Commentary on the
Archbishop of Canterbury's
Lent 2008 Lectures

His lectures:

Commentary placed on Pluralistspeaks (in each case - or scroll down):

Archbishop's Lent Lecture 1

In the first Lent Lecture (Monday 17 March 2008) Rowan Williams the Archbishop of Canterbury discussed the relationship between science and religion. There is nothing specifically Christian in this lecture at all, except that he has drawn his use of narrative from his approach to theology.
He accuses the Richard Dawkins etc. approach to memes, on the analogy of genes, as reductionist, a survival of the fittest in culture, where what Daniel Dennett has called a universal acid operates over ideas that get falsified.
I thought the memes idea was rather simpler than this: it is that cultural objects get repeated as their own senseless spread. Caps are worn with the sunshield at the back of the head - and it catches on as the latest craze. It is an explanation for the lack of Darwinism regarding culture! The Darwinism of Daniel Dennett is about how to arrive at objectivity of knowledge, which is rather different, and has been done also by Juren Habermas where purely instrumentally disinterested academics can drop bad ideas for good ones.
The danger for Rowan Williams is that he drops into his own kind of reductionism: the narrative.
The truth is that both Darwinism and Christian theology are telling stories. They both work as narratives. Narratives assume drama, agency, and personality. But the paradox is that one of these stories knows what it's doing and confesses it is working in the categories of drama and agency and personality and the other apparently doesn't.
This is the truth, is it? Well it may be a broader based truth, but some would point out that the numinous and the purely transcendent are non-narrative. We can't talk about them outside of narrative constructions, but having talked about them they are supposed to have this quality where the flip side is nothing - the zero in Hinduism and the mu of Buddhism.
Many a scientist would not like to think that their enterprise is just narrative. Of course it is a series of questions seeking answers generating questions. Of course scientific answers are potentially transient, waiting to be falsified, but the longer they stay as a truth the more robust they become as truth. Paradigms - joining the dots - are always more transient still.
Odd, all this, from an Archbishop who has told the Anglican Communion that there is only one way to read a Bible in order for one Anglican Church to recognise another's geographical monopoly, that way being virtually fundamentalist and anti humanist. It is as if that way of reading a Bible is a bureaucratic (ecclesiastical) meme, a silly view of biblical reading that denies scholarship but works at a surface, reproductive level for institutional purposes.
It is dangerous to say that religion is a narrative, because there are so many different ways to talk, and have stories, and nor do narratives conserve themselves over time. His does; though of course the way the rather fixed cultural-religious inheritance is understood alters. Intellectually, the one way of reading the Bible has been subjected to some considerable acid, but then culture contains corners of all kinds of sub-cultural beliefs, which is why so much that governs the way the Church talks about 'reality' is rapidly becoming sub-cultural sectarianism - except in lands where supersition, magic and the supernatural still have a grip on the minds of many people, and who want to impose their ways of thinking on the rest of us who live ordinary, practical and causal lives.

