is God”, as if they had not themselves determined the shape of the outcome.

“In that day a man shall cast his idols of silver, and his idols of gold, which they made each one for himself to worship, to the moles and to the bats.” For the people of God in Jewish scripture, loyalty to the covenant meant above all the forsaking of idols: the task is not to make sense of the world, beginning with unaided human resource, but to let ourselves be given sense purely by the summons of God. This was Israel’s own story: being led out of slavery and given shape and solidarity by the unexpected presence and pressure of God. Israel’s hostility to idols is a measure of the recognition that what I make to meet my needs cannot set me free, cannot give me a new and assured reality. The eyes of the idol are my own, looking back at me; I am still incommunicado …

The Christian, in the Advent season above all, must learn something of God’s own simultaneous “yes” and “no” to all religious aspiration and expectation. God, say the mystics, is innominabile and omninominable, the one for whom no name is adequate, the one of whom all true words speak. Only the newness of a new turn of history, the specific newness of new words, acts and relations, can show the God who will not allow himself to be caught in the circle of ideas alone, and so can show the God who exceeds both the fiercest longing and the profoundest speculation of creatures. Because Advent tells us to look for mystery, absolute grace, and freedom, in a fleshly human face, within the mobile form of our shared history, it brings our idolatry – philosophical and methodological alike – to judgement. Our hunger is met, we are talked and touched into new and everlasting life, our desire is answered; but only insofar as we have lived in an Advent of the religious imagination, struggling to let God be God; casting our idols of silver and gold to the moles and bats, “for fear of the Lord and for the glory of his majesty”, longing simply for our God to show himself as God in the “total and presuppositionless love” of his incarnate speech to us.”’

– Rowan Williams, ‘Advent: A University Sermon’, in Open to Judgement: Sermons and Addresses. [HT: Kent Eilers]

An ‘authentic’ church is a church which sees itself as ‘the bearer of a question’

I spent some time today reflecting on these words from Rowan Williams’ extraordinary essay ‘Women and the Ministry: A Case for Theological Seriousness’. (The essay appears in Feminine in the Church, and is also available here.) [HT: Chris Green for drawing my attention to this essay]:

If we had to choose between a Church tolerably confident of what it has to say and seeking only for effective means of saying it, and a Church constantly engaged in an internal dialogue and critique of itself, an exploration to discover what is central to its being, I should say that it is the latter which is the more authentic – a Church which understands that part of what it is offering to humanity is the possibility of living in such a mode. What the Church ‘has to say’ is never a simple verbal message: it is an invitation to entrust your life to a certain vision of the possibilities of humanity in union with God. And to entrust yourself in this way is to put your thinking and experience, your reactions and your initiatives daily into question, under the judgement of the central creative memory of Jesus Christ, present in his Spirit to his community.

I turned then to Mike Higton’s wonderful book, Difficult Gospel: The Theology of Rowan Williams, wherein he offers a stimulating commentary on these words of Williams’. I thought that it was worth sharing:

If the reality which the Church helps us to explore – the reality which it teaches – is that ‘ceaseless movement towards the Father’, then we need to be cautious about how we express the nature of the Church’s teaching. It is not going to be simply the doling out of well-understood truth – a case of those who have reached and understood the truth handing out that truth to others. Rather the Church will teach by inviting others to join with it in learning, and by pointing them to the sources from which it itself is slowly learning …

Rather than thinking of the Church as the bearer of answers, it might be better to think about the Church as the bearer of a question – the bearer of the question which the Gospel poses; we might say with Williams that the Church is ‘[t]hat which transmits God’s question from generation to generation’. The Church teaches by pointing away from itself to the transforming, upsetting impact of Jesus – pointing not so much to a stable, achieved religious system as to a disruption which can bring all systems of religious practice and knowledge face to face with a reality that cannot be exhausted by any system. The Church’s paradoxical task is to preserve this questioning – to find concrete forms of life, stable practices, and a learnable language that will keep alive the possibility of our hearing this disruption, and which will allow it to be felt deeper and far wider than the circle of its original impact’ (pp. 69–70).

On Rowan Williams’ Theology

A guest post by Joel Daniels.

1) Williams exaggerates the importance of maintaining unsettledness, preventing resting, etc.

Williams shares with Donald MacKinnon a sense of the moral priority of tragedy, and one gets the sense that he sees a straight line from closure to murder. At the risk of being too flip about it, the road to genocide is paved with good intentions. Efficient systems, set up by well-meaning people, to accomplish the greatest ends, eventually justify the most atrocious horror: it is fitting that one man should die for the people. Or the shaken revolutionary Shigalyov in Dostoevsky’s Demons, who has written out the plan for the revolution, reporting that, “Starting from unlimited freedom, I conclude with unlimited despotism. I will add, however, that apart from my solution to the social formula, there is no other.” Efficient theoretical systems (economic, political, philosophical, theological) produce victims, with the crucified Christ, one without sin, being the pure example of this fact – though the history of the last century provides ample examples by itself. I think that this really is the overarching concern of Williams’ theology.

