Stagger onward rejoicing

Tag: Rowan Williams (page 1 of 1)


Michael Torevell, News of Great Joy, mixed media and digital painting, 2022 

Rowan Williams:

The basic form of the sin from which we need to be delivered is the myth of self-sufficiency. The diabolical urge that destroys our well-being again and again is the temptation to think of ourselves as somehow able to set our own agenda in isolation, and the greatest and most toxic paradox that results is that we become isolated from our own selves. We don’t and can’t know what we are as participants in the symphonic whole, and so we block off or screen out the life we need to receive, refusing to share the life we need to give. We live shrunken, hectic, short-term lives, stuck in futile conflicts and vacuous rivalries. We refine our skill at identifying other human lives, as well as the entire nonhuman environment, as competitors for space, forces that will, left to themselves, diminish rather than enrich us. We need to be healed from this habitual screening-out.

This means that the “repair” involved in Christ’s coming in flesh is a repair of our relation to ourselves.

This Plough issue on Repair is really wonderful. I expect I will post on other essays from it.

Rowan Williams:

I would venture to guess that the people we would least like to spend a long time with are those who have answers to every question and plans for every contingency. There’s something slightly inhuman about that, because if we believe that our humanity is constantly growing, then there have got to be moments when we are taken beyond the familiar and the controllable. A growing humanity, a maturing humanity, is one that’s prepared for silence, because it’s prepared at important moments to say, “I can’t domesticate, I can’t get on top of this.”

God is that environment, that encounter, that we will never get to the bottom of and that we will never control. To understand that there’s something about silence that is profoundly at the heart of being human begins to open up a recognition: being Christian requires us more than ever to come to terms with those moments when silence is imposed on us, when we face what we can’t control. 

Relevant to me. 

Rowan Williams

We are used to plaintive cries that not enough students opt for scientific subjects, and related worries about the supposed drift of our culture towards an anti-scientific relativism or, ultimately, a post-truth mentality. But one of the things we have learnt in the past ten months is that we set ourselves up for profound confusion if we talk about “science” as a source of self-evidently clear and effective solutions, as if narratives and values played no role. Bland claims to be “following the science” have acquired an unhappily hollow sound. […] 

What does it mean to “fail our children” in this broader context? It means backing away from the scale of change that we face, and from the job of resourcing young people to respond with intelligence, imagination and honesty. It would be ridiculous to pretend that there are a few simple restructurings that will achieve this. We need a courageous rethinking of our ingrained assumptions about education. We need to pay some critical and sympathetic attention to those despised and frequently attacked parallel worlds of the Montessori and Steiner systems. We need the issue of resources for the human spirit to be at the heart of educational vision – including craft, drama, sport, exposure to the raw natural world, community service. And anyone who thinks this is somehow in tension with responsible scientific training has not understood either sciences or humanities. 

Those with ears to hear, let them hear. 

Rowan Williams:

Our ancestors, right up to the modern age, knew they were fragile. A brief period of dazzling technological achievement combined with the absence of any major global war produced the belief that fragility was on the retreat and that making our global environment lastingly secure or controllable was within reach. But the same technical achievements that had generated this belief turned out to be among the major destabilising influences in the material environment. And the absence of major global conflict sat alongside the proliferation of bitter and vicious local struggles, often civil wars that trailed on for decades. But perhaps it is only in the past two decades that we have quite caught up with the realisation that global crises are indifferent to national boundaries, political convictions and economic performance. The vulnerability cannot be neatly cordoned off.

For the foreseeable future, we shall have to get used to this fragility; and we are going to need considerable imaginative resources to cope with it. In the past, people have found resources like this in art and religion. Today it is crucial to learn to see the sciences as a resource and not a threat or a rival to what these older elements offer. It is more than high time to forget the phoney war between faith and science or art and technology.

the mirror

The good folks at Plough have produced an e-book featuring two early Christian texts, and Rowan Williams has written an introduction to it that I believe essential reading for Christians in our moment. I love this kind of piece — a clear and patient exposition of ideas from the past that never once mentions current events but brilliantly illuminates the questions that face us. Please do read it all, but here are some choice nuggets: 

  • “If you look at the eyewitness accounts of martyrdom in these early centuries – ­documents like the wonderful record of the martyrs of Scilli in North Africa in AD 180 – you can see what the real issue was. These Christians, most of them probably domestic slaves, had to explain to the magistrate that they were quite happy to pray for the imperial state, and even to pay taxes, but that they could not grant the state their absolute allegiance…. What made their demand new and shocking was that it was not made on the basis of ethnic identity, but on the bare fact of conviction and conscience. For the first time in human history, individuals claimed the liberty to define the limits of their political loyalty, and to test that loyalty by spiritual and ethical standards.”  
  • “The early Christian movement … was not revolutionary in the sense that it was trying to change the government. Its challenge was more serious: it was the claim to hold any and every government to account, to test its integrity, and to give and withhold compliance accordingly. But it would be wrong to think of this, as we are tempted to do in our era, in terms of individual conscience. It was about the right of a community to set its own standards and to form its members in the light of what had been given to them by an authority higher than the empire. The early Christians believed that if Jesus of Nazareth was ‘Lord,’ no one else could be lord over him, and therefore no one could overrule his authority.” 
  • “The theology of the early centuries thus comes very directly out of this one great central conviction about political authority: if Jesus is Lord, no one else ultimately is, and so those who belong with Jesus, who share his life through the common life of the worshiping community, have a solidarity and a loyalty that goes beyond the chance identity of national or political life…. Humans love largely because of fellow-feeling, but God’s love is such that it never depends on having something in common. The creator has in one sense nothing in common with his creation – how could he? But he is completely free to exercise his essential being, which is love, wherever he wills. And this teaches us that we too must learn to love beyond the boundaries of common interest and natural sympathy and, like God, love those who don’t seem to have anything in common with us.” 
  • “One of the lasting legacies of the early church, then, is the recognition that doctrine, prayer, and ethics don’t exist in tidy separate compartments: each one shapes the others. And in the church in any age, we should not be surprised if we become hazy about our doctrine at a time when we are less clear about our priorities as a community, or if we become less passionate about service, forgiveness, and peace when we have stopped thinking clearly about the true and eternal character of God.” 

No one is sure what Blake meant by mentioning ‘dark, Satanic mills’ as part of what Jesus would have seen and moved among, but the candidates include early industrial sites, Druidic temples and (I’m afraid) Anglican parish churches. The point, though, is that we are being asked to imagine that the incarnate God moved and worked even in the middle of the cruelty, hypocrisy and exploitation that are an inseparable part of every human community’s history. ‘Jerusalem’ is being built, even while all the signs in society around us seem to negate the vision.

What we need is the rekindling of desire – the sheer passionate longing to see a social order at which the Holy Lamb of God might look without heartbreak. Arrows of desire; the courage and endurance of mental fight; the struggle to keep this imagination alive and burning – this is what we pray for. The poem looks back to an imaginary past and forward to an imagined future, but at its heart is the question: ‘do you truly want to live in Jerusalem? Because if you do, you need to remember that it is always already here and now; because even where justice and love seem to be defeated, the Holy Lamb of God is present.’ 

