Rowan Williams: Christian Orthodoxy and ‘Contemplative Pragmatism’

In a collection of essays covering various writers and thinkers from within the Anglican tradition, Rowan Williams negotiates a variety of different approaches to Christian theology and its sources and, remarkably, manages to elucidate something that is common to them all – a unique way of doing things amidst the diversity of attitudes and methods that is distinctively Anglican. The common denominator that he uncovers is, however, itself frustratingly ambiguous, and this (both feature and its ambiguity) is given particularly concrete expression in two essays on Richard Hooker at the beginning of the collection. I shall return to those in due course, but would like to begin with a quote from a later essay on B. F. Westcott, which gives a good summary of the issue at hand, namely that Anglicanism advocates:

…a scepticism about formulae and dogma that is fundamentally scepticism about the capacities of the human mind. It assumes that we are liable to self-deceit, that our knowledge is affected by our moral and spiritual lack. In this context, to be cautious about hermeneutical or dogmatic closure is not to discard or relativise sanctioned words; you occupy the territory marked out by those words, but you will not know where the boundaries are, because the search for definite boundaries suggests that you might be “in possession” of the territory, not yourself included in (possessed by?) it.

Anglican Identities (2004), p.81, Darton Longman & Todd.

            The fundamental assumption here then is that, whilst certain dogmatic statements and formulae (e.g.; the Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed, the Chalcedonian Definition) are ‘sanctioned words’, to be treated with reverence and seen as being in some sense definitive, they still do not represent absolutely definite theological boundaries (i.e.; they are not infallible statements) because they have been produced by human beings, who are finite, fallible, and lacking in spiritual wisdom. Now, whilst the limitations of our capacity are very real, it seems to me that this conclusion is actually more representative of a scepticism about the Holy Spirit, and the power of God to ensure the existence of saving truth amongst us despite our manifest limitations.

To say that, because we are individually and corporately prone to misunderstand the ways of God, and that we (at least the vast majority of us) are ‘affected by our moral and spiritual lack’ so that our comprehension of the divine will be even further limited, is a given. However, surely one of the most central things we believe as Christians is that God is greater than our limitations, and that He can bring about all sorts of things in us and our communal life that go beyond the purely natural state of affairs. To say then that He de facto cannot effect infallible truth in the Church that He founded, because of our limitations, places limits on what God can do; and if God can only do what is humanly possible, then I would suggest we are all in a great deal of trouble indeed.

To be fair though, despite the fact that he (alongside the whole Anglican tradition) exhibits scepticism about doctrinal or ecclesial infallibility, Williams does consistently insist upon the essential reliability and non-negotiability of the central confessional statements of Christian orthodoxy mentioned above – he is just not willing to say that they are in any way divinely guaranteed. This unwillingness comes about from a natural reluctance to commend absolutely anything couched in human language (again, because of our limitations, which are particularly manifest in the way we use words), and to a certain extent this is understandable. But an uncertainty about the ability of human language to express guaranteed theological truth is again ultimately an uncertainty about God’s ability to take our fallibility up into His own sphere and use it for His own ends.

Moreover, to insist that certain dogmatic statements are absolutely definitive does not necessarily mean that we are ‘in possession’ of the territory marked out by those statements. Conversely, the existence of definite, guaranteed boundaries in Christian orthodoxy enables us to ground ourselves in something utterly trustworthy, and thus affords us the proper foundation for free and creative theological enquiry – dogmatic infallibility provides us with solid rock upon which to build. This is something that, despite his unwillingness to commit to any kind of claims for infallibility, Williams understands, and foundational trustworthiness is the basis for understanding what he, reading Hooker, describes as ‘contemplative pragmatism’:

…given our corrupt condition, the realising of human happiness now depends on God’s self-communication in history as well as nature – i.e.; in revelation. For us now, concrete and historical subjects, not intellects in the abstract, the path to human happiness lies in following the law revealed in Christ, the supernatural law of faith, hope and love, which, by association us with the eternal life of the second person of the Trinity (a theme superbly set out in the long Christological meditation of V.51 – 56) assures the eternal continuance of our contemplative bliss, an eternal reward which is supernatural in the sense that it is pure gift, an addition by God to the natural happiness of our fulfilment within the limits of this mortal life (I.II.5 – 6). Thus, although the law of faith, hope and love is not something reason can work out for itself, it has the same non-negotiable character as the basic structures of being human and being-human-in-society that we can (more or less) grasp by reason.

ibid, p.46.

