by Rupert Shortt
(Darton, Longman & Todd, 2005)
Belief and Theology:
Some Basic Questions
(the introduction to this series is here)
SHORTT: I’d like to cover a fair amount of ground in this discussion to talk about a few of the commonest objections to Christian belief, and then look briefly at the evolution of your own thought, and at what’s been going on at the frontiers of theology over the past few years. But let’s begin with what prompts the spiritual impulse in the first place. How would you go about defending your world view to an audience of sceptics?
WILLIAMS: I think theological talk gets off the ground because some profound puzzlement has shaken up frames of reference. You need to find new words to talk about the whole environment, the entire context in which you’re living. And that’s why the New Testament is so important for looking at how theology works. Something enormous has happened, which has really challenged the categories available, and so I like to say the New Testament is work in progress
because it reflects not a uniform, bland final version, but – this is where inspiration comes in – the immediacy of a shock and a realignment of how you talk about God and creation. In a sense, it muddles up the categories, it says you have to start somehow thinking about God as not confined to elsewhere – but in terms of Word or Son or Spirit actually accessible within very material, specific conditions.
SHORTT: Can we spool back a stage in the argument before returning to the New Testament? How would you engage with an atheist who can’t make any sense of religious language, and can’t see the need for it?
WILLIAMS: Yes. Beyond specifically Christian theology is the question of why religious reference at all is interesting or plausible or convincing. And I’ve been thinking quite a bit in recent years about the way in which there is something about language itself that poses a question, poses a problem to naked secularism.
When we speak, we make a very considerable act of trust. We expect to be understood, we expect to be answered. We expect, in other words, that what we generate from our imagining and remembering plays into something larger, and we do so, of course, because we have been shaped by language. You speak to a child, a speechless child, and over a period of years language emerges. One of the most exciting things for any parents is simply watching how a child starts to speak and how he or she assimilates that world that is language. And you can speak to your cat for as long as you like, and somehow it doesn’t happen. At least we’d be very surprised and startled if it did, and, of course, some of the very best fantasy stories are predicated on just that surprise.
But here we go in human relations, making large acts of trust all the time as we speak and communicate with each other, and as language evolves it becomes something much more than simply an exchange of information. Indeed, to put it that way is perhaps misleading.
It’s not as if you begin with a set of simple directions and then you evolve towards something more imaginative. After all, when you talk to a child you will do considerable damage if all you ever say is ‘Don’t touch’, or ‘The cat sat on the mat’. You sing to children, you tell them stories from the word Go. You progress through these little board books with them that take them into bright and different worlds. It’s as if language itself is always trying to bound out of functional and practical limits, as if the very existence of language says, The world is colossal, we will not exhaust it. Now that doesn’t say, And so, you’ve got to believe in God. It does say that understanding what human consciousness and human interaction are about is a long process with no obvious cut-off point. It places us in relation to something more than ourselves.
And it’s that question which seems to me very near the heart of distinctively religious commitment. We are already in relation to something we can’t say. To call that God, and I’m deliberately echoing St Thomas Aquinas here, requires quite a bit of stitching together of different bits of experience and history. I’m thinking of those moments in which a sense of newness, or conversion if you like, arises in collective and individual lives, and a connection is made with events, traditions, practices, that have the name God around them. You see the balls falling into the holes, click, click, click, ah yes, there is a way of connecting the something to which we already related with the idea of a reality that is, in some manner, more like the personal than anything else. In other words sensing the something you’re already related to as a bestower, a giver, a maker, a lover.
SHORTT: And moving on to something nearer the Church’s proclamation?
WILLIAMS: As for the coherence of the ideas of Christianity, everything evolves like the oak from the acorn out of that sense of dislocation that comes around the death and the resurrection of Jesus. If Jesus is the one who now and for ever decides, determines, who is in the company of God, who is in the favour of God, who belongs to the people of God, then the authority, the inner solidity of who Jesus is, has to be connected with the very purpose of God, what God is about. Jesus acts as if he has the right to determine who belongs to the people of God.
And he does that in welcome, in forgiveness and judgement and all the other things that the Gospels spell out. And therefore, if you take him seriously, you have at some point to make the connection with, as I say, what God is about, what are the purposes of God, the desires of God. And distinctively Christian theology begins to take shape when those two things are brought together: the actions and the words and the sufferings of this particular human being, and the vision of a God whose purpose is unrestricted fellowship with the human beings that he’s made. Inexhaustible resourcefulness in recovering them from their sin and their failure, inexhaustible promise in drawing them into joy.
That’s where the distinctively Christian picture of God begins, putting those things together, and, furthermore, understanding that the community formed on this basis subsists not just because its members choose to opt in, but because they say, in the basic metaphor of some of the New Testament, The air we breathe, the Spirit, is the life of God.