— Rowan Williams, from Candles in the Dark

the beginning of politics

Leah Libresco Sargeant on an “illiberalism of the weak”

To give an honest accounting of ourselves, we must begin with our weakness and fragility. We cannot structure our politics or our society to serve a totally independent, autonomous person [which is the person imagined by liberalism] who never has and never will exist. Repeating that lie will leave us bereft: first, of sympathy from our friends when our physical weakness breaks the implicit promise that no one can keep, and second, of hope, when our moral weakness should lead us, like the prodigal, to rush back into the arms of the Father who remains faithful. Our present politics can only be challenged by an illiberalism that cherishes the weak and centers its policies on their needs and dignity. 

This is a strong and vital word. But genuinely to hear it we will have to dethrone the two idols that almost everyone with a political opinion worships: My People and Winning. The goal of almost every political activist and pundit is the same: My people must win, and those who are not my people must lose. Do not be deceived by talk of the “common good,” because the often quite explicit message of the common-good conservatives is: My people are the ones who know what the common good is, and that common good can only be achieved if my people win. A politics of weakness and dependence, a politics of bearing one another’s burdens, can only begin when those two idols are slain. 

UPDATE: Rowan Williams, from a review of God: An Anatomy, by Francesca Stavrakopoulou: 

Stavrakopoulou … takes Hans Holbein the Younger’s famous picture of the dead (and prematurely decaying) body of Christ as illustrating the way in which Judaeo-Christian orthodoxy ends up in a conspicuously unbiblical position, presenting human bodies as “repulsive” (her word), unfit to portray the divine. But – apart from the fact that in Holbein’s lifetime the glory of the human form as representing divinity was being reaffirmed by artists in southern Europe as never before – the point of a picture like this, or of any other representation of the torment and suffering of Jesus, was to say that “the divine” does not shrink from or abandon the human body when it is humiliated and tortured.

In contrast to an archaic, religious sacralising of the perfect, glowing, muscular, dominant body, there is a central strand in Jewish and Christian imagination which insists that bodies marked by weakness, failure, the violence of others, disease or disability are not somehow shut out from a share in human – and divine – significance. They have value and meaning; they may judge us and call us to action. The biblical texts are certainly not short of the mythical glorifications of male power that Stavrakopoulou discusses; but they also repeatedly explore divine solidarity with vulnerable bodies, powerless bodies. Is this a less “real” dimension of the Bible? Even a reader with no theological commitments might pause before writing it off.

walking apart, walking together

When Christian communities decide that they must, for whatever reason, walk apart, then the question that they should all be prepared to answer is this: What are you doing to make it possible to walk together again? For to treat the decision to walk apart as the end of the story is simply to mock the prayer of Jesus that we all be one, even as he and the Father are one. It is the grossest disobedience.

So I have been very pleased to read some reflections on the recent conference at Nashotah House, Living Sacrifices: Repentance, Reconciliation, and Renewal. For instance, this post by Mac Stewart quotes Rowan Williams describing the thought of Michael Ramsey:

It is more attractive to go in quest of the real Church than to seek for the pattern of Cross and Resurrection in the heart of where we happen to find ourselves. But Ramsey implicitly warns us that the quest can be a way back to the self-defining and self-protective religious institution that always distorts or stifles the gospel. Somewhere in this is a very substantial paradox — that the harder we search for a Church that is pure and satisfactory by our definition, the less likely we are to find it.

In another post, Clint Wilson writes,

During the last year, in particular, I have become increasingly engaged and grounded in ecumenical theology, having studied various ecumenical texts and developed several ecumenical relationships. I am a child among giants in this arena, but I trust my newfound passion for this area of work will endure throughout the course of my ministry. Given my experience on the inside of both the ACNA and TEC, it seems to me there are several items in the ecumenical toolbox that might be employed for the hard work of reconciliation between Anglicans, especially within the Anglican Communion. For instance, at a symposium held at the Pontifical Gregorian University last October, Dr. Paula Gooder of King’s College, London, called for an “ecumenism of wounded hands,” a recognition that “we cannot heal ourselves.” Her call is predicated on the notion that our healing is incomplete (and therefore is not gospel healing), until it includes the healing that comes through reconciliation with those from whom we are divided. The cross does not need to be protected, it needs to be invoked, carried, embedded, and embodied across our divisions.

Bishop George Sumner suggests,

Amid protracted international debate, mission in communion can and should continue at the grassroots. Parishes, dioceses, and provinces maintaining initiatives of mission in communion across lines of difference are their own kind of sign of reconciliation. Obedience to the risen Christ’s command to go is as much lived out from the bottom up as the top down. This on-going and local mission in communion is a valid dimension of our common life and vocation.

Zachary Guiliano asks some penetrating questions:

God does not call us merely to submit to the counsel of our friends. That would be too light a thing, and hardly cruciform. He calls us to submit to the oppressive, perhaps even arbitrary and mysterious, judgment of our enemies, even if they are our Christian sisters and brothers, baptized all. God does not call us merely to live within the constraints of communion. He summons us to come and die for those who would deny communion, in this way to give our Yes to every No — dying to self, dying to and for the world, dying for the sake of our enemies, taking up our cross and following him. Only then, perhaps, will he raise again the weeping ruins of our division.

And so I close with a final set of questions: How far will we go in pursuing communion? Will we go even to the cross?

Guiliano’s talk was a response to an address by Ephraim Radner, and I will conclude by quoting it:

The road together, at this stage of Christian history, begins in several places. But it leads and must lead to others, so that a convergence of ways can indeed finally include one flock and one Shepherd (John 10:16). Full and visible unity, as the 1961 New Delhi Report of the World Council of Churches emphasized over and over again as the necessarily and inevitable goal of Christian ecclesial life. Benedict XVI used this phrase — “to work tirelessly to rebuild the full and visible unity of all Christ’s followers” — to describe his pontificate. But the vocation is Anglicanism’s as well, and so it must begin with us too. Both the vocation and the promise laid out by the Covenant remain real and compelling in this general way: we have been given a charism to maintain and extend the communion of God’s transformative life in the midst of a world of instability, fragmentation, and now, in its wake, of swirling meaninglessness. The charism is given for the sake of others.

All these words challenge me — some of them even judge me and find me wanting, and I acknowledge the power of that judgment — but they also encourage me. I commend them to any, and not just Anglicans, who prayerfully seek the oneness of the Church of Jesus Christ.


God’s gift at Christmas is relationship, not just another human relationship but relation to God the Father by standing where Jesus stands, standing in the full torrent of his love and creativity, giving and receiving. To come into that place and to be rooted and grounded there means letting go of our fear of dependence and opening our hearts to be fed and enlarged and transformed. And that in turn means looking at how we handle dependence in ourselves and others, how we accept the positive dependence involved in lifelong learning and growing, and help one another deal with it positively.

So the important thing is not that everyone gets to stand on their own two feet and turns into a reliable “independent” consumer and contributor to the GNP. What we expect from each other in a generous and grown-up society is much more to do with all of us learning how to ask from each other, how to receive from each other, how to depend on the generosity of those who love us and stand alongside us. And that again means a particular care for those who need us most, who need us to secure their place and guarantee that there is nourishment and stability for them.

 — Rowan Williams

the church and the present moment

What is the ‘present moment’ of the Church’s life like? Well, it is all too like the response of the disciples in Jesus’ lifetime. How very tempting, then, to turn our emotional energy and imagination towards a ‘better’ Church, away from the embarrassing present moment. Nonetheless, it is here, in Jesus crucified and in the struggling and failing community, that the coming of the Human One in glory is made visible to the world.

