Rowan Williams on the Complexities of the Church’s History and Identity

Rowan Williams’ little book on the church, Why Study the Past?  The Quest for the Historical Church, is a must read for anyone interested in understanding the historical and theological complexities of the continuity and discontinuity of the Church.  As usual, Williams does not offer overly facile solutions, nor does he tell a triumphalist story in which the Church marches forward untainted, having never soiled herself along the way.   Rather, Williams admits the various failures of the Church—from the early fathers Rowan Williamsmisogynistic tales to historic Protestantism’s “embarrassing record of collusion with uncritical nationalism” (73) to the Church’s overall failure on the issue of slavery.   Nonetheless, Williams does not leave one in despair.  He emphasizes throughout that the Church is founded and sustained by divine action, particularly one divine action which is both “a set of historical events and an eternal act, the self-giving of the Son to the Father in the Trinity” (96).  If the survival and resilience of the Church depended solely on humans, the story would have ended some time ago.  Thankfully, it doesn’t; yet, Christians must be active and continue to put themselves, the Church and the world into question.  We must study our past, our tradition, our Scriptures, (and, as St. Thomas taught us, truth wherever it is found) bringing to light our failures and learning how to translate what is true, good and beautiful into our present contexts.  Williams, attentive to the interplay between historical contingencies and the ways in which history “makes” us on the one hand, and the reality of transcultural (yet contextually-applied) truths on the other, denies that we are stuck in a hermetically-sealed present or unable to break into a hermetically-sealed past.  As he explains,

To engage with the Church’s past is to see something of the Church’s future.  If we relate to the past as something that settles everything for us, something whose meaning is utterly and finally plain, it is to treat the texts of the past as closing off history, putting an end to our self-awareness as historical persons involved in unpredictable growth.  If we dismiss the past as unintelligible, if we read its texts as closed off from us by their alien setting, we refuse to see how we have ourselves been formed in history; we pretend that history has not yet begun.  And in the specifically theological context, we shall on either count be denying that we can only grow in company, can only develop because summoned by a word that is not ours.  That word is made concrete and immediate for us in the human responses that have constituted the Church’s history; all of this has made our present believing selves possible.  T.S. Elliot, faced with the glib modern claim that ‘we know so much more than our ancestors’, riposted, ‘Yes; and they are what we know.’ As was said in the first chapter, we must become aware of our hidden debts for who we now are (94-95).

If only Williams’ critics would actually read his works with care.

Balthasar on How the Infinite Presence and Distance of the Intratrinitarian Relations Opens a “Space” for the World

In Balthasar’s retelling of the history of Western metaphysics, he discerns a dialectical relation between the dialogico-dualistic world of myth and the monological world of philosophical reason. It is only when a distinctively Christian metaphysic comes on the scene—a metaphysic in which a (Triune) God existing a se freely creates and allows his creatures to participate analogously in the (created) being which He gives—that the dialectic between a mythico-dualistic and a philosophico-monistic concept of being can be overcome (p. 17).

For Balthasar, the relationality of the Persons of the Trinity is given accent, and is reflected in his description of God’s nature “as a series of absolutely free reciprocal relations (perichoresis) where an infinite self-donation is perfectly coincident with an infinite self-possession.” Given that each member of the Trinity manifests a reciprocity of both infinite distance and infinite presence, the one divine nature subsists “in an utterly non-static, non-univocal manner: God is ‘One’ as a dynamic relationality where infinite ‘distance’ is coincident with an infinite communion” (p. 18). Here the intratrinitarian relations, displaying both infinite presence and distance, become the archetype for the infinite distance between God and creation. In other words, the intratrinitarian relations as it were open up a “space” for the world. This open space is not an area of non-being within the trintaritarian relations, but instead is the “strictly positive reality of the distance required for truly interpersonal communion. It is the mystery of the abyss of infinite love where there is never a ‘boundary’ or a ‘limit’, but an excessus and an ecstasy that can ground the reality of the world as ‘not God’ in direct proportion to the depth of the world’s incorporation into God” (p. 19).

As one would expect, Balthasar’s doctrine of God as articulated above informs his understanding of revelation. Rather than a static moment in an otherwise changing world of flux, “revelation is to be viewed as the dynamic transformation of the temporal structure of our existence through an incorporation of that existence into the very heart of the trinitarian relations” (p. 20). Against all models of revelation that ultimately manifest an ahistorical set of hermeneutical assumptions in their attempts to understand the relation between the temporal or historical and the eternal, Balthasar begins with the “assumption that the historical realm should not be viewed as an oppositional metaphysical principle to the realm of the atemporal. Rather, the realm of the historical opens up to the event-like, incarnated nature of all truth” (p. 21). Jesus, as the concrete universal, overcomes the temporal/eternal dialectic. It is in the drama of his concrete, historical life that the “temporal structures find their inner completion” (p. 20).

Larry Chapp’s essay, “Revelation,” is published in The Cambridge Companion to Hans Urs Von Balthasar. Eds by Edward T. Oakes, SJ and David Moss. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004): 11-23.