By Derek Olsen
The Most Rev. Rowan Williams, 104th Archbishop of Canterbury, delivered the 2014 Dunning Memorial Lecture to a packed house in Baltimore on April 3. Williams spoke at the Ecumenical Institute of Theology at St. Mary’s Seminary and University, which in previous years has welcomed James Dunn, Miroslav Volf, N.T. Wright, and Stanley Hauerwas. All ticketed seats in the lecture hall were filled an hour before the lecture, requiring overflow seating in another room. The audience was diverse and included Muslim and Jewish guests as well as Christians, Roman Catholic leaders as well as the Rt. Rev. Eugene Sutton, Bishop of Maryland.
Filling the room with his presence and rich Welsh baritone, Williams spoke foremost as poet and pastor, weaving stories from his parish experience with theological rumination into an hour-long meditation infused with full homely divinity. Explaining his title, “Theology as a Way of Life,” Williams explored theology as the study of practices and habits of faith within embodied lives. Theology begins with the study of lives to whom God makes sense; theology as a way of life is a communal activity, a practice of looking at the self in light of God.
In practical terms, Williams identified three fundamental habits that ground theology as a way of life: self-scrutiny, patience, and a willingness for conversational engagement. Self-scrutiny is the habit of looking honestly at the self, at the community. This scrutiny is a question we ask of ourselves on behalf of the God who loves us. We must look honestly from a place of love and take the risk to ask ourselves the awkward questions: How do people work? How do I work?
This habit of questioning flows naturally into patience as a practice. This patience is a willingness to sit with what is neither easily nor quickly said. A theological way of life is not afraid of things that take time. This includes being patient with the inarticulate, recognizing that life moves faster than the words we attempt to wrap around it, realize that it takes time to find the words. Too, it includes patience with the over-articulacy of the rich, chaotic words we use in worship. Metaphor piles on metaphor, creating a clotted richness of expression that demands patience to comprehend.
Finally, what we find in the scrutiny and the patience must be shared in a willingness for conversation. Other believers are a gift to us, from whom we must learn and challenge ourselves.
Moving these habits towards the corporate practices of the faith, Williams spoke of those moments of encounter that spring us free from the traps of self. We know that we have encountered God with integrity when we experience the world shifting and opening up new vistas we had never before imagined, making possible what was not possible before.
He cited the ferment of activity around the English abolition of the slave trade in 1807 as a time when the nation was swept into a new current of possibilities and brought liberation to birth corporately. Not only is this encounter about physical and social liberation; it is also about a step into a new positive identity in prayer. It is the moment when we learn we can address God in new ways that we could not before.
Williams identified this as the heart of the New Testament’s approach to theology: grappling with a new kind of prayer, both uttered and experienced where we use the word Father to relate to the creator of the universe.
The lecture concluded with a turn to the contemplative. First, the language that comes out of this theological way of life must always hold on to an awareness of its own incompleteness. Following the tradition of apophatic theology, we must always recognize that even our best language about God is incapable of accuracy. We must be aware of the riskiness of our language about God.
Second, our language must always gesture towards contemplation. No language can be truly theological that does not gesture into the stillness of the person of Jesus. Contemplation, in turn, is no less than a movement where the self becomes a place where Jesus happens. Theologically genuine prayer, praying truthfully, praying with integrity, is prayer in which the self becomes the place where Jesus becomes alive. The final word is joy: theology as a way of life is about exploring who we are in light of God, given as a gift of joy to a world that needs it.
Williams took questions after his lecture, including a challenge from Bishop Sutton, who asked what theology as a way of life had to say to the conditions of life on the verge of collapse, the experience of many people in Baltimore who suffer from fear, economic collapse, violence and environmental degradation.
Williams emphasized the inherently countercultural patterns of theology as a way of life. In a culture that demands quick and easy answers that regards people and the world around it as disposable, the theological habits of scrutiny, patience, and conversation cut against the grain. They call us to a way of being that rejects and subverts a culture of degradation, and provide a pattern for a more excellent way.
As the overflow audience dispersed into the wet spring night, the archbishop’s answer lingered, a challenge to embrace the contemplative habits of theology as a way of life, and to sow fertile seeds within our own communities.
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