Archbishop's Lent Lecture 2

According to Rowan Williams, in his second Lent Lecture at Westminster Abbey, 18 March 2008, politics should be the science of living together. I was told it was the art of dealing with predicament, and the organising of this. Politics is, of course, broader and nobler and positive if it is about living together.
The problem identified early on is how vision, or mystique, ends up in the grubbier business of politics:
Yes, everything begins in mystique, begins in vision, and needs to be translated into the science of human living together; and in that sense also, politics is inescapable for anyone in or out of the Church or any other religious community. And the Christian Church is itself a political community: it's about living together in justice.
It's just that Churches also throw up predicaments. After all, one Church decides to be progressive, and some others then lay on the pressure; a predicament exists and Church leaders are forced to become politicians. Nevertheless, a Church has a higher vision, or it is supposed to have. The problem appears when a Church that has a higher vision appears to be unethical and anti-humanist regarding some of its and society's minorities. That higher vision is of another city:
The city you belong to is something other than the community you think you belong to here on earth. You are still social beings who have to make choices about living together, but the community to which you belong is greater than any limited human society.
The politeia, the citizenship of the Church is to do - like other kinds of citizenship - with how people take responsibility for the management of power, how they cooperate, how they become responsible to each other.
I think too much here is being loaded on to a Church. Even the whole Church is not the Kingdom of God, it is rather a holding operation. Often filled up with dogma, or intended restrictive ways of reading its scriptures, it ceases to be anything like that vision. It's the old 'Law verses Messiah' problem, all over again, but with the problem that the Church, because it identifies itself with Christ, cannot see its own transient limitations. The Church should do better, and should rise to the ethical challenge, but its theology is confused between that of being 'the body of Christ' by which its theology determines the ethical, and the holding operation, by which there is a gap between the ethical and the institution and where the highest ethical might determine theology.
So we have a positive view of politics from the Archbishop, and an over-positive view of the Church. He derives his positive view of both - a vision - from the notion of transparency to the divine:
God deals with the world by bringing into existence a community living by law, aspiring to justice, and in its dealings within itself, the dealings between people, somehow showing transparency to God.
This would, also, equate with the view of the Church as holding operation, as being prior to the eschatological end, but with the end in sight. Yet that transparent openness to holiness means that there is this view of a Church citizen, one under Jesus Christ, being also an inputting citizen of wider society. This is not just some pluralistic setting, but is meant to extend itself more organically:
the very word for Church in Greek, ekklesia, meant 'a citizen's assembly' in the ancient world. And so in the earliest Christian period, to become an adopted child of God in Jesus Christ, was simultaneously to become a political being, in a new way: to become a citizen of a larger society.
Then the body metaphor is used by St Paul to show not just that we are one part of the greater whole but in a dynamic and organised sense.
What happens now is the style of the Archbishop: he sees the problem, which is that this ideal transparent to God community is far from ideal. Having pushed his argument in one direction, he now has to do some practical reversing.
'Here' says the Church 'is a pattern of social life which we believe to be transparent to God.' How do the practices of this particular society measure up to that transparency? What do they hide about God and about humanity? Buried in that, of course, is a very ambitious and unlikely claim indeed, that the Church is the ideal society.
You only have to inhabit a local church "city" or a collection of parishes to see the personalities at play, the predicaments thrown up that need handling, the problems of organising that need additional pastoral handling and not a few required pro-active management skills (which, when not employed, lead to a sense of drift, which leads on to more going wrong).
The continuing issue for the Archbishop is the right of that divine society to make an input into civil society, even when the divine society is increasingly socially marginal for wider civic society. He tackles this on two fronts. Later on he talks about the right to visibility, and confuses this with upholding faith schools. Faith schools are highly contentious, even amongst the faithful, and the desiring to be visible, and there is a strong civic argument that they can divide communities that should be mixing. Of course private provision should take place - as an act of conscience (see below) but the state has a right to exercise greater social priorities. The other front of visibility though is a deeper one about the Church's right to provide an ethical vision based on its own beliefs in relation to its understanding of the divine:
the relation between faith and politics therefore comes to be tightly connected with the question of how such a group of people manage their relationship with a dominant cultural environment which doesn't have that doctrine of human nature, and perhaps doesn't have any doctrine of human nature.
The problem is still the same and unsolved: the Church is not exactly that ethical community to begin with. Nevertheless:
Despite thinking otherwise:

