Rowan Williams on Christian Freedom

Rowan Williams on Christian Freedom

What does it mean to talk about the service of God being perfect freedom? It means that living with or in or from God provides the structure and shape that most frees us from distractedness and fragmentation of life and thought. As the Christian Platonists were always saying, this is a life in which we are “simplified”; the threads are drawn together, not in an intellectual synthesis of concepts, but in some kind of unity of heart and mind. We become sufficiently “at home” in ourselves-in-God to act and respond to others with clarity, without the bondage of our power-hungry, fantasy-ridden instincts clouding our vision. That is the kind of simplicity that can live with the terrible contradictions, the multiplicity and conflict, of Christian theology and Christian images, of the church itself and its relations with humanity at large. In the center of freedom is the language of compassion, prayer, self-offering, self-forgetting, crucifixion, and resurrection, the language whose “grammar” is the life and death of Jesus.

from A Ray of Darkness, 3rd Ed., (Cowley, 1995), 156.

Rowan Williams on the dark night of the soul

Rowan Williams on the dark night of the soul

The dark night is God’s attack on religion. If you genuinely desire union with the unspeakable love of God, then you must be prepared to have your “religious” world shattered. If you think devotional practices, theological insights, even charitable actions give you some sort of a purchase on God, you are still playing games. On the other hand, if you can face and accept and even rejoice in the experience of darkness, if you can accept that God is more than an idea that keeps your religion or philosophy or politics tidy — then you may find a way back to religion, philosophy, or politics, to an engagement with them that is more creative because you are more aware of the oddity, the uncontrollable quality of the truth at the heart of all things. This is what “detachment” means — not being “above the battle,” but being involved in such a way that you can honestly confront whatever comes to you without fear of the unknown. It is a kind of readiness for the unexpected, if that is not too much of a paradox.

from A Ray of Darkness, (Cowley, 1995), 82.

Rowan Williams on Augustine

Rowan Williams writes to St Augustine

What everyone remembers, of course, is the things you got wrong – or the things we’re quite sure you got wrong.

How you painted yourself into a corner over predestination, God deciding before all time who was to go to heaven and who not. And women; we get very indignant that you had difficulty believing that women were really in God’s image as much as men. We forget that this is what you did believe, and how difficult it was for you to square this with what everyone else in your age thought.

And we blame you for messing up Christian attitudes to sex, because for you it was an area of humiliation and tragedy – forgetting, again, that you truly thought sex between husband and wife had something of heaven in it.

We look for a scapegoat to explain why Western Christianity and Western civilization are so much of a mess. You wrote such a lot and so powerfully that I’m afraid you’re a very good candidate for the position. But I think you would have turned around and challenged us: why the passion for a scapegoat? What are you refusing to look at in yourself?

In the City of God you explained the mechanisms: we’re not sure in ourselves what we really love and value; we invest all our expectations in people and solutions inside this world, and they let us down cruelly. We feel restless and insubstantial because we don’t know how and what to love. So we give ourselves a false solidity by pushing the darkness, the doubt and evil out there, projecting it onto some other person, some other group.

We get our solid identity from denying our own poverty and incompleteness. When I was teaching students about the City of God, I felt I really began to understand the Cold War.

So we can’t learn to love unless we let go of the longing for solid, fixed identity. We start to grow up not when we become independent, but when we recognize that we shall always need the words and actions of others to give us life – and when we face that fact without resentment or shame.

Behind it all is the recognition that the only reason there is anything at all is the pure act of generosity that creates the world – it doesn’t have to be there, God doesn’t have to make it, but he wants his joy shared. When we know that, we know ourselves – not by introspection, because I shall always lie to myself about my motives, but by looking to the love that made me and remakes me.

Not a scapegoat, then, but someone who’s taught me what I hope is the right kind of skepticism about myself and the world of power around me – and the right kind of trust in my maker.

Thank you.

The original is available online here.

On scripture’s role as theological authority

On scripture’s role as theological authority

A. Robert Jenson

There is no mandate to reproduce all apostolic theologoumena. Indeed, they are not guaranteed to be especially felicitous; we turn to the apostolic church not for the certainly best thought-out instances of gospel-speaking but for unchallengeable instances. … apostolic reflective activity — however profoundly or superficially done — must have been the right sort of thing to be doing.

from Systematic Theology, Vol. 1 The Triune God, (OUP, 1997), 32.

B. David Kelsey

As its “authority,” scripture is “normative” for a proposal’s Christian aptness, not for its origin.

from Proving Doctrine, (Bloomsbury, 1999), 193.

C. John Webster

Scripture is not so much a source or norm of theology as its idiom.

from “Authority of Scripture,” Dictionary for Theological Interpretation of the Bible, (Baker, 2005), 724.

D. Rowan Williams

Revelation is addressed not so much to a will called upon to submit as to an imagination called upon to ‘open itself.’

from “Trinity and Revelation,” Modern Theology vol 2, no 3, (1986): 209.

The New Testament is less a set of theological conclusions than a set of generative models for how to do Christian thinking.

from On Christian Theology, Oxford, Blackwell, 2000, 22.

Stephen Mulhall on culture

Stephen Mulhall on Culture

readers of [Alasdair] MacIntyre and (to a lesser extent) [Charles] Taylor do not, I hazard to suggest, encounter hiddenness, surprise and opacity in the way that readers of Dostoevsky do. The narratives in which both authors cast their accounts of Western culture inexorably tend towards a certain kind of smoothness and closure, as if every step in the narrative is entirely transparent to rational assessment, and that same assessment might unproblematically identify steps that will inexorably lead to the realization of our ideals. Both recognize the contingency of significant moments of cultural transition, but they do not register any sense that the advent of modernity introduced elements of individual and collective self-understanding that were both valuable and genuinely other to the religious traditions to which they were opposed. Either those elements contribute only to our decline (as in MacIntyre), or they constitute weaker inflections or variations of basically Christian self-understanding (as in Taylor). Even if one agrees that these critical transitions depended upon misunderstanding and misrecognition of Christianity, they show little sign of asking what those misrecognitions might tell them about unexplored or alien aspects of their own traditions. Likewise, their readers gain little sense of their secular others as presenting any serious resistance to their capacity to understand them; the conceptual resources of the secular age may be complex and sophisticated, but rarely if ever do they seem positively to push back against the conceptual resources of those who aim to narrate them. In short, there is a certain lack of what [Rowan] Williams would call self-interrogation. MacIntyre and Taylor both seem to think and write as if there is a specifically Christian narrative to be developed and evaluated, one which operates as a counter to secular master-narratives and hence operates on all fours with them. Whereas Williams’ Dostoevskyan picture is that there is not so much a specifically Christian narrative of culture or self, but rather a specifically Christian attitude to the narrativity of culture and self – an attitude which does not put its faith in one story amongst those between which cultures and individuals choose but rather in the continuation of the narrative processes through which such choices are made, contested, misunderstood, marred and remade. A distinctly Christian faith is in the unending availability of the possibility of narrative unfolding, not in the absolute rectitude of any particular unfolding of it. And even if in the end neither Taylor nor MacIntyre would want to deny that, then they need to find ways in which the forms of their writing might achieve a more thoroughgoing acknowledgement of the sheer riskiness of human dialogue in time and history.

from “Theology and Narrative: the Self, the Novel, the Bible,” International Journal for Philosophy of Religion, vol 69, no 1, (2011): 38-39.