Thursday, April 2, 2009

Questioning the Faith or Questioning Endless Questioning? Williams versus Jenson

Archbishop Rowan Williams has always made me uneasy. It is hard to pin down exactly what is wrong but every time I read one of his essays, I feel like I need to give my head a shake and recall what I believe and why I believe it. His incessent, relentless questioning, decentering and deconstructing is not only found in his academic essays, but also in his episcopal letters, his newspaper columns and his sermons. It is as if his perception of the modern Western world and the Christian Church was that all around him were nothing but over-confident absolutists endlessly repeating the party slogans and needing desperately to be shaken out of their credulous, superstitious fixation on tradition. I guess that is why I often wonder what planet he just got in from.

Robert Jenson explains what is wrong with Williams' rhetoric in this incisive paragraph.

"As the essays succeed each other, [Rowan Williams's] fear of closure begins to seem far too obsessive to be truly helpful in the life of faith. The confession into which teaching is supposed to lead us begins, after all, "I believe …," not "I wonder about…." Is it really the chief proper use of dogma and other theology "to keep the essential questions alive," indefinitely to sustain puzzlement? Should dogmas and other theologoumena serve mostly to remind us of the problems they pretend to resolve? God is indeed a mystery, but between honor for the biblical God's specific mystery and the kind of endless semi-Socratic dialectic Williams often seems to commend, there is, I would have thought, some considerable difference. No doubt argument and perplexity are permanent in the church's thinking, and no doubt this is a good and necessary thing; so that stirring up stagnant conviction must indeed be one task of theology. But, e.g., the phrase just cited, "to keep the essential questions alive," occurs in an exposition of "the doctrine of Incarnation," and the fathers of Chalcedon and 2nd Constantinople themselves certainly thought they were settling certain essential questions, in such fashion that conflict about them should not thereafter legitimately trouble the church. Their answers, of course, posed further and again difficult questions, but to say that this also was a good thing -- as I do -- is a different point than the one Williams presses -- or anyway I think it is. Apophatic thinkers though they were, the fathers of the christological councils -- to stay with that instance -- did not suppose that the purpose of their formulations was to keep alive the debates that brought them to the meetings."

- from Lutheran Robert Jenson's review of Williams's book On Christian Theology (from the Summer 2002 number of the journal Pro Ecclesia).

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