Rowan Williams, “Advent: A University Sermon“
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? [...] Continue reading
I gave a paper this morning at the Midwest Regional Meeting of the Conference on Christianity and Literature. My presentation focused on the category of mystery in the theology of Rowan Williams. Specifically, I explored how his reading of the resurrection narratives generates a doctrinal rationale for the mysterious in Christian theology. Here is an excerpt.
Christian theology is Easter speech; it stands on the brink of its own impossibility because of the unsettling character of Christ’s resurrection, then and now. It stands on this side of that brink because with the risen Christ from the tomb comes God’s work of re-creation. The world, and consequently language, is simply not the same; so those who do in fact say anything at all stand “paralyzed as if in dreams, waiting for his spring” (“Resurrection,” in Headwaters).
What does all this have to do with the category of “mystery?” For Williams, as I hope is becoming clear, the resurrection of Christ establishes an orientation and cadence for Christian theology that mirrors the encounters of those who met the risen Christ. In that pattern, Williams argues, “Christian speech is for ever entering into and re-emerging from inarticularity. There is not one moment of dumbness or loss followed by fluency, but an unending back and forth between speech and silence” (Resurrection: Interpreting the Easter Gospels, 66). [...]
Theology’s Easter-orientation means that “mystery” —that which supersedes our understanding—is fundamental to its starting point and to its ongoing viability. At any point that theology attempts a “final word”, a total explanation or formula, then it transgresses the pattern of silence and speech which characterizes the Easter encounter.
One of the roles of a theological educator is to model “theological discernment”: how one goes about theological reasoning with faith, hope, love, and not a little bit of joy.
Ellen Charry describes theology as above all “a discipline of discernment.” Whether one begins by examining the Biblical text,
the doctrinal tradition, a personal encounter with God, a sobering personal experience, or the culture in which one is located theology is thinking through and beyond these points of entry until deeper realization of God’s truth emerge (Inquiring After God, 53).
Charry’s observation that theology is “a discipline of discernment” strikes me as altogether right. Theology, not as a body of knowledge but as a task or craft, necessarily involves the practitioner in a weighing and sifting that is certainly as much art as science: whether they are an everyday Christian confronted by a perplexing cultural text, a pastor preaching on a difficult topic, or one of us strange beings who make our home in the University or seminary and for whom theology very often takes place in preparation for classes or in the presence of students.
Learning theological discernment is certainly more easily “caught” than taught, but some intentional pedagogical strategies can invite students actively into the process. For example, I have my students in systematic theology wrestle throughout the course with Rowan Williams’ thoughts on theological method from the prologue to On Christian Theology. Continue reading
Through various blog links I stumbled upon an interesting interview with Rowan Williams. If you spend any time on TF you know I am an avid – though novice – reader of the Archbishop. I wouldn’t call it a scholarly investment; I simply find him provoking and refreshing in equal measure. Williams helps get me excited about theology and the church again when I start losing hope in either (his sermons particularly).
The interview touches on the “accessibility” – or relevance – of the church in our contemporary setting. While there is certainly food for discussion on that topic, his comments are illuminating about the “downward spiral” of having low expectations of young people. I see this in the classroom almost every week: so little has been expected of my students in the past that I fear many of them expect little of themselves.
Ian Hislop: How do you balance that attempt to be of the age, to be accessible, and yet not be banal.
Archbishop of Canterbury: The point is often being confident enough about what you are inviting people into, which is not simply an entertainment but a journey and process of change. Continue reading
I am working on a book that explores historical “retrieval” as a mode of theological reasoning, and I find Rowan Williams characteristically on the mark in his brief (but excellent) little book Why Study the Past: The Quest for the Historical Church (2005). I especially like the way he turns loose his doctrine of the church as the Body of Christ on the act of appropriating from the tradition.
I would be interested to hear: do you find overtly theological/dogmatic reasoning such as this driving the engines of contemporary historical recoveries (how about The New Calvinism movement in the US or Paleo-orthodoxy)?
