Tuesday, 11 April 2017

Rowan Williams : an Abiding Attention to Christianity

This profile of Rowan Williams was written by Philip Harvey for the ‘Heroes of the Faith’ page of The Melbourne Anglican, April 2017.

Rowan Williams, as a child, grew up in a Welsh Calvinist village. We encounter this formative world of Wales throughout his writing, for example in his translation of the Nonconformist poet Ann Griffiths:

Under the dark trees, there he stands,
there he stands; shall he not draw my eyes?
I thought I knew a little
how he compels, beyond all things, but now
he stands there in the shadows. It will be
Oh, such a daybreak, such bright morning,
when I shall wake to see him
as he is.

It’s only when the family moved to another village that Rowan first encountered High Church Anglicanism, with its strong emphasis on social action and a sacramental worship that engaged all the senses.

As a young man Rowan almost became a Benedictine, a decision that his biographer Rupert Shortt avers would have disappointed some of his female friends.  Benedictinism, nevertheless, remains a strong influence in his life, perhaps most consistently in his keeping a daily prayer life.

At university Rowan became immersed in Russian Orthodoxy. He wrote his thesis on the mystical theologian Vladimir Lossky. Two of his most popular works are readings of icons and one of his more impenetrable also explores Orthodoxy, the book about Dostoevsky he wrote one holiday while Archbishop of Canterbury.
Possibly his most popular book is a wry and sympathetic reading of the Sayings of the Desert Fathers (‘Silence and Honey Cakes’ (2003)) where Rowan makes the Egyptian monks of the 3rd century seem peculiarly contemporary to our own needs and experience. 

“Arsenius was famous not for physical self-denial but for silence; and if there is one virtue pretty universally recommended in the desert, it is this. Silence somehow reaches to the root of our human problem, it seems. You can lead a life of heroic labour and self-denial at the external level, refusing the comforts of food and sleep; but if you have not silence – to paraphrase St Paul, it will profit you nothing. There is a saying around in the literature describing Satan or the devils in general as the greatest of ascetics: the devil does not sleep or eat – but this does not make him holy. He is still imprisoned in that fundamental lie which is evil. And our normal habits of speech so readily reinforce that imprisonment.”

Of another monk he writes:  “Abba Pambo is represented as refusing to speak to the visiting Archbishop of Alexandria. ‘If he is not edified by my silence, he will not be edified by my speech,’ says the old man, unanswerably; archbishops are regarded with healthy suspicion in most of this literature. Our words help to strengthen the illusions with which we surround, protect and comfort ourselves; without silence, we shan’t get any closer to knowing who we are before God.”

That an archbishop would think suspicion of an archbishop “healthy” tells us a lot about Rowan’s own self-awareness, self-deprecation and sense of the awkwardness that exists between the role of church authority and true holiness. The question of how a truly holy person can at the same time exercise influence and control as a leader is one we encounter frequently in his writing.

I list these different attractions in Rowan’s spiritual growth to emphasise his abiding attention to Christianity in its many complex forms; hence his ability to talk authoritatively across traditions. Also, to argue that this free access to Christian traditions is a mark of Anglicanism. Rowan’s range, and comfort within that range, is partly explained by the kind of Church he chose to stay in. He has talked of Anglicanism at the Reformation being capable of accommodating “a mixture of opposite extremes”, what could be called a way of accepting very different forms of Christianity together. This connection with Christian traditions and freedom to read, hear, mark, learn and inwardly digest them is, I believe, a typical gift of Anglicanism.

Rowan shows how the via media is not just some narrow road through valleys of death but a highway where many useful and illuminating detours are available and welcome. Risk-takers and P-platers share the lanes with sightseers and Sunday drivers. It’s why I keep returning to this writing. Rowan affirms the possibilities for a questioning church; he represents the kind of church I grew up in and identify with. He is a trusted guide. Indeed, guidance as an episcopal responsibility inspires and drives his writing, whether lucid and inviting, as in his recent apologetic work, through to the most gnarly areas of the Groves of Academe. 

He talks of the Anglican imagination that “seeks to discern God in unexpected places, and to see the world itself as a kind of sacrament of God.” Notice here his connection to place: he regularly starts from a particularised place, even when that place is the whole world. 

