Wednesday 9 April 2008

Lent Lectures 3: Answers

I think I have been genuinely surprised by some of the answers given by Rowan Williams, Archbishop of Canterbury, to questions after the third Lent Lecture he gave at Westminster Abbey on 19 March 2008. I do not keep up with all of his thinking; after all, why should anyone but a student trying to examine his thought. My interest is in the man who has to understand and manage (or at least think about them) as he yet again (as a centraliser) inaccurately puts it:

a quite varied and often rather unruly Christian community: the Church of England and the Anglican Church, worldwide.

He starts with this affirmation of Radical Orthodoxy. The question is clever, because it is not in the lecture. Rather, his narrative approach is associated with it, because his narrative approach if pure does not depend on objectivity and indeed Radical Orthodoxy takes account of postmodernity and rejects objectivity in this world. Whereas Rowan Williams inhabits the detail of a narrative story, Radical Orthodoxy goes for the big Church issues:

[I]t's a movement which has attempted to recover a sense of the confidence and independence of Christian discourse as something that can't just be reduced to sociology. I think that's good news.

It actually attacks Sociology as "secular theology". Trouble is, Sociology (and Sociology of Religion) is based on research, and it isn't just a humanist ideology but defines its terms as closely as science does. Research is tentative, and the more Radical Orthodoxy attacks Sociology the more it displays its ignorance. The related Social Anthropology is incredibly useful to an understanding of religion, and, like Sociology, is not just reductionist to itself. Radical Orthodoxy rather displays a lack of confidence in its need to attack, not confidence. Nevertheless the approval is in some contrast to later answers.

He is wrong about Muhammad and Islam:

For a Muslim, as I understand it, Mohammed comes at the end of a continuing sequence of prophets revealing aspects, dimensions of the word of God and the demands of God to the world. In that sequence of prophets Jesus occupies a crucial, very important place, and is regarded with profound respect by Muslims. Nonetheless for the Muslim, the whole point of Islam is that Mohammed is – so to speak – the end of the story, the point to which the others are moving.

Not so. He has given a Bahai view of progressive revelation. The view of Islam is that all the prophets revealed precisely the same in The Book. Each prophet recited the same, but that every prophet found that which was recited corrupted. So in the end Muhammad recited The Book and this book, through the exactness of Arabic, was preserved. This is why Islam did not start with Muhammad, nor was completed by him, but started with Adam. Now Rowan Williams and I may regard this as historical and narrative nonsense, because we believe that Jesus wrote nothing down, or at least nothing to preserve, and we believe that earlier prophets, whoever they were, varied in their messages, but Muhammad believed he received the one revelation from the one God. The Archbishop has this completely wrong.

Well the Archbishop says that Jesus is the defining moment about God's dealings with humanity; but some would vary this, and my own view (for what it is worth) is that Jesus is a coherent point for understanding transcendental values as lived through in a costly, sacrificial and serving focused way that provides a basis and hinge into a new setting for a new community and one's own potential manner of life.

This would be inadequate for Rowan Williams give his next main answer, and I think the big one, the surprise even (even if he had said it before - well I missed it). The question is about fabrication, but the answer has implications for all that Rowan Williams presents:

I was asked this question in another context a couple of weeks ago and I had to reply that if the bones of Jesus were discovered in Palestine I could not be a Christian in the way that I now am. I could not celebrate the Sacraments: I could not understand the life of the Holy Spirit as I do: I might still want to be associated with some of the insights and values of the Christian tradition but you would no longer have me as Archbishop of Canterbury (I rather hope you wouldn't have anyone as Archbishop of Canterbury!) because I actually don't think that the Church would be credible in its central historical shape.

This is a wopping statement given the intellectual place of so many theologians today. How he equates this with his narrative approach - why he even bothers with a narrative approach - I have no idea. He really is depending on the speculation of history, he really wants history to do a huge job. This is the Doubting Thomas at a distance: the only difference is time and space. I recently read a sermon for Easter Day by one of Anglicanism's educational figures (outside Britain, not American) who has a spiritual view of resurrection, and absolutely sees nothing in the Paul statements to suggest bones are involved at all. He allows this to be objective or subjective, as the spiritual account can be either. It does not have to depend on bones.

