Academic journal article Christianity and Literature

Rowan Williams and Christian Language: Mystery, Disruption, and Rebirth

Academic journal article Christianity and Literature

Rowan Williams and Christian Language: Mystery, Disruption, and Rebirth

Article excerpt

Abstract: This essay explores the category of "mystery" in the theology of Rowan Williams. There is, or should be, an ongoing strangeness to Christian speech in that it never ceases questioning, probing, and unsettling. Williams finds the logic for this in the resurrection narratives. The resurrection is for Williams an event that upends, overturns, and re-forms the cosmos; it establishes a form of Christian community and a distinctive cadence for Christian language. The essay investigates this cadence as it appears in Williams' writing on theological method, his work on the resurrection of Christ, and his engagement with the fiction of Dostoevsky and Marylinne Robinson.

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This essay explores the category of "mystery" in the theology of Rowan Williams. (1) I hope to show how Williams' view of the limitations and possibilities of Christian language maps onto his theology of the resurrection of Christ. The resurrection, on Williams' view, is both the ongoing disruption and rebirth of the church's confession of Christ in worship, witness, and critical reflection.

We might begin with a poem from Williams, "Resurrection: Borgo San Sepolcro", based on the painting of the same name by Piero della Francesca.

   Today it is time. Warm enough, finally,
   to ease the lids apart, the wax lips of a breaking bud
   defeated by the steady push, hour after hour,
   opening to show wet and dark, a tongue exploring,
   an eye shrinking against the dawn. Light
   like a fishing line draws its catch straight up,
   then slackens for a second. The flat foot drops,
   the shoulders sag. Here is the world again, well-known,
   the dawn greeted in snoring dreams of a familiar
   winter everyone prefers. So the black eyes
   fixed half-open, start to search, ravenous,
   imperative, they look for pits, for hollows where
   their flood can be decanted, look
   for rooms ready for commandeering, ready
   to be defeated by the push, the green implacable
   rising. So he pauses, gathering the strength
   in his flat foot, as the perspective buckles under him,
   and the dreamers lean dangerously inwards. Contained,
   exhausted, hungry, death running off his limbs like drops
   from a shower, gathering himself. We wait,
   paralyzed as if in dreams, for his spring. (Headwaters 26)

Williams evokes our imagination to see a very human Jesus, his eyes "shrinking against the sun" his "flat foot" finding unsteady purchase on familiar ground, again.

Why open a paper on "mystery" in Williams' theology with a poem that draws attention to the tangible humanity of Jesus as he climbs up and out of the tomb in Francesca's painting? Is not "the mysterious" precisely that which stands beyond human perception, beyond sight? What I hope we see, however, is that the resurrection is for Williams an event that upends, overturns, and re-forms the cosmos. It establishes a form of Christian community and a distinctive cadence for Christian language. In what follows we look first at a short essay on theological method through which we glimpse the category of mystery but not a sense for what generates it. In part two Williams' work on the resurrection of Christ takes center stage.

I. The Gratuitous Mystery of Theology's Object

In the prologue to a collection of his essays, On Christian Theology, Williams proposes a threefold, cyclical movement to theological activity: celebratory, communicative, and critical. Each movement represents a distinct style of Christian theology, and none can be said to represent theology really at work. The work of sanctified reason has, according to Williams, "a mobility to it that involves recognition of the weakness of any one mode in isolation; and it points to an essential restlessness in the enterprise of Christian utterance that reflects the eschatological impulse at its heart, the acknowledgement that the events of Jesus' life and death open up schisms in any kind of language, any attempt to picture the world as immanently ordered and finished" (xvi). …

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