Tuesday, 23 May 2006

For the love of God (1): Why I love Rowan Williams

A guest-post by Kim Fabricius

Great theologians are like icons rather than religious paintings: you not only look at God, God looks at you. The theology of Rowan Williams is iconography.

In it we meet the gaze of God. It is the look of agape. Not since Barth—an immense influence—have I felt so love-touched by a theologian.

But the divine gaze is an x-ray of penetration, revealing the cor inquietum (Augustine is probably Rowan’s most significant theological other), exposing the self-love and self-hatred that infect the human project, and the self-deceit that blinds us to both. Rowan is completely conversant with postmodernism, but he doesn’t need Derrida to resource his own hermeneutic of self-deconstruction and social suspicion. Iconoclastic as well as iconographic is Rowan’s theology.

In fact, there is hardly a language-game Rowan cannot play (Wittgenstein is another mentor). He quite promiscuously quarries a range of traditions and thinkers for iconic gold—and finds it in the “silence and honey cakes” of the desert fathers; in the “muddle and silliness” of the saint John Wesley; in the exultant poetry of George Herbert and the dark fiction of Flannery O’Connor; not to mention in that contemporary pop-cultural “icon” Homer Simpson!

Rowan’s theology plays as well as prays (as in attendre, “dropping into what is there”). It is also politics. Its “social programme is the dogma of the Holy Trinity” (Nikolay Fyodorov): inclusive (no voices silenced), egalitarian (on hierarchical power, “think of what Coca-Cola does to your teeth”); pacific (based on “the truce of God”); and deeply enfleshed (“The Body’s Grace” is already a classic on both the “precariousness” and the creative possibilities of desire, gay as well as straight).

Not to forget Rowan’s personal holiness, at once profound and prosaic. Rowan is such a nice guy, reserved and vulnerable, yet warm and with-you, gaze for gaze.

Perfect? Not quite: Rowan doesn’t like sports—and he is too uncoordinated even to drive. After a meeting in Aberystwyth he once hitched a ride with me to Swansea. With my own focus more on Rowan than the road, he probably wished he’d taken the train!

11 Comments:

David Wilkerson said...

Williams has been stangely cooperative with (co-opted by?) the conservatives considering his previously liberal positions. Below is a link to a recent protest of Mr. Williams stance towards the Anglican Church and Nigerian politics.

http://commentisfree.guardian.co.uk/peter_tatchell/2006/05/anglicans_applaud_nigerian_hom.html

Weekend Fisher said...

Kim, I know this has potential to be a touchy subject, so skip it if you'd rather.

Many consider Rowan Williams controversial because he hesitates to regard homosexual activity as a sin (to say the least, I think). How significant a role does his stance towards homosexual activity play in your choice of him?

Also, if you had to recommend your favorite piece of his work, which would you recommend as his best?

kim fabricius said...

Hi David,

Theologically Rowan's "liberal" (social/ethical) positions are unchanged. As far as I know, for example, Rowan remains a member of the Lesbian and Gay Christian Movement (we once met as fellow-church leaders at an annual conference). He cooperates with the conservatives not out of weakness, nor due to tactics, and not even (or at least only) because of his understanding of the peace-making role of the Archbishop of Canterbury, but fundamentally because (as he puts in in his essay "Making Moral Decisions") he refuses "the temptation to seek the purity and assurance of a community speaking with only one voice [whether liberal or conservative] and embrace[s] the reality of living in a communion that is fallible and divided."

Rowan, however, is a realist, and I am sure he knows how he is being used; moreover, I know that he suspects that keeping the Anglican communion together is a lost cause (unless the liberals allow themselves to be intimidated out of the church). Nothing un-Christ-like there then! But I take your point, if you take mine: which is that Rowan's vocation has always been primarily that of a teacher (more than a pastor), that the gifted teaching-bishop is an endangered species, and, boy, do we need his creative, textured - and theologically sound - input on the issue of human sexuality. In short, I too would like to see (to re-phrase the words of the pop song), "a little less conversation, a little more teaching, please!"

Hi WF - great to hear from you!

Rowan and I were at one in being theologically quite orthodox (if in nuanced ways) while socially/ethically quite liberal before I came across his work, but his theology has certainly informed and emboldened my own thinking on the subject of human sexuality.

For a broad perspective as to where Rowan is at, I would recommend Open to Judgement: Sermons and Addresses (1994).
Lost Icons (2000) represents Rowan at his best at the interface of theology and culture. The Wound of Knowledge (rev. ed. 1990) is the best thing I have ever read on traditions in Christian spirituality. And if you want to see a patristics scholar in his prime, and a hermeneuticist fusing the horizons of the past and the present, you must read Arius: Heresy and Tradition (sec. ed. 2001).

