Tag Archives: Rowan Williams

Rowan Williams on self-judgment

Bonhoeffer writes [in a poem on his imprisonment], “They often tell me / I would step from my cell’s confinement / calmly, cheerfully, firmly, / like a squire from his country-house.” … But the poem is about the great gulf between what “they” see – a confident, adult, rational, prayerful, faithful, courageous person – and what he knows is going on inside: the weakness and the loss and the inner whimpering and dread. “So which is me?” Bonhoeffer asks. Is it the person they see, or the person I know when I’m on my own with myself? And his answer is surprising and blunt: I haven’t got a clue; God has got to settle that. I don’t have to decide if I’m really brave or really cowardly, whether I’m really confident or really frightened, or both. Who I am is in the hands of God. … It goes beyond the assumption that I am only what I see or know. It tells me that I am more than I realize, in the eyes of God, for good or ill. It tells me to hope in “what is unseen”…, in the one who doesn’t need to be told about how human beings work because he knows the human heart.

From Being Disciples (Eerdmans, 2016), 29-30.

Rowan Williams on Why Adults Don’t Outgrow Fairy Tales

In our day, it is adults who seem most to need and use them [fairy tales], because they are just about the only stories we have in common with which to think through deep dilemmas and to keep alive registers of emotion and imagination otherwise being eroded. …

One way of understanding the fairy tale is to see it as dramatizing the human confrontation with nature and “the impenetrability of destiny”. Our environment, the fairy tale says, is unpredictably hostile and destructive; it is also unpredictably full of resource. Family members may turn out to be murderous and treacherous, ordeals may face us in which our life is at stake, horror and suffering may bear no relation to merit or innocence. At the same time, animals turn out to be saviors, winds and waves mobilize to rescue us, lost parents speak to us through trees in the garden and forgotten patrons (“fairy godmothers”) turn up to support. The amoral scheme of the world can work in our favor; we never know when help is at hand, even when we have gone astray.

The message is not just that there is the possibility of justice for downtrodden younger sisters or prosperity for neglected, idle or incompetent younger sons. [Rather, the message is based] on the conviction underlying all this sort of storytelling: that the world is irrationally generous as well as unfairly hurtful. There is no justice, but there is a potentially hopeful side to anarchy, and we cannot tell in advance where we may find solidarity. Or, to put it in more theological terms, there is certainly a problem of evil in the way the world goes; yet there is also a “problem of good” – utterly unexpected and unscripted resources in unlikely places. And at the very least this suggests to the audience for the tale a more speculatively hopeful attitude to the non-human environment as well as to other people. Just be careful how you treat a passing fox, hedgehog or thrush . . .

From “Why We Need Fairy Tales Now More than Ever,” New Statesmen (19 Dec 2014)

Rowan Williams on the riskiness of revelation

The touch of God is dangerous, in that it can be a light too sharp to be borne without hurt or breakage; and when the perception is skewed and redirected, it may run close to the destructive and the hellish. Jonathan Smith, the great anthropologist of religion at Chicago, remarked about the horrific mass suicide of the sectarians who followed the prophet Jim Jones that at least it reminded people that religion wasn’t automatically “nice.” For God to come near us is for God to risk God’s own integrity, in the sense that God puts himself into our hands to be appallingly misunderstood, to become the justifier of our hatred and fears, our madness. And it is to put us at risk, since the disorientation we thus experience can unleash some very dark things in us. Revelation itself, as the church’s history shows, is bound up with tragic possibilities.

from A Ray of Darkness, 3rd Ed., (Cowley, 1995), 96.

Rowan Williams on “the loneliness of each one of us”

The following is the opening of a characteristically excellent sermon from Rowan Williams. I wish I could post the sermon in full, but I’m sure the publisher would frown on that. It’d be worth seeking the text out to see how Rowan concludes the reflections he starts here.

There are plenty of subjects that Christians seem to treat with a consistent lack of seriousness, with a painful lack of imagination and sympathy. One such subject is loneliness. Most of the time we are so caught up in a bland rhetoric of “communion” and “sharing” that we fail utterly to confront that more puzzling and disturbing fact of irreducible human isolation. “We pray for the old and lonely” – words heard quite frequently in intercessions, implying that loneliness is an unfortunate condition from which some people suffer, like diabetes or color-blindness. But what about the loneliness of each one of us?