Part of this may simply be disposition: there’s a really revealing line in WWA where he’s comparing Balthasar and Rahner, and he writes, “for Balthasar, dialogue with ‘the world’ is so much more complex a matter than it sometimes seems to be for Rahner; because [for Balthasar] the world is not a world of well-meaning agnostics but of totalitarian nightmares, of nuclear arsenals, labor camps and torture chambers” (100). If you look at the world and see harmony, you end up in one theological place; if you see torture chambers, you end up in another. I think the relentless self-criticism comes from having the second perspective as his default.

The downside of this is what Chris described; Mike Higton (in Difficult Gospel) puts it this way: “But I suspect that the tenor or atmosphere of his [Williams’] writing is too unrelentingly agonized…” Perhaps so; I remember reading that MacKinnon couldn’t order lunch without severe moral anguish.

2) For Williams, the logical outcome of good theology is the silence of frustration, not of adoration.

What prevents simple frustration supplanting the possibility of positive worship is the strong element of Anglican orthopraxis at work: while it may be the case that the Cross reveals that there is nothing we can securely know or think (frustration), the practice of worship (adoration) takes priority over the practice of theology. It would be interesting to know whether Williams would adopt Pseudo-Dionysius’ use of “hymn” as a theological category, along the lines of the “celebratory” mode of theological work he describes. If so, perhaps we could say that good theology culminates not in silence, but in the singing of the liturgy. It’s as if the Eucharistic service provides a kind of foundation from which we can work and to which we can return: our Eucharistic celebration may not be perfect; it is certainly interpreted by fallible human beings; and entails its own risks (clericalism, among many others). Nonetheless, we can identify the effect of the Eucharist over the course of history to complicate any easy answers, by returning us to the broken body of Christ.

3) Similarly, the effect Williams has is to make it too difficult to talk about God; the end result is paralysis or restlessness.

It’s not so much that we shouldn’t make attempts to talk about God (paralysis), as that we have to realize that no attempt is ever final: it’s dialectic all the way down. Is this eternal restlessness? In a sense, I think it probably is. But I hope that it’s the restlessness of two lovers’ delight in each other, not the restlessness of dissatisfaction; the kind of restlessness that is the way that the meaning of a great text (for example) is never exhausted, but always there to be plumbed for meaning, new circumstances bringing out existing aspects of the same work in a different light.Further, some attempts at talking about God are better than others, and one of the benefits of the tradition is a head start, so to speak, in identifying which ones are going to be liberating and fecund, and which will lead to dead ends, inconsistencies with the Eucharist, or something worse.

4) Williams makes anti-programmatic thinking programmatic.

I can understand a concern about a conception of theology that sees as its primary objective the destabilization of every affirmative statement about God – especially when that destabilization is being done by a professional class that isn’t explicitly or especially in relationship with a worshipping community. There is a difference between a smirking hermeneutic of suspicion and a pious refusal of idolatry, but they may look quite similar on the page. Further, an affinity for disruption can become its own security blanket.

At the very least, we can see that Williams is aware of that: I frequently return to the sermon “The Dark Night,” with its first paragraph “If I am a ‘conservative’ my circular path will be one of conventional sacramental observance… If I am a ‘radical’ my God will be the disturber of the social order… Both of these pictures as they stand are delusional.” Both of them use God to accomplish some other ends. I think he does a pretty good job at this, keeping his own perspective under interrogation also.

An End to All Endings? Reflections on Rowan Williams’ Critical Theology

A guest post by Chris Green

In his Pro Ecclesia review of Williams’ On Christian Theology, Robert Jenson observes—and calls into question—what he believes is Williams’ ‘obsessive fear of closure’. As Jenson sees it, the Archbishop is attempting at every turn to ‘enforce theology’s function as critique, and especially as self-critique’, as if ‘keeping the questions alive’ in a state of ‘indefinitely sustained puzzlement’ were the raison d’être for Christian dogmatics. Jenson suspects that such a use of theology, for all the good it might do, is finally inadequate because it is for all intents and purposes useless for the life of faith. Or, to put the same point another way, Jenson worries that Williams’ methodology is useful only for theological de(con)struction and not for ‘building up’.

