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Christ the Stranger: The Theology of Rowan Williams
Christ the Stranger: The Theology of Rowan Williams
Benjamin Myers
Bloomsbury T&T Clark, 2012
160 pp., $130.00

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Christ the Stranger: The Theology of Rowan Williams

"Luminous sorrow."

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After taking his first degree, Williams went on to study apophatic Russian Orthodox thought for his D.Phil. at Oxford. There he began to ask whether MacKinnon's sense of the tragic—what the mystics knew as the desolation of the dark night—might spiral all the way back into the eternal divine identity itself. Following Sergei Bulgakov, Williams began to speak of the Father's eternal generation of the Son as an act of "self-devastation." The Father "lays himself waste" in giving himself to the Son, and likewise the Son reciprocates by refusing to have his being from and for himself; he wills instead to be wholly begotten by the Father. In the Spirit, Williams writes, "the potential tragedy of mutual annihilation is overcome"—but without assuaging the unceasing desire of Father and Son for one another. As Myers puts it,

Even the life of God resists gratification. The Son is eternally unconsoled, eternally broken, by the love of the Father; the Father is eternally devastated and displaced by the gift of his being to the receptive Son; and a third agency, the Spirit, is the constant evacuation of fantasy, a dark night poised between God and God, light and light. If tragedy means a total lack of completion and consolation, then it is hard to avoid concluding that there is something very like tragedy going on forever between the persons of the trinity.

It is, to be sure, a disturbing, destabilizing vision—one that Williams works out not only in his reflections on the doctrine of God but also in his essays on Christian spirituality and contemplative prayer. With skill and a keen eye for what makes for a helpful summary, Myers charts the way in which Williams relentlessly returns, like a finger finding its way back to a still-unhealed wound, to the themes of God's elusiveness, God's refusal to satisfy our yearning, our quest for uncomplicated assurance. One could take the subtitle of Williams' 2000 book of Lenten meditations, Christ on Trial, as an apt epigram for his theology as a whole: "the Gospel unsettles our judgment."

One of the most insightful and poignant moments in Myers' book is when he links Williams' theology to the church season of Lent. Lent is the moment in the church's calendar in which Williams' theology seems most at home. During the forty days leading up to Easter, we practice abstinence, we repent and discipline our desires, placing our hands over our mouths, partaking of what Bulgakov calls the "luminous sorrow" of the preparatory fast. If we recognize the legitimacy of this pentitential discipline, perhaps we can better appreciate what Williams aims to achieve in his theology. But at the same, recognizing that Lent eventually yields up its shadows to the brightness of Easter, perhaps we can also find room to criticize Williams' choice to linger over Lent. Darkness and fasting can't be the whole story. "A theology of Lent is a great thing," writes Myers, "but one cannot live by ash alone." Reading this comment, I found myself recalling W. H. Auden's criticism of Kierkegaard's theology: "like all heretics, conscious or unconscious, he is a monodist, who can hear with particular acuteness one theme in the New Testament—in his case, the theme of suffering and self-sacrifice—but is deaf to its rich polyphony …. The Passion of Christ was to Kierkegaard's taste, the Nativity and Epiphany were not." Might the same be said of Williams?

On the one hand, we should probably answer yes. Williams' "monodism" is painfully evident in the way he finds the theme of divine hiddenness and tragedy under every bush. For instance, in an early essay, he quotes Barth as an ally in his theological vision: "It therefore pleased [God] … for the redemption of the world, … to deny the immutability of his being, his divine nature, to be in discontinuity with himself, to be against himself." Triumphantly, Williams seizes on this passage as evidence that Barth, too, saw God risking his selfhood in "the inconceivable self-emptying" of the cross. It's Barth as a MacKinnonesque Russian mystic, if you will. The trouble is, had Williams bothered to quote Barth's next paragraph, he would have had to recant. Barth decries the very sentence Williams presents as Barth's own view. It is, Barth says, "an image of our own unreconciled humanity projected into deity," a "supreme blasphemy." Here, embarrassingly for Williams, is the fruit of Kierkegaardian monodism run amok: in his quest to plumb the depths of divine darkness, Williams unwittingly coopts a Barthian paean to the divine freedom and luminosity.

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