‘The Integrity of Theology’ by Rowan Williams

(prologue and chapter one in:  On Christian Theology (Oxford: Blackwell, 2000)

For some time now I have had a shelf in my mind set aside for questions relating to a postmodern discomfort about ‘us and them’ categories, particularly in relation to evangelism.  Bless you Rowan Williams for providing a framework that might begin to work towards some responses to these concerns!  (NB This post reflects more of my language than his and I’m not guaranteeing I’ve completely grasped his superior intellect!)

The first gem comes from his description of a ‘three fold division of theological reflection’.  I imagine them as an intertwining rope.  Williams labels them celebratory, communicative and critical.

  • celebratory – the living faith context of speaking about and to God.  prayer.  worship. discipleship. devotion.
  • communicative – the interaction required with other worldly wisdoms in order to communicate something about God.  Hence we might draw on sociological insights to increase our understanding of a biblical concept!
  • critical – questioning leads us to humble experiences of the truth.

The second gem from this short chapter on theological integrity comes from his discussion of language.  Theological conversations, as with most human interactions, are susceptible to a two level discourse – there is a stated language and subject, but also an unstated and frequently unconscious level to the conversation.  For a theology to have integrity, it must find a way to deal honestly with the unstated agendas.

This two level discourse is illustrated perfectly in the tweet and blog furor over Rob Bell’s soon to be released book on the theology of hell.  There has been widespread condemnation of Bell (i.e. Bell himself, not just his ideas!) based on a three minute promo video for the book and the domino effect of key ‘theological players’ taking a swing!  How is it possible to have a theological conversation about a book before it has even been read!?!  There is something else going on – this cannot be a conversation purely about the biblical texts on hell (which by the way, would not fit into a twitter sized communicae).

Rowan William’s proscription for theology with integrity includes the following:

  • allow for answers, ie. have an actual conversation
  • response and continuation of the conversation are essential
  • invite collaboration
  • do not claim to be final
  • critical self-perception – develop a dynamic of repentance in theological language
  • decline the attempt to speak from God’s point of view
  • steer away from gross generalities
  • work within the same narrative dynamic revealed in scripture  – a story of humanity’s response to God’s working in the world and God’s response to the humanity
  • speak to God, not just about God
  • acknowledge that praise of God is a labour for us – it requires work, effort, it costs us something
  • be open to the lessons of contemplative prayer where language ceases to be important for our deep and abiding communion with God

How does all this relate to my distaste for ‘us and them’ dynamics in a conversation about evangelism?  At it’s heart, the postmodern suspicion of clearly defined boundaries is a psychological honesty about our own finitude.  I do not know everything there is to know about the world (the world wide web has made that blindingly obvious);  I do not have the same religion as other families at school but I still really like hanging out with them (world wide population movements have blessed us with that in real terms);  and our moral compass has been smashed – my mother/father/lover/friend is a good person but they have sent me into life-long therapy and besides all that bad things happen to good people!

Williams is suggesting we embrace our limitations.  I know what I know, but that leaves an awful lot of stuff I don’t!  I know that Jesus lived, died and was resurrected.  I know I believe his claims to be the Son of God.  I know I am ‘a sinner’ and I know what I think that means!  There are lots of these kinds of claims to knowledge I could make.  But to state that I know the spiritual plight of my next door neighbours (of whom, by the way, I know dispairingly little) is to overstate my own capacity for truth and insight.  However, I do know that they are good neighbours who return the balls that regularly fly over their fence.  I do know that that they are human beings within whom God imprinted his image.  I even know that they are co-contributors to the ecological crisis that we find ourselves in.  There are a range of truths and insights about our shared humanity (including theologically) which I can embrace.  In fact, I know more about what we have in common than I do about what might divide us.  So, to distinguish between myself and them with absolutising categories tells a story I am not able to tell with integrity.

With William’s advice in mind, I can move forward.  I can engage in conversations about Jesus sharing truthfully from my own experience and interaction with the texts and traditions.  But it is a conversation not a proclamation.  An invitation not a declaration.  I do not lose myself and my own convictions in the dialogue, but neither do I become closed to learning something new.  Is not God – the Sovereign and Supreme Creator of the Universe most worthy of this kind of respect?  Surely Jesus can look after his own reputation in this kind of interaction – especially with the Holy Spirit at his disposal!  My confidence is evangelism shifts in this way to the stated content of the discourse (i.e. God), rather than the unstated and largely unconscious need to have others agree with me, to validate my ego’s explanation of the world.

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