I don’t quite agree with Jenson. For one thing, even assuming that Williams is obsessively afraid of ‘closure’, such interminable self-criticism is useful to the life of faith at least in this way: it helps guard against presumptive and trite God-talk—and that is no small gift. For another, Williams can and sometimes does talk in adoring, even confident ways. Nevertheless, I don’t entirely disagree with Jenson. Or, to put it another way, I think Williams at least sometimes puts himself at risk of exaggerating the obscurity of revelation and the difficulty of thinking and living Christianly. Whether he intends it or not—and I’m fairly certain he does not—the Archbishop can be taken to mean that Christian theology is a finally useless enterprise.

For example, he suggests in OCT that ‘puzzlement over “what the Church is meant to be” is the revelatory operation of God as “Spirit” insofar as it keeps the Church engaged in the exploration of what its foundational events signify’ (p. 144). Read in one way, this claim means only that the Spirit’s work is to chasten theological hubris. Read in another way, however, it effectively circumscribes the Spirit’s work, as if the Spirit’s role were merely disruptive. Such a theological mode has the effect of keeping Christian thought endlessly ‘up in the air’ and so incapable of arriving at any dogmatic stability, which, as Jenson quips, leads us to say not ‘I believe!’ but ‘I wonder…’ It’s telling, I believe, that Williams speaks of the creeds as only the ‘least inadequate’ way of talking of God.

Of course, Williams wants to make it ‘harder to talk about God’ (OCT, p. 84) precisely to protect the church and the world from destructive misunderstandings of God and misappropriations of theological justifications. Much like St John of the Cross, he refuses ‘infantile dependence on forms and words and images’ (WK, p. 189) precisely because he knows the danger of ‘premature harmonies’ (OCT, p. 50). He wants to ‘save the theologian from a captivity to trivial optimism … and lying cliché’. So far, so good. But at some point does it become too difficult to talk about God? How do we not all fall finally, everlastingly silent?

For the Archbishop, God is ‘a stranger in the most radical way possible’ so that faith is ‘the receptivity of the self before the ungraspable mysteriousness’ (WK, p. 188) of God’s ‘alien sovereignty’ (WSP, p. 114). In describing the theology of Gregory of Nyssa, Williams remarks that ‘God is what we have not yet understood: the sign of a strange and unpredictable future’ (WK, p. 66). Perhaps this is a defensible summation of Nyssa’s speculations, but it might defensibly be read as a distortive amplification of God’s otherness and unknowability.

At times, the Archbishop’s theological reflections sound quasi-masochistic. For example, he returns again and again in his work to the idea that the ‘inner readiness to come to judgment’ (OCT, p. 32) is the mark of the true disciple. In WK, he claims that ‘the greatness of the great Christian saints lies in their readiness to be questioned, judged, stripped naked and left speechless by that which lies at the center of their faith’ (p. 11). If he means that this ‘readiness to come to judgment’ is one of the marks of genuine faithfulness, then I agree wholeheartedly. I would argue, however, that it belongs to a complex of other readinesses that together constitute the form of faithfulness. In other words, openness to judgment is genuinely Christian only insofar as it is wedded to the humble audacity—to take up the S. Bulgakov’s idiom—also to receive blessings and to offer judgments in Christ’s name.

So, in conclusion, it seems clear that Jenson’s criticisms hit near the mark. At least in some of his work, Williams seems to exaggerate the gospel’s incomprehensibility and disruptiveness. Perhaps his theologizing suffers from an overdetermined theologia crucis? But thankfully Williams does not do all of his theology with a hammer. He knows that ‘the concern is not to inscribe disruption at the heart of the Christian story’ (WSP, p. 44), and that Christ is ‘the root of our security and our insecurity alike, promise and judgment, end and beginning’ (WK, p. 77). As he himself says, the Christian life simply does not make sense ‘without some confidence in the possibility of the reality of our own transformation in Christ’ (OCT, p. 28). Even if Williams sometimes talks as if he’s forgotten it, not all confidence is trivial. Oddly, perhaps no one has said this better than Williams himself:

If the Christian way were simply an experimental spirituality loosely inspired by a dead foreigner, we should no doubt be spared a lot of trouble; we should also be spared the transformation of the human world by God’s mercy in Christ. As it is, theology remains hard, for theologians and for their public, but the fact itself indicates the occasion or unstinted gratitude, celebration and—as we have seen—wonder at the sovereign work of grace. ‘The wrath of man shall turn to thy praise’; so, too, should the complexities and the turmoil of theology (On Doing Theology).

A final, anticlimactic word: so much depends on how Williams is read. In OCT (pp. xii-xv), he speaks of three styles of theology. Accordingly, readers of Williams must be careful to always hear even his ‘critical’ theology as both ‘celebratory’ and ‘communicative’. Otherwise, we play back in monophonic mode what is necessarily heard stereophonically.

