Academic journal article Anglican Theological Review

Christ and Contemplation: Doctrine and Spirituality in the Theology of Rowan Williams

Academic journal article Anglican Theological Review

Christ and Contemplation: Doctrine and Spirituality in the Theology of Rowan Williams

Article excerpt

Introduction

In the rich and growing body of literature that explores the relationship between Christian doctrine and spirituality,1 scholars are hoping to redress the fragmentation of the theological disciplines that took place during the Enlightenment. This fragmentation, it is thought, compromises the integrity of each sub-discipline of theological inquiry. Attention to the constructive reintegration of doctrine and spirituality might lead to increased awareness of how particular doctrinal formulations shape Christian life and, conversely, how particular habits and the cultivation of certain dispositions influence the formulation of doctrine. Known widely as a world-class historian of early Christian doctrine and of the Christian spiritual tradition, as well as a constructive theologian in his own right, Rowan Wilhams exemplifies this integration of doctrine and spirituality. In what follows, I will analyze a series of Williams's works in which he deploys central Christian doctrines such as the Trinity, creation, and the person and work of Christ to critique the idea of the "stable self'-that personal identity is found by unearthing an immutable core "self' from layers of false selves imposed by others-and in support of contemplative spirituality. Attention to the deployment of Christian doctrine in Williams's contemplative spirituality illustrates the reciprocal relationship between spirituality and doctrine: doctrine describes the imaginative environment within which the Christian hves, and Christian spirituality elucidates the existential inhabiting of Christian doctrine.

Spirituality and Theology

The term "spirituality" is notoriously ambiguous, so we begin with an investigation of how Wilhams himself defines the term and adopt that as our working definition. In the first chapter of his book on the history of the Christian spiritual tradition, The Wound of Knowledge, Wilhams defines "spirituality" as the task of "each behever making his or her own that engagement with the questioning at the heart of faith."2 As becomes evident throughout the volume, Williams understands this questioning to involve the theological structures of the Christian faith-questions pertaining to doctrines such as the Trinity, creation, and eschatology. Wilhams views spirituality as inextricably connected with doctrine. That which doctrine attempts to identify is that which unsettles and encounters the saints in their hves of prayer: the cross of Christ himself, the "final control and measure and irritant in Christian speech."3 Williams's approach to spirituality is helpfully elucidated in his monograph, Teresa of Avila. Here Williams shows that Teresas reflection on and cataloging of spiritual experiences is inherently related to broader doctrinal structures. For Teresa, the spiritual- mystical-life ultimately means the reception of a particular pattern of divine action in a human life as a whole.4 "Mysticism," like the term spirituality, typically suggests something quite different to modem ears; the scope of the "the mystical" is often treated as though it terminates in some kind of subjective or experiential state.5 Williams uses Teresa to demythologize such an approach to spirituality by showing how she saw herself as interpreting her experience in the light of the Christian tradition in a way that does not set her directly against "institutional religion" and certainly not against doctrinal theology.6 7 For Teresa, as Williams reads her, this means that the description of "mystical experience" cannot be divorced from Christology with its corporate and ecclesial, moral and sacramental dimensions.'

This idea is continued in an important essay entitled "To Stand Where Christ Stands," in which Williams again argues that the term "spirituality" requires a constant demythologizing in contemporary discourse. The classical texts in the Christian tradition imply something quite different from that which is often connoted by the term "spirituality" in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. …

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