Much of his work involves finding out things about the whole Christian experience, admiring their sheer existence, and using them to expand our awareness and thinking in new ways. The Gospel revelation is the source and foundation of his thinking in every field – ethics, social justice, philosophy, psychology, politic, science and understandably, theology, spirituality, and homiletics.

Only one person has ever read everything written by Rowan Williams, but if you want to know where to start try ‘Tokens of Trust’ (2007). This book on the Creed treats the statements as the inspiration for creative ways of trusting our experience with God, rather than primarily as a set of statements with examples following. What to make, for example, of his opening response to ‘I believe in God, maker of heaven and earth’?

“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.”

It is impossible, I think, to read 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. But he still keeps in mind his broader audience:

“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.”

Rowan Williams happened to be lecturing in Lower Manhattan on the morning of that decisive date for our own age, 11th September 2001. He was an eye witness to those events and could have died. Reports reveal he spent that and subsequent days ministering to those around him, preaching consolation to the traumatised in New York, and witnessing to reactions, his own and others. Some of these are recorded in his dispassionate book ‘Writing in the Dust’ (2002), where he argues calmly to stand back and consider our judgements, words that go to the heart of his question, well how do we respond? Typically, language use is of telling interest for Rowan, also where is God in all of this? 

“Last words. We have had the chance to read the messages sent by passengers on the planes to their spouses and families in the desperate last minutes; and we have seen the spiritual advice apparently given to the terrorists by one of their number, the thoughts that should have been in their minds as they approached the death they had chosen (for themselves and for others). Something of the chill of 11 September 2001 lies in the contrast. The religious words are, in the cold light of day, the words that murderers are saying to themselves to make a martyr’s drama out of a crime. The non-religious words are testimony to what religious language is supposed to be about – the triumph of pointless, gratuitous love, the affirming of faithfulness even when there is nothing to be done or salvaged.”

Not long after, he became 104th Archbishop of Canterbury, a spectacular achievement that has to be placed beside the holy living of the man himself. The divisive politics of that time, both church and state, have not gone away and Rowan has written about them at length. But when I consider his approach to an issue, my mind keeps coming back to other words of his, words that better explain his temperament.

He demonstrates how our tradition gives license to all the people (clergy and laity) ways of speaking of God and our life in God through new words and new metaphors. He talks of ‘contemplative pragmatism’, “an attitude of time-taking, patient, absorbing awareness of the particular situation you are in.” While of course not unique to Anglicanism, this virtue influences much of the literature of the church. He speaks of looking “long enough and hard enough for God to come to light.” We find this ‘contemplative pragmatism’ in the way he sizes up a situation, not using hasty religious language and not exaggerating or getting enthusiastic, in the 18th century meaning of that word. 

‘Contemplative pragmatism’ is “that sense that in all things God waits, and if we wait, then somehow the two waitings become attuned.” Even his self-trained use of conditional terms, like ‘somehow’ in that last sentence, is a manoeuvre, an avoidance of dogmatic propositions, that keeps open the possibility for further discovery. This is an observable Williams’ manner in all his work.

Rowan talks about how the 17th century mystical poet Thomas Traherne. exemplifies “Platonism through autobiography, reflection on childhood, and poetry, and emphasized there very particularly, not just the sense of God pouring through the ordinary perceptions of the child and of the adult, but … that wonderful remark, ‘the Nature of the Thing confirms the Doctrine’: language is true when the nature of the thing confirms the doctrine. You simply point to the beauties of the world and don’t map it out as a system of things owned by some people and not by others.” Living that is outward directed, not possessive of its own findings, shares the world in kind. 

In ‘Anglican Identities’ (2004) Rowan Williams talks of the Anglicans discussed being “in their different ways … apologists for a theologically informed and spiritually sustained patience.” This position resonates strongly with my own experience growing up and living within a diverse complement of believing communities. It means even more now, in “an age dramatically impatient and intolerant of many sorts of learning.” Learning is itself fundamental to Anglican life, a position from which to engage securely and sensibly with the problematic mess of contemporary dialogue, rife with enforcing argument, chauvinist self-righteousness, and mindless trolling. He continues:  

“They [Anglicans] do not expect human words to solve their problems rapidly, they do not expect the Bible to yield up its treasures overnight, they do not look for the triumphant march of an ecclesiastical institution. They know that as Christians they live among immensities of meaning, live in the wake of a divine action which defies summary explanation. They take it for granted that the believer is always learning, moving in and out of speech and silence in a continuous wonder and a continuous turning inside-out of mind and feeling.” 