On the theology of Rowan Williams

‘The Church sees through a glass darkly; but it sees none the less. These are the two components that Catholic Christianity seeks to hold in tension. Say too little, and you may betray the costly demands of the gospel. Say too much, and you risk sounding fanciful or authoritarian. [Rowan] Williams has been charged at one time or another with straying in either direction’. So wrote Rupert Shortt in his book Rowan Williams: An Introduction (p. 5). This week here at Per Crucem ad Lucem I will be posting two guest posts that attend to this seeing and saying in the theology of Rowan Williams. Stay tuned.

Words to sink your ears into

Missing your lectures? Eyes need a break? Need to kill some time over the Christmas period? Want to impress your friends (and enemies) with your learnedness? Check out some of the following links (which are mostly from our friends at Holden Village):

H. George Anderson

Karl Barth

  • “Was ist für Sie Mozart?”. Gespräch mit R. Schmalenbach (Text Schweizerdeutsch Text Standarddeutsch). Aus “Musik für einen Gast” (Radio Interview vom 17.9.1968, geführt von R. Schmalenbach). [mp3]
  • Weihnachtsgruss 1960 (siehe auch Letter Nr. 12) [mp3]
  • Institutio-Jubiläum 1959 (siehe Neue Zürcher Zeitung, Nr. 158, vom 11./12. Juli 2009, S. B 3) [mp3]
  • Aus dem Gespräch mit den Tübinger Stiftlern vom 2. März 1964 über die Entstehung der Barmer Theologischen Erklärung (siehe K. Barth, Gespräche 19641968, hrsg. von E. Busch [Gesamtausgabe, Abt. IV], Zürich 1997, S. 111–114; auch in: K. Barth, Texte zur Barmer Theologischen Erklärung, hrsg. von M. Rohkrämer, Zürich 20042, S. 221–223) [mp3]
  • Aus dem Gespräch mit der Kirchlichen Bruderschaft Württemberg vom 15. Juli 1963 über die Bedeutung von Barmen (siehe K. Barth, Gespräche 1963, hrsg. von E. Busch [Gesamtausgabe, Abt. IV], Zürich 2005, S. 54; auch in: K. Barth, Texte zur Barmer Theologischen Erklärung, hrsg. von M. Rohkrämer, Zürich 20042, S. 191) [mp3]
  • Aus “Die Liebe”, Abschiedsvorlesung Karl Barths vom 1. März 1962 an der Universität Basel (siehe K. Barth, Einführung in die evangelische Theologie, Zürich 20045, S. 220) [mp3]
  • Aus “The Community”, Vorlesung Karl Barths vom 26. April 1962 in Chicago und 2. Mai 1962 in Princeton (siehe K. Barth, Evangelical Theology. An Introduction, Grand Rapids, MI 1979, S. 41) [mp3]
  • Aus “Commentary”, Vorlesung Karl Barths vom 23. April 1962 in Chicago und 29. April 1962 in Princeton (siehe K. Barth, Evangelical Theology. An Introduction, Grand Rapids, MI 1979, S. 9–12) [mp3]
  • Tondokumente aus Letter Nr. 6.
  • Gespräch mit R. Schmalenbach. Aus “Musik für einen Gast” (Radio Interview vom 17.9.1968, geführt von R. Schmalenbach). [mp3]
  • Gespräch mit der Kirchlichen Bruderschaft in Württemberg. Aus dem Gespräch am 15.7.1963 im Restaurant Bruderholz in Basel. [mp3]
  • Gespräch in Bièvres. Aus der Diskusion am 20.10.1963 über Fragen im Zusammenhang seines Buches «Einführung in die evangelische Theologie». [mp3]
  • Podiumsdiskussion in Chicago. Aus dem Schlusswort bei der Podiumsdiskusion in Chicago 26.4.1962. [mp3]

Carl Braaten

Walter Brueggemann

Nancy Eiesland

Terry Fretheim

Martin Marty

Bonnie Miller-McLemore

Jürgen Moltmann

Ched Myers

Lesslie Newbigin

John Polkinghorne

Dorothee Sölle

William Stringfellow

  • Civil rights movement – an interview with Robert Penn Warren: Part I, Part II (1964)

Helmut Thielicke

Vitor Westhelle

Rowan Williams

Umhau Wolf

John Howard Yoder

some monday morning link love

Why did Rowan Williams defend Shari’a Law?

It’s because, Ben Myers argues, Williams was seeking to ‘promote [an] Hegelian style of public engagement, where what is good for any single community becomes part of the vision of what is good for all’. It also, as Ben notes, has everything to do with the fact that Williams seeks to take Philippians 2 seriously, where the church’s ‘vocation’ is to ‘reach out across all those boundaries that fragment the human community into self-protective ghettos’ and ‘to dismantle the whole logic of side-taking’. Read Ben’s piece here.