To engage with the church’s past is to see something of the church’s future. If we relate to the past as something that settles everything for us, something whose meaning is utterly and finally plain, it is to treat the texts of the past as closing off history, putting an end to our self-awareness as historical persons involved in unpredictable growth. If we dismiss the past as unintelligible, if we read its texts as closed off from us by their alien setting, we refuse to see how we have ourselves been formed in history; we pretend that history has not yet begun. And in the specifically theological context, we shall on either count be denying that we can only grow in company, can only develop because summoned by a word that is not ours. That word is made concrete and immediate for us in the human responses that have constituted the Church’s history; all of this has made our present believing selves possible (p. 94) …
The dangers of looking to the past for a solution of present difficulties are obvious enough; but there is another way of approaching this which is less fraught with risk. Continue reading
What does Christian faith have to do with fiction, the novel?
On Rowan Williams’ account, Dostoevsky: Language, Faith, and Fiction, we find in Dostoevsky’s fiction something of a theology of writing, one indicating a relationship between faith and fiction that points toward the gratuitous nature of both. Williams’ comments regarding the correlation between Dostoevsky’s narratives and his own faith have proved helpful for my reading of Dostoevsky as well. Rather than putting forward a vision for ‘ideal’ faith or a paradigm for obedience, Williams sees Dostoevsky instead imagining through his fiction what faith might look like (rather than should look like) in varying situations, personalities, and human hardships. Put differently, Dostoevsky invites us to ask, ‘What would be possible if we – characters and readers – saw the world and all its sufferings, tragedies, and desolations in the light of faith?’
Rowan Williams is proving to be a delightful companion to Dostoevsky, and being on vacation last week finally gave me opportunity to begin reading it together with The Brothers Karamazov. Any other suggestions for good works on Dostoevsky or, perhaps, your favorite Dostoevsky novel?
[T]here is no end to writing. The endless turning on itself of the Devil’s conversation with Ivan [from The Brother's Karamazov] is analogous to the writer’s self-interrogation becomes more urgent, since the dangers of avoiding it are so dramatic. All that we have seen of the destructive and self-destructive potential of language and faith, the various ways in which we can reduce it either to the willed and subjective or to the descriptive and worldly, with the suicidal consequences of both, means that we have to go on speaking/writing about God, allowing the language of faith to encounter fresh trials every day, and also fresh distortions and refusals.
In writing fiction in which no formula is allowed unchallengeable victory, Dostoevsky has implicitly developed what might be called a theology of writing, specifically of narrative writing. Every fiction is at its most fictional in its endings, those pretences of closure and settlement. Every morally and religiously serious fiction has to project something beyond that ending or otherwise signal a level of incompletion, even in the most minimal and formal mode, indicating a as yet untold story. Continue reading
A new collection of poetry from Archbishop Rowan Williams has just been released, Headwaters. This is my first exposure to Williams’ poetry and I have to say, it is elegant, challenging, and rewards with some rereading. Like his theological writings you have to spend some time getting a feel for his cadence and use of language. Altogether there are forty-five selections including some translations of the Russian poet Inna Lisnianskaya and a couple translations of Gwenallt Jones from the Welsh.
In one of my favorites, “Resurrection: Borgo San Sepolcro”, Williams watches the ‘black eyes fixed half open’ of Piero della Francesca’s Resurrection (pictured at right) and waits, ‘paralysed as if in dreams, for his spring’.
Today it is time. Warm enough, finally,
to ease the lids apart, the wax lips of a breaking bud
defeated by the steady push, hour after hour,
opening to show wet and dark, a tongue exploring,
an eye shrinking against the dawn. Light
like a fishing line draws its catch straight up,
then slackens for a second. The flat foot drops,
the shoulders sag. Here is the world again, well-known,
the dawn greeted in snoring dreams of a familiar
winter everyone prefers. So the black eyes
fixed half-open, start to search, ravenous,
imperative, they look for pits, for hollows where
their flood can be decanted, look
for rooms ready for commandeering, ready
to be defeated by the push, the green implacable
rising. So he pauses, gathering the strength
in his flat foot, as the perspective buckles under him,
and the dreamers lean dangerously inwards. Contained,
exhausted, hungry, death running off his limbs like
from a shower, gathering himself. We wait,
paralysed as if in dreams, for his spring.