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The Theology of Rowan Williams
By Mike Higton
Church Publishing IncorporatedCopyright © 2004 Mike Higton
All rights reserved.
Jacob was a man who made a life out of running away. When he had stolen the blessing due to his elder brother Esau, establishing himself at his brother's expense, he fled to the land of his uncle Laban, out of earshot of his brother's murderous threats. Years later, once he had taken from Laban more than Laban intended to give, we see him fleeing back again – desperate to put distance and a fixed boundary between himself and his uncle's resentment. The second flight, however, brought him back towards Esau, and as soon as his brother loomed larger in his mind than his uncle – as soon, that is, as he heard that his brother was on his way to meet him, surrounded by his men – Jacob began to panic once again, 'greatly afraid and distressed', thinking that his brother 'may come and kill us all'. Jacob had prospered on his stolen blessing, but now he nervously spent what he had gained in an attempt to buy safety. He made elaborate defensive preparations, dividing his company in two so that one half at least might be able to escape in an attack, and then sending his servants towards Esau driving two hundred and twenty goats, the same number of sheep, fifty cattle, thirty camels, and as many donkeys – telling each servant to explain to Esau that these were presents for him from his anxious brother. Jacob armed himself with all the substance he had acquired, fighting to turn away Esau's anger.
But Esau ran to meet him, embraced him, fell on his neck and kissed him, refusing the unwanted appeasing gifts; he stepped past all the defensive preparations, past all the history that lay between him and his brother, and unexpectedly, gratuitously, accepted him. Jacob, all his elaborate preparations undone, wept in his brother's arms. And in the brief opening that Esau's unexpected generosity created, Jacob became a theologian. He said to his brother, 'Truly, to see your face is like seeing the face of God, since you have received me with such favour.' In Esau's disarming acceptance – this gratuitous, undeserved, unearned acceptance, acceptance that swept away all the attempts which Jacob had made to secure it, acceptance which made a new future possible despite the tangled history that lay behind them – Jacob recognized the likeness of God.
Jacob's entire self was built from deceits, strategies, negotiations, and defensiveness. He had learnt this from his mother, and had practised it in all his encounters: snatching what he could from life, and running from the consequences. That was simply who he now was, and we see no hint of any buried resources that might help him become a different kind of person; even in the midst of their encounter, Jacob tried to win Esau over by offering him further gifts, and by calling him 'my lord'. But Esau responded, 'I have enough, my brother.' Esau reminded him that not everything can be negotiated, that he loved him because of the givenness of the blood relationship between them, rather than because of anything Jacob had managed to earn or coerce. And this reminder of a relationship deeper than negotiation, deeper than defence and coercion, acted as a judgement upon the self that Jacob had built, the self that he had become. It marked that self out as unnecessary, as destructive, as an obstacle to the recognition of this true relation.
Yet Jacob, it seems, could not fully accept Esau's sincerity. He wept; he recognized the face of God in Esau's face – but he did not stop negotiating. Apparently still worrying that Esau was acting only to further his own advantage, Jacob refused to call Esau 'brother', and kept up his strategic use of the language of 'lord' and 'servant'; he urged his gifts upon Esau again, and made his excuses so that they need not travel too far together. No common future was built upon the moment of clarity and recognition that Esau's generosity had allowed, and the last that we hear is that the land proved insufficient to support both of them, and that Esau with all his wives and children and livestock and property moved to a place 'some distance from his brother Jacob'. The two men continued to relate as rivals, as competitors, unable to find a common good in a land of limited resources; they did not find a way of living together as brothers, held together by a bond deeper than competition. Esau's disarming acceptance of his brother, which undermined and judged the defensive stratagems from which Jacob had built his life, was not allowed to do its transformative work.
The illustration is mine, but for Rowan Williams the Gospel is very like the glimpse of God's face which Jacob saw in the face of his brother Esau. It is a message of disarming acceptance – the news that we are held by a gratuitous love which undermines and overthrows the selves we have built from defensiveness and calculation. We have been met by a love which steps over all the boundaries we have scratched around the territory we call our own, all the ways we have of deploying our substance to negotiate a position in the world, all the subtle stratagems we use to protect ourselves against rejection. We are accepted by a love which is non-negotiable, as unavoidable as a blood relationship, and so by a love which we can neither secure nor avoid: a love in the face of which our manoeuvring and bargaining are irrelevances. It is a love, we might say, that exposes and condemns the acquisitive, defensive, strategic 'self' we have created.