Rowan Williams addresses the House of Lords

Rowan Williams, speaking as the Archbishop of Canterbury, has addressed the House of Lords in the wake of recent events in England. Here’s a snippet:

‘There are indeed, as we’ve been reminded, no quick answers here. And I believe one of the most significant questions that we ought to be addressing in the wake of these deplorable events, is what kind of education we are interested in, for what kind of a society. Are we prepared to think not only about discipline in classrooms, but also about the content and ethos of our educational institutions – asking can we once again build a society which takes seriously the task of educating citizens, not consumers, not cogs in an economic system, but citizens’.

The full speech can be read here.

Prior to his attendance at the House of Lords, Rowan Williams also offered this statement, and the communion he serves made available this prayer.

Also, and singing in a slightly-different key, Mike Ovey, the Principal of Oak Hill College, offers this reflection on looters, consumerism and a civilised society.

 

‘Rublev’, by Rowan Williams

One day, God walked in, pale from the grey steppe,
slit-eyed against the wind, and stopped,
said, Colour me, breathe your blood into my mouth.

I said, Here is the blood of all our people,
these are their bruises, blue and purple,
gold, brown, and pale green wash of death.

These (god) are the chromatic pains of flesh,
I said, I trust I shall make you blush,
O I shall stain you with the scars of birth

For ever, I shall root you in the wood,
under the sun shall bake you bread
of beechmast, never let you forth

To the white desert, to the starving sand.
But we shall sit and speak around
one table, share one food, one earth.

– Rowan Williams, ‘Rublev’ in After Silent Centuries (Oxford: The Perpetua Press, 1994).

Rowan Williams on theological education

Call me theologically naïve, or ignorant, or not well enough read, but I simply do not understand some of the criticisms directed at Rowan Williams. Archbishop Williams is a person of deep faith and prayer, of contagious love for Christ, for the Scriptures and tradition which bear witness to him, and for Christ’s church, and who for decade after decade has been among the church’s finest public theologians (and poets!), producing first-rate scholarship with exemplary integrity and gospel-spirited passion, and helping a new generation of Christians to find the words and posture to understand and bear witness to the deepest realties of their faith in a rapidly changing cultural landscape. Moreover, his literary and spoken output alone – books, radio interviews, lectures (his 2011 Holy Week Lectures on Lewis’ Narnia are outstanding), reviews, articles, etc. – not to mention his gracious and steady leadership of the Anglican communion, leads me often to wonder if there are not two equally-brilliant and identical twins that Mr & Mrs Williams named ‘Rowan’ sometime last century.

Put differently, I keep an eye open to read and digest everything he writes. And why not, when it is so edifying and educative, and models a way of doing theology so worthy of emulation, if not entirely uncritically so. But there’s one lecture that I’ve missed, until now – his CEFACS lecture, given some years ago at the Centre for Anglican Communion Studies in Birmingham. So thanks Jim for pointing me to it, not least because the lecture attends to a subject in which I have some serious investment, namely theological education.

In that lecture, Williams invites us to think about theological education by way of the analogy of a musical education: ‘Just as, in relation to musical education, I might be reasonably sure of being able to identify what a musically educated person is like. I would know what sort of skills to look for and listen for in that case. Now I want to suggest that a theologically educated person is somebody who has acquired the skill of reading the world, reading and interpreting the world, in the context and framework of Christian belief and Christian worship … That means that a theologically educated person is not someone who simply knows a great deal about the Bible or history of doctrine but somebody who is able to engage in some quite risky and innovative interpretation, and who is able, if I can put it this way, to recognise holy lives. Because I think that the skill that belongs to being a theologically educated person is a very significant part – the skill of knowing what an exemplary life looks like lived in the context of doctrine and worship’.

Then, drawing upon the work of Thomas Aquinas and the example of God’s revelation to Moses, Williams proceeds to argue that ‘theology is inevitably, consistently to do with human lives, not in any sense that excludes theology having to do with God – far from it: but in recognition of the fact that because God is not an object lying around for examination, God’s impact upon and the difference God makes to human lives is where we are bound to begin. The word of God, the self communication of God is always bound up with the actual and concrete transformation of human situations – corporate and individual … From the vantage point of Christian theology that should not surprise us at all. Christian theology begins from the series of events – events of transformation’.

And later on: ‘Theology begins when something in the human world and human lives has struck at such depth that we need language more than just the conventional language of human agency and historical forces. Theology arises then when the world looks new. One of the saddest things that can be said about theology is that it has become stale; that it no longer speaks of transformation. Because the impulse to do theology arises when the world looks different from what you thought it was. The New Testament is riveting, exasperating, exhausting, inexhaustible because it is the work in progress of the people whose world is in “in the business” of being reformed, reshaped’.

