Thomas Seville cr disagrees with Simon Hearns’ assessment of Rowan Williams ‘Tokens of Trust, and finds much to recommend in the Archbishop’s presentation of the meaning of faith
It was said, in a valedictory appreciation of Robert Runcie by the Tablet columnist John EX. Harriott, that he refused to pass on ‘Mickey Mouse’ Christianity. This strength is much in evidence in this introduction to the faith by his successor but two, all this in a piece which is faithful to the teaching of the Great Tradition and seeks to make this fresh for the seeker now.
This short work is an account of what the faith means, so there is little of what used to be called natural theology. The Archbishop is too much a student of history and of Balthasar and Barth not to be wary of the deceptions of that approach when not subordinated to the God of Our Lord Jesus Christ. Exposition is its own apologetic. This is why the question of whether God exists is not to the fore, which is why I think Simon Heans, in his articles in New Directions [July and August], misreads the argument of such a book. For what it is worth, to say in virtue of the whole of existence, that there is one not part of it, not like it, and to call that reality ‘God’ is one of the purposes of the Five Ways of St Thomas, that reality which ‘all call God’.
Trustworthiness of God
More biblically, one might think, the account which arises is one which is based on the trustworthiness of God, complete and utter. His Grace pays especial attention to the creeds, so beginning with T believe in God the Father Almighty’, proceeding to the reality of Christ and the Holy Spirit and then with the Church. Belief is primarily about trusting, not about assenting to a series of strange-sounding propositions. The Archbishop’s learning and imaginative powers make for a scintillating run of examples and illustrations. It will serve to disabuse both Christians and others that Christians believe in a being who can do what he likes and who can correspond to one’s wishes with alacrity. There are wise observations on what it is not to believe in God.
His Grace begins with the crisis in trust adumbrated by Anora Neil in her Reith Lectures and then moves to unpacking what it is to trust in God, trust in God which has certain consequences. Orthodox teachings, sombre-sounding as they are, that God does not need us and is happy in himself, are well treated: ‘When – rather rarely – in our world we see someone acting without any thought for themselves, without reward or consolation, wholly focussed on another, we see a faint reflection of what God is naturally like’ [p. 13], a token of trust.
Theory and reality
‘What God shows himself to be in Jesus is simply what he always is…God is thus and not otherwise’ [p. 70]. God’s unconditional love, inexhaustible trustworthiness, find here their centre. This chapter is also the centre of the book and one emerges from the exposition of a two-nature in one person Christology, the virginal conception and bodily resurrection deftly defended against detractors, refreshed indeed; ‘consub-stantial ought to be one of the most exciting words in our vocabulary’ Simon Heans does not give this due weight; it is not, I think, good theology to suppose that God and Jesus are identical [ND, August]. This is as good and as succinct a statement of what the Incarnation means as I know. With a nice Augustin-ian focus on peace as what God desires for us, the mystery of salvation is presented in succession, quick and full. He is surely right in warning us against too much weight given to theories here, rather than the reality that ‘whatever it took – and takes – for us to be set free from our destructive and deceitful traps has been done through what happened on Good Friday’ [p. 88].
The Spirit, ‘the breath of Jesus life’, receives treatment in respect of both Christ and Church; this reflects a communion-oriented direction of the reality of creation and salvation: ‘the life that happens when we breathe the air of God is always life together.’ It is not really acceptable to live this life without the other: ‘The slogan of the Church’s life is ‘not without the other’; no I without you, no I without a we’ [p. 106]. Despite (or perhaps because of?) his Anglo-Catholic background, the reality of the Church, places and people where this life is tangible is not confined to the Church as commonly recognized: ‘at times we learn something about what most matters in the Church by looking outside its visible boundaries’ [p. 128]. The Church is holy, one might say, when she is also penitent. God’s faithfulness to himself is there in the last things: ‘If God holds on to us through death, he holds on to every aspect of us – not just to a specially protected, ‘immortal’ bit of us’ [p. 141].
Faith accountable to reason
His Grace is aware of how challenging belief in God can be, and it is clear to this reader that belief needs to be responsible to a world such as ours; testimonies, whether those of Jews such as Etty Hillesum or the recent martyrs of Melanesia, speak of what it is to believe and why belief makes sense as nothing else can. There is a treatment of the problem of evil on the lines of ‘if God creates a world then it has to have risk’, though the author has treated of this better elsewhere and I suspect that this is not the section that he thinks most satisfactory. But then what intellectual solution to theodicy can ever be wholly satisfactory if it is to be adequate morally?
There are sections on the Bible, baptism and eucharist (modern Western, if strongly epicletic), the angels, hell and the rest. Too brief is the rationale for the ministry and the real visible Church is not much discussed; reasons of space or priorities, I suspect, rather than a Protestant suspicion of such a notion. The text is beautifully illustrated with paintings by David Jones; the photographs add less.
Every reader will wish that something else had been touched upon. His Grace makes much of faith and trust and also the importance that the faith is accountable to Logos, to reason, as does the Pope. Yet I miss reference to the role of the articulation of truth, of ‘first truth’, the Word that is revealed. I look forward to its treatment in a future edition.