So this is good news that crucifies us. The message of this unearned acceptance works upon us like an acid, eating away at our defensiveness, our terror of exposure, our fear of failure, our 'dread of having our powerlessness nakedly spelled out for us'; it undermines the false solidity we have given ourselves; it erodes the 'nightmares of guilt and insecurity which paralyse our imagination'; it saps the deep belief that our place in the world is something to be 'laboriously perfected, precariously possessed and violently defended'. The Gospel eats away at the foundations of our self-understanding, our understanding of others, and our understanding of the world – understandings which have been built on the sand of an ultimate insecurity.
We are, all of us, precarious creatures. We live in environments we cannot control, and are hedged about by limits we cannot overcome. We face frustration, we face competition for scarce resources, and we are jostled in a confined space by the egos of others. There is only a limited difference that we can make, and we have only a limited control over even that difference; our actions are inevitably shaped by what others have done to us, and they mix uncontrollably with the actions of others and the unpredictable resistances of our environment, and they escape us. Our unavoidable dependence on and involvement with others is distorted by their selfishness, and the inevitable dependence of others on us and their involvement with us is distorted by ours. And in the midst of all this, we constantly invent ways of pretending that all of this is not true, or of refusing the responsibility with which it leaves us. We inherit and invent endless ways to deny our finitude. We ruffle our feathers to make ourselves big enough to scare the world; or we try to move the world to pity us. We try to force the world to feel its moral obligation towards us, or we try to make ourselves so small that the world will not notice us. We pretend that we can shape the world to our will, or we despair and assume that we make no difference at all, and that we are therefore not responsible. We are finite, we are mortal, we are weak – and in the absence of any sure foundation, these truths are too bitter for us, and we hide them behind layers and layers of fantasy and illusion. We try to persuade ourselves that there is some territory in the world, or some core to our selves, in which we alone are in control, in which we alone get to define what is valuable. We scratch away at the world to produce some space in it that is definitively ours, that we can defend against all comers – knowing that, deliberately or inadvertently, imperceptibly or violently, others would colonize it if they could.
'The Gospel', says Williams, 'frees us from fear and fantasy ... it is the great enemy of self-indulgent fantasy.' The Gospel is the message that we are held in a loving regard which we cannot coerce or fight off, and which has no shadow of selfishness about it – no shadow of our being co-opted into somebody else's strategies, somebody else's fantasy. And so it is the message that we are set free to see and to accept our finitude, our limitation, our mortality, and to surrender that finite, limited, mortality to the love which upholds us. Because the Gospel assures us that we are held by a love which invites us truly to be ourselves, we discover that we do not need to carve out, fence round, and defend any other kind of space in the world; we do not need to throw up walls to keep out the barbarians. But recognizing and welcoming this Gospel 'is a hard and frightening task', and we fight against the 'pain and disorientation' of this enlightenment. As Williams puts it in The Wound of Knowledge, learning to hear the Gospel calls for a 'readiness to be questioned, judged, stripped naked and left speechless'. By asking us to forget that we 'have a self to be shielded, reinforced, consoled and lied to', it calls us to let that old self die.
To believe in this loving acceptance is to know this self to be judged and overturned; to hear this 'Yes' is to hear a 'No' to the current shape of our lives. And so the Gospel comes to us as a gift and as a task, or rather a gift that is a task. It comes to us as a completely free, utterly gratuitous, totally unearned gift, with the givenness of a wholly loving relation – but it is nevertheless a gift that we have to learn to accept, if we are not, like Jacob, to walk away from it, taking our possessions with us. In older Christian language, the Gospel is an inextricable mix of 'justification' (the news that we are accepted, despite our unworthiness) and 'sanctification' (the total reshaping of our broken, defensive lives to make them reflections of this gratuitous love, which is our learning of what this free acceptance means). This is a Gospel we can only respond to with both gratitude and a deep openness to being judged and remade.
Jacob and Esau failed to build a common good together. They remained in competition for scarce resources, each setting boundaries which kept the other out – until one of them was forced to leave the land and go elsewhere, leaving the other as victor. They found themselves unable to relate as brother and brother, but rather were caught in a different level of relation, where each sat uneasily on the edge between 'lord' and 'slave', playing a game in which they had to become one or the other, a game in which there had to be a winner and a loser.
The glimpse of a different way of relating that Jacob had seen in Esau's God- like welcome was not simply a glimpse of a transformed self for Jacob: a wonderful but terrifying glimpse of a life in which he would no longer need to fight for position. It was also a glimpse of a different kind of corporate future – a future in which the two brothers would belong together, and in which it simply would not make sense to think in terms of a potential winner and a potential loser.