            Williams goes on to argue, following Hooker, that it is this pattern of living that we are bound to – the life of Trinitarian Love inaugurated and mediated by the Incarnate Christ, opening up a way of being that goes beyond the purely natural – and that outside of this path and model given to us by revelation we are called to exercise pragmatic discernment (according to what has been revealed but in concert with what we know by reason) as to how we should do things both in the Church and in society:

First, we must recognise that we are never in a state of pure rationality, and therefore never able, out of our own resources, successfully to negotiate the business of being properly human. Yet we learn from historical trial and error how to limit the damage of inhuman self-regard; and here is the foundation of political society…

…The history that God directs, by becoming in Jesus Christ a historical agent and by moulding the Scriptures in which the law of Christ is set forth, likewise returns us to nature, to that life in which we may actualise what we are capable of and arrive at our natural end, gratuitously and supernaturally augmented with an eternal reward. We are bound to the history of Christ and to the scriptural record as our way to become what God has created us to be, lovers of the eternal beauty of God in God’s self…

…Thus the eternal, the non-negotiable constraint put upon us by Christ and Scripture has to do with how we are made contemplative saints, participants in Christ’s everlasting filiation. This – and this alone – is for Hooker the sense in which the givenness of revelation has the same force as the law of nature.

ibid, p. 47

            There is very little in the above that I would disagree with, or that is in any way contrary to Christian orthodoxy. The problem is that it does not go far enough, nor does it give due recognition to the source of the revelation and the means by which that revelation was and is mediated to us – namely the Church. It is very true that, in essence, the Christian life is a process of becoming made more and more Christlike – of growing participation in Christ’s ‘everlasting filiation’ – and that God’s self-revelation in Christ (described and defined at Nicaea and Chalcedon) constitute the fundamental basis for how we understand that self-revelation and the essential life of God that we are called to participate in.

However, what is neglected here is the fact that this very revelation, the scriptural record that provides us with information about the Life of Christ, and the definitive statements that describe to us how we are to understand the very life of God shown to us in Christ, are things that have been themselves received, discerned, reflected upon and finally promulgated by others. Our Lord did not write the scriptural record, nor did He tell us precisely how we are to understand His Person or the inner life of God eternal. Instead He gave us His very self, entering into human history and more particularly into the lives of certain men at a certain time in history, and it is only because of the authority and spiritual charisms that He bestowed onto them that we know what we do.

The idea of contemplative pragmatism – the asserting of a bare, though essential, minimum of Christian dogma but leaving the rest of Christian life open to negotiation – ultimately will not work, and this for two reasons. Firstly, for the central statements and creeds of the Christian Faith to provide the sort of ground we need, and support the kind of claims we make as Christians, we must be able to say more than that they are just a highly dependable theological motif – we must, if we wish to have a certain foundation for living a life of continual growth in self-sacrificial love, be able to say that they are infallible. Secondly, we cannot receive these statements (nor can we receive Scripture) as being utterly trustworthy without admitting the trustworthiness of their source – that is, we must be able to say that the Church is infallible on certain matters too.

Again, I do not doubt the strength of Williams’ commitment to the Nicene Creed or the Chalcedonian Definition, but when he writes that:

Doctrine is about our end (and our beginning); about what in our humanity is not negotiable, dispensable, vulnerable to revision according to political convenience or cultural chance and fashion…

…Doctrine purports to tell us what we are for, and what the shape is of a life lived in accordance with the way things are, and how such a life becomes accessible to us, even in the middle of the corruptions and unfreedom of a shadowed history.’

ibid, p.55.

then it seems that he must also admit that for these indisputably essential things to be guaranteed of non-negotiability and protection from revision, contemplative pragmatism is not enough. For Christian orthodoxy to be what we need it to be, and what it itself insists that it is – a live giving and life saving truth – then it must have an infallible guarantee. If we admit this, then we must also admit that an infallible Church is required, and that we cannot pick and choose which bits of its teaching are negotiable or not – the Church is not infallible up to the Council of Chalcedon and then stops being so thereafter.

Belief in the infallibility of the Church stems from assessment of the scriptural record – what Our Lord said to the Apostles, what kind of power He bestowed upon them, what role He envisaged them playing in the future – as well as from an assessment of the historical record (the Church certainly believed itself to be making unequivocal statements about orthodox Christian belief, and people certainly looked to the Church for that sort of guidance). But it also flows from an assessment of what Christianity is all about – it is a rescue mission, wherein God stepped into our particularity and finitude in order to deliver us from our sins and guide us into beatitude. In the light of that truth, it seems strange to deny Him the power to continue that mission on the basis that we are finite, sinful and fallible – that is precisely what He came to deliver us from.

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One thought on “Rowan Williams: Christian Orthodoxy and ‘Contemplative Pragmatism’

  1. Pingback: Blessed John Henry Newman on Tradition and the Apostolic Ministry | Journey Towards Easter

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