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Christ the Stranger: The Theology of Rowan Williams
Christ the Stranger: The Theology of Rowan Williams
Benjamin Myers
T&T Clark, 2012
160 pp., 189.82

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Wesley Hill

Christ the Stranger: The Theology of Rowan Williams

"Luminous sorrow."

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Last year, as I completed doctoral studies at Durham University in the northeast of England, I met monthly with a wonderfully eclectic group of Christians to discuss books by Rowan Williams. We gathered at the home of the canon residentiary of Durham Cathedral, and we were an odd assortment: parish priests, college chaplains, retired laypeople with time to read extensively, lecturers in biblical studies and systematic theology, graduate students in theology and philosophy, among others—all united by our interest in the (soon-to-be former) Archbishop of Canterbury's voluminous writings. We were eager, each in our own way, to swap insights, pose questions, and wrestle our way through Williams' "clotted" prose (as he once referred to it) in search of treasure.

I've been reading Williams assiduously over the past several years, thanks to a stray comment a professor made in a graduate seminar I attended. "What Williams offers the Anglican Communion at present is a construal of the heart of the Christian message—the self-dispossession of God, his self-abnegation in Christ for the sake of the world—that allows him to reframe questions rather than simply take them as they are," the professor said. "We want black-and-white answers to the questions we think are most urgent. Williams helps us slow down and ask whether our supposedly urgent questions have been posed with a view to God's self-gift in Jesus. How might they look different if we start from that standpoint? That may be the necessary first step in discerning answers."

That comment sent me hunting for Williams' books in the library stacks, and I spent the following months reading through the astonishing array of his oeuvre. I use astonishing advisedly: it is a truly catholic range, from Christian theology and spirituality (his earliest book, originally given as lectures at Westcott House, Cambridge, when Williams was 27, is a history of contemplative practice from the New Testament to St. John of the Cross) to literary criticism, poetry, and social and political commentary (he regularly writes for Britain's left-leaning Guardian, and the 2008 New Statesman issue in which Williams was interviewed for a cover story on his bishopric outsold the issue devoted to Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens). I still recall a lonely train ride from Durham to Edinburgh on which I read the first few chapters of Tokens of Trust, Williams' introduction to Christian belief. It was as reassuring as any Christian book I'd read, and to this day, if I had to hand one book to an interested skeptic, I'd be as likely to turn to it as to more standard apologetics like C. S. Lewis' Mere Christianity.

But it's worth noting that Williams remains frustratingly inaccessible to many readers, almost infamously so. At the last meeting of my Williams reading group, one of the members, a priest—himself an agile thinker and able theologian—confessed in dismay, "I'm afraid I had trouble grasping this essay!" According to a recent introduction to Williams' theology, Christ the Stranger by Benjamin Myers, that difficulty is intentional. For Williams, speaking of and to God involves pain, confusion, darkness. "God," Williams once wrote, "is what we have not yet understood, the sign of a strange and unpredictable future." No wonder, then, that writing that presumes to gesture towards this God would be correspondingly strange, demanding, and elusive.

Myers' book is useful primarily because it narrates Williams' theological pilgrimage as just that: a pilgrimage, with a traceable, navigable route. He finds a coherence to Williams' bewildering output; there is a unifying theme that surfaces in virtually every essay, sermon, and poem: an ongoing exploration of God's difficulty and hiddenness.

This exploration began in earnest during Williams' years as an undergraduate at Cambridge, where he "fell under the spell of the tortured genius of Donald MacKinnon." (Some readers will have encountered MacKinnon, the late Norris-Hulse Professor of Divinity, as the bleakly eccentric philosopher in Tom Stoppard's comedy Jumpers.) From MacKinnon, Williams gained a sense of the moral and metaphysical irreducibility of tragedy, a theme that would occupy him, off and on, in virtually all his later works, cutting like sharpened shears through the fabric of his entire corpus. "Where moral reasoning tries to evade the tragic dimension, where it posits an unambiguous good," Myers writes, summarizing both MacKinnon and his student Williams, "it becomes an exercise in fantasy and a failure to accept that God's grace is at work in the real, damaged world of human experience."

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