After dealing with Mark and the shock effect, and the resurrection left unclear, we get back to these bones again via a question on St. Paul. Rowan Williams says:

Personally, I've never quite been able to see why St Paul's statement that Jesus was 'raised on the third day' should imply anything other than that the tomb was empty. Paul is a rabbinically trained, first century Jew: when he talks about 'rising' he means what he says, he means what the prophet Daniel says, he means 'someone being restored to the earth'. I don't think that this alleged polarity between what the Gospels say and what St Paul says in I Corinthians 15 is anything like as marked as some would like to make it. So, given that St Paul is clearly drawing on some of the same reservoir of tradition that you find in Mark or in John: I don't think I'd want to entertain the idea that the empty tomb is a late-comer in the story. And if it were, I think we'd need quite a good explanation as to why it came in when it did and what the work was it was supposed to do. If Paul already assumed that Resurrection was the Resurrection of a body, I think he must have been taking it for granted.

But if you take a narrative view (those literary critics again!) of 1 Corinthians 15 there is every reason to consider that Paul is dealing with spiritual data that clashes with the available body language of his tradition. Why else would he have a text that is a gambit: that if he is not raised then the faith is in vain? He is clearly dealing with an evidence deficit - and only after this does he go on to affirm resurrection, but then in an altered way from the available language. The fact that he is rabinically trained is the problem, not any evidence that it is all straightforward. And the business of three days is not some literal account - we are dealing with a tradition already, fast moving maybe. His account is already fashioned into a roll call of authority and legitimacy, and there is something not quite honest about the way he puts himself down as so lowly when he is making so much of the organisational running. This is another tactic of language: I am so unworthy and yet he came to me so I am here, also an Apostle, organising you... Plus the fact, surely in time and substance, that Mark and John are following on from Paul, not some given that all three take from. Well, this is so for those of us who have a narrative understanding...

This brings into some additional focus the sleight of hand about history with the Archbishop of the Simon Mayo programme 19 December 2007, when because it was in a gospel the stay outside the inn was apparently history,when all this is varied, sourced in myth and completely ahistorical. They are not equivalent, because the birth narratives are about a time before Jesus began his ministry whereas the resurrection narratives are afterwards, but both inhabit the fantastical world view (as we might see it - perhaps not Rowan Williams) of virgins giving birth and a fast rotting corpse becoming disappeared into something that goes through doors and appears when a theological point gets exposed of relevance to the early Churches. Come on!

Having mentioned Gandhi (which is not developed) he says in some contrast:

But the Gospels are about an initiative from elsewhere: breaking through a deadlock in human existence which human beings can't break for themselves.

This is just theological supposition: it cannot be demonstrated as historical in any sense. There is not one historiography that will deliver this, and this matters. So this ends up being, as history, meaningless. Bones transformed aren't meaningless, if there is a document of actual witness, but there is not - the documents purporting to be witnessing are theological secondary documents. So there is a faith stance that is trying to turn that into history, and it simply is not available.

Just look at how this argument for history turns around and becomes unhistorical:

I think those who take a less positive view are wrong; it's as simple as that. It's an argument that I and others have had with those who take a less positive view, over many many years. I do sometimes suspect that that climate of the modern age makes it a bit less easy for people to settle with the kind of interpretation I've given, but I suppose one of my reasons for holding to a more traditional, more material view, is admittedly not a historical reason at all but it's the way in which these claims about the – in some sense material - Resurrection interlock with how we understand the Sacraments and the nature of our prayer.

This is just fanciful: the logic won't stand up. It is not history, is it, but faith statements or theology that tries to strain history. It is "not a historical reason at all".

So the whole thing is a kind of collapsing black hole of a historical demand that falls back into a narrative argument again. So what does he want?

What he wants is history. He wants bones that vanish into a transformation, into an actual person who appears to others after death. But his view does not support it: like Radical Orthodoxy is has foundations that are not historical, not objective, are simply not there. The bones disappear into a puff of nothing but a story, a wish, a desire - even for the magic (let's call it magic) or the sacraments.

I turn this all around. If I had this historical dependency, I wouldn't bother! I am no Thomas: I take the view of having faith. I couldn't care less if the body rotted fast on a lime pit. This is the realm of myth, of story, of narrative. It is made less by being about bones, not more.

