In Petition of the Self-Sanctification of God’s Name
Deploying theological categories as credible and capable resources for addressing any number of questions that vex our society and/or our subjectivity is an uncertain proposition. In the post-Christian West it’s taken for granted that religious discourse, if not yet altogether meaningless, is certainly in want of a raison d’être. So what is the theologian and pastor to do in times when talk of God, the church, and the gospel are heard as impotent to save? When the fear of the Lord and the obedience of faith constitute neither the beginning of wisdom nor the rule of virtue? When it seems religious discourse itself stands in need of, well, redemption?
When I rehearse questions like these to myself I admittedly feel caught between two lines of response, and I’m not yet sure how to correlate them. Both are on to something, but how to account for their respective contributions? This is my standing question. So without further ado:
When words lose their meaning, it is not the words that are at fault, but the people using them.
- from R. G. Rollefson Thinking with Kierkegaard and Wittgenstein: The Philosophical Theology of Paul L. Holmer (Pickwick, 2014), 67.
It is not that…words are mistaken, or that they are — in the glib modern sense — irrelevant, so that we need clearer and simpler ideas. Far from it. The problem lies in…speakers. There is not enough depth in us for [certain] words to emerge as credible; they have become external to us, tokens we use while forgetting what profound and frightening differences in the human world they actually refer to. …[T]he point of traditional doctrinal forms is…, we could say, to create a depth in us.
- [excerpted from an earlier post]
In the world as it is, the right to be heard speaking about God must be earned.
- from Rowan Williams, On Christian Theology (Blackwells, 2000), 40.
That prayer [hallowed be thy name] is not, we must note, first and foremost a prayer that the Church itself somehow establish the sanctity of God’s name. Quite the opposite: it is a prayer that God himself hallow his own name. … The prayer of the Church, its trustful cry that in this matter God will take up his own cause and demonstrate his holiness, is thus rooted in the “sanctifying of God’s name by God himself.”
- from John Webster, Holiness (Eerdmans, 2003), 75-76.
A world enslaved to mistaken, idolatrous, and even murderous theological apprehensions seems to be too great a challenge for such a frail, divided, compromised community as the Church of Jesus Christ. And it is! That is why the Lord’s Prayer is a prayer! We disciples do not accept the hallowing of God’s name as a mission we can make ourselves able to accomplish. We beg for it as a gift we can receive in faith by grace. God’s reputation may be in tatters today among the nations and even among his own people, but God’s reputation is eternally secure among the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, and that is what really matters.
- from Telford Work, “The Reputation of God,” in Ain’t Too Proud to Beg: Living Through the Lord’s Prayer (Eerdmans, 2007), 45.
Insofar as my disjunction has set divine and human agency in contrastive terms, Webster and Work have to be right, as a matter of fundamental theological grammar, to accord what I’m calling the redemption of religious discourse to God’s agency. Quoting Barth, Webster is able to speak of “an act [of God] that cannot be ours” (76). This line would seem to leave Williams and Holmer’s thesis without any work left to do. But we know Webster and Work would not endorse an account of competitive, zero-sum agency between God and humanity. So, first, that does leave me wondering what could count as an action of God that’s unmediated by human action. What might Webster cite as an example? Second, I’m wondering whether Williams and Holmer’s claim could be reimported through a back door (so to speak) on the basis of some Thomist-style model of double agency. It seems to me axiomatic that the concrete lives of Christians contribute in some way to the credibility of their claims. Something about having to earn the right to be heard speaking about God (however that’s imagined) rings true. Yet how doesn’t that concession put the onus squarely back on Christians and once again eclipse God’s agency in just the way Webster censures?
if the word ‘God’ (with a capital ‘G’) has today become so burdened with inappropriate use, why don’t we simply discard it, and speak in some other way about the holy mystery which the word misnames? After all, it is not on a three-letter word that our hearts, identities and hopes are set. The short answer, I suggest, is that the long, and complex, and conflictual history of humankind’s engagement in the educational process of learning non-idolatrously to worship, learning wholeheartedly and without reserve to give ourselves to the truth, and flourishing, and freedom, to which we have been called, is simply too bound up with the history of the uses and misuses of this little word. However difficult it is to use appropriately, there is no other word which similarly signals that the truth and destiny and healing of the world infinitely outstrip the world’s capacities.
- from Nicholas Lash, Holiness, Speech and Silence (Ashgate, 2004), 20-21. Cf. Theology on the Way to Emmaus, 55.
The body of Christ is the instrument God has chosen to rescue his reputation in the world.
- from Telford Work, “The Reputation of God,” in Ain’t Too Proud to Beg: Living Through the Lord’s Prayer (Eerdmans, 2007), 45. In context, by “body of Christ” Telford is primarily referring to the Church, but given the drift of his essay it might be permissible to leave it ambiguous (either Church or Christ), or perhaps even take it in a conjunctive totus christus sense.