This abiding recourse to tradition, to Word and Sacrament, as first principle for our understanding of and progress with all presenting issues makes for exhilarating and challenging reading. 

Speaking myself as a permanent writer and reader of poetry, I connect very directly to Rowan’s own poetic vocation. He has talked of poetry as ‘The text that maps our losses and longings’, and this lifeline in his own writing has matured and strengthened. In ‘The Edge of Words’ he states, “The poet is under the discipline of routinely trying to see one thing through another; the language is marked as poetic by such obliqueness.” 

Everything Rowan Williams says and writes reveals a person with a highly developed sensitivity to language, its force, directness, instantaneousness, its subtlety, indirectness, longevity. A person though may speak three languages fluently and read at least nine languages with ease, as he does, and still not engage with language in the way we are looking at here. Because Rowan is unquestionably someone with a poetic gift.
Let me quote without comment his poem ‘Oystermouth Cemetery’:

Grass lap; the stone keels jar,

scratch quietly in the rippling soil.

The little lettered masts dip slowly

in a little breeze, the anchors here

are very deep among the shells.

Not till the gusty day

when a last angel tramples down

into the mud his dry foot hissing,

down to the clogged forgotten shingle,

till the bay boils and shakes,

Not till that day shall the cords snap

and all the little craft float stray

on unfamiliar tides, to lay their freight

on new warm shores, on those strange islands

where their tropic Easter landfall is.

Rowan writes of the Welsh poet Waldo Williams as one of those ‘inner landscape shapers’,  who “imagined his own work as a form of quiet but unyielding resistance to a hectic inarticulate violence in the mind, the feverishness that overflows in personal aggression as in wars and pogroms of all kinds.” Close readers notice the same tendency to resistance in Waldo’s namesake. Listen to Rowan’s English translation of Waldo’s refreshing catechism that becomes the poem ‘What is Man?’ :

What is believing? Watching at home

till the time arrives for welcome.

What is forgiving? Pushing your way through thorns

to stand alongside your old enemy.

Sunday, 5 March 2017

Introducing Marilynne Robinson

On the First Sunday in Lent (5th of March) Philip Harvey led a Lenten study group at St. Peter’s Church, Eastern Hill, Melbourne, on the essay ‘Grace’ in her book ‘The Givenness of Things’ [1], opening with these words of introduction about the author.

Marilynne Robinson has existed as a name at the periphery of my vision for years. She has written some acclaimed novels, none of which I have read. The most famous is ‘Gilead’, a story about the memories of a Congregationalist minister in the town of Gilead, Iowa. This tells me she is preoccupied with American Protestant religion and also that she is a creative thinker about the world as she finds it. I also know that the name of this town is biblical, a reminder of the saying initiated in the Book of Jeremiah, “There is a balm in Gilead.” That is, healing is possible for those who are afflicted, broken, alienated. Even in time of exile, desolation or despair, hope is opened up. I expect that hope is a main subject of her work. In Christian tradition, but especially in some American spirituality, the balm in Gilead is read for the healing work of Jesus Christ.

When we open the latest ‘Melbourne Anglican’ we find the Sydney Uniting Church theologian Ben Myers writing about three books that he says show that the Christian life is not just lived forward in time but is “also lived backwards in time. It’s also our memories that need to be converted … the future exists only for those who have a past.” One of those chosen books is ‘Gilead’ and I now quote Ben’s words verbatim.

