WRESTLING WITH ANGELS
Conversations in modern theology
Edited by Mike Higton
384pp. SCM Press. Paperback, £21.99.
978 0 334 04095 8
US: Eerdmans. $28. 978 0 8028 2726 5
In a bracingly venomous Spectator article on the Archbishop of Canterbury’s recent remarks about sharia law in Britain, the journalist Rod Liddle opined that it must be Rowan Williams’s beard that has won him the reputation of an intellectual. Certainly, Liddle remarked, “it cannot be anything he has ever said or written”. I have to confess my doubts that Liddle has really read much of Williams’s oeuvre. No one who had – whatever reservations he or she might harbour as to the Archbishop’s wisdom, prudence or pogonotrophy – could possibly dismiss the man as a featherweight or a fraud.
Well before he moved to Lambeth Palace (heedless, alas, of a few desperate voices calling him back from the edge), Rowan Williams had established himself as perhaps Britain’s most impressive theological virtuoso. His gifts as a linguist alone set him apart from most of his contemporaries, granting him access to texts and conversations well outside the orbits of more narrowly specialized researchers, and his ability to speak authoritatively, reflectively and creatively on authors as diverse as the Greek Fathers, the medieval and early modern mystics, the German idealists, the Russian Sophiologists, and so forth, marked him from an early age as an uncommon talent, possessed of a scholarly range that even the most accomplished theologians might envy. Whether his intellectual attainments have translated well into the sort of public skills required of a church leader is a legitimate matter of debate; whether those attainments are real and substantial, however, is not.
To any who doubt this, I would heartily recommend Wrestling with Angels, a collection of essays edited by Mike Higton which (though it does not provide a comprehensive portrait of the Archbishop’s interests and accomplishments) nevertheless grants us entry into one very vital area of his work. Higton has confined himself to pieces – all originally published between 1978 and 1998 – that deal directly with the thought of modern philosophers and theologians, and that therefore might be described as exercises in philosophical or systematic theology (as opposed, say, to historical theology, another field in which Williams has long distinguished himself). This sort of approach suits Williams well. He is not a theologian who has ever attempted to develop a “system” of his own, or to establish a particular school of theology within the greater theological world, or to enucleate a set of basic principles by which then to determine where and how other thinkers ought to be situated within his own thought. Rather, what he does extremely well is to “think along” with the author whose work he is considering, to measure the strengths of that author’s ideas, to seek out certain of the subtler currents within those ideas, and to identify what can and should be criticized therein.
At its best, Williams’s method (if careful and inquisitive reading really needs to be described as a “method”) casts a clarifying light on difficult and often obscure questions. Perhaps the best examples of this in the collection are two essays on Hegel, which succeed not only at avoiding many of the pedestrian misreadings to which he is too often subjected, but at compellingly demonstrating why it is necessary for theologians to continue to engage with Hegel’s thought on the implications of Trinitarian dogma, the nature of freedom and community, the possibility of speaking of God, the essence of rational existence, and much else. Williams realizes not only that, to an often unappreciated degree, it is Hegel more than any other modern thinker who revived the project of classical Christian Trinitarianism (and of the metaphysics attendant thereon), but also that Hegel’s own contributions to that tradition cannot simply be dismissed as perverse attempts to “universalize” the particularity of God’s revelation in Christ; rather, they consist of necessary critical reflections on several of the profoundest implications of the orthodox Christian understanding of God, creation and history. Equally suggestive, perhaps, and even somewhat more original, is Williams’s essay on the nature of human interiority that unexpectedly – but fruitfully – juxtaposes Wittgenstein and Dietrich Bonhoeffer.
As is inevitably the case in a collection of this sort, of course, the interest these essays excite in the reader will vary according to the figures or concepts they address, as will their relative importance for theology as a whole. The very first essay in the volume, for instance, is an early consideration of the apophaticism of the great twentieth-century Eastern Orthodox theologian Vladimir Lossky (the subject, as it happens, of Williams’s doctoral work), a figure of immense importance in the development of modern Orthodoxy’s self-understanding, and one who probably did more than anyone else to give shape to a kind of general “Orthodox system” that many theologians today – Eastern and Western alike – have come to equate with Orthodoxy as such. It is a deeply respectful essay, but one that also brings into sharp focus certain troubling weaknesses of Lossky’s thought, both as an interpretation of Orthodox tradition and as a theological proposal in its own right.
It is an essay, more to the point, of more than merely local interest, not only because of the larger importance of Lossky within modern theology, but because it touches on matters central to all theological reflection. Much the same can be said of those essays that deal with, say, the limits of Karl Barth’s Trinitarian theology, or with René Girard on violence, or with Hans Urs von Balthasar on “difference”, or with the disagreements between Balthasar and Karl Rahner on the relation between metaphysics and revelation. In this last case, incidentally, as he acknowledges in his introduction to this volume, Williams has done Rahner less than perfect justice. That said, it would be difficult to find a more absorbing short treatment of the issues that for many years set the two greatest Catholic theologians of the twentieth century at odds with one another, and that continue to divide their followers: Rahner’s perceived desire to develop an epistemology, metaphysics and anthropology into which God’s revelation in Christ would then “naturally” fit; and Balthasar’s anxiety to preserve the uniqueness of that revelation against any too comprehensive an “anticipation” within the structures of human consciousness or culture.
Not all of the essays in Wrestling with Angels command comparable attention, however. For example, there is a piece from 1984 on Don Cupitt, a thinker little known outside the UK, whose attempt to construct a kind of post-theistic theology is simply too slight and slapdash to bear the weight of much serious scrutiny. Read now, when the discussions that prompted them have long faded from memory, many of Williams’s objections to Cupitt’s project look more or less obvious, and the essay in which they appear seems of little more than archival interest. For quite different reasons, Williams’s reflections on Gillian Rose, in many ways a brilliant and original philosopher, are more likely to provoke consternation from his readers than to aid them in understanding Rose’s thought; for those unfamiliar with her work, Williams’s discussion will probably seem somewhat elliptical and vague; and, for those few who have read her, it will not necessarily be clear how Williams has further illuminated the questions he addresses.
Taken as a whole, though, this is a marvellous collection, full of riches, in equal measures provocative and profound. It is testimony to a lively and subtle mind, one unusually adept at penetrating far beyond the surfaces of texts, and at finding curiosities and rewards where most of us would not have thought to look. It is, as I have said, only a fragmentary portrait of Rowan Williams the theologian, but it is enough to mark him out as a thinker of great stature and imagination. It is, moreover, resplendent proof that there is far more to this man than a beard – however luxuriant it may be.
David Bentley Hart currently holds the Robert J. Randall Chair in Christian Culture at Providence College. His books include The Doors of the Sea: Where was God in the Tsunami? 2005, and The Beauty of the Infinite: The aesthetics of Christian truth, 2004.