the sorts of responsibility, the sorts of priority, and the sorts of mutuality that exist in this body are what God purposes for the human race.
Imperfect as it is, then, it demands a right to be heard. It realises that it must be done from a powerless position (fine being said when it is so, not so fine when it was not, or if it exercises lobbying power or parliamentary privilege).
as the Church has very, very, slowly persuaded itself on some subjects like freedom of conscience, it has come to realize rather more sharply that if it is itself the body of those who freely consent to a common allegiance, it can't commit itself to coercive institutional forms, whether visible hierarchy with absolute powers or any particular form of state administration.
From its position of (I'm adding) relative powerlessness and only persuasion, it has developed a view of service rather than power. This would be consistent with a Christ who serves - of course it is but had long been forgotten amidst all the glory and power and social position. Now it just a case of, as with Status Quo, what you're proposin':
It proposes to the society around that these forms of mutual care and service and accountability are the forms transparent to the most fundamental reality of all: that is to God.
And so if follows:
For the Church, as for other faith communities, belief about humanity is absolutely bound up with belief about God and vice versa. So within a variety of human societies there exists a body of people whose view of what humanity is about is shaped radically by belief in God – an 'inviting' God, to whom response is required – whose view of humanity is formed by the supposed attitudes of God to us, the promise of restoration – a new beginning, of mercy and new creation.
Well the politics of this includes all that to do with science and such as the use of embryos in research. He assumes that there is a society unclear about what it believes when there is a divine-accountable society within that does:
So, what happens when we find ourselves as a believing community in the middle of a wider society that doesn't quite know what it believes about human nature or human distinctiveness?
This won't do, of course, because the divine-accountable society within the wider civic one manifests that accountability in a variety of views (unless it retains a power model of hierarchy). A society that has different views on scientific advance may actually be quite ethically centred - it is just that this, too, leads to a variety of views. There is no fix to this predicament of diversity from both: that is why both Church and wider society have politics.
Rowan Williams solution (to press this further) is that of a difference between dignity and will/ choice, so that the divine-accountable society possesses a view of human dignity whereas wider society promotes the will and choice:
[V]ery often the doctrine that emerges is a doctrine about human will and human choice, a doctrine which assumes that human will and human choice can, in certain circumstances, override any sense of the givenness of a human nature, an embodied human nature.
The theology of this claimed difference is, of course, the incarnational, the material and the body: and these are affirmed, as in Christian tradition. Yet does it actually promote any difference of outcome, if there are those who also value the body and our consciousness within the body wish to continue to find means to the end of health and well-being? The outcome of those who pursue human dignity as embodied is likely to be as diverse as those who have a science based, say, on human rights. Both might find considerable agreement.
On which point he states:
[I]t is crucial that the Church should be positive about human rights. The culture of human rights has made it harder to see human dignity as negotiable; harder to see human dignity as the possession of some rather than others. There is a thoroughly welcome universalism about this approach.
So his criticism is that human rights are less secure, but in pursuing this line he makes an argument that undermines the whole basis of doing politics - the subject of the talk itself:
Those remaining uneven areas of our rights culture should at least make us wonder whether the foundations on which it was laid were sufficiently secure. What's more, the human rights culture as it has developed in a competitive, increasingly globalized, boundary-free environment where historic communities are fragmenting is a culture that has rather encouraged the sense that the most important thing about any human individual is that he or she has claims which somebody is able to enforce. And that, while an essential part of a human rights culture within a law-governed society, is of itself a rather slender basis for the understanding of human dignity.
Yet this is the point of politics: politics is precisely about enforcement. Having arrived at a predicament, there has to be a process of input into the argument, but also a process of resolution, after which follows enforcement. On this basis, the rights approach may be best suited for the application of liberal democracy: that is a legal approach of rights, which then (still) go on to have losers as well as winners and the necessity of the winners' decision being upheld.