It is a vision that the contemporary Church might well ponder. Paraphrasing St Paul, we might say that ‘liberal’ Christians look for a clear and purified future and ‘traditionalists’ look towards a more faithful and less compromised past. Yet the gospel remains the gospel of the crucified, asking of us an attention to the reality that is before us and within us here and now, a reality that will be scandalous and painful. Pascal’s stark assertion that ‘Jesus will be in agony until the end of the world’ is much in the spirit of Mark; and it is not an observation about the deplorable state of unbelievers, but an exhortation to believers to keep awake — awake to their own inability to stay in the almost unbearable present moment where Jesus is — rather than look for an unreal future or past to run to.

— Rowan Williams, Christ on Trial

who I am

Matthew’s narrative does not allow the believer — in particular the articulate and educated believer, the teacher, the expert — any fixed answer to the question of how I might know that I am still with Jesus rather than with Caiaphas. As soon as there seems to be an answer to such a question, it becomes part of just that system of religious words and religious fluency that helps to make possible the exclusion of Jesus. In the presence of Jesus at his trial, faith unavoidably takes on something of a catch-22 dimension. What matters is to hold still before the question.

Yes, of course we may discover specific acts, specific patterns of behaviour and speech that put us on the side of Caiaphas, and there are things we can do to change those and to make reparation. There is no escape, however, from the summons to be in the presence of Christ on trial. It is as if he said to each believer, ‘Stand where I can see you,’ and my faithfulness to him is going to be bound up with the whole diverse process of keeping myself ‘in question’. This is not a matter of obsessional self-scrutiny, the search for an impossible transparency to my ‘real’ motives or desires. It is only a sober and consistent recognition that I have no final and satisfying account to give of myself, and must wait in Christ’s presence to learn who I am.

— Rowan Williams, Christ on Trial

writing and failure

Indeed, this is the (unexpected) discovery I have made. It is that having been holding out against failure for a long time, having been committing to hope, trying to make the writing better and so on, it is rather liberating to let all that go. I’m never going to win a Clarke, never going to get shortlisted for a Hugo, never going to get an American deal, and it’s … relieving, actually. The emotion is a largely positive one, muddied if at all only by a slight sense of embarrassment that I ever thought those things in the first place. Indeed, given our culture’s toxic Trumpoid obsession with winning, winning and winning again, with winning so much we get tired with winning, there may even be a principled merit in failing, provided only we accept the failure as our own, and don’t try to shuffle off responsibility onto others.

2016: the Story So Far. I’ve been thinking a lot about this post by my friend Adam Roberts, whose language of failure (as you’ll see if you read the whole post, and you should) concerns his most recent novel, The Thing Itself. I’ve wanted to respond, but I haven’t been sure quite how — Adam’s post touches on so many issues that seem vital to me. Still, let me leap in and flail about as best I can.

I begin with an article I published last year by talking about Frederick Buechner’s status as a rock star among Christian readers of literature. I’ve seen 1500 people pack into Pierce Chapel at Wheaton College to hear him read, and a more rapt audience you couldn’t imagine. Yet it was around the time of that reading that Fred changed publishers from Atheneum, a very classy house that had done his books for many years, to Harper, and when I asked him why he had done that he told me, “Atheneum expects my novels to sell 8,000 copies each and that’s precisely what they do.” But I don’t think his books with Harper did any better. And yet on 8,000 copies per book a writer can become an absolute rock star — at least among a certain subset of that fictional entity The Reading Public. 

All of which is to say that literary success and failure are elusive concepts. Sales and awards are two ways to measure success or the lack thereof; but there are many others that are equally valid, and some of the criteria can’t be applied immediately. I’ve read The Thing Itself three times now, each time with more admiration and emotional investment, and there is much in it that I still haven’t grasped. (When Adam and Francis Spufford and Rowan Williams and I were discussing the book in Cambridge a few months ago, Adam briefly mentioned the ways the structure of the book echoes that of the Aeneid, and I am certain that I never would have realized that had he not mentioned it — and yet now that I know it I have a better understanding of the book. I feel like Stuart Gilbert being told by Joyce how Ulysses is organized. Except Adam told the whole room rather than just me.) 

I simply don’t believe that a book so ambitious is likely to find its place in the world immediately. Milton famously spoke of writing for “fit audience though few” and for a long time “few” was what he got. The most highly-regarded English poet in Milton’s lifetime was Abraham Cowley, and if you’re wondering who that is, you have just grasped my point. It is of course difficult to sustain yourself as a writer on the hopes of future generations realizing your greatness long after you’re a-moldering in the grave, and probably only the deeply narcissistic can manage it; but it’s a factor, you know? Something to consider, especially if you’re as good a writer as Adam. The story of the reception of The Thing Itself is not over; it has scarcely begun. 

In one sense I’m all for letting go of hope, as Adam says he has: not only am I in favor of it, I’ve done it myself! I have long realized that if I’m granted a normal lifespan I’ll outlive all my writings, and while I sometimes cast around in my mind for ways to increase my readership, basically I write for two reasons: to scratch itches, and to provide extra income for my family. But I’m no Adam Roberts, and while I perfectly understand why he might want to take a vacation from the demands that a really ambitious book project places on him, I hope at some point in the near future some such itch will afflict him, and in flagrant disregard of all the world’s award voters he’ll sit down and write a big crazy book that will move me to laughter and tears and thought and envy and admiration. Again.

“Intellectual” is not a term of praise

I’m getting lots of feedback on my essay on Christian intellectuals, and because there’s a great deal to say about the subject — far more than I could have said in the 6,000 words I had available — I’ll probably be commenting here from time to time on some of the issues that need more reflection.

Here I just want to address one misconception that a number of people seem to have, which is that if I call someone an intellectual I’m paying them a compliment, and if I don’t I’m implicitly criticizing their intelligence.

As I say in the essay, “intellectual” is not a term of praise but a description of a particular social role:

In the last years of the Weimar Republic, Karl Mannheim, an influential sociologist, argued that a new type of person had recently arisen in the Western world: the intellectual. These were people “whose special task is to provide an interpretation of the world,” to “play the part of watchmen in what otherwise would be a pitch-black night.”

In Mannheim’s sense of the word, intellectuals are, as I put it, “interested observers whose first job [is] not to act but to interpret.” Their independence from major social institutions is essential to their role. Thus, in a passage that got cut from the final version of the essay, I mention Rowan Williams, formerly the Archbishop of Canterbury, and Jonathan Sacks, formerly the chief Rabbi of Britain, and comment,

Williams and Sacks alike can better fulfill the role of interpreter and mediator now that they are relieved of formal obligations to lead religious institutions. The analytical freedom of the true intellectual, in Mannheim’s useful definition, is really not compatible with the task of upholding particular institutions; so, for instance no Pope, even the most brilliant, could be a Christian intellectual in the sense I am employing the term here.

In the same way, even the most intellectually gifted and theologically serious POTUS couldn’t be a Christian intellectual in Mannheim’s sense — until he or she is out of office.

As I hope this makes clear, what I’m especially interested in is the Christian whose loyalties to the political order are secondary — who, as one whose citizenship is elsewhere (Phil. 3:20), can be both involved and detached in social commentary. I’m reminded here of what Chinua Achebe once wrote about being raised a Christian in his Nigerian village, and discouraged by his parents from being too absorbed in the traditional village life: that experience was “not a separation but a bringing together, like the necessary backward step which a judicious viewer might take in order to see a canvas steadily and fully.” That neatly describes the situation of the Christian intellectual I, borrowing from Mannheim, describe in my essay.