When you’re close to the Jesus who died and was raised and vindicated, then the air you breathe is God. And the sort of jargon – Holy Spirit – which trips off the tongue so easily now has in some ways to be, as it were, rendered back into that basic powerful metaphor: Spirit is breath, Spirit is wind, Spirit is the air you breathe. And therefore that’s the very climate of life when you are in friendship, proximity, communion, with the Jesus who is not dead.
SHORTT: Many people who know your writings or preaching will be familiar with the emphasis you lay on the evidence of transformed lives in any account of the faith.
WILLIAMS: Yes. If I were trying to persuade somebody now of the coherence of Christianity, I’d certainly think there was a task to be done of expounding the doctrinal pattern, but what interests me more and more is, if you like, pointing people towards a Christian life and saying, Now, what are the contours of that life? What’s the shape of it? What are the problems it poses? It’s almost as if the religious person needs to say to the secularist, there’s not only a problem of evil: there’s a problem of good. Take a life like that of Dorothy Day, the American Catholic radical pacifist. A long life – she wrote a book about her own life called The Long Loneliness – somebody who starts off as a Marxist and social activist in the United States in the post-First World War period, has an abortion, has an illegitimate child, goes in and out of an unsuccessful marriage and several other relationships, then fairly suddenly comes to a point where she says, ‘Why am I passionate about people?’ And goes into a church, and something connects. After that she simply spends the rest of her very long life being an advocate and a companion for people who have no one else to be an advocate and companion. And she does it because of a sense that the most decisive and fruitful way of being human is to be an advocate and companion in the name of God.
I’m interested in tracing through what pushes a life like that, what gives it energy and shape. And to say to the secularist, Well, can you at least see the connection there between a particular intensely committed attitude to humanity and a belief in God? Now that’s the start of a conversation. It’s not saying, Oh, you’ve got to believe in God because Dorothy Day believed in God; or, People are so wonderful: therefore you’ve got to believe in God. No, it’s more, How is it that in a life like that you can carry on in perpetual defeat at some levels, deliberately clinging to a very minority interpretation of Roman Catholicism, if you think of American Catholicism of the twentieth century? Dorothy Day writing about the Cardinal Archbishop of New York in the 1950s is quite an education.
SHORTT: How did they fall out?
WILLIAMS: She was always deeply respectful of church authority and made it absolutely clear she disagreed with the cardinal about everything except the Catholic faith. They clashed over Vietnam and the blessing of the military and all the rest of it. So what is it that holds someone in defeat, in a minority position, through all that? To talk about the coherence of the Christian faith isn’t just to lay out a system of doctrine and say, That’s what it looks like. It’s to look at how lives cohere, how a vision gives shape to a life.
SHORTT: Let’s look now at some of the most troublesome objections to Christianity. I know a very bright and thoughtful theological graduate who’s a floating voter as far as professions of faith are concerned. He thinks that making a formal commitment would pose too large an intellectual burden, and he instances three stumbling blocks in particular. One is the question of the brain and the mind. Like many others, he feels that Christianity in the end entails some kind of dualism, but that this is precluded by a scientific understanding of the world. Christianity appears to say that the mind and the body can exist independently if God wishes. My friend maintains that, as physical creatures, we are our mental process – no brain, no mind – and therefore that death means total extinction. This of course leaves him highly sceptical about the possibility of an afterlife.
WILLIAMS: Certainly, popular religious belief has always swung towards dualism. It sounds easy. There’s a bit of us that’s solid and a bit of us that’s shadowy, smoky, vapoury, the cartoon image of the dead body and the little ghost whizzing up and away. Now I think from the very beginning of Christianity, never mind other faiths, that theologians have been fighting a bit of a rear guard action against this, and I’m very interested by the way in which, for somebody like Aquinas in the Middle Ages, the soul and the body are, whatever else the relation, absolutely not like that. The soul is the form of the body, he says. What we mean by soul is not some little extra bit, but the shape and the sense of the cohesion of this bodily history that is a person in the world. It’s rather like, to use a simile that owes a bit to Wittgenstein, the relation between the smile and the face; or it’s more like that than the relation between the coffee and the cup.
Now that immediately poses the problem that’s supposed to be posed by modern science: OK, so what about when the body stops being there? I think there are two kinds of response that can be made. But both depend on the idea that life after death, to use the shorthand, isn’t a function of something in us that survives, but something to do with our doctrine of God. So let me try to explain that.
