‘The Unity of Christian Truth’ by Rowan Williams

Chapter 2 in On Christian Theology (Oxford; Blackwell, 2000)

If you put this post together with the previous ‘The Integrity of Theology’ (5th March) and another two posts still to arrive in coming days, you will have reviews for the whole of the first part of ++RW’s book On Christian Theology.  It’s the methodology section of a scholarly work which has enabled me to more clearly understanding the great breadth of Williams’ writing and actions as Archbishop of Canterbury.  I’m waiting on a grade for an essay on this- if it turns out the essay is worth reading I’ll put it up here on reddress!  These posts are the pop version of William’s chapters and come with a ‘read at your own risk’ warning – oversimplified theology frequently loses its essence.  Plus, I’m not at all confident I have faithfully rendered Williams’ arguments and perhaps these posts should be considered fledgling attempts at summarisation  – refinement by others is more than welcome!   I think a sneak preview of the essay will help offer a way into these posts if you are coming to these philosphical questions of knowing completely cold:

The question of integrity in speaking of God is ‘how do we take our subjectivity seriously whilst not losing the distinctive faith in a God who reveals Godself in order to be known.’  The theologian is ever tied to the context of their own experience, tradition and faith community.  In the broadest sense this leads the theologian into the discipline of dealing with the particular, because the whole is beyond us and that leads into a new set of questions – if we can speak only of the particular, how do individuated discourses speak to one another in such a way that we may know anything outside or beyond our own subjectivity?  This is the postmodern preoccupation of  intertexuality –  the inter-related notion of all texts (Beal 2000) and was the driving force behind postliberal approaches to theology (De Hart 2006).  Williams is optimistic about the human capacity to discern some kind of truth in theology that is greater than our subjective selves.

If you understand nothing else, understand that for Williams, theology is all about conversation.

To state the obvious, Christians disagree.  Even on the most fundamental elements of theology which make up the testimony of what, in my little corner of Christendom, we like to call ‘the gospel’!  So does that mean one of us is right and the rest of us are wrong wherever we differ?  How much variation is permissible before someone is deemed to be outside an orthodox definition of Christianity?  This is a question of method for theologians – is there a basis by which Christian witness can hang together in some kind of unified whole yet recognize the reality of diversity?

I was trained in a theological tradition that says orthodoxy can be determined by reference to primary, secondary and tertiary matters.  If Christians agree on first order issues as laid out by the creeds (divinity of Christ, historical resurrection, etc) then we are free to entertain differences of opinion on less important issues (role of women in the church, nature of heaven, etc.)  The limitation of this approach is that it does not address the subtle dynamics of human knowing which means that people may use the very same words to refer to very different concepts.  Change the philosophical assumptions under girding knowledge (as has been done in the postmodern cultural transition) and the meaning of the words, however precisely articulated, will change.

Williams argues that the Christian story hangs together through human interaction with Christ.  It’s all about Jesus, yes.  But the continuity (knowability) of Christian truth is possible because there is constant flow of personal interactions with Jesus.  Those human experiences of Christ can be gathered together into an evidential data set.  When we compare the way people interact with Jesus in the gospels with stories of people from the old testament and observe similarities in the dynamic of faith and life, we can see a continuity in humanity’s relationship with the Divine, which is made explicit in the person of Jesus.  We can also go the other way:  when we compare people’s interactions with Jesus and stories of people in post-resurrection history then even in our world today, we can observe similarities in the dynamic of faith and life.  It is those observable relational dynamics that unify the message of the Christian story.

Truth is grounded in experiential truth, in the relational knowing of Jesus in the particularity of Christian lives.  Its an ongoing conversation between real people and a real Jesus.  “We constantly return to imagine the life of Jesus in a way that will help us to understand how it sets up a continuous pattern of human living before God.  Who Jesus is must be (and can only be) grasped in the light of what Christian humanity is” (p25)

Make sense?


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