“Marilynne Robinson’s ‘Gilead’ [is] another powerful account of the sanctification of memory. In that book, the old narrator John Ames observes that religious epiphanies are often experienced not in the present but in memory of the past. ‘Sometimes the visionary aspect of any particular day comes to you in the memory of it, or it opens to you over time … I believe there are visions that come to us only in memory, in retrospect.’ God dwells in memory. This is why unforgiveness is such a profoundly damaging spiritual act: for when I harbour resentment against another person, I bar the door against God’s loving intrusion into my memory. I sin against myself. I destroy myself, when I shut God out of my past. And I sin against God when I shut God out of the divine dwelling place, ‘the fields and vast mansions of memory’ ([St. Augustine], ‘Confessions’ 10.8.12)” [2]

So Marilynne Robinson, now in her seventies, writes fiction. She also writes essays and the first book of hers I read, last year, was one of those. A friend on Facebook was reading it and I thought the title quite odd, ‘The Absence of Mind’. How can we have an absence of mind? Her arguments take on the unquestioning assumptions about religion of many scientists, including many atheists, today. She can be even more sarcastic and droll about the unthinking arguments of such people than they themselves are about religion. We live in a world where many theorists in different fields have dissolved the self and ignored so many things going on actively in the human mind. Rowan Williams, in his review of this book in ‘The Telegraph’, writes: “Pushing religion out of the public sphere in the name of rationality, she insists, has had the effect of giving more room to world views that trivialise or demean the “felt life” of the human consciousness – the complexity, the liberty, the innovative capacity (and the self-delusional temptations) of mind as we experience it. She is not alone in implying that without the transcendent we shall find ourselves unable, sooner or later, to make any sense of the full range of human self-awareness.” [3]

Another thing I learned about her in this book is that she is Calvinist, or rather someone who thinks of John Calvin as a saint and someone whose achievement needs to be protected from his followers. On this score I confess to connecting with her very directly, but as an Anglican. She makes Calvin real as talking directly out of the Gospel experience, which is why it was useful, indeed affirming, to read a recent interview with the film director Martin Scorsese:

“There’s something that Marilynne Robinson wrote in her book Absence of Mind that gets right to the heart of this question for me: ‘The givens of our nature—that we are brilliantly creative and as brilliantly destructive, for example—persist as facts to be dealt with even if the word ‘primate’ were taken to describe us exhaustively.’ Of course she’s right. The idea that everything can be scientifically explained doesn’t seem ridiculous to me, but actually quite naïve. When you settle your mind to consider the great, overwhelming mystery of just being here, of living and dying, the very idea of getting to the bottom of it all by means of science just seems beside the point. This is what Robinson writes about in her essays and in her novels. And what she calls ‘mind and soul’ is, for me, true Catholicism. Mind and soul is really everything that you do — the good that you do and the damage that you do. It’s the trying, with others in general and with loved ones in particular. And my own particular struggle has been trying to get through my absorption in my work, my self-absorption, in order to be present for the people I love. Because I express all of this — everything we’re discussing — in cinema. Living in the world of notoriety and fame and ambition and competition is another struggle for me. But, of course, even when you’re part of that world — I have to admit that I am, to a certain extent, and I’ve even made a few films about it — the spiritual dimension of life, as you call it, is always right there. Carl Jung had a Latin inscription carved over the doorway to his house in Switzerland: ‘Vocatus atque non vocatus deus aderit.’ Called or not called, God will come. That says it all.” [4]

Marilynne Robinson has a writing style that is closely argued, shifts attention from page to page with disarming authority, and is deeply read. While she makes assertions and turns over ideas in the manner of reasoned argument, her real meaning is often in the subtle placement of her evidence, even in things left unsaid by implication. One gets the sense she has heard a lot of very good sermons in her time. But she is herself not simply preaching to an attentive readership: she is fearlessly taking her views into the public space. Sometimes we pick up more concise expressions of her thought in interviews. The year before last, for example, she had a celebrated conversation with President Barack Obama, which can be found online. One amusing feature of that conversation is how it starts with Marilynne interviewing Barack, but half way through Barack starts interviewing Marilynne. That Obama would prefer to interview than be interviewed tells us a lot about Obama: he’s always asking questions. Now I wish to quote some of that interview [5]:    

The President: Tell me a little bit about how your interest in Christianity converges with your concerns about democracy.

Robinson: Well, I believe that people are images of God. There’s no alternative that is theologically respectable to treating people in terms of that understanding. What can I say? It seems to me as if democracy is the logical, the inevitable consequence of this kind of religious humanism at its highest level. And it [applies] to everyone. It’s the human image. It’s not any loyalty or tradition or anything else; it’s being human that enlists the respect, the love of God being implied in it.

The President: But you’ve struggled with the fact that here in the United States, sometimes Christian interpretation seems to posit an “us versus them,” and those are sometimes the loudest voices. But sometimes I think you also get frustrated with kind of the wishy-washy, more liberal versions where anything goes.

