On the 21st of February Philip Harvey conducted the first Spiritual Reading Group for 2017 on the writings of Rowan Williams. One of the passages was from Rowan’s book on the statements of the creed, ‘Tokens of Trust : an Introduction to Christian Belief’ (Canterbury Press Norwich, 2007), pages 35-37. Here is the passage followed by a reading.
It should be a rather exhilarating thought that the moment of creation is now – that if, by some unthinkable accident, God’s attention slipped, we wouldn’t be here. It means that within every circumstance, every object, every person, God’s action is going on, a sort of white heat at the centre of everything. It means that each one of us is already in a relationship with God before they’re in a relationship of any kind with us. And if that doesn’t make us approach the world and other people with reverence and amazement, I don’t know what will.
One of the greatest Christian minds ever, Thomas Aquinas, said in the thirteenth century that we should never think of creation as an event, with a before and after, or as a change in circumstances – as if first there was a chaotic mess, then God came along and organized it, which was a popular view in the ancient world. Creation is an action of God that sets up a relationship between God and what is not God. Eternally, there is just God – outside time because he doesn’t get better or worse, or change in any way. And time begins when God speaks to call into being a world that is different and so establishes a reality that depends on him. It depends on him moment by moment, carried along on the current of his activity. Behind and beneath everything we encounter is this action. We may look at something that seems unmoving and unchanging, like the pillars of a cathedral or the peaks of a mountain, but what is within and beyond it is an intense energy and movement. The scientist, of course, will tell us that at the heart of every apparently solid thing is the dance of the subatomic particles. The theologian ought to be delighted that this sort of talk puts movement and energy at the centre, but will want to add that at the heart of the subatomic particles is an action and motion still more basic, beyond measure and observation – the outpouring of life from God.
To all life thou givest, to both great and small,
In all life thou livest, the true life of all.
says the hymn (‘Immortal, invisible’), and it says it all. There is the real Christian doctrine of creation, creation that is going on as we speak or write or read. It’s a vision present in many of our prayers as well as hymns, and it’s there too in the Bible, most of all in what are usually called the ‘Wisdom Books’ of the Old Testament and the Apocrypha – Proverbs, bits of Job, some of the Psalms, and so on. One of its most beautiful expressions is in the seventh chapter of the Wisdom of Solomon, which speaks of God’s wisdom as a spirit gentle and keen and peaceful and intelligent, always permeating the universe and always looking for friends and co-operators in the world of human beings, looking for a home in the human mind and heart. And when, in chapter 17 of the Acts of the Apostles, St Paul is talking to the intellectuals of Athens, he quotes approvingly from a Greek poet saying that in God ‘we live and move and have our being’.
The passage we have just heard comes in response to the apostolic profession: ‘I believe in God, maker of heaven and earth’. It is impossible, I think, to hear this passage and not notice how quickly Rowan moves from basic theological premises to a poet’s way of illustrating how creation works when God is the mover, to expressions that pronounce a mystic’s awareness of creation, the ultimate spiritual implications of the argument. He goes from theologian to poet to mystic in the space of a page.
Certain sayings are most attractive. “Creation is an action of God that sets up a relationship between God and what is not God.” The fact that we are told we live in relationship with God is the start of our own growth in that relationship. How we choose to develop that relationship depends on us as much as it depends on God, but it is through finding there is such a relationship that we learn more about our own purpose within creation, as created beings.
He says that at the heart of creation “is an action and motion still more basic, beyond measure and observation – the outpouring of life from God.” Outpouring is at the centre of Orthodox thinking about God. For Rowan, scientific explanations of creation are helpful and good, but not everything. Indeed, any explanation that does not include God will be limiting, by definition. And quoting St Paul, Rowan declares the belief that in God “we live and move and have our being”. In other words, anyone who is truly alive to God’s work in creation will become aware of God’s work in them.
We all know that one hat Rowan Williams literally does wear from time to time is a mitre. Those who think of bishops as ecclesiastical pen-pushers and head-kickers may not be aware that one of the primary roles of a bishop is defender of the creed. That is, a bishop from earliest times both revealed the truth of the statements in the creed and defended them, especially from the destructive and pernicious effects of error, or heresy. Error, though, is no matter in this context. Anyone who reads ‘Tokens of Trust’ comes face-to-face with that revelation, the liveliness and beauty of Christian faith, once we start pondering the deeper meanings of the lines. The book opens up ways of thinking about each of the statements so we see them anew and think about them in our own given time.
So Rowan is being a bishop, but notice the way he proceeds. “It should be a rather exhilarating thought that the moment of creation is now – that if, by some unthinkable accident, God’s attention slipped, we wouldn’t be here.” Come again. “Should be”? How could it be anything other than “rather exhilarating”? Because Rowan knows he’s talking to an audience who might find everything he’s saying just one more incredible explanation for the same old doctrine repeated in church each week. Whereas we are in fact declaring belief in this God, the one who was there before creation and is at work through creation even as we speak. This is a form of expression found constantly in his writing: even when he wishes to talk definitively on a subject, he leaves open a space for questions, second thoughts, contrary experiences, other beliefs. He is not practising with a closed system.
Another good example is in the next sentence: “ It means that within every circumstance, every object, every person, God’s action is going on, a sort of white heat at the centre of everything.” He doesn’t describe God’s action as white heat but as “a sort of white heat”. He knows well the risk of people taking literally what we mean when we describe something indescribable. His use of modifiers, comparatives, perhapses, sort-ofs of all sorts, enables him to talk authoritatively without sounding absolutist to a mixed audience, one that obviously includes scientists.
I was tempted to select as a hat for this passage, the foolscap. I sometimes think of theologians as wearers of the foolscap, not in mockery but because theology starts after the fact of what Rowan is talking about here. A theologian takes his blank foolscap and starts writing a whole lot of words to explain what should be a matter of the bleeding obvious. Rowan names Saint Thomas Aquinas, a theologian who once said all of his works were straw for the fire. Aquinas meant that any amount of writing, important and necessary as it is, doesn’t change who God is. We remember that the dunce’s hat referred to latter-day followers of Duns Scotus, renowned for their mere unthinking repetition of theological concepts. Clearly this hat does not fit Rowan Williams.
One other typical feature of Rowan’s creative work on display here is his reliance both on Scripture and Tradition. He starts from the creed and appeals to catholic Tradition, notably Aquinas, then in conclusion consolidates everything by reference to both Testaments of the Bible. This is typical of many Christian churches but is especially typical of Rowan’s kind of Anglicanism. He is the whole time keen to be inclusive of Christian thinking through time, not exclusive.