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‘God’s Truth Will Survive’

20 Minutes with Rowan Williams

The Rt. Rev. Rowan Douglas Williams, Baron Williams of Oystermouth in the City and County of Swansea, has served as master of Magdalene College at the University of Cambridge since 2013. He was Archbishop of Canterbury from 2002 to 2012. The Rev. Andrew Petiprin interviewed Baron Williams in Miami, where he preached at the institution of the Rt. Rev. Peter Eaton as Bishop of Southeast Florida.

You have a new book out called Meeting God in Paul.

Well, like a number of my other recent little books, it’s really based on a series of lectures given at Canterbury Cathedral in Holy Week. Part of my discipline in Canterbury was to give a series of public talks every Holy Week on some subject central to the faith and invite anybody and everybody to come. So I did, I think it was the last year, a brief introduction to Paul. And I was tempted originally to call it Paul, But Don’t Panic, because people have very strange ideas about St. Paul. They think that he’s the man who sent Christianity off on the wrong track, that he’s the man who invented the idea that sex is bad for you, that he hated women. You know, everything.

And I wanted to give a very brief orientation to what I think matters about Paul. So I began with a little survey of his social world: a very, very stratified, very divided world, in which you were either an insider or an outsider. You were either a citizen or a slave (not quite as stark as that). And Paul is saying, “What if there were a completely different kind of human community centered around Jesus Christ in which everybody was a citizen, especially the ones who are the outsiders of the present order?” So at the beginning of 1 Corinthians he reminds his audience (not many of them were real insiders, not many of them had status) and in the great little letter to Philemon, he is talking about how belonging together in the body of Christ doesn’t immediately abolish but does override that traditional gulf between the owner and the owned. And although it takes a long time for the Church to catch up, that eventually deals with the problem of slavery centuries later. So, that’s where I start, and then looking at how particularly the events around Jesus’ death and resurrection, the belief in being in Jesus and his Spirit being in you, reshapes the whole sense of human life. So, it’s a ridiculously short book, because my great friend Tom Wright has of course just written a book on Paul, which is about 30,000 pages longer. I’m a bit embarrassed but, you know, somebody’s got to do a bit of boiling down.

In the introduction you wrote that Paul “was exploring a new country — as fertile, beautiful, exhilarating, above all as real and tangible in its working, as any that a sixteenth-century sailor might have run across in his voyages of discovery.” I loved your book of lectures on Lewis and the Chronicles of Narnia, and I picked up the same idea. You rehabilitated Lewis by reminding us to come into a world that he is creating that gives us the sense of what it feels like to belong to God.

Yes, that’s right. I think what we always have to be striving for in communicating the faith is that sense of being in a world, in a whole environment; so not just something where we tick off the propositions, but something which changes the light on everything. And the image I’ve used again and again and again, boringly often, is the light changing on a landscape. Everything looks different. And when we tie ourselves down to this or that bit of agenda within the Church, we always rather risk that sense of the new creation, the great scope of the new creation. And that’s why for the Lewis book the phrase that kept coming back to me was a phrase he uses about “a mouthwash for the imagination,” about a whole imagination, a whole vision rinsed by something cleansing and refreshing.

I gather you have a book coming out on Augustine. He’s someone else who needs perhaps a bit of rehabilitating.

And fortunately it is happening, because in the last 15 years scholarly study of Augustine has flourished in the most amazing way, and much more, I think, attentively in respect of what he actually says than before. Again, Augustine has been blamed for everything that has gone wrong with Western Christianity. And the only answer is “Well, read him. Read him.” And what’s extraordinary about Augustine is the number of registers in which he works. He can give you highly complex conceptual analysis in his book On the Trinity, he can give you this impassioned, poetic autobiography in the Confessions, and the sermons, which are colloquial, direct, and jokey and — even one passage in one of the sermons where he says, literally, “It’s getting a bit smelly in here. I must have been preaching for a long time.” It’s a Mediterranean church with the crowd packed in, people sweating profusely, and it’s that human diversity of his voice that fascinates me.

He was doing this incredible theology while a country bishop.

While a country bishop, exactly. Every morning he’s got to go to his tribunal and he’s got to sort out what we would now, I suppose, regard as legal aid cases. You know, poor people coming to get the bishop’s judgment on various things. He’s got to keep up this vast correspondence, some of it with very problematic political figures, as well as other bishops. He organizes the life of his own little religious community and is in effect the superior of a small monastery. He travels, sometimes at risk. We know of at least one incident where he narrowly avoided an ambush that could have been fatal. And in the middle of all that, he writes De Trinitate. How?