He says:

I do accept, as somebody else raised the question, that there are Christians who, in good conscience, can't see their way to accepting the emptiness of the tomb and yet live lives of exemplary Christian devotion. I can't see that their position is consistent, but I respect it as a position that is held by prayerful, thoughtful Christians.

No, this won't do. The position is entirely consistent, because it is category-consistent. It is Rowan Williams's position that is inconsistent, because he jumps about from desire to desire, to claim history when his foundation is in some spirituality. In fact it is rather rude to regard them as inconsistent: perhaps they know what they are talking about! I well suspect that Rowan Williams knows what he is talking about too.

Someone asked a question about if Christ's incarnation, death and resurrection took place in the present day: the problem being not that today is formed by (in part) events of that past, but that today such a protester would be largely ignored: they might be moved on, but would not be killed. It is rather difficult to have a resurrection if not killed (from a historical viewpoint). So it this is a universal event, how can it be so? Yet faith, being of the transcendent, has rather more capability of being a universal... The crucifixion is, of course, historical, as a simple killing by a regime (but of course the Muslim would say... and then we use texts to say that they indicate absence as well as presence - this ain't no revived corpse walking at the best of times).

Finally, here is a nice one for my Liberal Catholic friends, who sometimes come across as a little less liberal when it comes to the matter of apostolic succession and lines of bishops for validity (though the Liberal Catholic faith varies so much in actual content):

what matters most about it is perhaps a little less the transmission of Bishops laying hands on the heads of others through the centuries than Bishops conveying the integrity of the faith from generation to generation.

I think Rowan Williams should make his mind up whether the integrity of the faith is upheld by bones or by faith regardless, whether he really wants to find history or wants to use narrative. Of course history, as something that might have happened, is not ruled out, but there is no access to such history by any adequate method, and there is plenty of reasoning with the texts that suggests that the bones argument is not there. We who think this are consistent.

And then after all this, and after affirmations of the historical Jesus as God the Son, and the Trinity met in prayer, there is a little surprise.

Jesus is an agent, as risen from the dead, who is also the one who realizes what God the Father desires and wants to bring into being. In that sense you could say 'an instrument' though it's language I'm not completely happy about.

Yes, that's not quite the full deal, is it, so he may not be happy about it. After all Paul was no trinitarian, and Jesus was the agent of God - God's sole worker, the ambassador doing the work for the King (God). Resurrection is a vindication of the chosen prophet with some escalation in status (synoptics) or Jesus is the firstborn of creation (John's gospel) who always was and will be. So, interesting, because the demand for bones in history doesn't then secure everything even then. Such is another need for faith, as indeed the Trinity is related to prayer.

Establishing the existence of God is not simply a matter of abstract argument, it's a matter of whether you find lives like that, trustworthy, worthy of respect, worthy of imitation.

Quite so, but there is an argument there: and he did say:

I had to reply that if the bones of Jesus were discovered in Palestine I could not be a Christian in the way that I now am. I could not celebrate the Sacraments: I could not understand the life of the Holy Spirit as I do: I might still want to be associated with some of the insights and values of the Christian tradition but you would no longer have me as Archbishop of Canterbury...

He tells a questioner to "feel free" to be a Pagan but he knows no system that:

can grow into a fullness of joy and liberty that is part of God's own joy and liberty without limit.

He thinks the Pagan would live in a smaller world. I just think Pagans have a different approach, with different emphases, another joy. They have human potential in their liturgies too, but another emphasis on natural potential. I'll learn from the Pagans - well I have already in my past and I still keep what I discovered, including spiritually. They reinvented too, full of narrative into an imagined past, and no need to depend on any desired history of missing bones in order to celebrate their sacraments.


Anonymous said...

Hi Adrian,

A good repsonse: it'd be nice to hear Rowan respond. The bones thing is odd, isn't it? The emphasis on bones seems to undermine the reality of the resurrection, not support it. I mean if Jesus had been cremated and then resurrected, we might be having a different kind of discussion, one perhaps more in tune with Paul's spiritual body.

