Jane Williams considers the radical humility of God, revealed in Jesus Christ, and its meaning for daily life.
By Zachary Guiliano
Jane Williams’s latest book, The Merciful Humility of God, is above all focused on “the humility that [God] has chosen.” Beginning with a chapter on Jesus’ journey into the desert after his baptism, the book then returns to the humble surroundings of his birth and early life. A central chapter considers Jesus’ ministry, including his choice to “gather round himself a disparate group of friends,” while aggravating the authorities. Finally, the book turns toward the crucifixion and resurrection. Throughout, Williams emphasizes the frequently strange character of Jesus and his centrality to our understanding of God.
The distinctiveness of the Christian vision of God, so wrapped up in the person of Jesus and in humility, is something Williams has often focused on, but it lies at the heart of this book because of a suggestion from her editor at Bloomsbury. When her editor mentioned the theme, “what it sparked for me was that connection with Augustine,” she told TLC, “because I am a great lover of Augustine of Hippo. I love the passion of his writing.” Williams mentioned a particular passage from Augustine’s Confessions, in which he describes what he found in Christianity: what “he hadn’t found in all the other gods, the gods of the philosophers: the humble God.”
“The Christian witness insists that there is no way round this self-revelation of God,” she writes. “We cannot get to the majesty and saving power of God except in the way that God chooses to reveal it — in Jesus. There is, apparently, something compatible here, between the power of God and the humility of the human life and death of Jesus Christ. We do not instinctively understand this; it is so counter-intuitive, so alien to our definitions of achievement” (p. 2).
In her volume, Williams chooses to set the events and themes of Jesus’ life and of scriptural teachings alongside the lives of saintly figures from various ages of the Church: Augustine, Julian of Norwich, Francis of Assisi, Teresa of Ávila, and Jean Vanier and the L’Arche community. Their lives help “draw out the ongoing truth of the biblical insight” (p. 7). Her intent was to show the practicality of the Christian message and its relevance to daily life.
“I think it helps us to see it as lived reality, when you see particular people taking on these ideas, not simply as theory but as something that influences the way you live your life,” she told TLC. While writing, she had in mind, “perhaps unconsciously,” members of the “outward-focused, missional parishes” where many of her students at St. Mellitus College serve.
At St. Mellitus, “our model is the constant joining up of theory and practice, and I think that’s what I’m trying to do in the Lent book, which is to help people to see the big ideas, the exciting ideas of Christianity,” she said. “But they’re meant to be lived out, and the only way you discover if they’re actually true is by living them out. That’s how God chooses that we shall come to know God, not as a theory but as a journey and as a companion on the way.”
For that reason, each chapter of the book concludes with suggested responses, questions, and further reading. The most distinctive and constant suggestion, repeated at the end of every chapter, is Start each morning of Lent by hearing God say to you: “You are my beloved.” The link here is between the voice of the Father heard by Jesus at his baptism and our baptismal identity.
“The profound meditations that we see in the gospel accounts of the temptation in the wilderness are about self-definition; in Jesus’ case, he freely gives that task to the Father: only God will define Jesus, and under all circumstances, Jesus will be what God says he is: the Beloved Son, wanting and needing nothing else. This is where Lent starts for us too” (p. 20).
For Jesus, this meant setting aside all the ways that others might have chosen for him, like “the usual human definition of God, powerful, invulnerable, demanding” (p. 19) and any path to obvious power or glory. Instead, he toiled away for 30 years in obscurity, without any sign of authority or power, and even his public ministry was frequently marked by a hiddenness or by others’ incomprehension. This presents something of a constant paradox for those who encounter him, “the mad logic of the merciful humility of God” (p. 21).
“It seems unfair that it should be so. … [H]ere is a young man, of no obvious importance, no wealth, no powerful family background, and people are expected to be attentive enough to see that the encounter with him is the pivotal moment in their lives” (p. 63).