Have you found yourself identifying with him? It seems to me you have a similar ministry.

It’s kind of you to say so. I’m well down on the foothills of that immense mountain where Augustine is near the top. But there are things I recognize in common. I recognize, I suppose, the need to go on trying to bridge that potential gap between theologizing and communicating at the level of any and every congregation. It was one of the things that was one of the great graces for me about being a bishop. Having been a university teacher and seminary teacher for quite a lot of my ministry (of course I’ve always done parochial work as well) — but suddenly when I became a bishop, every week I would be in a different congregation trying to make theological sense to them, and I felt it was one of those not entirely welcome graces that pushed me to think harder. Because philosophers are quite right: if you understand it, you ought to be able to express it. If you can’t understand it, then either it is inexpressible, which is fine (say that, come clean), or you haven’t really understood it. You’re bluffing. So, standing in front of a congregation, confirmation candidates of 12 or 13 years old, or — for goodness sake — doing a religious assembly in an elementary school, then you discover what you know and you don’t.

So it makes you a better theologian?

I think it does at the end of the day. It really does. You just have to go on asking, Well, why does this matter now? How does it matter? And here are people on the edge of new commitments, especially young people, new discoveries. Why should it matter to them?

You wrote an essay that I have really appreciated on Augustine’s Christology for a festschrift for Brian Daley. Are you exploring that further?

Well, the essay is in there, actually. It’s a collection of essays which I’ve put together, and then I’ve written some connecting passages for. I’ve been writing bits and pieces on Augustine for the best part of 30 years, and it seemed the time to try and knock them into some sort of shape.

But, of course, a lot has moved on in scholarship, so what I’ve done is to include a dozen or so of these essays and then write a little essay in between to say, “This is why people thought the preceding essay was wrong. Or this is what somebody else has now said about it, and this is how I connect to the next one.” So, it moves from looking at the Confessions, Augustine’s sense of the self, Augustine’s creation of the idea of a self, the role of memory, the role of a particular kind of historical self-awareness; moving then into what he says about creation, about evil, trying to disentangle some of the confusions and distortions that there have been of his thinking; reflecting on his Christology certainly, and the enormous importance for his doctrine of Christ of his reading of the Psalms. I remember reading Augustine on the Psalms in my middle 20s, I suppose, when I was first teaching the history of Christian spirituality, and being completely bowled over by the Psalm sermons. Because, and they are at times a bit rambling, but the golden thread is the sense that the Psalms are spoken by Christ. They are spoken by the head on behalf of the body.

So the outpourings of praise, the outpourings of protest, all of these are Christ taking real human language to himself — as it were, saying to the whole human race, “Whatever you’re feeling, whatever you want to say, I will say it for you to God the Father. And by saying it for you to God the Father, I’ll open the doors for it to be healed and ordered.” That hangs together the whole of that tremendous series of discourses, so I’ve got a bit about that. And then some slightly complicated stuff about the Trinity, trying again to disentangle, and a final more recent essay on what Augustine means by love. Because, again, I feel not everybody has quite got what that’s about. I took up a recent critical account of Augustine on love and tried to say a bit.

You write that Wisdom is the underlying engine of the two natures of Christ. You are in the midst of giving a series of lectures right now that seem to be about Christology. It seemed you were making a similar point about Aquinas as well.

Well, interesting you should spot that, because I think that is what I am after in this series. What might we now mean by calling Christ the Wisdom of God? And part of the answer — not the whole thing, but part of it, I think — is Christ is the model creature, just as he is the perfect creator. In Jesus Christ, everything that creation is meant to be and do is somehow drawn together; as Paul says in Colossians, “in him all things hold together.” And that’s the underlying theme of these lectures. And that’s why — and I’ve been trying to argue this with Aquinas but also with Calvin, who is a brilliant, brilliant christological thinker: that’s why there’s no competition between being divine and being human. This to me is the key for so much.