One gets the impression that there is an unstated argument here; that the Church and its view of human dignity has been found less applicable in secular society and more limited than the broad sweep of human rights. Of course the big issue here is the homosexual one. The Church's view of dignity includes that of reproduction and relationship, which is restrictive, whereas the secular view of rights has a broader and extended ethic of love and partnership - even one that has, dare one say it, evolved. Indeed, even ethics evolve, and this powerful culture or ideology out of science here does apply.
He seems to think that the argument of rights is as if legalistic and constructed from ideology, whereas the Church provides something more lived:
[O]ur moral perspectives as human beings, when they are clear and coherent, derive from what some anthropologists like to call the 'thick' textures of common life - that's to say from a common life that is many-layered, culturally alive and creative. Our moral perspectives don't just derive from abstract civic principles.
And after this he goes on to say:
A society that is only about individual rights and publicly enforceable contracts is going to be a thin phenomenon.
And so:
That's why it is very hard to legislate a neighbourhood into existence; why it's hard to create a corporate identity out of nothing; why it's extremely difficult to define and legislate for what we might mean by 'Britishness'; why it's very difficult to sustain commercial life without a solid background of practices of mutual trust, and so on.
In fact the whole business of rights has come about through various struggles for economic, social and political equality and by pressure through the political process as well as through economic resistance. There is a false contrast here: rights are due to thick experience and well rooted. We have a historical memory and this is as narrative based as anything within Christianity. Society and Church both grew by experience, and if anything it is the Church that is now the more rule-bound.
Again he makes another false contrast between everything going into politics and if politics is everything: the latter being equally thin. It is by these false contrasts that he sets up the Church as if it is, with other faiths, a highly select provider of understanding human dignity:
It may or may not be accepted, but healthy society accepts the need for a critical friend, able to stimulate and sustain debate about human dignity, its reality and its limits. Without that, our politics and politicians are in danger of becoming bloodless.
No they don't become bloodless: the history of struggle, and of gaining rights has been, itself, at times, bloody, and of course one aim of liberal-democratic politics is to solve predicaments in peace. Previously, with the involvement of the Church, war and violence was all too common, just as it has been with other rule-bound ideological set-ups.
In this more flexible ans secular sphere, the Church can only add its voice - but for many it seems to be an inferior voice:
[T]he Church has no right to block the freedom of others and no right to dictate its philosophy, but it has a right to attempt to persuade a voting public, whether in the general public or in the slightly more rarefied atmosphere of the House of Lords.
Well this is debatable: the House of Lords represents not persuasion but privilege. It still legislates. Bishops should put themselves up for election, in order to legislate.
Having passed laws, to enforce outcomes, we then have the issue of conscience. The importance of conscience is not just about the right not to do what is disagreed with, but the personal or group inability to do what is profoundly disagreed with (in the end it must come down to individuals). A mature and tolerant society should attempt to make space for this, just as those who conscientiously object realise that there may be a price to pay for such disagreement - after all conscience is not convenience.
Conscience though has another important role, which is that of continued persuasion after the event. A costly road of saying no, and why, and paying a price for this, may be the start of turning something around. Again a liberal-democratic society has this ethic about conscience and profoundly disobeying, as does the Church:
That is a liberty the Church has always recognized, and a liberty which most liberal states likewise recognize because of their valuation of conscience.
And so Rowan Williams states:
I believe the Church along with other religious communities has a distinctive place in shaping how a society thinks about itself, its health, the right and wrong ways of change.
They may well do, but it may have to understand that it is but one contribution, and may not be a particularly unique contribution; it is not the only embedded, life-experienced contribution; it is as theoretical and rule-bound as any secular theorist (say of liberalism); and having a view of human dignity does not mean it has one view of how to observe human dignity, just as having a positive view of universal human rights does not lead to one outcome when those predicaments arise that need policy outcomes.
My fundamental problem with all of this is the ethical base of the Church itself, and that it is becoming in need of its own evolution, its own cleansing, and that its marginality has other causes but the ethical position it gives is increasingly not the one that equates to the "narrative" that is now in the driving seat. Ethically the Church has turned in on itself (homosexuality), and sounds like special pleading (House of Lords; faith schools), and makes bizarre comments (the Bishop of Durham) and often does not stand up to reasoning (as in dealing with undifferentiated, womb-unsupported, completely unconscious, embryos).