Loneliness has little to do with what we do or where we do it, whether we’re married or unmarried, optimists or pessimists, heterosexual or homosexual. Loneliness has to do with the sudden clefts we experience in every human relation, the gaps that open up with stomach-turning unexpectedness. In a brief moment, I and my brother or sister have moved away into different worlds, and there is no language we can share. It is when I see what my words or actions have done to someone else, or when I realize what picture someone else has of me. It is when things that matter to me are met with polite incomprehension, and when I cannot hear and understand the importance of what someone is trying to tell me. It is – recalling an experience I can’t forget – sitting on the floor with a nine-year-old child of normal intelligence and trying to understand what he is saying. Because he is hopelessly spastic and can’t control his tongue any more than he can his head or his limbs, I can grasp only one word in ten, and he stares at me desperately and furiously, willing me to understand with all his might, and I can’t.

from “Being Alone,” in A Ray of Darkness, 3rd Ed., (Cowley, 1995), 121.

P.S.  For the Rowan enthusiasts out there, you can now show off your admiration for the Welshman with this t-shirt.

Pictures of Doctrine

A picture held us captive. (Wittgenstein, PI §115)

  1. Doctrines as Propositions
A. Unrestricted.

Thesis: Doctrines explain reality. Doctrinal supply should meet explanatory demand.

Advocate: Alister McGrath

Within the context of a scientific theology, the Christian network of doctrines is conceived as a response to revelation, in the belief that such doctrines will possess explanatory potential. [136]

The point is that a scientific theology is impelled, by its vision of reality, to attempt to offer an account of the totality of all things, believing that the Christian tradition both encourages such an enterprise in the first place, and in the second, makes the necessary resources available through its understanding of the economy of salvation, particularly its doctrine of creation. … at this stage, our concern is to note that a theologically grounded compulsion to offer such explanations is to be seen as an integral component of the Christian view of reality. [194, Scientific Theology. Vol. 3, Theory. (New York: T&T Clark, 2003)]

B. Minimalist.

Thesis: Doctrines are propositions, and they should be kept to a minimum.

Advocate: Gordon Graham

True piety, we might say, does not require a degree in theology, and, conversely, a degree in theology can be obtained in the absence of piety. If we are to hold fast to this principle, we must be theological minimalists, forever seeking to keep to a minimum the theological content of the “truths necessary for salvation.” … Correspondingly, we will be keenly alive to the possibility, and the danger, of “theological overreach,” which is to say, claiming the status of “saving truth” for what is in fact no more than a theological construct. (Wittgenstein and Natural Religion, Oxford: Oxford UnivPr, 2014, 197-198.)

C. Eliminative.

Thesis: Doctrines are propositions, and they’re dispensable.

Advocate: Ludwig Wittgenstein

Is talking essential to religion? I can well imagine a religion in which there are no doctrinal propositions, in which there is thus no talking. Obviously the essence of religion cannot have anything to do with the fact that there is talking, or rather when people talk, then this itself is part of a religious act and not a theory. (Ludwig Wittgenstein and the Vienna Circle: Conversations Recorded by Friedrich Waismann, ed. Brian McGuinness. Oxford: Blackwell, 117)

  1. Doctrines as Questions.

Thesis: Doctrines are prompts to self-interrogation, generative of lines of theologically articulate suspicion.

Advocates: Rowan Williams, Peter Dula

dogma reflects a commitment to truth…at whose centre lies…not a theoretical construct, but the abiding stimulus to certain kinds of theoretical question. [80]

The theologian’s job may be less the speaking of truth…than the patient diagnosis of untruths. [196] (On Christian Theology, Oxford: Blackwell, 2000.)

According to Williams, we too readily treat dogmas and other theological propositions as answers to “the essential questions;” whereas true theological thinking seeks instead to be brought into the vicinity of truth by opening and re-opening these questions, by agitating the doubts and conflicts behind accepted answers. [from Robert Jenson’s review of On Christian Theology, in Pro Ecclesia (11.3), 367.]

  1. Doctrines as Rules

But what do they regulate? Or, what metaphorical vehicle do they employ?

A. Doctrine as Grammar

Advocate: George Lindbeck

For a rule theory, in short, doctrines qua doctrines are not first-order propositions, but are to be construed as second-order ones: they make…intrasystematic rather than ontological truth claims. (The Nature of Doctrine, Philadelphia: Westminster Presss, 1984, 80.)

