Rowan Williams on entering the world of revealed religion

rembrant-jacob-wrestling-angelArchbishop Rowan Williams is a brilliant theologian and preacher. Yesterday, Williams was at Great St Mary’s Church, Cambridge, to deliver the Hulsean Sermon. Its title? ‘Seeing the Question: Revelation and Self-Knowledge’. He drew upon work by Barth, Augustine and TF Torrance; and here’s what he had to say about revelation:

Revelation is the discovery that you are already, before you knew it, in relation to a vision that is both utterly compassionate and utterly truthful: to discover this in the face, in the presence of another human being within history, not even in the presence of an archaic statue, starts the long, draining and exhilarating trail of recasting what has been taken for granted about God and the world, the created and the uncreated, and sketches what might have to be said about a God who is free not only to engage with the human world but to do so from within. I am shown to myself as a person already in relation: God is shown to me as the agency that is eternally prepared for relation. And the creeds begin to cast their shadow before them; because of that single human presence about which we can only say, ‘he told me everything I ever did’.

Revealed religion can so easily be presented as the enemy of many things that our culture holds precious: intellectual humility and intellectual adventure; the sense of ultimate otherness or strangeness within our relations with one another; the fascination with our own inner elusiveness, our otherness to ourselves. Yet all these themes seem themselves to arise out of the gradual apprehension of what revelation actually entails. If theology – the theology of revealed religion – has a place in the academy, it is because of the way in which it underscores the strength of the goading to know that drives all serious mental enterprise and at the same time the unfinished character of that enterprise. It does so not by appealing to a vague belief that all verbal forms are provisional or that the spiritual nature of human beings is worth taking seriously, but as a discipline that wrestles with intractable history and particular narrative, with the ways in which human beings think within time and relationship and create language together.

In a cultural context where – so we are repeatedly told – ‘spirituality’ is more popular than ‘religion’, it doesn’t hurt to remind ourselves of what the claim to revelation and the focus on historical particulars involves for the life of faith and the exploration of that life in art or theology. Here at least we are in a world in which the characteristic pressure of intellectual activity makes sense – the conviction of an obligation to persistence and novak-jacob-wrestling-the-angelhonesty, the cautions against imagining that issues have been resolved when they have only been named; here the life of the mind and of a properly demanding imagination are recognisably involved. Grace and struggle both belong inseparably in the process of receiving and responding to a revealing God. What the preference for a generic spirituality may lose hold of is just this partnership of the awareness of gift and the pressure to speak as truthfully as can be in the light of the steady weight of that gift as received by generations.

To enter the world of revealed religion, to make one’s own the vocabulary of a free self-disclosure on the part of the transcendent, is not to abandon discovery or darkness: because it is grounded in the simultaneous new awareness of who God is and who I and my neighbour are, it cannot be simply the delivery of the last pieces in a puzzle. To become conscious that you are seen is potentially frightening; to become conscious that you are seen by a presence that has no selfish interest, no advantage to be exploited, no will to manipulate, but one that gratuitously shares the secret of itself, its reality and ‘density’, is perhaps not
less frightening (you hate it because it hurts’) but is also to find yourself just beginning in the way of fearlessness. My story is told to me afresh; and I find that it is embraced, graced, opened. ‘You must change your life’; but in fact my life is changed, not by me, if I can bear the gaze.

The full sermon manuscript is available here.

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