It’s a valuable social role, I think, but not the only valuable social role, and to say that someone doesn’t fit it is not to insult them in any way.

I remember two things

The man who wrote “Amazing Grace” lived to be a very old man. For many years he worked as a priest in London. His teaching, his sermons his hymns, inspired many in the struggle against slavery. But in old age he said to one of his friends these words: ‘I am a very old man and my memory has gone. But I remember two things: that I am a great sinner and that Jesus is a great saviour.’ Now when we come to Holy Communion, brothers and sisters, that is what we are to remember.

We are great sinners, we live so often in blindness; we do not truly see ourselves; we hide from those things in ourselves which we can’t manage. And sometimes we try to bury our history underground. And I think here of those underground pits very near this cathedral, where slaves were once kept. So do we keep part of our own lives underground like that; we cannot face our own failures? …

In so much of our human life we do this exactly the wrong way round. First of all we look at our neighbour and we say ‘I know what you need.’ Then I look at myself and say ‘I am alright’ and then I look at God and say ‘I am alright, aren’t I?’ and I don’t wait for an answer. The Bible turns it upside down: as always the Gospel turns the whole world upside down. First, God in Jesus Christ. Then myself, the wretch who has been saved by amazing Grace, and then the world around, the world that needs my love, my compassion, a world that needs me to speak a word from God to it, a word of challenge; yes; a word of judgement; yes, but above all, a word of promise.

— Rowan Williams, sermon at the Anglican Cathedral in Zanzibar, 2007

book early to avoid disappointment

On the Acknowledgments page of The Thing Itself, the new novel by Adam Roberts, there’s this:

As an atheist writing a novel about why you should believe in God, I have taken more than I can say from the eloquent and persuasive devotional writing of my friends Alan Jacobs and Francis Spufford, Christians both.

Well, one thing led to another, so… The place: Great St. Mary’s Church, Cambridge (the English one). The date: The evening of 15 June. The event: A conversation about The Thing Itself and associated topics featuring

  • the esteemed author himself
  • Francis Spufford
  • The Rt Revd and Rt Hon The Lord Williams of Oystermouth (more familiarly known as Rowan Williams)
  • and yours truly.

Stay tuned for more details. And sorry about the title of this post, you can’t actually book anything.

“the power of a discourse that is never open to reply”

Uttering the unacceptable in prose and exploring the elusive, not-yet-captured depth of things in poetry have in common the crucial recognition that we shan’t learn about ourselves or our world – including our political world – if we are prevented from hearing things to argue with and things that leave us frustrated and (in every sense) wondering. Our current panics about ‘offence’ are at their best and most generous an acknowledgement of how language can encode and enact power relations (my freedom of ‘offending’ speech may be your humiliation, a confirmation of your exclusion from ordinary public discourse). But at its worst it is a patronising and infantilising worry about protecting individuals from challenge; the inevitable end of that road is a far worse entrenching of unquestionable power, the power of a discourse that is never open to reply. Debates about international issues like Israel and Palestine, or issues of social and personal morals – abortion, gender and sexuality, end of life questions – are regularly shadowed by anxiety, even panic, about what must not be said in public, and also by the sometimes startlingly coercive insistence on the ‘rational’ and canonical status of one perspective only. On both sides of all such debates, there can be a deep unwillingness to have things said or shown that might profoundly challenge someone’s starting assumptions. If there is an answer to this curious contemporary neurosis, it is surely not in the silencing of disagreement but in the education of speech: how is unwelcome truth to be told in ways that do not humiliate or disable? And the answer to that question is inseparable from learning to argue – from the actual practice of open exchange, in the most literal sense ‘civil’ disagreement, the debate appropriate to citizens who have dignity and liberty to discuss their shared world and its organisation and who are able to learn what their words sound like in the difficult business of staying with such a debate as it unfolds.

Rowan Williams

“package deal ethics”

We are all easily lured into what might be called “package deal” ethics: if you are committed to one cause you will probably be committed to a particular set of causes, even if there is no clear logical connection. The danger then is of reducing ethics to style, to a set of superficially matching accessories. It is an important jolt for us to have to come to terms with those who look for a deeper kind of consistency – whether they are radical libertarians uniting a pro-choice position with a deeply individualist social morality, or Catholics uniting an orthodox sexual ethic with root-and-branch hostility to market economics or nuclear arms. It was one of the choice ironies of the era of the Second Vatican Council that the stoutest defender of the inherited position on birth control – Cardinal Alfredo Ottaviani – was also one of the fiercest advocates of nuclear disarmament. Having to think through the connections between our moral perspectives so that we can have intelligent arguments about them is a rather urgent need in the current climate, where policy and principle are so often created reactively and opportunistically. (Do I have any political party especially in mind? Perish the thought.)

Imperfect Goodbyes and the Hope of Resurrection

In the days after my grandmother’s graveside funeral, I returned to a lecture given in Andover Chapel at Harvard University in 1955 by the then-famous Swiss New Testament scholar Oscar Cullmann. Eventually published as a small book titled The Immortality of the Soul or Resurrection of the Dead?, Cullmann’s lecture opens by contrasting the deaths of Socrates and Jesus. “Plato shows us how Socrates goes to his death in complete peace and composure,” Cullmann notes. “The death of Socrates is a beautiful death. Nothing is seen here of death’s terror.”

The reason for Socrates’s serenity in the face of death, Cullmann proposes, is the Greek belief in the immortality of the soul. Since death frees the soul from the body, then death can be welcomed as a friend. We can attain a state of “acceptance,” as some counselors tell us, borrowing from Elisabeth Kübler-Ross’s famous typology of the multiple stages of dying. Such, apparently, was Socrates’s experience.

In sharp distinction from this portrait, for Cullmann, lies the stark horror of Jesus’ death. “In Gethsemane He knows that death stands before Him, just as Socrates expected death on his last day.” And yet the contrast between these two figures’ responses could not be greater. Whereas Socrates maintains his equilibrium, Jesus “trembles” and becomes distressed (Mark 14:33). “Jesus is so thoroughly human that He shares the natural fear of death,” says Cullmann. “Death for Him is not something divine: it is something dreadful.” It leads Jesus to offer up “loud cries and tears” (Hebrews 5:7). He utters the “cry of dereliction” from the cross (Mark 15:34), protesting death’s most pitiless feature — its insistence that each person must endure it alone, with no prospect of a reprieve or rescue. “Death in itself is not beautiful, not even the death of Jesus,” Cullmann concludes. We might well say about the four Gospels’ accounts of Jesus’s final hours what Rowan Williams once said in a slightly different context: these stories “are about difficulty, unexpected outcomes, silences, errors, about what is not readily accessible or readily understood.” That’s what death means, even for the Lord himself.

Wesley Hill

fairy tales and myths

The individual fairy tale is not itself a myth, but it presupposes a mythic framework of surprise, dependence or vulnerability, the balancing of anxiety with expectation: a thumbnail sketch of human experience in a bewildering natural and emotional environment.

Perhaps the problem with specific fairy tales becoming our shared myths, in the sense Warner suggests, is that they turn so easily these days into dramas of the individual psyche with supernatural special effects: either leaving us in a world of paralysing moral ambiguity or (in the Disneyfied version) offering salvation through the discovery of unsuspected inner resources (we can all be what we most want to be). Against this, both the original fairy tales and the chaotic romance of the Arabic wonder stories present a world of sharper edges, larger shocks, and possibilities of unmerited help, as well as danger, from outside. And that, in one form or another, may turn out to be more like the mythology we really need.