If the first question that Rowan Williams' understanding of the Gospel puts to us is 'What difference does it make to my self-understanding if I believe myself to be held in a loving, accepting gaze?', the second question is, 'What difference does it make to our understanding of how we might live together if we believe that each of us is held in the same loving regard?' The Gospel enables us to discover ourselves, and it also 'makes possible new levels of belonging together in the human world' teaching us that 'our "kin" is a far odder and larger community than we could ever have expected'. Jacob and Esau, having failed to think permanently as brothers, can only imagine a future in terms of the parcelling out of resources, in terms of the fixing of boundaries behind which each of them may hold sway, and behind which each of them has territory from which he can ensure that the other is excluded. What would it have meant for them to start thinking differently, to start imagining a common future, a future as brothers?
There is no easy answer. To think as brothers would not automatically remove the scarcity of resources. It would not automatically mean that the land would be able to support more livestock or more grain. And it would not be safe: Jacob, after all, is perfectly sensible to think that Esau might be using the language of 'brother' simply as a stratagem, a cunning move on the way to revenge. And Esau would be just as sensible to think that, had Jacob accepted the language of 'brother', he would find a way to twist the situation to his own ends, as he twisted everything that came into his hands. The love which Jacob and Esau glimpse, but from which they turn away, is not an easy solution or a set of neat answers. As soon as we start trying to think about it realistically, it begins to look thoroughly questionable. Nevertheless, the Gospel pushes its own question at us in response: aren't our normal ways of seeing this questionability, ways which assume the primacy of competition, exclusion, insecurity, and violence, themselves part of the problem?
The Gospel message is, for Williams, not simply one which percolates down into the lower reaches of our psyche, loosening the knots which have held us in place and enabling us to live with a new kind of freedom as mortal creatures in an overwhelming world. It is, also, unavoidably social: it forces us to rethink the ways in which we organize our relations with others – family, friends, neighbourhood, nation, world. None of our relationships are left untouched by this Gospel, and it cannot remain a personal or private matter. The Gospel is unavoidably political.
Already the ramifications and implications are beginning to spiral out of control, and topics have emerged that are going to need whole chapters of their own before we are even clear how to begin dealing with them. However, before turning to exploring the transformation of the self (Chapter Four) and of society (Chapter Five) to which this message of disarming acceptance calls us, we need to examine a serious deficiency in the account given so far. The Gospel is a message of disarming acceptance, a message of crucifying love. But who is it that accepts us? Who is it that loves us? After all, the Gospel is not, for Williams, a self-help mantra that we repeat to ourselves in the mirror every morning, a message that we create and control, and can modify to suit our felt needs. Nor is it a message about a generalized, abstract idea of love, distilled on a laboratory bench or in a theologian's study. It is not the message that we are loved by nobody in particular, or that we can and should love ourselves. It is a message from beyond us; it is a message that we hear but do not own, a message which always retains the power to challenge and upset our understanding of it; it is a message that has a particular shape which we do not control, and which we must painstakingly learn. But where or who does it come from?
We may begin answering this question by looking at how the Gospel first emerged. As Jacob heard an echo of this Gospel when confronted by Esau's face so, Williams says, the first Christians heard the Gospel not when they invented a message of love to sooth themselves, but when they were addressed or called out of themselves by Jesus of Nazareth. His whole life was the message of disarming acceptance to them. 'Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests; but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head,' said Jesus. He did not seek to make and defend any space for himself, but gave himself over for the sake of others' flourishing. He refused to coerce from the world a position for himself or a future for his followers. He gave himself completely to those around him, stepping past ritual and social boundaries, and past boundaries erected by actual wrongdoing, to call men and women his brothers and sisters, his friends – setting no conditions upon his regard. In his healings, he approached those whose ailments removed them from full membership in society, and drew them back; he did not hesitate to touch those who were unclean, stepping away from any claim to be clean himself in order that they might be cleansed. He ate with tax collectors and sinners, and even Pharisees, refusing to keep separate from them; allowing the challenge and difficulty of his message to emerge from his free fellowship with them all. And he attacked the central means by which full membership in his society was brokered: the temple and the priesthood, which preserved and regulated the core practices of his society, making access to them possible, but at the same time inevitably setting conditions upon that access, parcelling it out according to criteria. And so he inevitably suffered the fate of any who live with such abandon in a world like ours: he was found to be a troublemaker, one who undermined the divisions and exclusions which allowed his world to tick over – and he was killed, by an alliance of religious and political power. But he refused to run even from death, refused even then to defend his territory, and gave himself over, making a gift of his life.
Excerpted from Difficult Gospel by Mike Higton. Copyright © 2004 Mike Higton. Excerpted by permission of Church Publishing Incorporated.
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