There's something strange about this lop-sided focus on bones: if the NT says anything, it suggests that the resurrected Jesus wasn't easily recognisable, that faith was often needed to experience him. Indeed, if Paul's experience on the road to Damascus was accepted as a 'real' experience of the resurrected Jesus, then the centality of bones has, at least, to be questioned.

'The bones' can be an important symbol for the reality of the resurrection, but symbols don't point to themselves, and too much talk about bones can end up collapsing the symbol.

I'd prefer to say that the resurrection was/is real, but that it blows all our categories of what is real to bits -- it's more real than real -- in a way that faith does as well....

That said, the story of the empty tomb, a story about a very physical resurrection, is a good way of expressing both the kind of continuities and discontinuities experienced by early Christians. The emphasis on bones does, however, seem to tilt things away from the discontinuities.

Recently, I've been thinking that Chalcedon demands some sort of resurrection (or, the other way around, the resurrection accounts head towards Chalcedon), lest we end up with a docetist christology (leaving Jesus' humanity behind somehow), which I think always undermines Jesus life and teaching. In the same way a virgin birth (or something like that) may be the best we can come up with to express a non-assumptionist christology. But it's a theological a priori, not a biological one - just like overly-biological accounts of the resurrection are theological rather than biological (where 'theology' is reflection on religious experience).


Pluralist (Adrian Worsfold) said...

Yes quite so, it's odd. The historical alternatives (cremation, transported to today - all the alternatives and varieties) never work because the beliefs of Jesus and the killing of Jesus were specific to the time. I'm more sceptical than your account about necessary beliefs - my main purpose I suppose is to point up the clash between Rowan Williams's usual narrative method and suddenly this need for history and bones which, when he forces it, he cannot support with his method. So he is in a double-bind. The Radical Orthodoxy question was crafty, but Williams's desire goes way beyond what that group propose, but his own method does not, and we know it.

Anonymous said...

I am struck by his statement that he could not celebrate the sacraments if the bones were found. That seems to me to suggest that he has never really experienced the power of the sacraments - because if they have had power all these years, they have had it whatever happened to the bones, and they will not retrospectively lose it if the bones are found. I realised a while ago that the experience of the Eucharist is central to my faith, and whatever historians or archaelogists might come up with, I could never deny that I encounter God in the Eucharist as I do nowhere else.

Anonymous said...

It seems to me that the Archbishop has found himself in the same "double-bind" and for the same reasons as Frei and others. On the one hand, historicity has always played an important role in the Christian tradition. On the other hand, story-telling has also played an important role, especially early on. If you adopt a method that eliminates or down-plays the one at the expense of the other, then you find yourself in an awkward position.

For my part, I never understood where the problem lies with the whole "bones thing." I have no problem in believing what the ecumenical creeds of the Christian tradition assert and that there was physicality to Jesus after the resurrection. It is not a matter of history or of narrative, though both play important parts. It is a matter of the free exercise of my will; my Jamesian will. Of course, it likely helps that I believe in magic.

Pluralist (Adrian Worsfold) said...

That's rather a good point, LizW. I mean no one could ever identify any bones anyway, but theoretically it seems a peculiar basis on which to rely for the eucharist - unless he is making a category error that because he does get power from the eucharist that therefore there is history in dem bones.

Is Hans Frei in that double bind? I always thought his biblical narrative was non-objective, that he moves it all on from those much earlier literalists who wanted it all to be historical, and saw Karl Barth as anti-historical and anti-cultural (God not relating to any objectivity here on earth). I don't understand how your will can lead to the bones existing and becoming lost into transformation. I can understand that magic can do this, though it is supposed to be a supernatural act of God (I remember a very traditionalist Anglo-Catholic priest destined to leave the C of E when women were ordained attacking the notion of magic, indeed my own moderate Anglo-Catholic priest also attacks the idea of the esoteric and the magical), but presumably the magic comes first and it transmits itself to your will - how would it work the other way around?

Anonymous said...

First, when I speak about the free exercise of my will (and the James reference was a hint here), I'm referring to my free capacity to believe whatever I wish, regardless of there being bones or no. Assuming, of course, the question of bones or no bones is even legitimate.

Second, Frei isn't truly in any "double-bind" as his non-objective narrative readings deny any historicity, in that they are completely unconcerned by it. But, it does put him in a theologically awkward position, even if his position is more consistent than the Archbishop who seems to be burning both ends of the stick.

