Rowan Williams: Signs of Trust

In his book Tokens of Trust (which I have referenced in another post), Rowan Williams lays out a rough introduction to Christianity, based on the Apostles’ Creed, in which his central theme is trustworthiness. By looking at the central articles of the Creed, he considers what reasons we might have for trusting God, what it is about Jesus Christ that gives us grounds for seeing Him as trustworthy (and therefore seeing Him as God), and why we say we believe in the Church (obviously my understanding of such differs significantly from his, but he has good points to make here too).

The most important message Williams communicates throughout the book is that, for the most part, although ideas are important, it is very often not just doctrine that convinces people to become Christians. Instead, it is experiences we have, and the people we meet that (initially at least) make us consider whether Christianity is something that is worth giving time and attention to. As examples of this, Williams provides several examples of men and women whose lives have acted as ‘signs’ – indications that belief in God not only makes a difference to one’s life, but can actually make God real to people:

Many centuries ago, a great theologian and pastor, St Ambrose, said that “it did not suit God to save his people by arguments”. Of course they have their uses. When people argue against the existence of God, it helps to have some points you can make to counter the idea that belief is just completely irrational…

…But Abraham, Moses and St Paul don’t sit down to work out whether God exists; they are already caught up in something the imperative reality of which they can’t deny or ignore. At one level, you have to see that the very angst and struggle they bring to their relation with God is itself a kind of argument for God: if they take God that seriously, at least this isn’t some cosy made-up way of making yourself feel better…

…Faith has a lot to do with the simple fact that there are trustworthy lives to be seen, that we can see in some believing people a world we’d like to live in.

Tokens of Trust (2007), pp.21-22, Canterbury Press.

            Williams goes on to talk about how believers can, in some way, take a sort of responsibility for God in the world, by living their lives with the faith that He is worth trusting, even in the darkest moments, that someone can live their life in such a way that it would not make sense if God did not exist. This is often shown most powerfully in moments when circumstances are otherwise so overwhelming that they would ordinarily get the better of people – destroying hope, turning charity cold. When people, during times of great duress, continue to exhibit a sense of peace and joy, it can pave the way for those who witness the strength their faith gives them to ask ‘who is this God that they look to?’, ‘Why do they trust in Him so?’, ‘Could I live this way too?’:

Of course, there is a choice that can’t be avoided eventually, a choice to take the risk and see if you can really be at home…It’s a choice that may be helped a bit by intellectual discussion, but is seldom, if ever, settled by it…

…Often all we can do is to go on telling the stories of those who keep us going; I may not look very credible, but I can at least point to someone who does. And as long as there are those who effectively and bravely take responsibility for God, the doors remain open and the possibility is there for others, perhaps very slowly, to find their way to a point where they can say “I believe”…“I want to live in the same world as them; I want to know what they know and to drink from the same wells”.

ibid, pp.27-28.

            Most of us do not live in extreme circumstances that call for heroic examples of faithfulness and constancy, but we can all point to examples of others (i.e.; the saints) who have exhibited such lives. Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI often remarked that the best apologetic tools the Church has at its disposal are its commendation and encouragement of beauty in the arts, and the lives of the saints – for these two both appeal to every strata of society, and can melt even the most sceptical of hearts in a way that argument cannot.

However, we do not just have to point to the saints – we can be small ‘signs’ ourselves. The more we really believe in the promises of God, and trust in Him to give us the grace we need for each task, the more we will be able to take upon ourselves each cross that we are faced with in life with the peace and joy shown by the saints (and the many others who have lived lives that show God to the world). If we do this, we can make the beliefs we espouse that much more credible – we can clear a way for those who may otherwise see our claims as so much empty doctrine or superstition to be able to see the difference God makes, and perhaps open a door for them that would otherwise remain closed.

George Herbert, in his poem The Windows (which primarily refers to pastors, but could equally be applied to every Christian), relates in his homely yet elegant style the necessary symbiosis that must occur in every believer between doctrine and praxis if we are to become ‘windows’ onto God and make a lasting impression on those who have no faith:

LORD, how can man preach thy eternall word?

        He is a brittle crazie glasse:

Yet in thy temple thou dost him afford

        This glorious and transcendent place,

        To be a window, through thy grace.

 

But when thou dost anneal in glasse thy storie,

        Making thy life to shine within

The holy Preachers, then the light and glorie

        More rev’rend grows, and more doth win;

        Which else shows watrish, bleak, and thin.

 

Doctrine and life, colours and light, in one

        When they combine and mingle, bring

A strong regard and aw:  but speech alone

        Doth vanish like a flaring thing,

        And in the eare, not conscience ring.

It is true indeed that speech alone ‘doth vanish like a flaring thing’, but the example of our lives can make an impression that rings down to the deepest parts of those we meet and make a lasting impression. This does not mean we should stop talking about our faith – of course not – but such talk must be married with a deep prayer life that renews our relationship with God daily, and without which we will not be able to live lives capable of being ‘signs’ to those around us. If we really trust in God, we will live correspondingly, and the world will notice – then it will remember all those things we have said about new life in Christ, and redemption from the slavery of sin. Then they may start to ask themselves whether there is perhaps something to this after all, and a door will have been opened. God will do the rest.

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