When I was a lad [laughs], when I was first doing theology, there were so many theologians saying, “Well, you know, classical Christian doctrine is all about a contradiction. You can’t be God and human.” And the more I looked at it, the more it seemed to me this was a complete misreading of what Tradition was claiming, which is not that in this human individual there are two comparable kinds of being going on at once, but that in this human being that kind of Being which is the maker of all things — and therefore not at all competing for space with anything he had created — is suffusing and soaking through the particular human — the human particularity — that is Jesus, and, as it were, welling up from within, because the Wisdom of God is that which sustains the whole world. And the Wisdom of God so comes to a head, comes to a focus in the life and death and resurrection of Jesus, that it releases something for the whole creation (Rom. 8). When it is released in Christ something is released in us as the Spirit is given. The trap is sprung. The chains of sin and self-destruction fall away, and we become able in relation to Christ to exercise our humanity to the full. When we exercise our humanity to the full — lovingly, unselfishly, in praise and glorification — the whole creation comes into order.

In the essay you used the expression “embrace our creatureliness.” Is that what you’re getting at?

Yes, because of course part of being sprung from the trap is sprung from the trap of the illusion that we are really God. And Jesus, I think, says if you want to be divine, stop wanting to be divine. If you want to have the joy and the liberty that is God’s, then don’t think of it (Phil. 2) as something to be snatched at, something to be grabbed from the clinging hands of a resentful God who doesn’t want to give it to you. Be human. That’s how you get to be in tune with the divine. If you think, “I must struggle to be divine. I must struggle to be in control of everything, to be immortal, to be invulnerable, I must do it by trampling down my humanity,” that’s completely the opposite of what the New Testament says. And unfortunately that kind of spirit is rampant in much of our culture.

Something like orthodox Christology translates into better human flourishing than any other alternative.

Well, surprise, surprise! If what we say in the Nicene Creed happens to be true, then the universe is like that. And if we believe other things, we’re just pushing against the grain of reality.

Your essay “Incarnation and the Renewal of Christian Community” seems to have bled into so much of what you’ve done, so much of Anglican theology, really: the Windsor Report, the Covenant. Has the moment passed for that, or is that still something that we can champion and be excited about?

I hope we can. I think writing that essay was a very good instance of being careful what you say because God might hold you to it. I wrote an essay on bishops’ ministry years ago, long before I was a bishop, and the Lord had his revenge.

So you wrote that and God made you try to put it into action.

“Hmm … that’s interesting. Now let’s see you do it.” Yes, I suppose what I’m after here is something like this. Occasionally people say, “You must be some kind of relativist.” And I’m a bit surprised by that, because I’ve never thought of myself as that. And I believe that the truth is the truth. The universe is the way it is and God is the way God is. But that’s very different, I think, from saying, “And we can sort that out, you know, the two of us here and now for good, and let everybody else know.”

I think what we see in the New Testament is at least two features which ought to make us pause when thinking about the Church. One is, rather basically, there are four Gospels. No one evangelist’s perspective on Christ tells you everything. Matthew needs Mark. Mark needs Luke. They all need John. And that great Synoptics and John contrast is quite a significant theological gulf in a way. And we’ve, in the last hundred years, I suppose, discovered more and more how much the particular theology of each evangelist shapes the storytelling. And sometimes that’s led to, you know, Jesus Seminar stuff, where all these writers in the New Testament have completely different theologies. I don’t think it’s that at all. I think it’s that the communities evolving around the liturgical recollection of Jesus in those first decades are growing communities, curious communities. They want to understand more. And therefore they are hospitable to quite a wide variety of texts used alongside each other, as if recognizing that any one won’t get all of it.

Now, there are points certainly in the second Christian century where what we would now call the Catholic Church generally says: “Actually, you know, there are some texts that are eroding our common language, not building it up.” You have the sifting process of getting rid of the Gospel of Philip or the Revelations of Bartholomew, saying at the end of the day, that’s not what we’re talking about. But what’s remarkable is this process by which so much stays in! Think how tempting it must have been in the second century to say, “Let’s just have one Gospel.” And you have, in fact, the Diatessaron of Tatian as an attempt to say, “Here’s the one text.” But the wisdom of the body of Christ generally says, “You know, we need more.” So that’s one dimension: the four Gospels. This is a figure we see from different perspectives; and at the end of John’s Gospel, if I try to write down everything, the world wouldn’t hold it.

And then you have Paul, struggling with his fractious, diverse, and rebellious communities, exercising discipline at times (you know, the man living with his stepmother: you know what to do about that). But short of that, you have this extraordinary discussion both in Romans and 1 Corinthians about food laws and practices. And Paul is saying, “I’m sure you’re very convinced. Fine. Now then, how is your behavior actually going to make the other person more of an adult and free child of God? There’s your agenda.” As if to say, if you’ve got it all right on your own terms, that’s only the beginning in the life of the Church; because the flourishing, the well-being of that other disciple, is your business. And without that other disciple, you will actually not be the disciple you’re meant to be.