For the Christian, part of the shape and the cohesion of a human material life is bound up with relationship with God, and a belief that God’s relation with us is one of commitment. One of the things that’s driven Christians to say that you can’t just draw a line at physical death, is whether that can be consistent with the nature of God. If God has bound his life in with ours in a material life, when we happen to die, does God say, Oh well, there’s a shame, and move on to the next relationship, as it were? ‘So I kissed her little sister and forgot my Clementine.’ And the answer Christians have given is, No, that isn’t what happens, that’s counter-intuitive in relation to our doctrine of God, not our doctrine of us.
The second theme that comes in is what Christians have talked about in terms of the resurrection of the body. Whatever our relationship is with God on the far side of our material death, it involves God’s giving another shape, another carrier, another vehicle, to the (in scientific terms) information complex that is the life we have lived, the memory we have acquired in this physical body. And something has got to be continuous between now and then. Unfortunately we haven’t a clue how that works. And that’s why I think with talk about eternal life, life after death, we have to be very reticent, and not suppose we’ve got this sorted. This is why I say it’s about our doctrine of God, not trying to locate the bit of us that survives. It’s saying, We, in biblical terms, believe in a God who raises the dead, which is a huge claim. But the more that’s about the character of God and the less it’s an attempt to produce a dualist theory of us, the less vulnerable I think it is to the straight scientific criticism. That still leaves a lot of loose ends, goodness knows. But all these issues about the relation between brain and mind philosophically seem to get more, not less, complex as we go on.
SHORTT: And not necessarily inimical to religious claims?
WILLIAMS: No, that’s right. I think a lot of theorists in this area get a bit panicky when it’s suggested that they’re moving in a faintly religious direction. They will say, quite rightly, It’s not about that. But I think that a very respectable sector of the philosophical community would say that reductionism – the mind is no more than physical processes – is actually a philosophically inept way of coming at the issue – because ‘no more than physical process’ is itself an analysis that presupposes other sorts of process than physical process. And you end up caught in a philosophical trap.
SHORTT: And you find this mistake in the pronouncements of scientists hostile to Christianity such as Richard Dawkins or Peter Atkins or Susan Greenfield?
WILLIAMS: Yes. I find reading Dawkins and others that there’s tremendous analytical sophistication in respect of physical processes, allied to philosophical crudity. What fascinates me about the notions of the selfish gene and the selfish ‘meme’ is that you need metaphors drawn from highly sophisticated intentional accounts of human interaction to describe supposedly physical processes. That ought to give you pause because it suggests that reductionism collapses on itself. Selfish is a highly loaded, highly sophisticated word. Selfish is a word about motives, not material processes. Selfish is a word that assumes things about purposes, consciousness, and all the rest of it. And you end up with what seems to me an almost comical mythology of little things running around with intentions inside your head or inside your organism. It’s what philosophers sometimes call the homunculus problem, the little man who does things. The selfish gene is bad enough. The selfish meme – the mental structure that reproduces itself – I can’t make any sense of, philosophically speaking. Come back, A.J. Ayer, I say, on that point.
SHORTT: The next of my three objections is the old conundrum about divine action and miracles. You know the view: science is so successful at explaining the phenomena of the world, and so talk of miracles flies in the face of that. There’s a lack of evidence for miracles, as well as an intrinsic implausibility about them.
WILLIAMS: It’s a very big issue, the question of divine action, and again, I think, it has to be taken in connection with a doctrine of God rather than a very specific examination of any particular claim to start with. Let’s put it this way. For a theological believer the relation of God to creation is neither that of the old image of someone who winds up the watch and leaves it, nor is it that of a director in a theatre or, worse, a puppet master who’s constantly adjusting what’s going on. It’s the relation of an eternal activity which moment by moment energises, makes real, makes active, what there is, and I sometimes feel that a lot of our theology has lost that extraordinarily vivid or exhilarating sense of the world penetrated by divine energy in the classical theological terms.
SHORTT: Augustine’s view.
WILLIAMS: It’s in Augustine, it’s in Thomas, it’s very clearly in the Eastern Orthodox tradition, where you have precisely that sense of what they call the ‘divine energy’ penetrating creation so everything is in that sense shot through with the grandeur of God, as Gerard Manley Hopkins said.
WILLIAMS: ‘Charged with the grandeur of God. It will flame out like shining from shook foil’: there we are. And people say Christianity is a bit sniffy about material reality. Well, all right, some of it is, but it does us no harm to remember that other tradition. As the Dominican philosopher Herbert McCabe – God rest him – used to say, God is more deeply involved with any creature than we can imagine, and that’s why we don’t have to invent stories about God getting involved.
