In the unambiguously titled essay God, Rowan Williams sets out to further define the “grammar” of God-talk in the Christian tradition. In modern theological discourse, there seems to be an ever-brewing contention between those who would stick with the attributes of God delineated from the classical tradition and those who would seek to revise them for the modern consciousness. According to Williams, the aporia of the debate comes from a fundamental misunderstanding of the theological tradition.
For revisionists, the issue seems clear: The God of the Bible is clearly mutable. The God we find in Jesus undergoes all sorts of suffering at the hands of the powers, and, therefore, the tradition needs to be divorced from its Greek undercurrents and given a more modern edge. For Williams, however, this is a fundamental misunderstanding at the level of metaphysics. As Williams himself states:
“The story remains one of contest and victory rather than the complex convergence imagined by classical theology and spirituality between growth in integrity and actualization as a creature and conformity with the ‘will’ or ‘purpose’ of God…if there is no guaranteed ‘triumph’ for God, if contest is perpetual and unresolved, we are stuck with a metaphysic… in which what is unambiguously good has no necessary relation to how things fundamentally are, or are thinkable. Good becomes a function of the will, separated from ‘nature’, as in the familiar forms of debased Kantianism, and from intellect.”
The problem with revisionism is that “What has been changed by the emancipatory move in theology is the locus of power and of suffering, not the nature of power relations themselves.” The univocity of being produces an ontology predicated on contest and violence. The Christian tradition is an attempt to say otherwise. It is not absolutely necessary that ‘nature’ be competitive. There is another way to live communally, and God is the grammar constitutive of this alternative.
Williams worry here seems to be that of the Radical Orthodoxy theologians (and really anybody with an Anglo-Catholic bent): any theology that affirms that “what is unambiguously good has no necessary relation to how things fundamentally are”, has no future in Christian theology. But why is this the case? Does the doctrine of Divine Election not teach us that God’s self-determination to be the God pro nobis in Jesus Christ is precisely a radical decision; something that is completely beyond necessity, pure gift?
I am beginning to come to the conclusion that this worry over the necessity of a fundamental ontology is tied to a series of all-too simple dualisms: nature/culture, realism/idealism, particularity/universality, etc. What we need in contemporary theology is an unmaking of these dualisms (and I don’t mean deconstruction). Man and culture are just as much a part of nature as trees and rocks – and this nature is anything but harmonious. Ideas are just as real as buildings and factories – and they have just as much of a ‘say’ in changing the world as the components of the base. When we begin to trade in this kind of a flattened ontology, we realize that many more options are opened to us conceptually. We no longer need to fear ‘ontologies of violence’ and the like. Theology’s conceptual space is opened up and creativity becomes a virtue. The thing I like most about this move is that it is a radically affirmative vision of the theological task – it trades on the in-flux nature of living. We need not nurse worries about “they way things fundamentally are”. These notions of a static ontology are dead to us (they’ve wreaked havoc via onto-theology for too long).
And the best part about this metaphysical switch is that it completely avoids Williams’ criticism mentioned above: it is absolutely not voluntarism or debased Kantianism. If anything, it is a complete overturning of the Kantian paradigm! No more correlationism for us! Dammit, I’m excited!