“post-religious spirituality”

In other words, the Christian alternative to the post-religious spirituality outlined earlier is not simply ‘religion’ as some sort of intellectual and moral system but the corporately experienced reality of the Kingdom, the space that has been cleared in human imagination and self-understanding by the revealing events of Jesus’ life. Standing in this place, I am made aware of what is fundamental and indestructible about my human identity: that I am the object of divine intention and commitment, a being freely created and never abandoned. Standing in this place, I am also challenged to examine every action or policy in my life in the light of what I am; and I am, through the common life of the ‘Assembly’, made able to change and to be healed, to feed and be fed in relations with others in the human city. Faced with the claims of non-dogmatic spirituality, the believer should not be insisting anxiously on the need for compliance with a set of definite propositions; he or she should be asking whether what happens when the Assembly meets to adore God and lay itself open to his action looks at all like a new and transforming environment, in which human beings are radically changed.

The Spiritual and the Religious: Is the Territory Changing? – Rowan Williams. I can’t imagine a more important paragraph for today’s Christians to meditate on. Seriously, this whole address is absolutely vital.

Dylan Thomas

Vernon Watkins wrote in an obituary that Thomas had lived his life as a consistent manifestation of Christian principle. This has provoked some mockery, or at least some condescending remarks about the blind affection felt by the fathomlessly patient, saintly and charitable Watkins. But he was serious. Thomas was no admirer or adherent of conventional religion; but his entire work struggles to articulate both a sense of the appalling and rich depths of the natural world and a clear-eyed compassion for all the varieties of human oddity.

Eli Jenkins’s evening hymn from Under Milk Wood is another over-anthologised piece, certainly inviting the label of sentimentality. Yet those rather haunting words – “O please to keep Thy lovely eye / On all poor creatures born to die” – tell us volumes about Thomas; about a poetry (and prose) “singing in chains” about our human invol­vement in a material world where death and birth alike open doors of perception.

“new ways of being in our bodies”

The mature practitioner (not me) will discover a steady clarity in the vision of self and world, and, in “advanced” states, an awareness of unbroken inner light, with the strong sense of an action going on within that is quite independent of your individual will – the prayer “praying itself”, not just human words but a connection between God transcendent and God present and within. Ritual anchors, ritual aligns, harmonises, relates. And what happens in the “Jesus Prayer” is just the way an individual can make real what is constantly going on in the larger-scale worship of the sacraments. The pity is that a lot of western Christianity these days finds all this increasingly alien. But I don’t think any one of us can begin to discover again what religion might mean unless we are prepared to expose ourselves to new ways of being in our bodies. But that’s a long story.

The ‘return’ to the lost, the excluded, the failed or destroyed, is not an option for the saint, but the very heart of saintliness. And we might think not only of Jesus’s parable of the shepherd, but of the great theological myth of the Descent into Hell, in which God’s presence in the world in Jesus is seen as his journey into the furthest deserts of despair and alienation. It is the supreme image of his freedom, to go where he is denied and forgotten; he shows his inexhaustible mercy for all by identifying even with the lost.

— Rowan Williams, The Truce of God

poverty and desire

Thus the demand for ‘poverty’ or simplicity in the lifestyle of the Christian is inseparable from the vocation to peace-making. The beatitudes are all about ‘making a whole’ of our world of relationships, in relation to an order of balanced mutuality and growth in and with one another. So campaigning for peace is, in the long run, inseparable from resistance to what I have called ‘passive consumerism’, to the cheapening and trivializing of desire. And it is in this context, incidentally, that I believe Christian criticisms of pornography should be understood: the question we should ask about alleged pornography is not about its ‘explicitness’ but about its collusion with neurotic, self-protective and violent fantasy, the various forms of rejection of the world and of the other. Its problem is not eroticism, but that it is not erotic enough — not concerned with desire in its central human significance.

— Rowan Williams, The Truce of God

Thus the demand for ‘poverty’ or simplicity in the lifestyle of the Christian is inseparable from the vocation to peace-making. The beatitudes are all about ‘making a whole’ of our world of relationships, in relation to an order of balanced mutuality and growth in and with one another. So campaigning for peace is, in the long run, inseparable from resistance to what I have called ‘passive consumerism’, to the cheapening and trivializing of desire. And it is in this context, incidentally, that I believe Christian criticisms of pornography should be understood: the question we should ask about alleged pornography is not about its ‘explicitness’ but about its collusion with neurotic, self-protective and violent fantasy, the various forms of rejection of the world and of the other. Its problem is not eroticism, but that it is not erotic enough — not concerned with desire in its central human significance.

— Rowan Williams, The Truce of God

The Christmas story is not just about the birth of a very good man. As it’s been read and understood across the centuries, it’s a story about God deciding that he “belongs” with human beings — all human beings, but especially the ones who most readily feel left out. We all recognise the shepherds and the wise men around the crib — but we don’t so often recognise that shepherds in those days were not cuddly figures of folklore; they were listed among the classes of people who couldn’t be expected to keep their religious obligations properly and were likely to be a bit threatening to town dwellers. And the wise men are magicians or astrologers, slightly fishy figures from the point of view of a strictly religious Jew of that age, not part of the Chosen People.

In other words, when God turns up in the shape of a human life, he doesn’t go to the obvious people, the religious or the respectable. He heads for the edges of society, as if to say “You’re not forgotten” to those most likely to feel like outsiders.

And Jesus in his adult life does just this again and again — which means that those who seek to live as friends and followers of Jesus must also be ready to be found in the company of people who fear that there’s no one there to speak with them or for them. Their job is to create a sense of belonging, a trust that there is always someone who has a stake in the well-being of even the most troubled and troublesome — someone for whom it matters desperately that they are cared for, rescued from destructive and self-destructive lives, given a hearing and an opportunity.

Another contentious area for Hill is religion. Much of his verse dramatises a passionate wrestling with faith. Is he a Christian poet? “Well, it’s a tag, isn’t it?” says Hill. “They tag you with a convenient epithet.” He pauses. “I’m reasonably au fait with the Christian documentation. I’m quite able to use theological terms.” He turns to the Rev Alice Goodman: “Can I say that I dislike the Church of England in so many ways without harming you?” he asks. The former Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams has written appreciatively on the following lines from Canaan: “I say it is not faithless / to stand without faith, keeping open / vigil at the site.” One reason why Williams and other members of the clergy love Hill, Goodman claims, is “because he expresses the things about the Church and about the faith that they felt but could not in their position articulate”. Yet she reminds him he has written sensitively on Vaughan’s and Donne’s work. “Yes,” he replies, “because it’s excellent and fascinating. Not because I suddenly feel that Vaughan is a brother in the faith or that reading Donne converted me to a love of Christ.”

Goodman points out that he kneels at the Church altar on Sundays. Her husband, she says, is “communicant but resentful”.

“When did I say that?” says Hill.

“You didn’t, I just said it now.”

“It sounds like me.”

“I’ve been married to you for some years,” she says drily.

