Orthodoxy as Power

To talk of some kind of ultimate or universal orthodoxy as if it meant possessing a theoretical perspective from which the entire human world could be viewed and decisively understood, a system with pigeon-holes for every person and situation we might ever encounter — this is in fact the ultimate ideological sclerosis — orthodoxy as a power mechanism; and it is this which produces the sharpest revolts against traditional paradigms. All that a religious orthodoxy ought to claim is that it is a way of access to certain patterns of human living and dying that are — irrespective of even the most far-reaching shifts in historical understanding — ‘fundamental’ in concern and orientation. (15-16)

Rowan Williams | “What is Catholic Orthodoxy?” in Essays Catholic and Radical


God is with the Victim

The victim as ‘pure’ victim is more than victim: when God receives and approves the condemned Jesus and returns him to his judges through the preaching of the Church, he transcends the world of oppressor-oppressed relations to create a new humanity, capable of other kinds of relation — between human beings, and between humanity and the Father.  There is more to human interrelation than the oppositions of the one who possesses coercive force or authority to condemn and the one who suffers it.

Yet this does also imply something about God’s attitude to any and every victim.  If God’s love is shown in the pure victim, it is shown (as we have seen) as opposition to violence: so it is impossible to conceive of the Christian God identified with the oppressor in any relationship of violence.  The powerless sufferer, whether ‘innocent’ or ‘guilty’, is the one who belongs with God, simply in virtue of being a victim; so that the saving presence of God is always to be sought and found with the victim.  Conversion is always turning to my victim — even in circumstances where it is important to me to believe in the rightness of my cause.  For we are not here dealing with law and morality; there are other kinds of judgement-as-discernment, discrimination and responsibility, which would require a different treatment.  What is at issue is simply the transaction that leads to exclusion, to the severance of any relationship of reciprocity.  It may be unconscious, it may be deliberate and willfully damaging, it may appear unavoidable; but as soon as such a transaction has occurred, God is with the powerless, the excluded.  And our hope is that he is to be found as we return to our victims seeking reconciliation, seeking to find in renewed encounter with them the merciful and transforming judgement of Jesus, the ‘absolute’ victim.

Part of the point in stressing this is to guard against an easy sentimentalizing of the victim.  Some people need to believe that penitence towards the victim is an admission of the innate or impregnable moral superiority of the excluded or dispossessed.  This (curiously) reduces my violence to a kind of mistake: had I but recognized the virtue of my victim, I should have seen that I had no ‘right’ to act as I did.  The hard thing to accept (and to write of) is that it is not unjust or misplaced violence that needs penitence (what, after all, is the definition of just or rightly-directed violence?), but the oppressive, excluding act as such.  But the pressure is very strong towards the easier view that someone must be ‘in the right’: I feel guilt about my violence, so it can’t be me; therefore it must be my victim.  It is a pressure reflecting a very deep, but nonetheless ambivalent, longing for a simple moral orderliness, and it must be regarded with the utmost suspicion. (15-16)

Rowan Williams | Resurrection: Interpreting the Easter Gospel

Obedience to Wisdom

The assumption that Scripture is a book of positive law in which we find specific directives for the Church’s ordering requires us to ignore the whole question of the coherence of human nature and its goals, and the coherence of God’s own being.  God has a ‘character’; God is not pure groundless will.  Therefore creation (including us) has a character: but because created nature realises its goals in contingent and temporal process, being faithful to that character and so to God’s law, and so to God’s being, God’s self, involves being wary of any kind of positivism about laws enacted or even revealed in history, since to be bound to a set of historical positive enactments may lead us to be unfaithful to the real law of God, the wisdom in which we are created, when those enactments no longer effect a path to wisdom.  To act in obedience to wisdom is a matter of knowing how and when to innovate:

The Church being a body which dieth not hath always power, as occasion requireth, no less to ordain that which never was, then to ratify what hath been before.  To prescribe the order of doing in all things, is a peculiar prerogative which wisdom hat, as Queen or Sovereign commandress over other virtues. (V.8.I)

Thus the argument is rounded off: true conformity to unchanging divine wisdom (and, it should be added, to the doctrinal formulations that embody for us how that wisdom acts and how it makes its general claim upon us) requires a flexibility in discipline and policy that is impossible for the positivist and the primitivist. (48-49)

Rowan Williams | Anglican Identities

Divine Will & Contemplation

In the Dublin Fragments Hooker shows his anxiety over a doctrine of absolute divine decrees divorced from a theology of the ‘natural’ will of God ‘to exercise his goodnes of his owne nature, by producing effects wherein the riches of the glorie thereof may appeare’ (section 27); and the sermons more than once reflect the pastoral implications of a debate over the primacy of absolute divine will.  But the point could be broadened: groundless divine decrees may be obeyed or implemented, but they do not lead towards a ‘hinterland’ of divine nature to be contemplated or enjoyed.  Groundless divine will does not propose to us anything of the elusive richness of God’s life as such, to be regarded with eagerness or expectation of further fulfillment: the only ‘mystery’ is the sheerly negative awareness of the void from which divine enactment freely comes.  And because it is necessarily a void, it is not an object of contemplation. (42-43)

Rowan Williams | Anglican Identities