Reflections on Rowan Williams’ visit to St. Louis University


When I found out in mid-February that my favorite living theologian, Rowan Williams, former Archbishop of Canterbury and current head of Magdalene College at Cambridge, was giving lecture at St. Louis University, I was excited to make the 3+ hour drive along I-70 from Indianapolis. It’s not everyday that an Archbishop of Canterbury visits the Mid-West, let alone one whose writing and devotion has had such an impact on my own religious life.

Image result for rowan williamsDr. Williams’ lecture, entitled Christ, Creator and Creature: Reflections on Christology and the Nature of Created Being, began by summarizing the work of Austin Farrer, who Williams described as “certainly the most important Anglican theologian of the 20th century.”  (Farrer taught at Oxford in the mid-twentieth century and was a contemporary of C.S. Lewis and the other Inklings.) This first section of the lecture focused on the metaphysics of Farrer’s works, especially The Glass of Vision. Here, Farrer shows that there need not be any competition or hostility between divine and human agency, between infinite being – what we call God – and finite being – us.

Through this non-competitive framework of Infinite and finite agency, Farrer says we  have a key to understanding certain paradoxical tenets of Christianity – grace and human free will, the efficacy of prayer, and the two natures of Christ. During the question-and-answer session, Dr. Williams was asked to expand on this idea as it applies to prayer. We shouldn’t view prayer as us doing business with another agency that we can bend to our purpose, but instead, take the more contemplative view that prayer is about being open to God’s will and purpose just as the Son is eternally open to the will of the Father.

Williams went on to discuss the development of the Christological doctrines, what he called the Church’s continual clarification of the nature of Christ and but also of God. He noted that the early church often reached for ideas and understanding found in the Hebrew Scriptures – of heavenly beings coming down to mediate God’s will – like Michael the Archangel or the High Priest Melchizedek. But the Church also soon realized that this language was not enough, and the conflicts that arose in the 4th and 5th centuries – the condemnation of Arius’ teaching, the Councils of Nicaea and Chalcedon – all which may seem so technical and arid, were important so that when we say Jesus was God, we must can mean nothing less than God, the very ground of being and agency.

Dr. Williams ended his talk by considering the Lectures on Christology (1933) by Dietrich Bonhoeffer, for whom, Dr. Williams was quick to point out, the question of Christology was anything but an academic exercise. Specifically, Bonhoeffer says that if we take seriously the notion of that the Church is Christ exsisting as community, then the non-competiative relation between the Divine and human, which was real in Jesus, will also be real in the Church. This connects Christology with our sacramental theology.

Dr. Williams explained, “Because God needs no defense, God’s human form is defenseless. So if we live in the Body of Christ and the mode of our human existence is shaped by that, then the defenselessness of Christ is the mark of the Church.” Williams argues that in the life of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the very technical and sometimes dense language of Infinite and finite agency becomes, dramatically, an ethic and ecclesiology for our time.  If we can begin to understand this, Dr. Williams said, we the Church may be “more free, more able, even more eloquent, in telling the world that the God who made the world, loves it and is a God who is in no sense afraid of its flourishing, and whose eternal purpose is fixed on its joy.”

Matthew Stevenson, May 9, Feast of St. Gregory of Nazianus