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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., 190.00

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Wesley Hill

Christ the Stranger: The Theology of Rowan Williams

"Luminous sorrow."

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."

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.

But by the same token, perhaps there are seasons in the church's earthly pilgrimage in which a theology of Lent requires special emphasis. Maybe the low notes of penitence and apophaticism need, at times, to be sounded more than do the joyous strains of Christmas or Pentecost. If our time is indeed, as Charles Taylor has dubbed it, "a secular age" in which the shiny promises of prosperity and certainty have become impossible for many would-be believers to accept, then perhaps we need a Lenten theology as an antidote. Perhaps we need to be reminded of the difficulty, and not just the clarity, of the gospel we preach. If so, there's no better Lenten theology than that of Rowan Williams. And for an introduction to that theology, I can't imagine a better guide than Myers.

Wesley Hill is assistant professor of Biblical Studies at Trinity School for Ministry in Ambridge, Pennsylvania. He is the author of Paul and the Triune Identity, forthcoming from Eerdmans, and he is currently at work on a book about the theology and practice of friendship.

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