Monday, March 24, 2008

David Bentley Hart on Rowan Williams

Rowan Williams
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.


Canon Tallis said...

And yet such a brilliant thinker as Archbishop Williams is alledged to be can not understand on the basis of St Paul's writings why the CEO of TEC and the bishops who tore the fabric of Anglicanism are in the wrong and deserve to be excluded from Lambreth and Anglicanism. There is such a thing as being too smart for your own or anyone else's good.

At the bottom, Williams was still a sop thrown to the most left and American hating wing of the Labour Party whose failure to make the right decisions in the present crisis over ride all the smarts credited to him.

Fr. Robert Hart said...

Brilliant or not, he simply is not speaking to the heretics and apostates of the Anglican Communion with anything remotely resembling apostolic authority. His message is not prophetic, his teaching is not orthodox, and his goals are not evangelistic. Trying to Hold together the Anglican Communion is not a worthwhile endeavor, and requires compromise on essential matters of faith and morals.

I fear that what my brother has proved is that ++RW has no excuse for his present efforts and decisions.

John said...

A wonderful article if you are 'into' intellectuals.' I guess it would be easy to admire such as Rowing Williams but truth is he is a bit of a heretic . And if he is far from me, a mere pedestrian thinker, at least I know that in any language men laying with men is not only an abomination it is bad for the plumbing and does not comport with the intended design for the equipment.
Funny how such a brilliant mind can not figure that out! Maybe it is why he likely calls for a tradesman when he need something repaired because his mind can not be bothered with the reality of physical manifestations such as plumbing.
Maybe, if a more pedestrian man such as one of those old "Fathers" or Apostles... you know such as those grubby and boring tradesmen types (like fishermen), had been appointed as ABC over the last century it is doubtful the Anglican Communion would be run by apostates, heretics and people who know what 'pogonotrophy' means in several languages but do not have the Faith to understand the Star over Jerusalem was an account that does not have to conform to 'scientific' understanding of comets and such but was an act of God- the Creator. Naw, that would not work because grubby pedestrian types would excommunicate guys like Williams for entertaining the notion that homosexuality is just another lifestyle in a heartbeat.
Unity at all costs? Not with a pedestrian tradesmen, scale! A carpenter would know what to do with such talk... he would drive a nail right through it.

Sandra McColl said...

'His message is not prophetic, his teaching is not orthodox, and his goals are not evangelistic.' Or, as Lord Justice Bullhampton would say, 'You've got to use your commonsense'--an ounce of which is worth a ton of being able to read obscure, or not-so-obscure languages (and perhaps Dr Williams's linguistic ability is less to be praised than is the apparent apparent of said linguistic ability among supposedly professional historians to be deplored . . .) and ten tons of being able to winkle out the trinitarian message in Hegel. Dr Williams didn't stand against the ordination of women. Why should I trust anything he writes?

John said...

His sore predicament despite his vast mental capabilities demonstrate what the Bible says about the wisdom of men.

Fr Matthew Kirby said...

I have long thought Abp RW was a gentleman and a scholar, unlike many "revisionists". But the ability to critically analyse ideas in great detail can be a handicap if it is not combined with common-sense, that is, the prudence to which DBH referred.

And a greater virtue than the natural one of prudence is the theologicalone of faith. For all the Abp's genuine respect for Christian thought through the ages, including the Fathers nd Doctors of the Church, E and W, I do not detect the act of faith in the infallibility of the Church's consensual teaching throught time that would rescue him from error. To be able to critique every thinker, however moderately and carefully, yet without the simultneous belief that God's guidance governs the overall Tradition in a way that transcends individual thinkers' fallibilities, leaves one at the mercy of the latest plausible and sophisticated theory, since the scholar craves the new insight.

Alice C. Linsley said...

An enjoyable read by David Hart, one of my favorite contemporary thinkers. He has made his point well: don't underestimate Rowan Williams' intellectual powers as philosopher and theologian.

One must wonder why this man for this moment in the history of Anglicanism? He must recognize the vapid nature of TEC's theology, yet he doesn't confront it from his vast reservoir of learning. Is this because he expects such stupidity from Americans?

John said...

I think David overestimates his intellectual prowess, the fact he cannot recognize the vapid nature of TEC certainly proves it . And even if he does he and other ABC's have refused to act dating back to the seventies. What good is a brain without a spine?

As to the beard I have been thinking about this and it occurred to me that I have not seen Jack Elam in a very long time.... Hmmmm...

Sandra McColl said...

Oh dear, a typo: try 'the apparent absence of said linguistic ability' and I might even begin to make sense.

Fr. Robert Hart said...

This was a book review, written in light of recent (stupid) op-eds about ++RW's Sharia remarks. It is not intended to be a thorough analysis of his ABCing. The point I glean from what my brother knows about ++RW (which is considerable, since they first met in the 80s- William Tighe also knows the man, although without ongoing contact I think) leaves the ABC no excuse for decisions and publicly stated interpretations that deny basic Christian morality. He can't plead bad education or stupidity. What the AC needs in a leader are qualities that the politicians in the Parliament will not allow.

Alice C. Linsley said...

Parliament got what it wanted just as TEC's General Convention got what it wanted. A sad state of affairs and a sorry statement about those bodies.

Sandra McColl said...

If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not an ounce of commonsense, I shall have a stellar academic and ecclesiastical career. If I can sum up the essence of Hegel and make Rahner comprehensible (no mean feat, I assure you!), but have not an ounce of commonsense, they might make me Archbishop of Canterbury. If I can plumb the depths of Eastern apophatic thought but have not an ounce of commonsense, I can remain blissfully ignorant of the fundamental disharmony between Holy Tradition and priestesses, which to any Eastern Orthodox is too obvious to need pointing out.

Anonymous said...

The comments on this forum are so uncharitable and rooted in ad hominem jabs at Archbishop Williams. It is quite the waste of time to be defenders of the truth when you do not resemble the truth in your words or actions. Archbishop Williams is a pious man of great depth and reflection. He would not take a position flippantly without much thought or prayer.

Alice C. Linsley said...

History will be far more uncharitable to +Rowan Williams. The great Anglican Meltdown happened on his watch. He has failed to confront TEC's arrogant and heretical innovations and he has failed to say no to the homosexualists. There is also the failure to provide for Anglican Traditionalists.

Spirit of Vatican II said...

Rowan Williams kept the Anglican Communion together at a moment of crisis. In addition he is the best Bristish theologian since Newman. Most of the comments here are wildly amiss.