Rowan Williams on self-judgment
Bonhoeffer writes [in a poem on his imprisonment], “They often tell me / I would step from my cell’s confinement / calmly, cheerfully, firmly, / like a squire from his country-house.” … But the poem is about the great gulf between what “they” see – a confident, adult, rational, prayerful, faithful, courageous person – and what he knows is going on inside: the weakness and the loss and the inner whimpering and dread. “So which is me?” Bonhoeffer asks. Is it the person they see, or the person I know when I’m on my own with myself? And his answer is surprising and blunt: I haven’t got a clue; God has got to settle that. I don’t have to decide if I’m really brave or really cowardly, whether I’m really confident or really frightened, or both. Who I am is in the hands of God. … It goes beyond the assumption that I am only what I see or know. It tells me that I am more than I realize, in the eyes of God, for good or ill. It tells me to hope in “what is unseen”…, in the one who doesn’t need to be told about how human beings work because he knows the human heart.
From Being Disciples (Eerdmans, 2016), 29-30.
P.S. George Whitefield on reputation
I am content to wait till the Judgment Day for the clearing up of my reputation; and after I am dead I desire no other epitaph than this, ‘Here lies G.W. What sort of man he was the Great Day will discover.’
QTD in Arnold Dallimore, George Whitefield: God’s Anointed Servant in the Great Revival of the Eighteenth Century (Westchester, IL: Crossway, 1990), 154.
It’s a few years old, but so what? It’s still Williams, and on point.
Rowan Williams on Why Adults Don’t Outgrow Fairy Tales
In our day, it is adults who seem most to need and use them [fairy tales], because they are just about the only stories we have in common with which to think through deep dilemmas and to keep alive registers of emotion and imagination otherwise being eroded. …
One way of understanding the fairy tale is to see it as dramatizing the human confrontation with nature and “the impenetrability of destiny”. Our environment, the fairy tale says, is unpredictably hostile and destructive; it is also unpredictably full of resource. Family members may turn out to be murderous and treacherous, ordeals may face us in which our life is at stake, horror and suffering may bear no relation to merit or innocence. At the same time, animals turn out to be saviors, winds and waves mobilize to rescue us, lost parents speak to us through trees in the garden and forgotten patrons (“fairy godmothers”) turn up to support. The amoral scheme of the world can work in our favor; we never know when help is at hand, even when we have gone astray.
The message is not just that there is the possibility of justice for downtrodden younger sisters or prosperity for neglected, idle or incompetent younger sons. [Rather, the message is based] on the conviction underlying all this sort of storytelling: that the world is irrationally generous as well as unfairly hurtful. There is no justice, but there is a potentially hopeful side to anarchy, and we cannot tell in advance where we may find solidarity. Or, to put it in more theological terms, there is certainly a problem of evil in the way the world goes; yet there is also a “problem of good” – utterly unexpected and unscripted resources in unlikely places. And at the very least this suggests to the audience for the tale a more speculatively hopeful attitude to the non-human environment as well as to other people. Just be careful how you treat a passing fox, hedgehog or thrush . . .
From “Why We Need Fairy Tales Now More than Ever,” New Statesmen (19 Dec 2014)
Rowan Williams on the riskiness of revelation
The touch of God is dangerous, in that it can be a light too sharp to be borne without hurt or breakage; and when the perception is skewed and redirected, it may run close to the destructive and the hellish. Jonathan Smith, the great anthropologist of religion at Chicago, remarked about the horrific mass suicide of the sectarians who followed the prophet Jim Jones that at least it reminded people that religion wasn’t automatically “nice.” For God to come near us is for God to risk God’s own integrity, in the sense that God puts himself into our hands to be appallingly misunderstood, to become the justifier of our hatred and fears, our madness. And it is to put us at risk, since the disorientation we thus experience can unleash some very dark things in us. Revelation itself, as the church’s history shows, is bound up with tragic possibilities.
from A Ray of Darkness, 3rd Ed., (Cowley, 1995), 96.
Rowan Williams on “the loneliness of each one of us”
The following is the opening of a characteristically excellent sermon from Rowan Williams. I wish I could post the sermon in full, but I’m sure the publisher would frown on that. It’d be worth seeking the text out to see how Rowan concludes the reflections he starts here.
There are plenty of subjects that Christians seem to treat with a consistent lack of seriousness, with a painful lack of imagination and sympathy. One such subject is loneliness. Most of the time we are so caught up in a bland rhetoric of “communion” and “sharing” that we fail utterly to confront that more puzzling and disturbing fact of irreducible human isolation. “We pray for the old and lonely” – words heard quite frequently in intercessions, implying that loneliness is an unfortunate condition from which some people suffer, like diabetes or color-blindness. But what about the loneliness of each one of us?
Loneliness has little to do with what we do or where we do it, whether we’re married or unmarried, optimists or pessimists, heterosexual or homosexual. Loneliness has to do with the sudden clefts we experience in every human relation, the gaps that open up with stomach-turning unexpectedness. In a brief moment, I and my brother or sister have moved away into different worlds, and there is no language we can share. It is when I see what my words or actions have done to someone else, or when I realize what picture someone else has of me. It is when things that matter to me are met with polite incomprehension, and when I cannot hear and understand the importance of what someone is trying to tell me. It is – recalling an experience I can’t forget – sitting on the floor with a nine-year-old child of normal intelligence and trying to understand what he is saying. Because he is hopelessly spastic and can’t control his tongue any more than he can his head or his limbs, I can grasp only one word in ten, and he stares at me desperately and furiously, willing me to understand with all his might, and I can’t.
from “Being Alone,” in A Ray of Darkness, 3rd Ed., (Cowley, 1995), 121.
P.S. For the Rowan enthusiasts out there, you can now show off your admiration for the Welshman with this t-shirt.