Author: Rowan Williams
Publisher: Bloomsbury Continuum
Publishing Date: September 7, 2021
Pages: 272 (Hardcover)
In an age drowning in information, much writing falls into one of two categories: that produced by the dilletante or by the specialist. The former is a gadfly who flits along the surface of multiple disciplines, tying together bits and pieces of various sources. But pressed too hard, the surface gives way, revealing a bevy of information but little wisdom. By contrast, the specialist drills down deeply into one small segment of the world, bringing forth nuances and hidden gems, but struggles to connect that vein to the larger world of knowledge. And then, there is Rowan Williams, the former archbishop of Canterbury, who, over a lifetime of scholarship, has written on the Christian life for popular and scholarly audiences on topics as varied as Dostoevsky, the sacraments, early Christian asceticism, modern philosophy of language, and now, Eastern Orthodoxy, with insight and generative wisdom.
In some ways, this book represents the culmination of a longstanding interest Williams has had with the ways in which Orthodox theology offers a compelling and distinct vision to longsuffering issues within Western Christianity. By reconfiguring theological loci of spirituality, anthropology, ecclesiology, and more through a reading of the Philokalia (a 18th century Orthodox compendium of ancient Orthodox teaching), Williams addresses key questions of the Christian’s relationship to the world, and what Orthodoxy has to say to questions of being human, knowing God, receiving a tradition, and pursuing justice and holiness. Those only familiar with Williams through his recent popular trilogy of books on the Christian life will find the work more daunting, as Williams assumes some familiarity with not only certain figures but also within Orthodox theology. This is not a warning so much as a caveat: not all theology should be easily consumed, for theology is not a matter first of applicability so much as contemplation. Theology’s object, if it is indeed God, should come at us askance, demanding something of us as we behold the bush lit aflame.
Williams’ latest piece is, for Western audiences, an offer of a reset button to both the question of what we are as creatures and what it means for us as creatures to receive God. Beginning with a broad introduction to the Philokalia, both in its composition and main themes, Williams culminates with this quote from Maximus the Confessor, which serves as a precis for the broader work:
“Williams’ latest piece is, for Western audiences, an offer of a reset button to both the question of what we are as creatures and what it means for us as creatures to receive God.”
“God, who created all nature with wisdom and secretly planted in each intelligent being knowledge of himself as its first power, like a munificent Lord gave also to us men a natural desire and longing for Him, combining it in a natural way with the power of our intelligence. Using our intelligence, we struggle so as to learn with tranquility and without going astray how to realize this natural desire. Impelled by it we are led to search out the truth, wisdom and order manifest harmoniously in all creation, aspiring through them to attain Him by whose grace we received the desire.” (45)
In this citation by Maximus, perhaps the greatest of the Orthodox saints, we find that what we are as creatures is not that we are meant to be at odds with our bodies, our minds, or our natural desires, but that God has created humans as beings capable of knowing God in and through the graced contours of the natural world.
Fleshing out this theological vision of the Orthodox occupies the remainder of the book. In the second part, having established our guides, Williams teases out what it means for us to have passions and desires, how our desires are fully integrated with the body, how this integrated body is the site and locus of the work of God’s salvation, and how all this graced humanity comes together and is made full in the humanity of Christ. In the third part, Williams brings this vision of the human into conversation with how we worship, how we carry out that worship over time, and what the renewed humanity of Christ means for justice in the world as we carry this work out as God’s holy fools.
The arduous nature of the work is partly due to the ways in which popular theology is a matter of practicality, shorn down to the bare essentials and to the most salient moments of relevance. To be sure, the Orthodox vision of theology is demanding and strange to the most well-read Western theologians, if only because it proposes that Christ is present already to humanity, wounded and hungry, and needs no prolegomena of how God appears in revelation or overcomes the conditions of human knowledge to appear to us. Many of the divisions present in Western theological discourse (the division between soul and body, church and state, God and creation) are simply passed over in this single fundamental move: that God is the logic of what it is to be a creature in the world. As such, so much of the heat over how to make God known falls away in favor of the simple affirmation that God is in the world already.
Following Maximus, humanity is created as logoi, creative words of God, who find their fullness in the Logos, the Word of God made flesh. There is no smoke in the distance: there is only the burning bush in front of us already, always present and calling us by name. The sin which unwinds us as God’s creatures is not ignored, but rather not taken with ultimate seriousness, insofar as sin can never be the first or most serious thing which Christians talk about. If the world has already been reconciled in Christ, then the Orthodox vision of the Philokalia is to lean into this and begin the work of renewal of the flesh, the world which flesh lives in, and the societies which bump us up against one another.
“For in beholding God, we begin to live renewed lives together.”
The hallmark of this vision for Williams is the freedom of God: as God renews our bodies and our relations with one another, the ways in which our relations to one another and our societies will not follow a set blueprint that can be easily extracted from Scripture. The free life in God is one which is learned over time as we inhabit the worship of the liturgy. The Spirit renews our communities in ways which do not destroy the beautiful dimensions of our gathered life, but which perfect and restore them. If we approach this book looking for a set pattern of what the renewed life in Christ looks like, Williams will direct our attention back to the act of contemplation. For in beholding God1, we begin to live renewed lives together.
Readers familiar with controversies of Western theology—including election, how to read Scripture, or how to order society, for example—will come away perplexed, in that Williams does not address these controversies to be of the utmost importance. Western theological controversies can depend on seeing the world as divided from God—that some are called and others not, or that our knowledge of God must be mediated to creaturely limits. But it is this division between God’s presence and the world which Orthodox theology refuses: God is not hiding, but already found by us, though we turn away with discomfort from the call to be more human. Readers should approach this book as an invitation by one of the world’s greatest living theologians to have their theological frames refocused, and perhaps broken, by a theological vision which proposes simply and quietly that what is needed most of all is for Christians to be made quietly holy in the midst of the world.
in Christ, in prayer, in our ordinary language with one another, and in our worship ↩