How, then, does that energising work? It works, we believe, according to the rational purpose of God. It works in orderly and cohesive ways. The world that God makes is a world that makes sense, interlocks, balances, works together, and what we mean by natural laws in the theological sense. You relate to that divine rationality, very deeply rooted again in Christian and Jewish and Muslim tradition. So the Jew and the Muslim and the Christian would, I think, then want to add the following question: Can we imagine certain circumstances in which the action of God in relation to one of these coherent bits of the world is, to use a rather weak analogy, that much closer to the surface than it habitually is? We may not be able to understand what the rule of that is, or the regularity of that is, but if what is sustaining every reality is the energy, the action, of God, then is it so difficult to believe that from God’s point of view and not ours, there are bits of the universal order where the fabric is thinner, where the coming together of certain conditions makes it possible for the act of God to be a little more transparent? And when we talk of miracle, it’s that.
It’s not God making a punctiliar intervention – ‘Oh, I think I’d better sort that out’, leaning down from heaven and adjusting a few nuts and bolts – it’s more that the world is such that when certain conditions arise, certain responses are made, and, all right, let’s say it, certain prayers are prayed, a door is opened for divine action to act irregularly, to act in a way you would not, from the rest of the picture, have expected. So I think you have to start by trying to get hold of the implication of that picture of a universe in which the glory and energy of God is always pretty near the surface, and in certain circumstances very near the surface.
SHORTT: Perhaps that provides a fitting lead-in to the third objection: the problem of evil and suffering.
WILLIAMS: I think the picture of the universe and God’s relation to it that I’ve sketched provides a way to bring some sense to talk about the problem of evil. Now here, with what’s obviously emotionally the greatest barrier for most people to belief, it’s very easy to fall into different sorts of caricature. You know: the distant God who’s wound up the spring of the universe and gone away; or the interfering God who mysteriously fails to interfere when we really want him to. If you hang on to some sense of God’s intimate relation with the world, God’s energising, as I say, of what’s going on and the consistency and interlocking coherence of that, what you’re rejecting is a picture of a God whose mind and will observe the world from a distance deciding whether or not to intervene. We have a God deeply involved in the process of the world, whose control of the world’s processes is very unlike that of the puppet master. The world is different from God and yet activated by God. Because it’s different from God, it’s subject to possibilities of tension, collision.
The way in which laws and regularities unfold will, from the human point of view, lead to tragedy from time to time. God’s relation to that is not one of either planning it or resolving it as we normally understand it. God’s relation to that is his own accessibility, the resource that is there in God for any situation which makes it possible for that situation to be transfigured or taken forward. And I think that in traditional Christian discussions about this subject, especially in St Augustine, what you’ve got is an attempt to say that for creation to be different from God it can’t be perfect. It unfolds in time; it unfolds by processes working out their own logic.
Now in a world without conscious creatures that wouldn’t be a problem. Earthquakes on Jupiter are neither here nor there, and you know the famous philosophic example of the tree falling in the forest unobserved: does it make a noise? Well, whether or not it does, again it’s neither here nor there, it doesn’t fall on anybody. As soon as there is somebody for a tree to fall on or somebody for an earthquake to crush, you have a problem. You have the conscious, infinitely valuable person involved in this. So the real problem of evil, I think, arises when there are conscious beings who tell stories about suffering, remember suffering, make connections about it, and I leave open the question of how far into the animal kingdom that extends, but I suspect it already is a problem as soon as you have sentience, as soon as you have beings with feeling.
So, as I say, it’s not that God is at a distance from which he can come in and sort things out, because God doesn’t sit alongside the world. But in a world where tragedy happens, God is faithfully present, able to offer, to give what he is to help us in living through or living past suffering. It’s not a very satisfactory answer: it’s an answer at a rather broad metaphysical level which is not what you talk about when you’re alongside the mother of the child with leukaemia.
SHORTT: You’ve said in a critique of Professor Marilyn McCord Adams’ discussion of theodicy that you suspect that it is more religiously imperative to be worried by evil than to put it into a satisfactorily theoretical or aesthetic context, ‘if only because such a worry keeps obstinately open the perspective of the sufferer, the subject, for whom this is never a question of aesthetics, however imaginatively and discriminatingly pursued’1 And yet the believer is committed to the conviction that God will wipe away all tears, as the New Testament puts it2. That traditional view of theodicy does seem to fly in the face of the models of human love that we have. We speak of God as parent, and yet if your child were in the path of an oncoming juggernaut and you had just enough time to leap out into the street and rescue him or her, you would do so. It would be a dereliction of your parental duty if you didn’t. Yet so many people say that God does have the power in principle, but doesn’t use it.
WILLIAMS: ‘God is up in heaven and he doesn’t do a thing, With a million angels watching and they never move a wing.’ Yes.
SHORTT: Who said that?
WILLIAMS: Sydney Carter in The Good Friday Song. ‘It’s God they ought to crucify instead of you and me’, which I remember had a huge impact in me as a teenager. Because it’s the good thief saying it to Jesus. ‘It’s God they ought to crucify instead of you and me, I said to the carpenter a-hanging on a tree.’