Robinson: Yes.

The President: How do you reconcile the idea of faith being really important to you and you caring a lot about taking faith seriously with the fact that, at least in our democracy and our civic discourse, it seems as if folks who take religion the most seriously sometimes are also those who are suspicious of those not like them?

Robinson: Well, I don’t know how seriously they do take their Christianity, because if you take something seriously, you’re ready to encounter difficulty, run the risk, whatever. I mean, when people are turning in on themselves—and God knows, arming themselves and so on—against the imagined other, they’re not taking their Christianity seriously. I don’t know—I mean, this has happened over and over again in the history of Christianity, there’s no question about that, or other religions, as we know. But Christianity is profoundly counterintuitive—“Love thy neighbor as thyself”—which I think properly understood means your neighbor is as worthy of love as you are, not that you’re actually going to be capable of this sort of superhuman feat. But you’re supposed to run against the grain. It’s supposed to be difficult. It’s supposed to be a challenge.

Marilynne Robinson is also on the cover of a February 2017 issue of ‘The Tablet’. We should remember that this is after the inauguration of a very different kind of American President, one whose election and its causes are explained with prophetic insight and knowing analysis in many of the pages of the book under study today. In ‘The Tablet’ interview she is asked “In the light of recent events in the US, where a large majority of self-described Christians have elected a president who advocates positions that unambiguously contradict the teachings of the Gospel, have you found yourself contemplating the rise of the Nazis in Germany in the 1930s, which provoked Karl Barth and others to write the Barmen Declaration, and led Dietrich Bonhoeffer to insist that Christians rediscover the ‘true church’?” Her answer wisely skirts around analogies with thirties Germany, being real to the present moment:

“I think the Churches have disgraced themselves, more or less, the best by silence that approaches capitulation, the worst by corruption of various kinds, weaponising piety, among other things. Of course, it has always been put to bad uses, and the emergence of a ‘true church’ is always to be hoped for. But the flagrant use of religion to inflame fear and hostility and resentment that we have seen, has set back American society 150 years.” [6]

Marilynne Robinson has collected together more of her essays into ‘The Givenness of Things”. Although the essays treat of different subjects, to read them together is to find all sorts of interactions and connections going on between the essays. They move from essays primarily concerned with literary ways of talking about humanity and the world to, through the second half, essays concerned primarily with theological ways of talking about humanity and the world. The essay we look at today, ‘Grace’, seeks to find a way of witnessing to grace through the eyes of someone Marilynne Robinson calls “my theologian”, William Shakespeare. Yet in these eighteen pages she offers no working definition of grace, as though she expects that we will see grace at work in Shakespeare’s plays purely through her own exposition and our own observation. Meanwhile, in ‘Realism’, her last essay in the book, Marilynne opens with a most amazingly beautiful definition of the very word under discussion here. This surprise cross-referencing is typical of her procedures. It is at page 273 that she offers a definition of Grace that works around the word ‘alleviation’, so it is perhaps with ‘alleviation’ in mind that we turn to our essay for today.


[1] Marilynne Robinson, ‘Grace’ in ‘The givenness of things : essays’ (Virago, 2015), p. 31-49

[2] Ben Myers, ‘Living backwards : the conversion of memory’, in ‘The Melbourne Anglican’, February 2017, p. 24

[3] Rowan Williams, review in ‘The Telegraph’, 28 May 2010: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/books/bookreviews/7771422/Absence-of-Mind-The-Dispelling-of-Inwardness-from-the-Modern-Myth-of-the-Self-by-Marilynne-Robinson-review.html

[4] Martin Scorsese, interview in ‘Civiltà Cattolica’, 3 March 2016:   http://www.laciviltacattolica.it/articolo/silence-interview-with-martin-scorsese/

[5] Barack Obama and Marilynne Robinson, ‘President Obama & Marilynne Robinson : a conversation in Iowa’, in ‘The New York Review of Books’, 5 November 2015: http://www.nybooks.com/articles/2015/11/05/president-obama-marilynne-robinson-conversation/

[6] Marilynne Robinson. ‘The churches have disgraced themselves’, interview with Jon M. Sweeney in ‘The Tablet’, 4 February 2017, p.4-5