But it is also important to recognize how much the themes of the Narnia books are interwoven with what he was thinking and writing in other contexts around the same time, and with material he had already published in the 1940s — as well as the fact that the first seeds of the actual Narnia narrative seem to have been sown as early as 1939. For example: his 1946 book, The Great Divorce, foreshadows many of the ideas in the Narnia stories — most particularly a theme that Lewis insists on more and more as his work develops, the impossibility of forcing any person to accept love and the monumental and excruciating difficulty of receiving love when you are wedded to a certain picture of yourself. It is this theme that emerges most clearly in his last (and greatest) imaginative work, the 1956 novel, Till We Have Faces. The issues we shall be looking at in the following pages are very much the issues that Lewis is trying to work out in a variety of imaginative idioms from the early 1940s onwards — the problems of self-deception above all, the lure of self-dramatizing, the pain and challenge of encounter with divine truthfulness. What Narnia seeks to do, very ambitiously, is to translate these into terms that children can understand. And as to why Lewis decided to address such an audience, there is probably no very decisive answer except that he had a high view of children’s literature, a passion for myth and fantasy and a plain desire to communicate as widely as possible.

“When you’ve had any contact with real persecuted minorities you learn to use the word very chastely,” [Rowan Williams] said. “Persecution is not being made to feel mildly uncomfortable. ‘For goodness sake, grow up,’ I want to say.” 

True persecution was “systematic brutality and often murderous hostility that means that every morning you wonder if you and your children are going to live through the day”. He cited the experience of a woman he met in India “who had seen her husband butchered by a mob”.

There’s the Hinton St Mary Mosaic – an early Romano-British representation of Christ, with the Chi-Ro symbol monogrammed behind his head, clearly modelled in some ways on images of the sun god, indebted a bit to images of royal authority.

At the same time, this is someone wearing a very simple costume, and when you see something similar in mosaics of later on, very clearly dressed as a philosopher, a wandering teacher. The plain tunic around the shoulder and the unfashionable long hair and beard of philosopher or sage. [RW raises eyebrows. Audience laughter.]

The point being, when you go into one of the great basilicas of the late Roman empire and you see a mosaic of Christ enthroned at the far end, you’re looking at the place where the emperor would sit. And the emperor would be sitting there either dressed in his armour or in cloth of gold with a diadem around his head.

So you’re looking to the throne, but who’s on it? This rather curious and disreputable wandering teacher. So you have a bit of a paradox in visual form there. The person who holds the emperor’s authority in cosmic terms isn’t just another soldier or administrator in uniform, but a philosopher, a sage. So something’s being said there that is on the edge of paradox. It’s been suggested, quite credibly, that some of that tradition of representing Jesus borrows from the ways in which late Classical art used to depict Plato the philosopher or Homer the poet. So it’s a poet, a philosopher, it’s a wordsmith who’s sitting on the throne.

Rowan Williams

So if we try to feel our way towards a general sense of what the contemporary fantasy world is telling us about violence and destruction, the result seems to be this: pain and injury and sudden death are unpredictable, not planned or chosen by anyone like ourselves, yet always threatening, always around the corner. Against this threat, we defend ourselves as the situation dictates — without many qualms about how we do so, because we are not dealing with agents like ourselves, whose motives and methods would need scrutiny, about whom we might be able to make considered predictions. Violence does not belong in the moral world; it has nothing to do with human responsibility, with the kinds of choices by which we make up our lives from day to day. You could almost say that it is a non-human phenomenon, in the sense that it is so strange and specialized a happening. And it always begins ‘somewhere else’- in the mysterious and uncontrollable world Out There….

On the basis of what we have looked at so far, it certainly seems as though our society is aware of enormous but badly-defined threats — some internal (arising from the complications of technology), but most external. It is, as a result, tense and afraid, and alarmingly confused because it cannot locate the real sources of danger. More disturbingly, though, it is incapable of seeing this as a moral problem — as something to do with power, vision, understanding and choice, with the ways in which we decide to make sense of our lives.

— Rowan Williams, The Truce of God

People use guns. But in a sense guns use people, too. When we have the technology for violence easily to hand, our choices are skewed and we are more vulnerable to being manipulated into violent action.

Perhaps that’s why, in a passage often heard in church around this time of year, the Bible imagines a world where swords are beaten into ploughshares. In the new world which the newborn child of Christmas brings into being, weapons are not left to hang on the wall, suggesting all the time that the right thing to do might after all be to use them. They are decommissioned, knocked out of shape, put to work for something totally different.

Control of the arms trade, whether for individuals or for nations, won’t in itself stop the impulse to violence and slaughter. But it’s a start in changing what’s taken for granted. The good news of Christmas is that the atmosphere of fear and hostility isn’t the natural climate for human beings, and it can be changed.

If all you have is a gun, everything looks like a target. But if all you have is the child’s openness and willingness to be loved, everything looks like a promise. Control of the weapons trade is a start. But what will really make the difference is dealing with fear and the pressure to release our anxiety and tension at the expense of others. A new heart, a new spirit, as the Bible says; so that peace on earth won’t be an empty hope.

Rowan Williams. I often have to tell people that I don’t agree with everything that I post — I sometimes post quotations because I think they’re interesting, worth thinking about, whether I agree or not. But in this case I want to be clear that I could not possibly agree more fervently with what the Archbishop says here.

That simply reminds us that evangelization is always an overflow of something else – the disciple’s journey to maturity in Christ, a journey not organized by the ambitious ego but the result of the prompting and drawing of the Spirit in us. In our considerations of how we are once again to make the Gospel of Christ compellingly attractive to men and women of our age, I hope we never lose sight of what makes it compelling to ourselves, to each one of us in our diverse ministries. So I wish you joy in these discussions – not simply clarity or effectiveness in planning, but joy in the promise of the vision of Christ’s face, and in the foreshadowing of that fulfillment in the joy of communion with each other here and now.

The Online State of Nature

Back in 2010 I published this column for the Big Questions Online website. That site has changed a good deal since, and my columns have been taken down. Maybe this one is worth reposting.

Recently John Sentamu, the Anglican Archbishop of York, said that it’s time for people to stop attacking Rowan Williams, the Archbishop of Canterbury:

It deeply saddens me that there is not only a general disregard for the truth, but a rapacious appetite for ‘carelessness’ compounded by spin, propaganda and the resort to misleading opinions paraded as fact, regarding a remarkable, gifted and much-maligned Christian leader I call a dear friend and trusted colleague — one Rowan Williams. I say, enough is enough. May we all possess a high regard for the truth.

A couple of years ago I was visiting an Anglican blog, as was then my habit, and came across an article in which a theological conservative — that is, someone on “my side” of the Anglican debates, if we must speak in such terms, God help us — was accusing Archbishop Williams of something like complete epistemological skepticism, effective unbelief. I have heard many of my fellow conservatives speak of Williams in this way. I thought that if they were to read what he writes, or listen to what he preaches — this magnificent sermon, for instance — they would no longer speak of him so dismissively. I wrote a comment on this post, challenging the critique of Williams, linking to sermons, talks, essays that demonstrated beyond any doubt that the charge of skepticism was false.

None of this convinced the author, or other commenters. The general belief was that the Archbishop had not acted decisively for conservative causes, especially regarding sexuality, and therefore anything he said or wrote that savored of theological orthodoxy amounted to protective coloration at best and outright deceit at worst. In their minds he was the enemy of orthodoxy and therefore their enemy, and as such could be granted the benefit of no doubt. Never mind that on liberal Anglican blogs he was simultaneously being condemned for having sold out to the forces of right-wing reaction. (And never mind what Jesus said about loving your enemies, even assuming that Rowan is really an “enemy.”) He was wrong; he had to be resisted by all available means, tarred by any brush near to hand. My response to this attitude towards Williams can be summed up perfectly in Archbishop Sentamu’s recent comments: there was a deeply lamentable “general disregard for the truth.” And from the strict upholders of tradition and orthodoxy!

