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Christ the Heart of Creation by Rowan Williams

Graham Ward - The Tablet - Thu, Jan 24th 2019

Paradox of paradoxes

(Bloomsbury Continuum, 304 pp, £25) Tablet Bookshop price £20 • tel 020 7799 4064 Please quote TABLET in “voucher code” box when you make an order
I look around at the people I work with and minister to, and find myself ­asking: “What is it to have a Christian faith?” And Rowan Williams’ Christ the Heart of Creation helps me identify something about their spirituality and mine. To have a Christian faith is to grope towards trying to understand what it is we’re caught up in, as individuals, as the Church, when we acknowledge Christ as Redeemer. 

Faith is a seeking, a filtering of our ­experi­ences of the world through our acceptance of Jesus Christ. In that seeking lies our formation in Christ, and that makes faith a foraging and responding to and grappling with God’s ­providential care for us. We will never arrive at the point where we fully understand. We are always stretched beyond ourselves and our knowledge of how things in the world work. But the quiet insistence of faith compels us to reach out towards something in ourselves and in our ecclesial communities that is in Christ and is Christ. Nothing is hidden from us. Grace is offered totally to us. But we are taught our very human limitations in and through our believing, and that what we are immersed in is inexhaustible. We live on the boundaries of what is visible/invisible, finite/infinite, expressible/ inexpressible. This inexhaustible fullness in Christ, that gathers all our wording into God’s Word, presses upon our language and warps our syntax as we engage with the “paradox of paradoxes”. The words belong to the German Catholic ­theologian Erich Przywara, cited by Williams. Williams’ own answer to the ­question who is Jesus Christ is equally ­gnomic: “non-dual, non-identity”. These two phrases are indicative of how, with Williams’ latest work, we are returned continually to how difficult it is to make “Christ” meaningful with the linguistic resources available to us. And yet we are not left thrashing around in some gigantic ­blancmange of incomprehensibility – for the incarnation of the Word itself gives us our words. 

Poets are people most sensitive to language; not just to what words mean, but also to how they sound, resonate with others. And the more I read Rowan Williams’ work, the more aware I become of the poet’s aural intellect that governs and prompts his theology. Though the book began as the Hulsean Lectures given in Cambridge in 2016, the language of numerous accounts down the centuries of who Jesus Christ is has been simmering in the mind of this poet-theologian over decades. In Christ the Heart of Creation we have a rich distillation of his reading and insight.The treatment of Christology throughout is sophisticated – which means often having to hack through the thickets of an accumulated, sometimes very technical and frequently very contested theological vocabulary. But the very hacking points to that Christian faith we are wrestling to understand. The labours are charged with a recognition of what is at stake in understanding what forms and informs our beliefs about Christ. And the labours were evident from the beginning with St Paul and the writers of the gospels. What can we say about the incarnation of God as a human creature that makes sense of what the Church has handed down to us, and our lived experience of redemption in and through him? 

The human making of sense is crucial and, in a very significant way, formative. So, throughout the book, in Williams’ examin­ations of Patristic, Medieval, Reformation and Modern Christologies, we see a constant wrestling by theologians with inherited vocabu­laries, and the slow “maturation of Christological language” as we are pushed outwards from the material realities of ­creaturely sentience to “ever-richer levels of intelligibility”. Of course, this raises questions about the evolution of doctrine and a developmental understanding of revelation. But those questions are not foregrounded in this study. What is foregrounded is how, from the composition of the New Testament writings, to Maximus the Confessor working with the Byzantine distinctions he has inherited, to Przywara’s reworking of analogy, paradox and rhythm, faith grapples with how to speak of who Christ, of who God, is, and the scope of our salvation.

Some have spoken better than others just as some are better poets than others. So, in this book, Williams gives attention to the Christologies of Augustine, Aquinas, Calvin, Kierkegaard and Bonhoeffer to arrive at his own “non-dual, non-identity” characterisation. This is the manner in which Williams often works: picking his way carefully and critically through the tradition to add, finally, his own conclusion.

You have to work through this book. There’s no escaping the fact that the issues that emerge are intellectually complex and challenging. Profundity doesn’t come cheap and faithful theological reflection is not sound bite ­information. This book heads straight into the turbulences of Christological debate. That is its strength – the courage and the ability to do that. The book lays down an important marker in contemporary Christology, but a number of readers will be daunted by the intellectual challenges it poses. At its most basic, the book’s argument is that Christology is not about trying to put two types of person together – the divine and the human – to ­create Superman. Christology is struggling to express how the infinite, self-giving life of God is poured out in the infinite self-giving life of Jesus Christ. This is what the Word made flesh means. So, any answer to the question, who is Christ, means understanding that what the contents add up to really can effect what it says on the tin – “Saviour of the world”. If Jesus Christ is the Saviour of the world then this is who he must be: “the heart of Creation”.

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