Wednesday, July 30, 2008

The Body’s Grace Critique #3: God’s Self-Revelation

This is the final post in my critique of Rowan Williams' essay The Body's Grace.

The Judeo-Christian tradition has (nearly) always found it wise to include the book of Ecclesiastes in their canon, but there's a certain irony in its presence. Ecclesiastes is located in a Book which claims to be the very word of God; and the community which helped Ecclesiastes into the canon did so on the premise that Ecclesiastes was itself a divine word. But Ecclesiastes starts from the perspective that God does not speak to men. "God is in heaven and you are on earth, so let your words be few," is a typical observation. Missing from Ecclesiastes is any understanding of revelation, covenant, or divine action within history: in other words, nearly the whole of the rest of Scripture. You can argue about the wisdom of including such an irreligious writing in such a religious Book, but whether you think that was a good idea or bad, you can't dispute the fact that Ecclesiastes' perspective is unique within the canon. With very few exceptions, the rest of the Bible proceeds from the idea that God has uniquely revealed Himself to humanity, starting with an obscure desert tribe descended from "a wandering Aramean". The Bible tells the story of how God extended His revelation through the writings of that tribe as it became a nation, and finally, uniquely, fully, how God has revealed Himself in Jesus Christ, "the image of the invisible God." Furthermore, the Bible witnesses to a series of covenants that God made, on His own initiative, with the people of our world. This revelation, and these covenants, were not universal, abstract and philosophical, but specific, concrete and historical.

The most serious critique of Rowan Williams' essay The Body's Grace is that it privileges Ecclesiastes over the rest of the canon, and over the rest of the Christian tradition. I don't mean that he references Ecclesiastes extensively (or at all), but rather, that his perspective in this essay reflects the Preacher's emphasis on experience and the same exclusion of revelation. Williams' defense of homosexuality and extramarital sex makes some sense if you don't believe that God has spoken in any specific or significant way through Scripture. He says repeatedly that we must deal with "the realities of our experience" and must "[recognize] the facts of a lot of people's experience", and it would be hard to deny this. But as Christians, we must also reflect on what Christians of all ages have called the Word of God: certainly we have no choice but to understand Scripture in light of our experience, but we must also take care to interpret our experience in light of Scripture. If Williams claims to speak as a representative of the Church, it's disturbing to see the carelessness with which he treats the very revelation of God on which the Church claims to be founded.

Here's an example of what I mean. This essay, which is well-crafted and clearly comes from Williams' heart, contains the reflections on human sexuality of an Archbishop, reputed to be one of today's premier theologians. This is an issue which is controversial to the world at large, and is threatening to rend his own flock in two. And in this essay, Williams discusses a play by Shakespeare at some length, a series of novels by Paul Scott at some greater length, and the contemporary philosopher Thomas Nagel quite extensively; but only very briefly, at the tail-end of his essay, does he engage with Scripture, and then only with a few exceedingly general passages that, after some substantial wrangling, could vaguely support his point. He ignores the numerous, specific, and embarrassingly unambiguous passages which point in exactly the opposite direction. It's almost as if Williams doesn't believe that Scripture is of any particular relevance to a Christian's thinking on this very personal, intimate and complex issue.

Now, I'll grant that it's not always clear how to use Scripture. Indeed, it's become increasingly clear to me that the primary challenge facing the Church today is to arrive at a common understanding of how Biblical authority functions in a contemporary context. The Reformation consensus on the nature and use of Scripture has been largely discarded (and perhaps discredited), at least in academic circles and mainline denominations, and no similar consensus has arisen to take its place.  Evangelicals and Fundamentalists, by and large, are still trying to use the older models, but it's difficult to maintain both inerrancy and engagement with the larger culture when there's so much academic and cultural pressure against inerrancy (not to mention good arguments).  But once you discard inerrancy, it's difficult to stick with sola scriptura.  In my experience, folks tend to end up influenced more by the culture than by Scripture and tradition, or they're forced into a sort of Roman Catholic / Orthodox understanding of Scriptural authority, heavily supplemented by tradition.  This is a widely acknowledged problem, and there are a variety of creative proposals being made these days. Of course, these proposals all start with the necessity of engaging the text in some fashion, and Williams' essay makes only a feeble attempt at doing so.

I'm reluctantly led to the conclusion that Williams believes the substantial guidance Scripture gives us on our sexuality is of little accuracy and less relevance. God's revelation figures into his theology of sexuality primarily as a gloss, and it does not fundamentally touch any point in his argument.

In my first post on Williams' essay, I said that my primary reaction was sadness, and this realization is why. I confess that this is the only piece by Rowan Williams that I've read, and it may not be indicative of the thrust of his work more generally. I understand from other folks that he's actually a competent and influential theologian, so hopefully this essay is inconsistent with the rest of what he's up to theologically. But to the extent this essay reflects his larger methodology, I worry that Williams is removing himself from any real connection to the great traditions of Christianity. That would be a sad thing for the Anglican communion, as well as for the Church universal. Ecclesiastes is a great book and a tremendous work of art. There was a time it kept me a Christian when nothing else would. Maybe it even makes sense to start your theology there. But it would be a barren and incomplete theology that went no further.

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