And here is the point – the challenge, if you like – for those engaged in theological education: ‘Theological education is bound … to be regularly a matter of looking at the patterns of human lives. Theology has a great deal to do with biography and with history – the Bible containing many examples of both. It is out of those narratives, out of those stories and transactions that the ideas emerge and I would venture to say that a bad theological education is one which never gets you from the ideas to the narratives; and a good theological education is one that pushes you inexorably from the narratives to the ideas’. One thinks here of James Wm. McClendon Jr’s fine book, Biography as Theology: How Life Stories Can remake Today’s Theology, or of the work of Ray Anderson whose entire project is an outworking of the conviction that ministry precedes theology.

And that is why, Williams reminds us, contra Nietzsche, ‘theology is inevitably a component in the business of Christian discernment’, and good theology is concerned not to ‘set out to give you a map of another world but a set of instructions for this one’. And that is why, Williams notes, ‘theology is an uncomfortable partner in the academic enterprise … An uncomfortable partner in the enterprise because universities on the whole do not set themselves the task of educating people in the discernment of holiness. Why should they? And yet there is something in the level of critical questioning which theology ought to bring to the intellectual enterprise overall that is essential to intellectual health’.

These introductory points made, Williams then turns to some of the particularities of theological education in light of the definitions he has introduced. And here he wishes to speak about bible study, doctrine and church history.

Regarding the first of these, bible study, Williams is adamant that theological education ‘is designed to produce people who are really literate in the Bible’. Why? Because ‘the Bible is the primary record of the primary difference God makes. It begins, of course, by recording the greatest difference of all – the difference between things being there and things not being there and associates that with God. And in Christian scripture that primordial difference between being and non-being is latched on with an enormously ambitious theological pun at the beginning of St John’s Gospel latched on to the life of Jesus of Nazareth as the one who makes the difference between being and non-being within the world’s history. But the narrative of Hebrew scripture, what Christians call the Old Testament, evolves in a series of upheavals. The uprooting of Abraham from his native land, the release from slavery of the people of Israel, the betrayal and exile that follows the abandonment by God’s people of God’s justice, the restoration of the people around more liturgy. And within its contours we are not allowed at any point, I think, to come too quickly to a generalised version of what all this is about and who this God is. We have to watch the story in its process. We have to attend to and be involved in the drama of the narrative’.

Williams then encourages us to adopt a particular posture when we turn to Christian scripture:

‘Be patient, don’t assume the end of the story is come. God is a God who upturns the conventions and the ideas and the images we have and he does it centrally, focally, forever, in the life and death of Jesus. We watch them again as Christian scripture evolves, we watch people in that new landscape trying to find the words for it. To say that is not in the least to say that the Bible does not tell us the truth. The way the bible tells us the truth is by showing us how God’s reality, in its freedom and majesty, impresses itself upon human life. We read the impress, we read the impact, we begin to understand who it is that we are dealing with and that is as true of the New Testament as of the Old. Frequently as I read Paul’s epistles I read the impatient, inarticulacy of someone whose vision is bigger than his language and that is what makes Paul so intensely worth reading, so inspired, so much a vehicle of God’s spirit. Watching him struggle, sometimes very impatiently, with ideas that are getting away from him is precisely to be drawn into what Paul sees and what Paul knows – to meet Paul’s God. There is an extraordinary moment when Paul realises that he has dug himself in far more deeply than he originally intended to in an argument and suddenly breaks away saying “I don’t know where this is going but …” as he does, of course, so memorably at the end of his most agonised excursions – Romans 9–11. How am I going to bring all these ideas together, Paul asks at the end of 11 when he has been wrestling with the fate of Israel and he can say only, “O the depth and mystery of God”. And it is not a short cut because you have watched him getting there. I had a friend years ago who complained about the way in which theologians would revert to talking about mystery when things were getting difficult and it is a good discipline I think for any theologian to save the language of mystery, if you like, until the very last moment. That is to say to follow through argument, definition, refinement of terms as bravely and consistently as you can and not to give up too soon. Only when you have demonstrated that you are at the end of that story can you afford to say with Paul that you don’t know where to go but God does. Now that means, I think, that a person who is educated in reading the Bible is a person who, you can say theologically, by the Grace of the Holy Spirit, has been brought into that relationship with the God of the Bible which allows them to recognise in the language of the Bible their own faith and their own narrative. And that is something rather different from quarrying the Bible for little bits that happily remind you of how you feel. That is not biblical theology. It may be a useful form of apologetical psychology but it is not particularly theological. But to find in that language, that narrative, that register of exploration, something of the faith that transforms your own life; that I think is to see what biblical understanding is … The Christian comes into the biblical world – a strange world, a world in which images and ideas and words are not always what you expect. But the education of the Christian in the biblical world is an education in the skills of analogy and connection … That means that being a biblically educated person is a great deal more than knowing the texts’.