First of all, then, on the parenting image. It is undoubtedly one of those places where that language breaks down. And people rail at God for being a bad parent. The trouble is that the God who has the power to intervene but doesn’t, in the way it’s usually perceived, suggests the Superman model; that is, God is an agent who can come in and change things in a nice simple manner, pushing the child out of the way: what Superman does in the comics. And you know some of the best Superman fantasies are all about the choices he faces, he can’t opt for more than one of these at once; if he does, he or his powers are weakened in particular ways and particular circumstances. There’s lots of theology in Superman – not very good theology, but the questions are there.
The point I’m making is that whatever the power of God is, it’s not quite like that. God is better characterised in Bill Vanstone’s phrase, I think, as the agent who bears everything up. Which means that the instant solution of suffering or avoidance of suffering, if it ever happens, can’t happen by the Superman method. It just may be that in some circumstances, in ways we can’t see because we don’t have that independent perspective, the intensive prayer of somebody may allow God in.
SHORTT: Because you’ve spoken of miracles, and Christian tradition is committed to belief in miracles.
WILLIAMS: That’s right, I do believe that that sometimes happens. C.S. Lewis has that extraordinary account, in one of his letters, of praying to experience his wife’s suffering in her last illness, and being promptly crippled with the pains in the bone marrow that his wife was going through. Sometimes prayer, it seems, lets God in. To believe in creation at all is, I think, to believe in that sort of relation between God and creation which does not provide a neat distance between God and us. Total difference and yet not a distance. And the hard thing talking about all this is coming to terms with what it means.
SHORTT: Creation involves contingency and risk – to put it starkly, you’re saying that you’ve got to crack some eggs to make an omelette.
WILLIAMS: Yes, if you want to use eggs and omelette.
SHORTT: One person who picks up on this in blunt terms is the literary critic James Wood. His grasp of theology may not be all that nuanced, but he does encapsulate the common scepticism about whether Christianity provides a convincing account of our experience.
You’ll recall that at the end of his book The Broken Estate he moves from asserting that the problem of pain has no solution to what he sees as its corollary – the business of what possible justification there can be for our earthly life (notionally just the flickering of an eye when measured against eternity), given that our destiny is said to be one of bliss in the company of God. ‘I have always found Philip’s cry to Jesus in John 14, piercing, ’Wood writes: ‘ “Philip saith unto him, Lord, shew us the Father, and it sufficeth us.” But the Lord does not show us the Father. It seems obvious to theologians like Richard Swinburne that a world of limited freedom and absolute transparency of knowledge, in which not one of us is in any doubt about our creator, would be a limited, useless place. But it would not, presumably, be useless to God. It is what heaven would be like; and why, before heaven, must we live? Why must we move through this unhappy, painful rehearsal for heaven, this desperate ante-chamber, this foreword written by an anonymous author, this hard prelude in which so few of us can find our way?’3
WILLIAMS: One of the interesting points James Wood makes there is that if we’re going to live in bliss with God for ever, why not start now? And leaving aside for a moment the general cosmological question about the nature of creation, I suppose the Christian would have to say, We are such beings that living in bliss with God can never be other than something we learn. And that doesn’t mean we have to learn through an unnecessarily painful obstacle course: it is simply something that takes time. Growing into fellowship with God is not an instantaneous thing, even in a life relatively light on suffering.
Relation with God takes time. Just as in human love you can’t rush it, just as in the learning of a language you can’t rush it, so this is the kind of thing that just ineluctably takes time. Why does God create at all, and why, if this is the best of all possible worlds, isn’t it better? Ultimately the only answer is that if it’s part of the very essence of being creation that it takes time and that it’s subject to change and to some extent to conflict, then you’re always in a sense looking at possible creations, you’re always looking at a choice of imperfections. We can have no idea what multiple-choice universes are like in that sense. Sooner or later, if you believe in creation itself, you’re brought back to that fundamental point: it’s not God, it’s different from God.
God creates so that what is not God will be drawn into the joy of being God. And the constraint here is that whatever is not God is in some way vulnerable. And you could say that the very smoothest imaginable world would, in infinite time, still be vulnerable. C.S. Lewis’s science fiction fantasies are fascinating here. Here we are living in the Fall, and there on Venus the Fall hasn’t happened, everything is wonderful, but the fall could still occur. In the event it doesn’t – whoopee for the Venusians – at least they haven’t got some of our problems. But they’re still growing into relation with God.
