ROWAN WILLIAMS’s striking new series of essays on the Christian tradition contrasts, on the one hand, with his shorter books, designed for a general audience, and, on the other, with his weightier academic studies. It strikes an intermediate register that will be particularly welcome to clergy and to non-specialists with some level of theological background.
To subjects as varied as healing, urban spirituality, the Bible, and the eucharist, Williams brings, as always, an extraordinarily panoptic view, born of vast reading in a wide variety of fields, and an enthusiasm to synthesise these, and bring them into vigorous dialogue with one another. For example, in a striking final essay on the meaning of the injunction “Know thyself”, Gnostic literature discovered in Nag Hammadi rubs shoulders with insights from the analyst’s couch of Jacques Lacan.
Where Williams is at his best — for example, in three chapters on St Teresa of Ávila, and in a beautiful consideration of icons and the practice of prayer — his subjects sparkle and glitter all the more in their own right because of the attention that he pays to them.
The places where I find him less convincing are those where, after he has engaged with a representative of the Christian tradition, that person comes out sounding like a clone of Williams himself: “What Benedict is interested in producing is people who have the skills to diagnose all inside them that prompts them to escape from themselves in the here and now.”
As always, there are frustrations when it comes to literary style. Throughout the book, we hear of one thing or another that the author has “hinted” or “tried to argue”, or believes “is not necessarily some kind of evasion to suggest”; of a point that he hopes “isn’t irrelevant”; of an argument that is to be “at best a sketch” of what he wants to say; of conclusions that can be only “tentative”; of the possibility of having “a useful conversation with the recent discussion I’ve mentioned” (however does a conversation with a discussion actually take place?).
Perhaps he teaches us in a subliminal way that speaking or writing about the Christian faith, like any other aspect of following Jesus, is a hard and difficult path to follow. As we tread the via dolorosa of caveats, hesitations, and sub-clauses, we learn the crucial lesson that, in theology, as in the rest of the Christian life, there are no short cuts toward sitting at the Lord’s left and right hand in his Kingdom; for, ultimately, with a certain irony, the object of this prolific wordsmith is to lead a fretful, uncertain, and compulsively busy Church towards the silence where God is to be found.
“Contemplation”, he reminds the Synod of Bishops of the Roman Catholic Church, in an address of 2012 reprinted in this volume, “is very far from being just one kind of thing that Christians do: it is the key to prayer, liturgy, art, and ethics.”
The Ven. Dr Edward Dowler is Archdeacon of Hastings in the diocese of Chichester.
Holy Living: The Christian tradition for today
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