The author and commenters bristled at my critique. I bristled right back. The argument escalated. At one point I said to myself, all right, you want to play hardball, we’ll play hardball — and I would have cut loose and said exactly what I wanted to say, except that at that moment my hands were shaking too violently for me to type accurately.

I looked at my trembling fingers for a moment. Then I closed that browser tab and spent a few minutes removing all Anglican-related blogs from my bookmarks and my RSS reader. I stopped reading those blogs and have never looked at them again to this day, and I feel that I am a better person and a better Christian for it.

“Someone is WRONG on the internet”, as the now-famous xkcd cartoon has it, but it’s a particular way of being wrong that generates this kind of heat. I have thought a lot about why people get so hostile online, and I have come to believe it is primarily because we live in a society with a hypertrophied sense of justice and an atrophied sense of humility and charity. (You’ll see that I am putting this in terms of the classic virtues.)

Late modernity’s sense of itself is built around achievements in justice. Consider Americans particularly: when we look back over the past hundred years, what do we take pride in? Suffrage for women; the defeat of international fascism; Brown vs. Board of Education; civil rights and especially voting rights for African-Americans. If you’re on one side of the political spectrum you might add the outlasting of the Soviet Empire; if you’re on the other side you might add the expansion of rights and gays and lesbians. But the key point is that all of these are achievements in justice.

To this point someone might object: well, of course — those are political accomplishments after all, and politics is, or ought to be, about the pursuit of justice. And that’s right: but one of the key developments of the late modern world is the dramatic increase in public information about political action. We know more about politics, we think more about politics, than our ancestors ever did or could have done. In the eighteenth century, near the beginnings of modern political journalism, Samuel Johnson wrote, “How small of all that human hearts endure / That part which laws or kings can cause or cure.” But perhaps few late moderns would agree with him. We seek to have almost all that we have to endure cured, or prevented, by laws and kings, that is, politicians.

And so, as we have come to think more and more about politics and the arts of public justice, we have come to consider our private and familial and communal lives more and more in those terms. The pursuit of justice becomes central to, even definitive of, acts and experiences that once were governed largely by other virtues. It is this particular transformation that Wendell Berry was lamenting when he wrote, “Marriage, in what is evidently its most popular version, is now on the one hand an intimate ‘relationship’ involving (ideally) two successful careerists in the same bed, and on the other hand a sort of private political system in which rights and interests must be constantly asserted and defended. Marriage, in other words, has now taken the form of divorce: a prolonged and impassioned negotiation as to how things shall be divided.” That is, a matter of justice rather than love, an assertion of rights rather than a self-giving.

It is this self-same logic that governs our responses to one another on the internet. We clothe ourselves by the manifest justice of our favorite causes, and so clothed we cannot but be righteous. (“Someone is WRONG on the internet.”) Not only do we fail to cultivate charity and humility in our online debates, we may even come to think of such virtues as in fact, vices: forms of weakness that compromise our advocacy for our causes. And so clothed we go forth to war with one another.

But this comes perilously close to what Thomas Hobbes, 350 years ago, famously called “this war of every man against every man.” And as Hobbes pointed out, such a war may begin in the name of justice, but justice cannot long survive: in such an environment “this also is consequent; that nothing can be unjust. The notions of right and wrong, justice and injustice, have there no place… . Force and fraud are in war the two cardinal virtues.” No wonder, then, that Cardinal Sentamu cries out, “May we all possess a high regard for the truth.” No wonder he cries in vain.

This is one of the most fundamental differences between an individualist and a personalist perspective. Human dignity, the unconditional requirement that we attend with reverence to one another, rests firmly on that conviction that the other is already related to something that is not me. Without that conviction, we are in serious ethical trouble. That is why some people, like Robert Spaemann, insist that there is a connection between the notion of human dignity and the notion of the sacred – not only the specific ways in which this or that religion talks about the sacred, but in the sense that there is in the other something utterly demanding of my reverence, something which I cannot simply master or own or treat as an object like other objects. For the Christian, and for most religious believers, that is firmly rooted in the notion that the other, the human other, is already related – and so outside of my power and my control.

I think we can push this further and say that when we claim the right to be respected – when we claim our “human rights,” in fact – we are not just asserting that somewhere in us there is something making imperative demands. We are trying to affirm a proper place in relation with others. We are trying to affirm that we are embedded in relationship. I am and have value because I am seen by and engaged with love – ideally, the love we experience humanly and socially, but beyond and behind that always and unconditionally the love of God. And the service of others’ rights or dignity is simply the search to echo this permanent attitude of love, attention, respect, which the creator gives to what is made.

‘Is he – quite safe?’ asks Susan in Chapter 7 of The Lion. ‘Who said anything about safe? ’Course he isn’t safe,’ says Mr Beaver; ‘But he’s good.’ Aslan’s unsafeness is referred to repeatedly: ‘Is it not said in all the old stories that He is not a Tame Lion?’ (Last Battle Ch. 2). But what is perhaps most remarkable in the entire sequence – and in itself a compelling reason for never reading the books without including The Last Battle – is the way Lewis allows this very axiom almost to undermine faith and truth. To take a parallel from as different an author as you could imagine, Dostoevsky can write in his personal journals of how he has learned to sing his hosanna in the crucible of doubt – but he also, in The Brothers Karamazov uses precisely this phrase in the mouth of a diabolical visitant as a mocking summary of religious evasiveness and dishonesty. Similarly, when the malign Shift begins his campaign to take over Narnia, the fact that he orders things that are absolutely contrary to what might be expected of Aslan is initially met with confusion rather than rejection – because ‘he’s not a tame lion’. Is he bound by his own rules? There have been no signs in the stars to announce the coming again of Aslan; but ‘he is not the slave of the stars but their Maker’ (Last Battle Ch. 2). Appealing to the unpredictable wildness of Aslan has become an unanswerable tool of control….

Aslan makes no promise; nothing can make him safe, and there is no approaching him without an overwhelming sense of risk. But there is no other stream. A less fearful and guilty person than Jill might – like the talking horse Hwin in The Horse (Ch. 14) – conclude that ‘I’d rather be eaten by you than fed by anyone else.’ But one thing Aslan cannot do is pretend he is not what and who he is. Under his scrutiny the likelihood is that we shall all feel as unsafe as it is possible to be. In this crucial sense – and as it were in response to the doubts expressed in The Last Battle – Aslan cannot break his laws. He is not bound by anything except what and who he is, but that is a real and unbreakable bond. He cannot be other than truth. And confronted with truth in this shape, there may be no promises, no rewards and no security, but there is nowhere else to go. Trust in Aslan may even open up the horrific possibilities of corruption and nightmare that The Last Battle describes, but there is no way for Aslan to come into this world without such risks. There are no other options for truthfulness to enter our consciousness or, more importantly, for sacrificial love to break our chains.