B. Doctrine as Protocols against Idolatry

Advocate: Nicholas Lash

creedal confession is the declaration of identity-sustaining rules of discourse and behavior governing Christian uses of the word ‘God.’ (Three Ways of Believing in One God, London: SCM Press, 1992, 9.)

C. Doctrine as Stage Directions

Advocate: Kevin J. Vanhoozer

Doctrine…resembles “stage directions for the church’s performance of the gospel.” Doctrines are less propositional statements or static rules than they are life-shaping dramatic directions. (The Drama of Doctrine, Louisville: WJKP, 2005, 18.)

4. Doctrines as Capacities

Thesis: Concepts are skills, and doctrines are constellations of concepts. Indoctrination is formation in religious know-how.

Advocates: Paul L. Holmer, Charles M. Wood

Most concepts are “enabling”; and one learns a concept by getting in on some aspects of what it enables one to do. The richer the concept, the greater the enabling. Some concepts–e.g., that of the “round world”–mean so much because they enable one almost indefinitely. No limit can be drawn around the number of things that are sayable and thinkable with that concept. This is part of what is meant by saying that such a concept is open-textured, though this does not mean that it is ambiguous or vague. Instead, it is to say that the concept is very powerful and hence exceedingly meaningful. [141] … Again, it is the competencies, the abilities, the enabling for a variety of tasks, that is the complex of a concept. We do not read concepts from a printed page–we ordinarily acquire them as we would a skill or a technique. [142] … We are indebted to concepts for changed dispositions, for creating and sustaining emotions, for enlarging sympathy, for stimulating passion, and even for creating the virtues. [143] … Having the concept “God” is also to have a certain set of functions in one’s life. If one knows how to use the word God in prayer and worship, then one has the concept. One can do all sorts of things with that concept “God”– for example, one can explain, praise and curse. One can even attain peace of mind and forgiveness of sin. The concept is crucial to a way of life and a view of life. … “God,” as a concept, has a location and place in our lives. [152] (The Grammar of Faith, San Francisco: Harper&Row, 1978.)

I’ve posted previously on Wood’s conception of doctrine — here.


This scheme doesn’t pretend to be exhaustive of all options. The representatives highlighted may fit into multiple categories, but I have tried to gesture to their respective centers of gravity. Option 2 I think is easily subsumable into Option 4, as would be expressivist accounts of doctrine. A standing question for me is how to correlate options 1, 3, and 4; all presumably have some contribution to offer, but what are they?

When it comes to my citation of Wittgenstein, I think this is an example where he’s less helpful on religious matters. A religion in which there’s no talking … really? Here’s my gripe: though Wittgenstein does well to undermine intellectualist pictures of religion, the alternative picture many of his explicit remarks on religion tends to conjure strikes me as more Jamesian and, ironically, not Wittgensteinian enough, not consistent with where you’d think the thrust of his Investigations would lead him. His last clause, “when people talk, then this itself is part of a religious act and not a theory,” is closer to the mark, but exceptional. More representative is, “faith…is what Kierkegaard calls a passion” (CV 53e, emphasis original). Wittgenstein more often than not roots religion in human passion, not action and reaction. This is despite his own more characteristic efforts on other fronts to remind us of “our natural history as walking, eating, drinking, playing” (PI 25), that is, as fundamentally acting beings, animals, not thinking or feeling beings first. To follow up on this, do see Graham, Wittgenstein and Natural Religion, 95, 121-24.

Rowan Williams 2013 Gifford Lectures

I know I’m late to give notice to these, but I still think they’re worth sharing. Rowan Williams delivered the 2013 Gifford Lectures, a prestigious annual Scottish lectureship chartered to consider natural theology. The University of Edinburgh had the honor of hosting this installment. The series was entitled Making Representations: Religious Faith and the Habits of Language.

Its six lectures ran as follows:

  1. Representing Reality
  2. Can We Say What We Like? Language, Freedom and Determinism
  3. No Last Words: Language as Unfinished Business
  4. Material Words: Language as Materiality
  5. Extreme Language: Discovery Under Pressure
  6. Can Truth Be Spoken?

The first in the series can be viewed below:

The rest of the lectures are available for viewing HERE

Or if you’d prefer to read these lectures, they’re also available in an expanded form in Williams’ most recently released book:

The Edge of Words: God and the Habits of Language, (Bloomsbury, 2014).