Williams turns next to the matter of Christian doctrine, rejecting the kind of doctrine-as-finished-product approach so often associated with theological education, and proposing instead a notion of doctrine as ‘the process of finding the words for a new landscape which like any such process is going to be in many ways vulnerable and rather bumpy’. ‘We can’t tell all the truth’, he says, ‘we can tell the truth consistently, we hope intelligently and then once again … come to the point when we say that is as far as we can go but we have done the work’. A ‘doctrinally educated person therefore is … somebody who can see what sort of human anxieties, aspirations, tensions, prayer, love, sin and grace led people to think it mattered to talk about Jesus in this way, to talk about God in this way, to talk about the Sacraments of the Church in this way. It was not a word game. It wasn’t a way of passing the long winter evenings’. Williams cites Barth and Bonhoeffer as examples of what it looks like to do theology in this way, i.e., in a way that takes the contemporary location seriously, in a way that seeks to profess Christ in a new and different space.

Williams then comes to the matter of education in church history, a subject with he has written very helpfully on before (see, for example, his wonderful book Why Study The Past?: The Quest for the Historical Church), and a subject which, he observes, ‘has tended sometimes to be a little bit of a Cinderella subject in theological education’. He continues:

‘When it has been done people don’t always quite see why it is done, whether there is a theological reason for doing it. It becomes another bundle of anecdotes. Facts about the past which may or may not be interesting, probably not very. Stories about people far away, speaking foreign languages with strange names with very bizarre ideas. Now I don’t think that will do as an approach to Church History because one of the things that comes out of being a biblically educated and doctrinally educated person is some sense of what it means to belong to the body of Christ. That is to be part of a community which has no spatial or temporal boundaries but in which every participant has something to give and something to receive … Those odd people in the text books are actually our brothers and sisters in Christ, and frequently you would much prefer that they weren’t. Almost as much as you would prefer that some of your contemporaries weren’t! But these are people in whom Christ is given to you’.

He argues that the difficulty with teaching church history is that the subject frequently falls apart into two equally unhelpful poles: ‘There is the kind of Church History which looks at the past as answering the questions. That is the story, that is how we got here and it all ends happily because it ended with us. And there is the kind of Church History which says we have to be deeply conscious of the absolute cultural gulf that separates us from everybody before 1550 or 1700 or 1981 or whatever. Both of those are unhelpful simply as historical method but they are totally insupportable as theological method’. And so part of the challenge, he goes on to say, ‘is being able to cope both with the continuity and with the gulf. These are people deciding to be disciples of the same Lord that I try to follow. These are people speaking of that discipleship in categories that are so strange that it will take me a lot of patience to learn what they say and listen to it effectively. Yet both those elements are true and essential in the process’. Not only is the position that nothing important happened between the NT and now (or between the first and the fifteenth centuries) ‘intellectually shabby and indefensible’ but such a view is also ‘spiritually impoverished’, for whether we like it or not, God has graced us with ‘a very, very large number of companions on the journey. Each one of whom will have something distinctive to say however well I hear it, however easily I digest it’. And here Williams returns to the question of reading the Bible, noting that ‘an educated reader of the Bible is also somebody who knows how to read the Bible in company – in company with other Christians now, in company with Christians through the ages’, in the company of the Christian community ‘and to find education and discipleship in that process’.

Finally, Williams makes the point that as alarming, pre-modern and unattractive as it sounds, one indispensable, if not largely forgotten, theological virtue is obedience. Naming Barth as ‘the greatest theologian of obedience in the 20th century’, Williams defines obedience in theology as ‘that absolutely faithful attention to the otherness of what you are dealing with, that springs you from the trap of your own preoccupations and preferences. Somewhere in all of this business of theological education we have to come to terms with that sense of an otherness, an elsewhere – not another place, another realm, another world but that which is not simply on the map of our concerns, our security, our ideas. An obedient theology is one which seeks to be formed by what is there and a holy life is one which lets itself be impacted, be impressed by the will of God. For Karl Barth, that meant of course, that an obedient theologian was someone who was free to be the most dramatic possible nuisance in church and world. Obedience to the otherness of God, such a person would be obedient to no other constraints and no tyranny that could be concocted on the face of the earth’.