SHORTT: One of Marilyn Adams’ arguments in the exchange you’ve had with her is that, sub specie aeternitatis, we will feel that our lives are retrospectively vindicated, justified. Isn’t that implicit in Christian belief? Some people might be surprised that you reacted against that so strongly, describing it as flawed, both philosophically and morally.4
WILLIAMS: ‘Vindicated’: that’s where I have the problem. I may look back on an experience of enormous trauma and say, Well, out of that came some understanding for which I thank God. What I can’t bring myself to say is that, so to speak, it was all OK. I can’t quite cope with the idea that somebody else’s suffering was planned for a good purpose.
SHORTT: But you believe that creation is ultimately a good thing.
WILLIAMS: I believe that creation is a good thing because of that long term purpose which is the sharing of fellowship with God, the gift of the divine life and the divine nature to creatures. But to say that creation is good overall, I think, can’t commit us to adding, And everything that happens must be for the best. Not only is that often not true; even when we can make the best of a bad situation, that doesn’t mean it had to happen or that it was good that it happened. I look here to those who have written out of the very dark places of the modern experience. One thinks of somebody like Etty Hillesum writing from the camps, or on the Christian side Mother Maria Skobtsova, a Russian nun who died in Ravensbruck, and what I understand them to be saying is not, Well, it’s all OK, there’s a reason for my being here, but, rather, Here is something which for all its utter, unqualified horror, I can by God’s grace give a future to, open up to God. And in that sense, I think, the Christian looking back over a life containing suffering and tragedy and trauma can say that it has all been drawn together by grace, rather than that it’s all vindicated or justified.
SHORTT: I’ve referred in my preface to the recovery of nerve in theology over the past few decades. Can you describe your own evolution in that context?
WILLIAMS: Inevitably, my view was shaped mainly by the British scene. I think that probably from the middle sixties onwards there was a sense of some uncertainty, almost some embarrassment, in the British ecclesiastical scene about old-style doctrinal writing. It’s an interesting moment, I think, although the war period and the post-war period produced some really remarkable material inspired by the classical tradition, Gregory Dix on the liturgy, Eric Mascall in philosophy, and others.
SHORTT: Austin Farrer?
WILLIAMS: Austin Farrer, who still is a bit of a mountain peak of that generation. But there was also a thinning out of historical theology, reflected, for example, in a work like John Robinson’s Honest to God. That did lead to a situation where academic theology in the late sixties was marked by a huge concentration on New Testament study, still very much dominated by Bultmann; a certain amount of writing about ethics and philosophical theology; and a rather careful avoidance of the doctrinal heartland, so that continental dogmatic theology was regarded as just too much to cope with; and the average textbook on philosophical theology, let’s say, might have a page or two on Barth, telling you why you couldn’t be doing with this, and then you’d go on to what was considered the real stuff, and the legacy still at that time of the debates within analytic philosophy over the meaning of religious language.
Now I think a number of us who were growing up as theologians in that generation, people on the whole born between 1945 and 1955, found ourselves frustrated by this. There were big issues there, issues which had to do with the very shape and foundation of the Church’s life that were connected with how you worshipped intelligently, both personally and corporately, all these things which seemed not to be entering into the discourse of academic theology. And, in a funny sort of way, it was often fringe writers, for some of us from liberation theology, who brought these themes back in. When I myself decided to do a thesis on Eastern Orthodox theology it was a rather deliberate counter-cultural move. I could think of a number of areas that I could have pursued in New Testament or patristics, and I thought, No, I don’t want to do that: I want to go and read something completely different. And it was helped by discovering Vladimir Lossky’s The Mystical Theology of the Eastern Church.
SHORTT: What did you gain from Lossky?
WILLIAMS: Precisely that sense of the interweaving of doctrine and worship. And also this pervasive apophatic or negative strand that says you will never get it wrapped up, you will never have it completely sorted.
SHORTT: From earlier discussions we’ve had, I know that you also lay great emphasis on the role of Karl Barth in the turnaround being described, Barth who asked radical questions about the coherence and distinctiveness of theology.
WILLIAMS: Let me get round to Barth in a minute. As I say, Lossky was part of what precipitated me into doing the research I did, and, oddly in a way, it was what got me reading modern Continental dogmatics a bit more as well, some Roman Catholic writing, Rahner particularly. Von Balthasar was just beginning to appear in English, and then Barth. And by the late seventies I was involved with some other theologians in writing about Barth,5 but also involved in the group that was translating von Balthasar.
SHORTT: It included Stephen Sykes, I think.
WILLIAMS: Stephen Sykes and David Ford and Richard Roberts and myself were working on Barth, and that was a sort of intensive seminar. The book was a very collaborative venture, where we discussed and criticised each other’s work quite a lot in a series of meetings.
SHORTT: And your essay was on Barth and the Trinity.