When asked about this unfairness, she told TLC: “I think I really feel sorry for the people who didn’t know, who didn’t find their hearts stirred to warmth by him: the officials whose job it was to keep things stable, whose job it was to teach … and who had no framework for letting go of all of that because of an encounter with one unlikely young man. That happens still today. It doesn’t seem fair that some people have seen who God is, and how to encounter that in Jesus. It’s easy to read the Gospels and think that those who didn’t get it were wicked — and they weren’t! So that call to attention to unlikely places is one of the things that comes out through the exploration I was doing in this book. What is it like to have your heart softened by God [in a way] that suggests the traditional places, the conventionally good places, may not be where you find God? It’s scary for those of us who live in those places.”
Williams has lived very much at the center of the Church’s life, though also in some ways “as a stranger.” She was born in India as one of five daughters, while her father was a priest serving with the Church Missionary Society and later as principal of the Kerala United Theological Seminary. He would become a cathedral canon on the family’s return to England when Williams was eight, and then successively a suffragan bishop in the Diocese of York and Bishop of Bradford.
She had an early interest in theology, sparked partly by her father’s passion for the Bible and for studying it in groups with participants “from many different religious traditions.” She told TLC: “[O]ne of the things he sort of proved for himself was that the Gospels are evangelistic. … [T]hey tell you the story with the expectation that they will have an impact on your life.” Participants would sometimes leave the groups after a few meetings because of an unwillingness to reckon with the claims of the Gospels. “I think that’s probably where I started to think I wanted to study theology,” she said.
She went up to Cambridge as an undergraduate and later began a doctorate there on Wolfhart Pannenberg, Jürgen Moltmann, and their understanding of eschatology, how “the future makes the present.” She describes “running out of money” in the midst of it, and so turned to work in publishing to fund the rest of it.
“I’ve never had a career plan of any kind,” she said. “I got married towards the end of my doctorate while working as a sub-editor at a publishing company; got married to somebody whose life started to get interesting and so regularly moved to different places: gave up a job, found another one. I’ve had the most wonderful jobs by accident.”
Amid a varied career in theological publishing and teaching, she says her “particular passion was always to make theology accessible” and to draw out the connections between doctrine and practice, which often become separated in many people’s minds. She relates this partly to her study of Pannenberg and Moltmann.
“One of my big obsessions is that we shape our characters and our lives day by day in our regular choices and decisions. … I am who I am because of the life I’ve lived, the decisions we’ve made, some of which are not under our control but some of which are. The questions: What kind of person do you want to be? What kind of world to you want to live in? They’re not questions we can just sit around and hope something can happen.”
She pointed to two particular moments in her life when she felt presented with a clear choice to act on the basis of her faith. “In my early teens, I was mildly anorexic. It was a sort of real encounter with the incarnation that made a significant difference. God likes bodies. God does not think that bodies are unreal, unimportant; and there’s no way of encountering God outside of our bodies, our embodied selves. So with that sense of alienation from my bodily self, which I think is a part of anorexia, doctrine was an actual turning point.”
Williams alluded as well to the decision to lead a life of understanding amid the difficulties of the Anglican Communion: “At a point of life where my husband was undergoing some trials, I remember feeling a choice. There were one or two people in groups who were making our lives harder — that’s not what they were trying to do — and I remember in a prayer session feeling that I was almost offered this choice: You can go down the route of hating and obsessing about what they’re doing wrong, and that will affect you, that will shape you; or you can choose to try and see what they feel they’re defending. … And that will also shape you. And the simple question is: Who do you want to be? It’s very uncomfortable. It’s not nice and it spills out into other things that are not part of the same problem. I thought: I’m going to try to choose to see these people as God sees them. … It was a choice that was entirely in my hands. I think a lot of us have those choices.”
Williams connects these practical, daily choices we all face with those faced by Jesus himself. “In Jesus the most fundamental desire was to be the Son of God, to be the Son of the Father in all circumstances. Is this what the Son of God would do? That’s a good Lent question.”