Simon Heans continues his examination of the limitations and dangers of the idea of general divinity hat he finds expressed in Rowan Williams’ Tokens of Trust
The present article is a sequel to one that appeared in last months New Directions which looked at Rowan Williams’ recent book on the Catholic creeds, Tokens of Trust. At the end of that article I made a promise: that I would show that in Dr Williams’ general divinity, the doctrine of Christ’s divinity cannot be properly expressed. But first I want to clear up a possible confusion about what I called general divinity in the first essay.
General divinity: old and new
The passionate effusions of Messrs Dawkins, Hitchens et al. have made the question of God’s existence quite topical, so we Christians probably ought to know whether our faith starts with an affirmative answer to it. In the previous essay I referred to Eric Mascall’s He Who Is and contrasted its approach with that adopted by Dr Williams in Tokens of Trust. In the introduction to that great work, Mascall has some helpful comments on just this subject. He begins: ‘Logically and essentially, the doctrine of God is the fundamental doctrine of the Christian religion.’ So does that mean, contrary to what I claimed in the previous article, that traditional theism, as represented here by Mascall, says that ‘Christian faith begins as a general belief in the existence of God’?
The answer is in the next sentence containing a quotation from the Atha-nasian Creed (which incidentally Rowan Williams does not choose to discuss in Tokens): ‘The Catholic Faith is this, that we worship one God in Trinity and Trinity in Unity’ Certainly we have here a statement of belief in God’s existence, but it is one which is specific rather than general. It is a statement of belief in the existence of the God specified by the articles of the Creeds. And it is here, with that specific belief, that Christian faith begins.
A typical experience
But did it for you? Probably not! As Mascall says: ‘This does not mean, however, that the truth of the triune being of God is the first thing of which most of us become conscious as Christians.’ And he goes on to distinguish between ‘the order in which things ultimately exist’ and ‘the order in which we come to know them.’ Thus, as he says, the usual Christian experience is not of beginning where the creeds do, with ‘God himself…then Christ, who is God incarnate in human flesh; and last of all the faith and devotion of the Church which Christ founded’; it is rather the reverse, since it begins with ‘the practices and objects of Christian devotion’ followed by learning ‘about the events of our Lord’s life’ while it is ‘only – if ever – when we begin to study the Catechism were we given any systematic instruction about the nature of God.’
Mascall then goes on to explain why this matters. First of all, it makes evangelism difficult: ‘we find ourselves trying to persuade people that Christ is God when their knowledge of God is practically non-existent’ The second reason is directly relevant to the subject of this article: ‘any error that has been allowed to creep into a man’s belief about God will distort his understanding of every other Christian truth. If his idea of God is wrong, his idea of Christ will be wrong.’
Trust and existence
Right at the beginning of Tokens, Dr Williams asks us to consider the example of the blind man in St John’s Gospel (chapter 9). He writes: ‘[Jesus] is certainly not asking.. .whether the man is of the opinion that the Son of Man exists; he wants to know whether the former blind man is ready to trust the Son of Man.’ But this is surely wrong: Jesus is indeed asking him whether the Son of Man exists. He wants to know if the man believes he is the Son of Man. Dr Williams then proceeds to explain the meaning of the title as ‘Jesus in his role of representative of the human race before God.’ In Dr Williams’ interpretation of Son of Man, there is a clear distinction between God and Jesus, but that is not so in the Gospel passage. For when Jesus reveals himself to be the Son of Man (‘You have seen him and it is he who speaks to you’), the man replies ‘Lord, I believe; and he worshipped him.’ In Dr Williams’ account of the man’s words, the form of address (‘Lord’) is omitted, as is reference to the act of worship which followed.
A similar reluctance to speak of Christ’s divinity is evident in chapter 3 of Tokens in which the credal statements about him are discussed. Dr Williams consistently uses language which avoids any hint of identity between God and Jesus. ‘Here is a human life,’ writes Dr Williams in typical fashion, ‘so shot through with the purposes of God. So transparent to the action of God, that people speak of it as God’s life ‘translated’ into another medium.’ Why the inverted commas around ‘translated’? Is it supposed to indicate that this was what was said at the time about Jesus’ identity? If so, it is an odd way to refer to the Messianic hope among first-century Jews. Or is it supposed to express a distancing on the part of the author from a word that might seem to suggest the doctrine of the Incarnation?
No doubt Dr Williams believes the article of the creeds relating to Our Lord Jesus Christ. So why does he not say so? The answer is that ‘his idea of God is wrong’. Mascall identifies the root of the problem: ‘One of the drawbacks of being a mere creature is that you see everything the wrong way round; you look at things
from man’s standpoint and not from God’s.’ And this is Dr Williams’ standpoint: ‘tokens of trust’ are the presence of God in the world. They include people -Etty Hillesum, Fr Joe from Quarr Abbey and Jesus himself – and things – the behaviour of dominoes in a line when the first one is knocked over; Paley’s watch; even, paradoxically an Asian tsunami which shows us that ‘the world is not just a veil for God’s reality’
But although these tokens might convince us to speak of God as One Who Can Be Trusted, they do not enable us to speak of his existence apart from that of the world. God, in Dr Williams’ argument, is a generalization from, even a generalization of, the existence of the world.
This is explicit in his claim that traditional theism’s ‘arguments for God’s existence invite us to look at the world as a whole…the processes we can think of as actual and possible and to ask, ‘Is there a way of making sense of them as a whole?.” No wonder that with this understanding of God’s existence as the sense of the whole, he cannot make sense of the Incarnation. According to Dr Williams, God is already the whole of the world before he enters it as man. One wonders why he bothered.
Dr Williams is quite wrong to say that the arguments for God’s existence are an attempt to make sense of the world as a whole. They are just what they say they are: an attempt to make sense of the existence of God. They start from features of the world, not least the fact of its existence, but this is not where they end up. The author, or perhaps we should say editor since they were not all original to him, of most of them, St Thomas Aquinas, called them ‘ways’, not, as in the popular misconception which Dr Williams does nothing to dispel, ‘proofs’. They lead from the world’s existence to God’s existence. And contrary to Dr Williams’ approach,they do not only focus on those aspects of the world which inspire trust. The world, they say, cannot even be depended upon to exist. So it only makes sense to trust God, He Who Is.
Some Christians are reluctant to take the arguments for the existence of God seriously because they mistakenly assume they have nothing to do with faith in God. But as I have tried to indicate in the final couple of sentences, they can be an enormous help to keeping that faith, of maintaining, as Mascall puts it, ‘contact… with the practices and objects of Christian devotion: the crucifix or picture above our bed, the prayers which were first said for us and which later on we learnt to say for ourselves, the structure and furniture of our parish church.’
If you do not believe me, consider the Archbishop’s own description of himself at prayer from the last few pages of Tokens: ‘why exactly am I sitting here twiddling my thumbs, shifting from buttock to buttock, and wondering where, what and who God is?’ If he read, or perhaps reread, Eric Mascall’s He Who Is, he would be able to concentrate better because he would know the answers to those questions.