‘What obedience means for us’, he continues, ‘is a far tougher, far more complex matter to work out. And yet’, he says, ‘a theology that does not somehow tackle that issue of obedience somewhere along the line as part of the education we are talking about, will fail to be theology. And that is an obedience, of course, which challenges great deal of what we often mean by the term’. Williams then provides some examples of what he is talking about, examples which underscore his claim that obedience is far from what we often associate with terms like passivity or docility: ‘Whatever obedience means there, it does not mean docility. Obedience can mean again Paul throwing down his pen with exasperation and say “I don’t know what more to say; it is too big for me to speak of” – that’s obedience. It’s St Thomas Aquinas saying at the end of his life saying, ‘all I’ve written seems like so much straw compared with what has been shown to me’. It is Luther throwing his inkpot at the devil. It is Barth wonderfully, at the end of a deeply boring and conventional parish mission, designed to make everybody feel a great deal worse, decided as he tells us to preach a sermon on little angels with harps and sheets of music. Because he felt he had been listening for a week to a mission all about how ‘I’ ought to feel and not about how God was, therefore he wanted to turn the whole thing back to praise, and that’s obedience’.

Linking this back to the subject of theological education, Williams concludes by noting that obedience properly belongs in the very DNA of any theological education worthy of its subject, for such education is about ‘passionate intention to what is there, to the extent that I am changed by that attention, and set free by it from other pressures to conformity’. And he then offers some specific words to his own Anglican Communion, words which I venture to say are pertinent to the entire body of Christ: ‘We have a very long way to go in making our Anglican church a coherent, communal, obedient, renewed family of congregations. And yet we share the reality given in Christ by our baptism, the reality of Christ’s body. The theological education we need, I believe, in the Communion is something which will make that come alive for us, which will make us literate in reading scripture and doctrine and church history, which will deepen in us those skills of discernment that we need in respect of our own calling and the calling of others, which will set us free from being simply an ecclesiastical organisation preoccupied with policing itself in various ways which will perhaps make us a more effective servant of the world into which God calls us. The world in which God invites us to recognise him, respond to him, praise, be glad in him, a world which is on the way to becoming that new creation which is really the context, the locus of any theology worth the name’.

Rowan Williams: Fighting the good fight

A week or so ago, the Guardian published a delightful interview between David Hare and Rowan Williams in which they discuss politics, education, economics, localism, prisons, the church, faith, self-absorption, and Welsh poets.

The entire interview is worth reading, but here are a few snippets to whet appetites: When asked by Hare whether Williams is paying too high a price for keeping together people who believe different things about gender, priesthood and sexuality, Williams responds: ‘I’ve no sympathy for that view. I don’t want to see the church so balkanised that we talk only to people we like and agree with. Thirty years ago, little knowing what fate had in store, I wrote an article about the role of a bishop, saying a bishop is a person who has to make each side of a debate audible to the other. The words “irony” and “prescience” come to mind. And of course you attract the reproach that you lack the courage of leadership and so on. But to me it’s a question of what only the archbishop of Canterbury can do’.

And on Welsh poet(-priests):

‘I always get annoyed when people call RS Thomas a poet-priest. He’s a poet, dammit. And a very good one. The implication is that somehow a poet-priest can get away with things a real poet can’t, or a real priest can’t. I’m very huffy about that. But I do accept there’s something in the pastoral office that does express itself appropriately in poetry. And the curious kind of invitation to the most vulnerable places in people that is part of priesthood does come up somewhere in poetic terms. Herbert’s very important to me. Herbert’s the man. Partly because of the absolute candour when he says, I’m going to let rip, I’m feeling I can’t stand God, I’ve had more than enough of Him. OK, let it run, get it out there. And then, just as the vehicle is careering towards the cliff edge, there’s a squeal of brakes. “Methought I heard one calling Child!/And I replied My Lord.” I love that ending, because it means, “Sorry, yes, OK, I’m not feeling any happier, but there’s nowhere else to go.” Herbert is not sweet.’

Rowan Williams on the oddness of the open Table

‘[The Church’s] complete sharing of baptismal and eucharistic life does not happen rapidly or easily, and the problem remains of how the Church is to show its openness without simply abandoning its explicit commitment to the one focal interpretative story of Jesus. To share eucharistic communion with someone unbaptized, or committed to another story or system, is odd – not because the sacrament is “profaned”, or because grace cannot be given to those outside the household, but because the symbolic integrity of the Eucharist depends upon its being celebrated by those who both commit themselves to the paradigm of Jesus’ death and resurrection and acknowledge that their violence is violence offered to Jesus. All their betrayals are to be understood as betrayals of him; and through that understanding comes forgiveness and hope. Those who do not so understand themselves and their sin or their loss will not make the same identification of their victims with Jesus, nor will they necessarily understand their hope or their vocation in relation to him and his community. Their participation is thus anomalous: it is hard to see the meaning of what is being done’.

– Rowan Williams, Resurrection: Interpreting the Easter Gospel (London: Darton, Longman and Todd, 1982), 68.