— Rowan Williams, The Lion’s World

That being said, I can only confess to being repeatedly humbled and reconverted by Lewis in a way that is true of few other modern Christian writers. Re-reading works I have not looked at for some time, I realize where a good many of my favorite themes and insights came from, and am constantly struck by the richness of imagination and penetration that can be contained even in a relatively brief letter. Here is someone you do not quickly come to the end of — as a complex personality and as a writer and thinker.

Rowan Williams on C S Lewis. I resonate with this very strongly. Lewis was fairly important to me when I was a young Christian, but not nearly as important as several other figures, and for many years I largely ignored him. Only when I was asked to write a biography of Lewis did I confront the uncomfortable fact that I was keeping Lewis at arm’s length not because of any of his own failings, but because I was tired of dealing with vast hordes of evangelicals for whom whatever CSL said about anything was the last word on that topic. It wasn’t Jack that I was tired of, but Jackolatry. When I had to read everything that he wrote in preparation for writing the biography — no small task, let me tell you — I was forced to see that his was a far more copious and supple mind than I had ever realized. Like Archbishop Rowan, I occasionally had the uncomfortable experience of finding in Lewis the source of some idea that I had believed to be my own, and further had believed to be very up-to-date, responsive to the moment — not the sort of thing that would ever have occurred to an old dinosaur like CSL. Those were telling moments.

When we say that the word of God is not bound, we say that death itself can be the living speech of God, as the Word was uttered once and for all in the silence at the end of Good Friday. Cranmer speaks, not only in the controlled passion of those tight balances and repetitions in his Prayer Book, but in that chilling final quarter of an hour. He ran through the downpour to the town ditch and held out his right hand, his writing hand, for a final composition, a final liturgy. And, because the word of God is not bound, it is as if that hand in the flames becomes an icon of the right hand of Majesty stretched out to us for defence and mercy.

Shocks there have been. Nobody in 2002 saw what was coming. That’s why many of us, courteously disagreeing on some issues, have remained convinced that Rowan was the right man for the job. Shallow, polarizing analyses remain irresistible for commentators; many in the church go along for the ride. But Dr Williams is a thinker’s thinker. He burrows down into an issue, reads it up, mulls it over, prays it through, and then speaks his mind. We have needed that. He is a classic Anglican theologian: not one for big, clunky systems, but solid, deep and rich in his study of the Bible and the Fathers. To hear Rowan expounding St John or St Augustine is to encounter Anglican theology at its best. Watch him translate that theology into pastoral mode: with children, say, or praying quietly with someone in the wings of a conference. Like all loveable people, he can be infuriating. But loveable none the less.

A man, then, who portrays human beings excessively and extravagantly. A man who portrays human beings in hell. And yet when we read [Dickens], it does not read like bad news. What does he have to say at the end of the day about redemption? In some ways not a great deal. Or rather there is a tension again and again in his books between a carefully, neatly resolved happy ending, and an immense burden of recognised, almost unbearable, unresolved suffering. He achieves the balance of those two most perfectly, for one reader, in Bleak House, where the past tense of Esther’s narrative is balanced by the present tense of unhealed suffering, the rain still falling on the Lincolnshire wolds. But in that book, which one reader at least thinks is perhaps his most profoundly theological—though he wouldn’t thank me for that—we have one of the strangest, most shocking images that he ever gives us of compassion and mercy, and that is the figure of Sir Leicester Dedlock. At the very end of Bleak House, left alone in his decaying mansion, holding open the possibility of forgiveness and restoration, ‘I revoke no dispositions I have made in her favour’, says Sir Leicester, with his typical dryness, about the wife who has fled from him in guilt and terror. And in that appallingly stiff phrase we hear something of the hope of mercy. Almost silent, powerless, Sir Leicester after his stroke, dying slowly in loneliness, and stubbornly holding open the possibility that there might be, once again, love and harmony.

The real question, John [of the Cross] suggests, is about what you are really after: Do you want ‘spirituality’, mystical experience, inner peace, or do you want God? If you want God, then you must be prepared to let go all, absolutely all, substitute satisfactions, intellectual and emotional. You must recognize that God is so unlike whatever can be thought or pictured that, when you have got beyond the stage of self-indulgent religiosity, there will be nothing you can securely know or feel. You face a blank: and any attempt to avoid that or shy away from it is a return to playing comfortable religious games. 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 own religious world shattered. If you think devotional practices, theological insights, even charitable actions give you some sort of 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 accept God is more than an idea which 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.

— Rowan Williams, “The Dark Night”

So to celebrate the Bible of 1611 is not to genuflect before a timeless masterpiece, to salute a perfect translation; the translators would have been both baffled and embarrassed by any such idea. It is to recognise the absolute seriousness with which they sought to find in our language words that would pass on to us hearers and readers in the English tongue the almost unbearable weight of divine intelligence and love pressing down on those who first encountered it and tried to embody it in writing; those who like Moses and Ezekiel found themselves overwhelmed by the sheer “density” of divine presence, those who like St Paul found themselves dizzy with the number of connections and interrelations between God’s acts over the ages and unable to put it all into a theory, only into a hymn.

The temptation is always there for the modern translator to look for strategies that make the text more accessible; and when that temptation comes, it doesn’t hurt to turn for a moment – for some long moments indeed – to this extraordinary text, with its continuing capacity to surprise us into seriousness, to acquaint us again with the weight of glory – and, we hope and pray, to send us back to the unending work of letting ourselves be changed so that we can bear just a little more of the light of the new world, full of grace and truth.

Rowan Williams’s Advent hope

A great deal of the language that is around in the Communion at present seems to presuppose that any change from our current deadlock is impossible, that division is unavoidable and that any such division represents so radical a difference in fundamental faith that no recognition and future co-operation can be imagined.  I cannot accept these assumptions, and I do not believe that as Christians we should see them as beyond challenge, least of all as we think and pray our way through Advent.

The coming of Christ in the flesh and the declaration of the good news of his saving purpose was not a matter of human planning and ingenuity, nor was it frustrated by human resistance and sin.  It was a gift whose reception was made possible by the prayerful obedience of Mary and whose effect was to create a new community of God’s sons and daughters.  As we look forward, what is there for us to do but pray, obey and be ready for God’s re-creating work through the eternal and unchanging Saviour, Jesus Christ?

‘The Spirit and the bride say, “Come”… Amen.  Come Lord Jesus.  The grace of the Lord Jesus be with God’s people.  Amen’ (Rev.22.17, 20-21).


prayer as bird-watching

The true disciple is an expectant person, always taking it for granted that there is something about to break through from the master, 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 going to open up when you’re in the master’s company and so your awareness (as has often been said by people writing about contemplative prayer) is a little bit like that of a bird-watcher, the experienced bird-watcher, who is sitting still, poised, alert, not tense or fussy, knowing that this is the kind of place where something extraordinary suddenly bursts into view.

I’ve always rather liked that image of prayer as bird-watching. You sit very still because something is liable to burst into view, and sometimes of course it means a long day sitting in the rain with nothing very much happening, and I suspect that most of us know that a lot of our experience of prayer is precisely that. But the odd occasions when you do see what T. S. Eliot called ‘the kingfisher’s wing flashing light to light’ make it all worthwhile. And I think that living in expectancy – living in awareness, your eyes sufficiently open and your mind sufficiently both slack and attentive to see that when it happens – has a great deal to do with discipleship, indeed with discipleship as the gospels present it to us. Interesting (isn’t it?) that in the gospels the disciples don’t just listen, they’re expected to look as well. They’re people who are picking up clues all the way through.

— Rowan Williams