WILLIAMS: Yes, and that was a big eye-opener, which also helped me in later years when I was teaching Barth in Cambridge, and asking myself why he was so interesting. I suppose part of the answer is in Barth’s own career under the pressure of a violently anti-Christian, barbarous state apparatus. Barth, you might say, asks what the point is of theology at all? If it’s just, as he said, talking about man in a loud voice, if it’s just uplift or examination of the religious consciousness, well, frankly you’re still trapped, you’re still under the net of a deeply oppressive and barbaric political system.
And so you have to have a theology which begins by saying God is God, and not part of any system and only in the light of that do you have a sort of ground from which you can put the questions back and make the challenges to the barbarism of modern politics. And I sometimes used to say to students, that Barth’s way of being relevant to Germany in the 1930s was by being, on the surface, completely indifferent to Germany in the 1930s. I mean his own life, of course, consisted of anything but indifference. He took huge risks and suffered for it. But in his dogmatic theology, it’s as if he’s saying, Look, I’m absolutely not going to get caught up in the problems of Germany in the 1930s, because the best way of responding to these problems is to say God is God, and therefore your agenda can be drawn from somewhere else than Germany in the 1930s.
It’s a huge enterprise, and what caught me and still catches me about Barth is that sense of exuberant bloody-mindedness, enlarged upon at huge length, the gusto, the verve of the theology, with all its outrageous misunderstandings of other people and its wonderfully sanctified egotism. It’s a great performance, The Church Dogmatics, and Barth enjoys being Barth and spreading himself like this, and in that enjoyment does convey, I think, uniquely among twentieth-century theologians, a sense of the exhilarating otherness of God.
SHORTT: At the same time, as you’ve mentioned, you became involved in translating Balthasar’s Herrlichkeit [The Glory of the Lord], along with John Saward and ...
WILLIAMS: Andrew Louth, John Riches, Brian McNeil and one or two other people – this experience was more than just sitting with a text and a dictionary. And Balthasar and Barth are, I suppose, still for me the two great poles of twentieth-century Western theology. Absolutely alike in their commitment to the distinctiveness of theology and the otherness of God; endlessly fascinatingly different in their assessment of how you articulate that. Balthasar’s immense indirection in coming to God through what he himself describes as the bridge half-built from the human sense of the divine and the human sense of beauty, and then the aspiration to beauty that is in the human mind being both answered and wholly overturned in the unbeautiful form of the crucified Christ, which is in one way a very Barthian thing – senkrecht von oben, Barth says: straight down from above comes something you could never have expected.
Barth is, in a sense, happy to leave it there. Balthasar, as it were, says, But you only see it for what it is if you see exactly how it both corresponds to and overturns all that you have ever been thinking and moving towards. And I wrote a bit on Balthasar and Rahner at the time6 to try to draw out the difference between that sense of shock and surprise in Balthasar, and his apprehension, too, of the tragedy that comes with that, and Rahner’s much more unified sense of moving up out of the intrinsic grace-orientedness of human nature towards receptivity to the concrete grace of Jesus Christ.
So, Lossky, Barth, Balthasar – I think in my twenties those were the people I was absorbing, and it was quite a rich diet. Probably after that, when I was most heavily involved in teaching university theology in my thirties, they were there constantly in the background: but I was also exploring rather more philosophically at that time, reading more of Wittgenstein, tackling some of the issues about reality and reference that arise philosophically, and, towards the end of the period, beginning to absorb a bit more of Hegel.
SHORTT: Will you say something briefly about Hegel? I think his influence is evident in some of the things you said earlier in this conversation.
WILLIAMS: I think when I was first doing my research on Russian theology I saw Hegel through Russian spectacles, that is, through the spectacles of mostly late nineteenth-century theologians and philosophers in Russia who were using him as part of their system-building, and I got very impatient with what seemed a vast edifice of speculative metaphysics, where really you could say pretty much anything you liked. And that put me off Hegel, I confess – though I always remembered having read a bit of his writing on tragedy in my early twenties which went quite deep, especially his discussion of Antigone.
But it took me some time to get back to him after being more interested in Wittgenstein for a long while. The connection, I think, would go something like this. What fascinated me in Wittgenstein was, if you like, the refusal to go behind appearances. Language is language, not an inept substitute for something better. We understand who we are by looking at how our language works, and I don’t think that’s reductive at all. On the contrary, I think it’s a very exciting approach.
But turning to Hegel, I found that, just as for Wittgenstein, you start where you are, you watch how sense is made in practice, so, strangely, for Hegel, you start where you are as a speaker and a thinker, and you look at what the very act of speaking, the very act of thinking, means, and, relating a bit to what I said earlier, you begin to understand how the very act of speaking, the very act of thinking, locate you in something more than just the historical exchange that happens to be going on at the moment.