Anonymous said...

The "physicality" of the body of the risen Jesus is stressed not in the empty tomb stories as such but in the scenes of Jesus eating in Luke 24 and John 21. The one in Luke 24 spells out its apologetic purpose: to show that the Risen Christ is not a ghost.

I think it is quite enough to say that Christ took the initiative in "appearing" to his disciples as one vindicated and exalted by God. This was clearly an overwhelming epiphany, not easily dismissible as a projection of wishful thinking. Paul's description of it in Gal 1.15-16 and 1 Cor 15.8 is the only first-hand witness ("eye-witness" would be misleading).

The empty tomb is first heard of in Mark 16, composed about 40 years after the event though perhaps dependent on prior tradition. The angel's word, "See the place where they laid him" (16.6) suggests that there was a ritual of contemplating the site (or alleged site) of Christ's tomb.

For Paul resurrection implies that one is brought to life out of one's grave; he mentions Christ's burial; but when he comes to talk of exactly how the dead are raised he uses mind-bogglingly transcendental language. I don't think he conceived the risen Christ as having a recognizable human body which could walk and eat with you and be physically touched. All of that is a much later narrativization, found in John and Luke toward the end of the first century.
JS O'Leary

Anonymous said...

Williams is not 'completely wrong' in his take on Muhammad. According to mainstream Islamic belief, Muhammad is 'the seal of the prophets'. You are right in asserting that Muslims see Muhammad as restoring the same message supposedly given from Adam to Isa, which they figure was corrupted. However, they also see Muhammad as 'the perfect man', the supreme model for living to be emulated as far as possible (that's the point of the hadiths), and for some he has an intercessory role on the Last Day.

The idea that Paul could think of the crucified Jesus as being 'risen' but have no thought for his body is absurd, and is the product of 19th century spiritualisation. Paul knew the Jerusalem apostles very well (including Peter, whose testimony lies behind Mark's gospel), and he travelled a great deal with Luke.

Pluralist (Adrian Worsfold) said...

Seeing Muhammad as perfect living and to b learnt from does not alter the fact that the message is believed to be the same to each prophet, and therefore the Bahai-like argument about progressive revelation as put by Williams is wrong.

Pluralist (Adrian Worsfold) said...

On the matter of Paul, that he may have known some of the apostles does not alter the problem of an actual body and what happened to it. The answer is simple - no one can say what happened to it, other than there was no grave ritual (or, as J. S. O'Leary says above, potentially a ritual of contemplating the site or alleged site). The way in which Paul represents other apostles seeing a vision of Jesus is highly stylised. We are not talking about some spiritualised view of the nineteenth century but the growth of critical reading that had not existed in the same way before. The arguments are around the text and how old, how does one part relate to another, and given the content (and lack of primary data) how does the content relate to any sense of timing and sense of evidence (for example, having women as primary witnesses, or the Mark curiosity in no one being supposed to tell anyone else about it - a clue to it being a later tradition).

Anonymous said...

Reading again the Williams quote, I agree it could be taken in a 'Bahai' kind of way - which of course is not what orthodox Muslims believe. They think he restored 'The Lost Message of Jesus' and taught nothing new. Yet the point remains that for Muslims Muhammad is indeed seen as 'The Perfect Man', so his actions (marrying Aisha, warfare against the Jews, many wives etc) could not be sinful but rather are, in some way, exemplary for Muslims. Muhammad is not *just a revealer for Muslims - as the West is painfully discovering.

On 'what happened to the body' of Jesus, the answer is simple as well as imponderable: it is in heaven. Luke, Hebrews, Revelation, Colossians, Revelation etc all agree on this. I don't know what you mean by a 'grave ritual'. And I don't know what you mean by 'stylised': 'ophthe' in 1 Cor 15 simply means 'was seen'/ 'appeared'. And we *are dealing with 'primary data' here - though it will be a while before the force of Richard Bauckham's (& Tom Wright's) work is felt (maybe never in the holdouts of Bultmann - but then Ludemann has seen the logic of that position). 'Critical reading' is not the same as building castles in the air. You need to be wary of both over- and underreading the NT. And being sceptical of the power of the Holy Spirit. Is that a hangover from unitarianism?