Simon Heans examines Rowan Williams’ latest book, Tokens of Trust, and disagrees with his assertion that Christian faith begins as a general belief in the existence of God
For many years I had to teach two periods of General Divinity defined as ‘theology for non-specialists’, to sixth formers. Rowan Williams’ most recent book, Tokens of Trust, started life as six talks about the Creeds given at Canterbury Cathedral during Holy Week 2005 to a mixed audience, some of whom, as he tells us in the introduction, were ‘regular churchgoers’ and others who ‘were fairly new to it all’. So here we have theology for non-specialists, the Archbishop’s General Divinity lesson. But Dr Williams proposes for our consideration another, more important, sense in which this is a work of general divinity: ‘I shall be suggesting that Christianity asks you to trust the God it talks about before it asks you to sign up to the complete system.’ So according to Dr Williams, Christianity is first of all a general belief in God (‘trust’) before it is specific doctrine such as the Creeds contain.
We might see here an echo of the older sort of general divinity which recommended that catechesis should begin with arguments for believing God to exist before moving on to the credal propositions about him. But the question of God’s existence does not really interest Dr Williams. He writes disarmingly: ‘You won’t be surprised to hear that I haven’t found the decisive new argument that will prove once and for all that there really is a God.’ And he seems to regard the traditional arguments for the existence of God as not much better than themes for the school debating society: ‘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 according to Dr Williams, they do not go to the real issue, which is trust in God.
He is right when he remarks that ‘the number of people who come to a living personal faith as a result of argument is actually rather small’ But that criticism would seem to apply to Tokens of Trust since it is towards the ‘God who can be trusted’ that Dr Williams wants to argue his reader. Traditional general divinity was aimed at demonstrating the existence of God and said nothing about his attributes. This was not something that divines in the older Christian tradition believed their general arguments about God could settle. Their ‘living personal faith’ was not general, but specific. It was in the God specified by the articles of the Creeds.
Their position was really the opposite of Dr Williams’: it was ‘the complete system’ in which trust was to be placed. There was, properly speaking, no faith in God outside it because the Creeds defined what it meant to have faith. In contrast, Dr Williams wants to persuade us that it is possible to speak in general terms about faith in God. My argument here is that Dr Williams’ account of God as One Who Can Be Trusted rather than as He Who Is (the title of one of Eric Mascall’s books of traditional general divinity) is deficient both logically and exegetically
Maker of heaven and earth
‘We can trust the maker of heaven and earth,’ writes Dr Williams, ‘precisely because he is the maker of heaven and earth.’ From looking at the world around us, we can conclude that ‘God is to be trusted as a loving parent.’ He is unselfishly concerned for the welfare of his creatures: ‘The love that God shows in making the world…has no shadow of self-directed purpose in it; it is entirely and unreservedly given for our sake.’
But of course the difficulty with this position, as Dr Williams himself points out, is that accidents happen. Writing of the tsunami, he comments: ‘Does this mean that God makes a risky world? Clearly yes, as we see it; anything that is less than God is exposed to risk.’ But then can we continue to speak of God as ‘a loving parent’, the maker of a world ‘entirely and unreservedly given for our sake’?
In fact, we soon find Dr Williams qualifying this claim on God’s behalf. He tells us that we should not think of the world as made for us after all: ‘Things in
the universe exist in relation to the Creator before they exist in relation to us, so that a degree of reverence and humility is appropriate when we approach anything in the created order.’ We are also told that if it is to be a world at all then it has to be ‘really different from him’, but why does it have to be so different? Couldn’t God make a world in which natural disasters did not happen?
Of course this is ‘the problem of evil and suffering’ which every essay in general divinity encounters sooner or later, and I am not blaming Dr Williams for not having solved it! But I am suggesting is that it is especially a problem for his thinking about God because he wants to make a general connection between ‘the Father almighty, maker of heaven and earth’ and the idea of trust. In other words I agree with my sixth form sceptic in finding the sentence ‘We can trust the maker of heaven and earth precisely because he is the maker of heaven and earth’ to be a non sequitur. From the sheer existence of the universe, it does not follow that we can trust its maker.
Dr Williams seems to admit as much himself in drawing our attention to people – Etty Hillesum, a young Jewish writer who died in Auschwitz, and Job are mentioned by name – who ‘right up against the worst of suffering find it possible to live honestly with God.’ He quotes Job’s ‘If he kills me I shall still trust him’, adding ‘We can still hear people say something like it today; I don’t think we can just ignore them.’ I agree. But this is to say that we can trust God because Etty and Job think he is their maker, which is rather different from saying we can trust him because he is the maker of heaven and earth. The latter is a statement of general divinity while the former belongs to what we might call specific divinity, that of the Jewish people.
This tension between Dr Williams’ general divinity and the Jewish kind emerges very clearly in what Dr Williams has to say about answers to prayer. He prefaces his remarks with a statement of general divinity: ‘I have been trying to suggest the picture of a God whose almighty power is more of a steady swell of loving presence, always there at work in the centre of everything that is.’
Perhaps ‘steady swell’ is an unfortunate phrase in view of the reference to the tsunami a few pages earlier. Still, on the face of it, this idea of prayer as helping ‘things come together so that love can come through’ seems preferable to the view that prayer works ‘because God likes some people more than others or because some people know the right strings to pull or buttons to press, or because God can be battered into submission by a heavy campaign of praying.’
However, in chapter 1 of Tokens of Trust, Dr Williams reminds us of two stories of Jewish people praying which suggest that those three things are indeed true about the God who answers prayer. The stories of Abraham and Moses interceding with God on behalf of the Sodomites and Israelites respectively (Genesis 18 and Exodus 32) show that God can be ‘battered into submission by a heavy
campaign of praying’, and that he does like some people (Abraham and Moses) more than others (the Sodomites and other Israelites) even perhaps because ‘they know the right strings to pull or buttons to press.’ Certainly this interpretation of those stories from Jewish divinity is more faithful than the one Dr Williams offers from his general divinity perspective, in which the intercessory role of Abraham and Moses is downplayed as a mere literary device, ‘the most vivid way of expressing what [the writers of the stories] understood about God.’
This leads Dr Williams to misread the theological significance of the story. He writes: ‘what would you do faced with the wicked city, faced with the disastrous stupidity of the people of Israel in the desert? You’d be very tempted to annihilate them, wouldn’t you?’ And he continues: ‘Well, that’s the difference between you and God’. But that cannot be quite right, because in the stories God is indeed tempted – and rightly so – to destroy the Sodomites and Israelites. And in the case of Sodom he is not only tempted, he gives in to the temptation, if that is the right expression. The city is annihilated.
Pace Dr Williams the difference of character highlighted by these stories does not really lie between ‘you and God’ but between ‘you’ and Abraham and Moses. They seek God’s mercy, are blessed by him, and through their intercession others, the Sodomites, at least temporarily, and the unfaithful Israelites more permanently, are able to receive God’s mercy and blessing, despite the sins for which they are justly condemned.
The attentive reader will have noticed that Abraham and Moses in these stories are types of Christ. In next month’s New Directions I shall argue that in Dr Williams’ general divinity, the claims of Christian divinity, specifically those made in the Creeds concerning the divinity of Christ, are also diminished.