Friday, 6 March 2009

Faith, Unbelief, and Rowan Williams

I turned a corner today, in a quiet way. A friend has lent me Rowan's Rule, the biography of Archbishop Rowan Williams by Rupert Shortt (dedicated, intriguingly, to Glyn Paflin). Reading it, I realized what I should have known already: that many great minds have grappled with almost exactly the same problems as me, and have not found them an insurmountable barrier to faith. I noted in particular that Williams has written a counter to Don Cupitt's Taking Leave of God, which I would like to investigate (I once read much of Keith Ward's Holding Fast to God, but found myself scribbling ripostes in the margin); also that, in his engagement with the issue of homosexuality, Williams could offer a reading of Romans 1 which is both revisionary and yet not dismissive of the notion of authority. Wandering through the dining room, I then found (among the religious books incongruously lodged between cookery and DIY) a book of essays by Archbishop Michael Ramsay called God, Christ and the World, which emphasizes the Christocentric nature of Christian theism, and specifically addresses the "death of God" theologians of the 1960s.

There is a sense in which I have not lost faith, but merely lost my grip on the beliefs (conscious or otherwise) which were, for the time being, supporting it. Reading about Williams's deeply nuanced theology, informed by mystical writers such as St John of the Cross, I felt there was something I could respond to. It may be that I have merely abandoned some unsophisticated assumptions about God's nature and action which had crept up on me while I was theologically and spiritually comatose, distracted by the busyness of life. Having stopped believing in a God who does not exist, I may be able to trust in a God whose "existence" is not so much an issue (as hinted at by Williams in Tokens of Trust).

I am sure that my director for this week has been at least mildly frustrated by my arid inability to engage with biblical texts in a straightforward way, but last night (no, the night before last - I see it is now past midnight) he set me to Acts 8 and the tale of Philip and the Ethiopian, who travel through the desert yet find water, the water of baptism. From this passage I took the idea that if one seeks to understand the Bible, one must have someone to explain it; and that among a multitude of voices claiming to do so, some (such as Rowan Williams) may be more worthy of my full attention than others (such as Gerd Ludemann). To whom should I turn for a way of reading Scripture? By their fruits ye shall know them: Williams is a spiritual being if anyone is, and can take me to St John of the Cross, the Desert Fathers, and T. S. Eliot; Ludemann can offer only the tedious and florid outpourings of the Gnostics, pretending that being suppressed and forgotten is some kind of guarantee of their value.

Inspired by Ramsey's Christocentrism, I sat with an icon today. My director used the phrase "journey of exploration", which to me immediately conjured up T. S. Eliot: and the end of all our exploring / Will be to arrive where we started / And know the place for the first time. And sure enough, returning to the Rowan Williams biography over dinner, I found a discussion of St Teresa of Avila, for whom, at the last stage of consummation in prayer, "life is normal again". I thought instantly of the sage returning to the market-place at the end of the Ten Ox pictures of Zen Buddhism. Williams makes exactly this comparison with Zen enlightenment, and then quotes T. S. Eliot: "know the place for the first time". I thought of my Original Face.

De noche iremos, de noche, que para encontrar la fuente;
sólo la sed nos alumbra, sólo la sed nos alumbra.

Father Mariano de Blas

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