Christ is killed every day by the injuries we cannot bear

These are the opening words of Rowan Williams’ new book, Holy Living, and they are meant to unveil our regular, entirely reasonable (so it seems) un-involvement in the pains around us. We say, rightly, “Christ alone can carry our sufferings.” Yes indeed, surely this is right. Christ alone, Rowan_Williams_2007according to his grace, can carry our sufferings. We are thus realists about our limited capacities. Indeed we’re theologically astute realists, as least as it concerns the sufficiency of grace. But though we grasp the sufficiency of Christ’s grace for us we fail to follow the trajectory of grace into the pain around us.

As realists we easily and painlessly stand at a distance from pain. However, Williams reminds, the pain of another person “does not stop being ours when it becomes his.” In fact, the nature of God’s peculiar way of redeeming me compels me to be a particular kind of un-realist: “The complete involvement of Jesus in human torment draws us after, draws us to imitation, stirs us to be Christ for our neighbor, to expose ourselves as he did” (9, 11).

There is more I want to say about this in a later post. There is perspective here on my vocation as a Christian professor in a Christian institution of higher education, though I’m still mulling over quite how I want to put it. For now I want to post a slightly longer section of this chapter around which my attention keeps coming back. You might ask yourself, “In whatever kind of community I find myself, how does this challenge me?”

Well, we are all realists to a greater or lesser degree, and there is therefore no avoiding the fact of our complicity in the death of Jesus. Like the apostles we evade and refuse and deny and escape when the cross becomes a serious possibility.

Ouch! And he doesn’t let up:

Terror of involvement, fear of failure—of hurting as well as being hurt—the dread of having of powerlessness nakedly spelled out for us: all of this is the common coin of most of our lives. For beneath the humility of the person who believes he or she knows their limitations is the fear of those who have never found or felt their limitations. Only when we have traveled to those stony places of the spirit where we are forced to confront our helplessness and our failure can we be said to know our limitations, and then the knowledge is too late to be useful. We do not know what we can or cannot bear until we have risked the impossible and intolerable in our own lives. Christ bears what is unbearable, but we must first find it and know it to be unbearable. And it does not stop being ours when it becomes his. Only thus can we translate our complicity in the death of Christ into a communion in the death of Christ, a baptism in the death of Christ: by not refusing, by not escaping, by forgetting our realism and our reasonableness, by letting the heart speak freely, by exposing ourselves, by making ourselves vulnerable (9).

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On Shame

I met with a student of mine a few days ago who talked to me about shame. She lamented that much of her faith history was in communities that (as she experienced it) emphasized shame. The effect was a lingering sense of her utter inadequacy and condemnation.

Now, a sense of one’s inadequacy regarding salvation is not a bad thing at all, and she knows that (see Ephesians 2). We are not saved on account of the adequacy of what we do, but wholly on account of the adequacy of what God does for us in Jesus the Messiah, as it is brought to life in us through the Holy Spirit. God comes to us with life from the inexpressible sufficiency of his divine life. The super-abundant adequacy of the divine life overmatches our inadequacy. Our sin is no match for his life.

She knows it. Her struggle is more a matter of this: as she sees it, once saved she still doesn’t amount to much.

So I was delighted to hear that she’s been finding a fresh vision for discipleship, one less centered on shame, from one of my favorite theologians: Rowan Williams. After reading his new book, Being Disciples: Essentials of the Christian Life, my student (who is fast becoming a friend) said a new way forward opened up in front of her. She specifically mentioned an image Williams uses in the first chapter. Birdwatcher

Disciples are expectant in the sense that they take it for granted that there is always something about to break through from the Master, the Teacher, something about to burst through the ordinary and uncover a new light on the landscape. The master is going to speak or show something; reality is about to open up when you are in the Master’s company, and so your awareness…is a little bit like that of a birdwatcher. The experienced birdwatcher, sitting still, poised, alert, not tense or fussy, knows that this is the kind of place where something extraordinary suddenly bursts into view (4-5).

Beautiful. It makes me wonder: could it be that a shame-based sense of our relation to God gives us the sense that we shouldn’t expect God to show up, surprise us, overwhelm us with delight?  When the Christian life centers on shame, why should we expect God to show up for anything other than condemnation? It’s like talking about the Christian life in terms of “mortification” and “vivification” but without the “vivification.” All death, no resurrection. It’s a shame. No, it’s tragedy, and maybe even heresy.

Father, lead us to know our own worth as we discover our lives in you and only in you.

A Sermon for the Second Sunday of Advent (Rowan Williams)

Rowan Williams, “Advent: A University Sermon

Advent pulls the imagination in two directions. We turn our minds to the universal longing for God Rowan_Williams_1110959cthat 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

Theology as Easter Speech

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.

Theological Educator As…(Ruminations of a Novice, Pt. 2)

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

Rowan Williams on the “accessibility” of the church

Rowan_Williams_1110959cThrough 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

Rowan Williams on seeing the church’s future in the church’s past

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)?

Rowan Williams 1To 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