IN THIS fine study, Brett Gray draws Rowan Williams’s diffuse and diverse writings on Christology into coherent and systematic shape. Dense and authoritative in its own right, this is not an introductory work, such as those by Mike Higton and Benjamin Myers, and its origins as a doctoral thesis are sometimes evident when the lines of argument seem too tightly wrapped around various central words and phrases.
In contrast with the view of Jesus as what is contemptuously termed an “invisible friend”, knowing Christ is, for Rowan Williams, not easy: “here is what we cannot master and which will always be ahead of us in our understanding.” At the heart of this difficulty is Williams’s intense engagement with patristic theology — in particular, his thinking through of what it means for Jesus to be both divine and human.
In Jesus, we encounter the God who, Gray insists, “is never going to be an element, a square centimetre in any picture”. And yet, in Jesus also, God comes among us as a human person who shares fully in the complexities of human history.
Gray guides us through Williams’s writing about how difficult it is to conceptualise someone who lives in the world, fully engaged in it, and yet is not caught up in its limitations, and complex systems and sinful webs of interrelationship which are so much part of being human.
A fine chapter on parodies explores theology’s need, given the difficulty of knowing Jesus, of “excursions into the mirror world of what it is not saying in order to find out what it is about”. Such parodies include Dostoevsky’s Prince Myshkin, a figure who seems superficially Christlike, but sits light to, or floats over, the different contexts in which he finds himself, instead of, as Jesus does, engaging in them and overcoming them from within.
Williams, in one of his earlier works, Resurrection, explores in successive chapters accounts of the resurrection in Jerusalem and Galilee. Although Williams is at pains to point out that there is not a single moment of Jesus’s life which is not saturated with the divine, it is essentially Jerusalem to which he gives more attention. The Jesus he offers us is one whose identity is overwhelmingly bound up with the extremes of darkness and crisis.
It is rather similar to TV dramas where the action becomes so intense that you wonder whether the characters ever manage to sit down and have a nice cup of tea or a meal together. And yet the Gospels tell us that this — or at least the meal, at any rate — was precisely what Jesus often did.
Gray’s study masterfully elucidates familiar themes from Williams’s writing: movement towards the end; the impossibility of adequate religious language; deferral of meaning into the future; the restless, desiring human heart.
While it is all in its way very persuasive, I often feel that a corrective is needed. The experience of the first Christians was surely that, in Christ, God had cast a beam of light over all reality, and that this light was far more vivid and real than the darkness that comprehended it not. In Williams, it sometimes seems as though things are the other way round.
Similarly, the belief of the early Christians was not so much that meaning and knowledge would be endlessly deferred, but that one day such faith as they currently had would give way to true knowledge, and that they would come to know even as they were fully known.
The Ven. Dr Edward Dowler is the Archdeacon of Hastings.
Jesus in the Theology of Rowan Williams
Bloomsbury £95 (978-0-567-67017-5)
Church Times Bookshop £85.50