So, I think both the perspectival issue about a vision in the Gospels and the issue about relation in Paul — those are ways into thinking about what I’ve sometimes summarized in the old phrase “the whole Church knows the whole Truth,” which doesn’t at all, I think, reduce to the idea that every view is as valid as every other view or there’s no reason for churches to be divided. It just gives us, I think, the big picture in which we’re trying to make churches look less divided and feel less oppositional. And it’s work. You know, it’s real labor, and grueling and crushing labor sometimes.

You wrote a short piece in the Evening Standard defending the Lord’s Prayer ad. Do you think that that was a meaningful moment in the public square to champion faith?

Yes, I think so. Getting this right is almost impossible, and I don’t think I’ve got a very good record on that. Frankly, I haven’t always judged it at all well. But certainly in the U.K. there is enough residual awareness of Christian faith to make it worth building on from time to time. And challenging a narrative that can so easily get a grip: a narrative that faith is either dying or bad for you or irrelevant or all of those. One thing that fascinates me really is how some secularists will vehemently say faith is the most terrible, appalling, anti-human thing imaginable, it’s got to be crushed and excluded as much as possible — and it’s dying out! Well, if it’s dying out, then just relax and let it happen.

It seemed to me what you were saying in the Evening Standard piece was that everything else — all of the other advertisements at the cinema — are seeking to shape you in some particular way. And so why in the world shouldn’t Christians offer some alternative and leave it to the market to decide?

Alas, that has something to do with this excessive sensitivity to giving offense these days. Now, I’m actually very concerned about offensive language. I think we are in many ways more careless and more uncivil in society than we were a while ago, yet I think if we allow that always to determine things we just view people as somehow unintelligent and unfree. So yes, I did want in that little piece to say that in the public square all sorts of forces, all kinds of people are competing for your loyalty and your attention, competing for your desires. If you say the only desires, intentions, and attentions that matter are about motorbikes and hairspray, you’re saying something very distinctive and actually rather depressing about the human world. What if there were more important things to argue about? And that’s why I’ve sometimes said that what I’d like to see in public is what I call “argumentative pluralism”: not just mutual tolerance, but engagement, civil engagement, a real, careful, thoughtful, respectful engagement; I don’t want to see privilege and dominance for a religious worldview in the public square but I do want to see what visibility there is for it. I had a very interesting conversation many years ago with Cardinal Christoph Schönborn, Archbishop of Vienna — a wonderful theologian, and not only a wonderful theologian but a delightful and very godly man — and that’s the formula we both finally agreed on: that what we were concerned about was simply visibility of the Christian faith in the marketplace.

Now that you’re back in the academy full time, do you find that the discourse has shifted there as well? Here in the States we’ve had several high-profile things blow up over the last couple of years that are rooted in this very question of whether we are actually intolerant of a public discourse that is potentially dangerous but may be really good and life-giving.

Yes, I have some concern, not so much for how the law works (I think in Britain the law actually, in spite of what some say, protects religion effectively), but there’s a sort of professional culture which is more and more jumpy about this. And I’ve seen it in attitudes, for example, towards health-care chaplaincy and in some universities (not in ours, fortunately) to student chaplaincy. And I quoted in that little Evening Standard piece a story told to me by one of my friends, that university chaplains had been told not to express any opinions. That sort of hyper-anxious, bureaucratic narrowness has taken over a good deal more of professional life than I’d like.

That being said, I find talking to young people — my own students and others — about faith no more difficult than it was 30 years ago. You can take less for granted in some ways, but equally that means that some of what you want to say about faith will come across as fresh. People won’t yet know what to disagree with. And I do quite a bit of speaking to schools — sixth forms, high-school groups, and so on — and always find there’s a serious and thoughtful engagement and willingness to argue responsibly. So I don’t despair. I think the Church in our country is in for a difficult time. We are in some areas more at odds with the culture than we used to be. Numerically and financially we’re not ideally where we’d like to be. And yet, the sheer figure of congregation after congregation at the parochial level makes me feel that the future is not to be despaired of — quite apart from the theological conviction, which is that God’s truth will survive.


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