I owe a lot here to two people. One is my former pupil and great friend Andrew Shanks, who kept on asking me awkward questions about Hegel when I was trying to teach him – I say trying to teach him, because I know he was the one who did most of the teaching – and his superb books on Hegel7 and related matters have meant a lot to me. And the other was, of course, Gillian Rose, a bit later on, in my late thirties: getting to know Gillian and seeing Hegel through her eyes as anything but a philosopher of closure and system.
SHORTT: You’ve spoken of Honest to God, and I guess the zenith of that style came with The Myth of God Incarnate in 1977. In my book about you, I went into your criticisms of a work that hasn’t weathered well.
Can you talk about what started to happen in the early eighties? At various times in the past you’ve spoken about a revived interest in narrative, in community, and the way that anglophone theology became less obviously Protestant, among other things.
WILLIAMS: When The Myth of God Incarnate appeared in 1977, I think many people felt that this was about as far as a particular kind of rational revisionism could go. So it was one of those moments when people did begin to turn towards other sources, and the presence of writers like von Balthasar in the background, the growing profile in the British university scene of some Catholic theologians, Nicholas Lash being a very prominent example, did mean, I think, that there was a bit of a turn against a certain kind of very insular Protestantism.
A curious thing about The Myth of God Incarnate is that there is barely one reference to anybody outside the anglophone liberal Protestant world. Barth doesn’t feature. I think there is one reference to Pannenberg, and that’s it. The rest of theology might not have existed.
And there is an awful insularity about the book in that way. Now, getting us away from that insularity was, I think, part of the important agenda of the years that followed. Balthasar was making an impact, as I’ve said. Nicholas Lash was doing a lot. Donald MacKinnon, of course, whom I haven’t talked much about, but who is clearly a huge presence in the background of all of this: Donald who was interested in Barth, was interested in Balthasar, and pushed him at us, and was interested in philosophers such as Paul Ricoeur and Hans-Georg Gadamer.
SHORTT: MacKinnon was your greatest teacher, I think.
WILLIAMS: My greatest teacher without any doubt, yes. And of many of my colleagues and peers. It meant that by the early eighties there was a bit of a sense of the tide having turned. And I can remember conversations with contemporaries like Angela Tilby and Sarah Coakley and others whom I’d known for a long time. We shared a sense that we needed to get ourselves out of this rather narrow and oddly cosy liberal environment into a slightly intellectually more rigorous, spiritually more challenging – and even alarming – world.
So, yes, there is a move away from what I think of as that rather pale liberal Protestant consensus. It felt like and still feels like a rather more multi-coloured world. And, of course, out of this then came during the eighties the beginnings of John Milbank’s work and Radical Orthodoxy.
SHORTT: You’re sometimes described as the father of Radical Orthodoxy. The movement will be discussed in detail in a later chapter, but could you say a quick word about it now?
WILLIAMS: Yes. A number of the Radical Orthodoxy people, above all John Milbank, were very close to me either as pupils or friends of pupils: people whose work I sat alongside and discussed. So I do feel some sense of involvement in the history of Radical Orthodoxy; and the enormous stimulus and constant mental stretching that I’ve had from conversations with John Milbank is a big part of my life. I’ve expressed some of my reservations about the project from time to time. Basically, though I think it’s on the right lines.
SHORTT: Let’s move on, again quite sketchily, to some other recent developments. It’s part of the rationale of this book that Anglophone theology is at the cutting edge of the subject these days, and one could also argue that Anglican theologians have played an especially distinguished role in bringing this about.
WILLIAMS: It would be nice to think so. I think the array of Anglican theologians in the past decade has been extraordinary. We Anglicans have perhaps been able to be a bit more free with the Catholic tradition than some Roman Catholics in an era when the control of Catholic theology has been rather stepped up and the levels of anxiety among Roman Catholic theologians are a bit higher than they used to be or than they need be. It’s as if, to take von Balthasar as an example, an Anglican can come at him without a political agenda of the kind that almost inevitably hangs around his name in the Roman Catholic Church. I think that helps a bit.
SHORTT: Because he’s associated with a highly conservative agenda.
WILLIAMS: For a Roman Catholic to be interested in von Balthasar is very often part of a package, which is powerfully conservative. It doesn’t work quite like that for his Anglican interpreters.
SHORTT: You don’t have to be against the ordination of women, for example.
WILLIAMS: No. Indeed, the people who have written most extensively on Balthasar in the Anglican world have supported the ordination of women. So there has been a grateful but critical reception of traditional theology. And because, like it or not, the anglophone world tends to set quite a lot of cultural trends, it may not be an accident that it’s in that environment that some of the innovative material arises.
SHORTT: The chapters that follow will flesh out this and other points you’ve made, but before we round off it would be good to narrow the focus a bit to give a concrete instance of the sort of thing you’ve been working on in the interstices of life as a bishop and arc
These posts are by guest authors for Fulcrum