In the essay Trinity and Revelation, Rowan Williams attempts to develop a trinitarian theology that achieves the end of being founded upon the act of God’s self-revelation while safe-guarding the creative, in-flux aspects of creaturely (and churchly) life. For Williams, this seeming conflict of interests (between church-life and dogmatics) is tied to his view on the necessary grammar of God-talk. It is only when involved in a certain kind of community (i.e. the church) that questions of theological grammar arise. In short, the basis of the church’s self-understanding is found in relating its present social reality to the founding event of its being – in the theological milieu, the revelation found in the Christ event.
Using Ricoeur’s definition of revelation as a ‘poetic opening up of a new world’, Williams understands the self-revelation of God in Christ as precisely this: God’s absolutely creative action that opens up creaturely imagination so as to encounter radical newness. In this way, we may understand the receptive metaphors of “Word”, “Image”, and “Son” as being both dependent and creative. The church is able to engage in ongoing debate concerning the logic of its foundational events even while acknowledging its dependence upon them – liberty and obedience are intimately tied together, just as they are in Christ. This understanding of revelation as both creative and dependent he terms “non-heteronomous dependence” – meaning that a properly theological account of ‘creativity’ would not be considered immediately opposed to notions of obedience.
In Theological Integrity, Williams addresses the notion of ‘integrity’ in theological discourse. In the modern world, it seems as though religious language is the most prone to ideology – a dichotomy between the inner (motive) and the outer (utterance). However, for Williams, a proper theological orientation would look more like prayer and liturgy, where claims to universal knowledge are substituted for a ‘giving over’, a sort of apophaticism before God. This dispossession, this suspicion of the self is a far cry from escapism, though. Rather, the language of praise affirms human mortality, for God has tied himself to our history. Thus, proper theological speech is fidelity to this historical event. It finds truth in the other that has arrived surprisingly, as revelation.
In The Unity of Christian Truth, Williams asks the probing question: how do we conceive of the unity of Christian truth in an age defined by pluralism? The answer, however, does not rely upon simple reductions. There are two basic methods for grounding the unity of any given theology: the monothematic and the encyclopedic systematic. According to Williams, both of these options, while attempting to ground theology in truth, end up producing an even more advanced pluralism. Unlike these grandiose visions of theology, the church should look to the methods used in Scripture to attain unity – and these Williams calls analogical. The manner in which the authors of the New Testament analogically utilized the heroes of Israel’s history speaks to this method.
Inevitably, the real threat to Christian unity does not lie in its conceptual liabilities. It is the breadth of differing forms of Christian humanity (or ‘holiness’) that do the real damage – and it is Paul’s vision of the ekklesia that fleshes this out. No truth claim that allows the world to go about as normal while salvation intercedes for some can call itself properly Christian.
As for my response to these various readings from the Archbishop, I am dutifully torn. As a church leader, Rowan Williams is peerless. The way he has handled everything from the Lambeth Conference disaster a decade ago to the Sharia Law debacle last year has proven his worth as a pastor and as an ecumenist (in the best sense of the word). And clearly, his theological musings are meant to be a backdrop to these actions. However, I do believe that the Barthians have a point in their criticism of Williams’ Wittgensteinian grammatical approach to theology: the radicality of the church’s life in the world begins with talk about God; and the reason that ‘talk about God’ is so essential is because, in the gospel event, God has given himself over to our finite language. This is Eberhard Jungel’s great contribution to the theological tradition following Barth. For all of Williams worries about finitude, the nature of language, and human frailty (all of which are necessary), it is the lack of foundational talk about God that leaves his theology wanting. Again, every good theology needs to have a self-limiting aspect within it, and Williams’ makes this clear in his criticism of Barth:
“… for Barth, revelation is fundamentally the impartation of God’s self-knowledge: we participate by revelation in this ultimate epistemological security. If we come at revelation from the more modest – if finally more demanding – position of Ricoeur’s ‘hermeneutics of testimony’, the correspondence between the hermeneutical process and the divine act is of another kind. Revelation, from this perspective, is nothing to do with absolute knowledge.”
Williams’ criticism seems to imply that, from the perspective of finitude, an ‘absolute knowledge’ such as that of Barth’s, is fundamentally totalitarian. It obliterates the possibility of all correctives, and leaves little room for the continuing work of the Spirit to reveal. The question that must be asked, then, is: Where does the self-limiting aspect of Barth’s theology lie? The Barth of Romans would surely cringe at the thought of a domesticated God, but the later Barth did come under the challenge from Bonhoeffer of succumbing to an eventual “positivism of revelation”. Surely, a thick doctrine of humility (founded upon some good ol’ Christological content) would have something to say to this charge, but I’m not really sure where to go from here. Any thoughts?