David Wilkerson said...

I know Williams is trying not to be divisive, but I am a little disappointed that he has remained so quiet and allowed the Windsor report/commission such visibility with Bishop Wright being very vocal. I would hope he wouldn't cower at Wright's rising popularity (at least in America).

But I suppose we are analyzing "theology" here and not pastoral politics (though the separation of the two might not be legitimate, or if it is, the value of the former might be called into question if the latter is so mediocre).

At any rate, I second the recommendation of Arius:Heresy and Tradition. It was dense yet fascinating. An explanation, rehabilitation, yet still a refutation, of Arius.

I also like his essay in The Making of Orthodoxy (in honor of Henry Chadwick) entitled "Does it make sense to speak of a Pre-Nicene Orthodoxy?" A profoundly important issue. There Williams points to 1)the historical (even physical) mediation of the faith, 2) the commitment to the unsystematizable narrative of Christ (some dependence here on Crossan), and 3) the roots in a non-centered common worldwide mission as central to Orthodoxy versus various Gnostic groups.

Thanks for the reminder on Wound of Knowledge. I have yet to read it but I figured it would be outstanding.

kim fabricius said...

Hi again David. Thanks for your comments.

One of the most perceptive (because so counter-intuitive) and relevant observations that Rowan makes in Arius is how theologically - and biblically - conservative the great heresiarch was. In the book's "Postscript" Rowan writes:

"There is a sense in which Nicaea and its aftermath represent a recognition by the Church at large that theology is not only legitimate but necessary. The loyal and uncritical repetition of formulae is seen to be inadequate as a means of securing continuity at anything more than a formal level; Scripture and tradition require to be read in a way that brings out their strangeness . . . They need to be made more difficult before we can accurately grasp their simplicities. Otherwise, we read with eyes not our own and think them through with minds not our own . . . And this 'making difficult', this confession that what the gospel says in Scripture and tradition does not instantly and effortlessly make sense, is perhaps one of the most fundamental tasks for theology."

And in the "Appendix": "Part of my aim was to show how a theological tradition that is not responsive in some ways to wider intellectual currents can become stuck."

The Ochlophobist said...

"Love-touched" by Barth. That phrase brings Charlotte von Kirschbaum to mind.

byron said...

Thanks Kim for your intro to a dense and important contemporary classic. And thanks for your vulnerability: admitting to being touched by anything can be a dangerous pursuit in a cynical world.

Jason Clark said...

I got to meet and hear Rowan yesterday. He was insipring and iconic, thank you for putting your finger on the experience.

David Williamson said...

The Independent carried a fascinating interview with NT Wright where he spoke with personal fondness of Williams (to whom he's dedicated at least one book).

"The position of someone such as Rowan Williams is seen as inconsistent only by those who accept that tick-all-the-boxes package deal. And yet this left/right polarisation is only as old as the French Revolution. It shows that our assumptions are still those of the world of the late Enlightenment and of the Whig idea of history [that we progress constantly to a future better than the past]."

"Rowan is brilliant in several interlocking ways. There's nobody else who could do what he already has done. The primates' meeting showed his extraordinary gift of being able to draw people together. He's a man of such transparent Christian spirituality that it takes somebody peculiarly hard-nosed to resist. He has been called and equipped for a very difficult moment in church history and he's come across as a man of enormous integrity and courage."

You can read more at: http://news.independent.co.uk/people/profiles/article84226.ece

Anonymous said...

Rowan Williams is very popular here at Knox College. I have met many a fellow theologue who has read his works.

I was impressed with his lectures on the Desert Fathers. However I was the most vocal opponent to his pre-Canterbury intiation into the Druidic Order. I am also not in favour of the ordination of gays and lesbians or the blessing of same-sex unions.

But I did once have a dream where we had faces and like Kim I could not talk because I was standing in front of an icon. This is how it sounded in my dream.

Eugene: WOW! YOU'RE ROWAN WILLIAMS!

RW: It is a pleasure to meet you, Eugene McKinnon.

I think the dream signified to me that the true church is where there is unity and diversity and where a conservative like me needs a liberal like him and vice versa.

Eugene McKinnon

Elizabeth said...

Hello, all:

I'm a female priest (is it safe to say that on this blog?) who has experience both in the evangelical and mainstream American Church. I've been asked to write an article of the aftermath of our General Convention...whatever that turns out to be! My question for you wise men and women is: do you think Rowan Williams can hold the Communion together? What will he do if The Episcopal Church defies the recommendations of the Windsor Report? And...what will happen then?

Blessings, Elizabeth

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