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A Review of Rowan Williams’ Christ the Heart of Creation

By Patrick McGlinchey, PhD Candidate in Systematic Theology at St. Mary’s

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Christ the Heart of Creation by Rowan Williams (London: Bloomsbury Continuum, 2018) xvi + 304 pp.

What does it mean to be a creature in flesh and time? What does it mean for God in Christ to become a creature? The puzzle at the centre of Christ the Heart of Creation is the relationship between the finite and the infinite. If God is merely a being among others, then the finite and infinite collapse into identity. Yet, if God is purely ‘other’ to creation, how can God become incarnate? For Williams, the enigma is finally elucidated in the non-competitive (hypostatic) union of eternal Logos and human individual in Jesus Christ, in whom the finite entirely and asymmetrically depends on the infinite, while nevertheless retaining its own gifted integrity. The text itself – an expansion of Rowan Williams’s 2016 Hulsean lectures – reaches us after his extended reflections on the analogical nature of Divine communication in his 2013 Gifford lectures (later published as The Edge of Words) which climaxed in an account of the paradoxical revelation of Christ in silence.

At one level, we are given a magisterial (if deliberately abridged) history of the development of the doctrine of Christ replete with a full repertoire of technical distinctions (from tropos and logos to suppositum and aliquid), but at another more revealing level, the whole enterprise is performed with our own finitude and relation to God in mind. An evidential approach to the NT is sidestepped with Kierkegaardian reserve, not discounting the centrality of historicity, but the myth of access to the neutral un-narrated facts of Jesus’s Incarnate life. Likewise, the ‘onto-theological’ temptation of enclosing God within conceptual or essentialist categories is averted by close attention to the analogical fluidity and irony of theological language. As ever, Williams follows Wittgenstein’s maxim that ‘difficulty is a condition of truthfulness’ and Evagrius’s rule that theology is prayer, and prayer theology. Yet the urgency of metaphysical explication is embraced against the linguistic insularity of the Yale School. What emerges is a conciliatory act of remembering the diverse discourses and experiences of the Christian past that communicate the ‘mutual illumination’ of Christ and creation (xiii). The narrative begins in the Middle (Ages) with Aquinas and zig-zags back to NT origins, Conciliar grammars and Byzantine elaborations in part one; and forwards to the loss and (partial) recovery of the Medieval synthesis in Calvin and Bonhoeffer in part two. Along the road irenic affinities multiply between the thinking and imagining of the Catholic, Eastern and Reformed branches of the Church. Indeed, the inseparability of Christ and the Church is focal for Williams’s account, from the Pauline rendition of Christ’s headship to the ‘totus Christus’ of Augustine to the principle of Stellvertetung in Bonhoeffer of acting in place of Christ.

The tantalising conclusion of this act of remembering is a depth recognition, that the tensions between the history of Israel and the Church, the old and new covenants, theological discourse and pagan philosophy, faith and reason are precisely the lineaments of an analogical vision of God in and beyond creation which is at the same time an environment to inhabit, air for the Christian (communion) to breathe. As Williams indicates, this is a (re)turn to the analogia entis of Jesuit theologian Erich Przywara. But with a twist. If the analogy of being between God and creatures was perceived to be the fundamental denkform (thought form) of Catholicism in the early 20th century, and the dialectical denkform of Calvin, Luther, and Barth its antagonist, Williams’s rendition of the analogia entis places the dialectical moment within the analogical interval itself. Thus, the element of negation that underlies the analogy between God and creatures (the maior dissimilitudo of the IV Lateran Council) is interpreted as a principle of dialectic or difference (a reading recently echoed by John Betz), with vital implications for what is remembered and non-identically repeated from the Christian past. In addition to the usual suspects of Maximus the Confessor, Augustine and Aquinas, Williams draws on more dialectical and paradoxical strains of Christian thought and experience conventionally regarded as remote to the analogical mainstream in his distinctive style of ressourcement. Consider for example the retrieval of a Catholic Calvin, a Lutheran Catholic Bonhoeffer and Kierkegaard in the text at hand, or, more tellingly, Williams’s prior engagements with Hegel, the Carmelites or Simone Weil.

A stark question that the corpus of Rowan Williams poses to analogical theologians operating in the wake of Erich Przywara (a recent and important text on Przywara singles out William Desmond, John Milbank, Cyril O’Regan and David Bentley Hart in this regard), is whether the idealising emphasis on iconicity, communion and plenitude neglects the apophatic, dialectical and cruciform dimension of Christian thought and prayer across the Biblical, patristic, medieval, modern and post-modern periods. The future of Christology for Williams must involve the creative encounter with the Christian past, but a past of both crucifixion and resurrection, kenosis and plerosis, seen through the hybrid denkform of dialectical analogy.