Archbishop's Lent Lecture 3

From the first lecture that hardly referred to Christian belief at all, to a second one that did in relation to its community and the related business of politics, the third Lent Lecture in Holy Week by the Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, at Westminster Abbey, 19 March 2008, almost wholly concentrates on Christian claims. He focuses on how the Church came into being, and wants to reassert history.
Via a series of metaphors (the second Adam, the 'firstborn of all creation') the emphasis of the New Testament is not a conclusion but a new beginning here:
And that is the beginning of precisely that sense of an enlarged, expanded humanity, capable of things of which humanity was not capable before.
This must require history, thinks Rowan Williams:
[I]f certain things are not true about Jesus within the framework of history, there is no new definition of human destiny and there is no new possibility in being human.
Here are some historical aspects of Jesus's ministry as retold by the early Christians - after all, it is they who wrote the gospels and New Testament books.
  1. The recollection that Jesus addressed God with intimacy as a parent living in the parent's home
  2. Jesus recreated membership of the people of God.
  3. Jesus claims the freedom to declare that God has forgiven others.
  4. He is presented as knowing the risk of likely death and paying for it that connects him to the divine.
The first is that his intimacy regarding God is unprecedented within Jesus's own religious tradition and the community continues this.
The second is that:
The criterion of belonging with God is no longer an exact and complete observance of the law or the sacrificial system, it's no longer even ethnic identity, (although that doesn't come out wholly clearly in the Gospels themselves, it's followed through very promptly in the life of the early Church). Jesus is redefining what you need in order to belong with God, and redefining it in terms of trust in him as a person and in the words he speaks and the promises he gives. And on the basis of that, his first followers understand that the community of his friends and associates is potentially limitless.
The ethnic identity is altered because of Paul, of course: Jesus did nothing to alter ethnic identity. He is even, apparently, corrected regarding ethnic identity - the woman who wants at least the crumbs the dogs get - and Jesus learns from his mistake.
We simply do not know how many preachers, teachers and healers like Jesus took such religious initiatives upon themselves; however, given that many were associated with healing and miracle working, they would have to have associated themselves with God - and, as Jews, with the human agency of the forgivenness of God in that healing miracles removed the demons that carried sins. If we are doing history, for these to be original we have to have comparison with others, and we don't with other itinerant healers.
The same is needed with this:
By his act of reaching out, touching, healing, and forgiving, he establishes a relationship between a person and God. The Gospel stories reflect very sharply the controversy that this provoked, because of the obvious shock involved when someone claims to be able to establish relationships between human beings and God.
Jesus is simply not the only one going around Galilee and Judaea at the time. There were many of such people: the issue then is what sort of records were made of them, if any were, and if not why not. Well, if they were all tend-time preachers they, like Jesus, would not keep records. Do angels write? What we have are later, community, secondary records. Jesus left no instructions to write anything, we suppose, nor to leave any documentary evidence, and few of these others would have either. There are patches of external and (again) secondary evidence about Jesus and some other teachers and miracle workers, but that's it. My point is that, so far, here, we have what Jesus is said to have claimed and done, but so far nothing about unprecedented uniqueness - because for that we need to know about others. This is if we want to be historical.
Then there is the issue of understanding the risk. Well this, of course, is extraction from the Hebrew scriptures, of a kind of extraction that was happening at the time - the movement towards the eschatological. Jesus, or at least the understanding of Jesus afterwards, draws on different scriptural traditions to produce the suffering servant model, one that involves risk. He also, indeed, lives in edge-of-Empire Roman times when to carry out even a minimal resistance receives a harsh penalty.
It sometimes makes me wonder just how much those who focus on bloody atonement as historical (and Williams does not at all) realise that they have to rely on the existence of and the cruelty of the Romans in order to have Jesus killed by the wrath of the Father instead of the Father killing sinful people. In other words, it is still cruel to other people, having to have such a regime in place to carry out God's displeasure.
Is Jesus relying on the cruelty of the Romans then?
[H]e is also presented to us as understanding that risk, that likely death, as significant, as something that unlocks or releases a future, that pays a price, that delivers a ransom, that in various other ways again establishes a relationship between humanity and the divine.
Notice the emphasis, however, on the community afterwards (Williams's words here placed into bullet points):
  • It is a community which speaks to God in the language of intimacy.
  • It's a community which sees its potential limits as set only by the limits of the human race itself.
  • It's a community in which people speak to one another, in the name of Jesus, words of release - absolution in the technical language - because Jesus has spoken to them words of absolution, of release.
  • And it's a community which looks to the execution of Jesus as a significant, vital, central moment or event in everything that it understands and does.
The point he wants to underline is continuation; but if follows that this can also be their innovation, at least in part, and certainly in having a further understanding of crucifixion. After all, Paul innovated on a Jesus, who put all his focus on to the Father, to put the focus on to Jesus as God's sole worker; in other words, Paul focuses on the ambassador as the only route to the King (and does this via crucifixion-resurrection salvation, a new development after Jesus himself and away presumably from the Jerusalem Church). So history is uncertain here, except, that is, the history of some of the early Churches, and specifically the proto-orthodox Church.
So we are back to the history, again, a history about a connection between this community and the source: using words about intimacy, potential, absolution and the centrality of the execution of Jesus.
The community speaks of itself in terms of its members being 'children' and 'heirs' of God, and, in looking at the cross, the community sets itself under and judges itself by the death of Jesus understood as an act of self-surrender, self-giving. So that is in part, the way in which the story of Jesus and the understanding of the first Christian community, interlocks. If none of those things was true about Jesus, the community would rest upon a fiction.
He states that the history does not give the argument itself for Christian faith, but without the history these stances would not stand up for long.
Yet there is something wrong here. History is not being shared, and if it was is is not particularly relevant: the relevance locates around interpretation. Rowan Williams is trying to establish facts, whereas (with the exception of an execution) he is not establishing facts but attempting to establish shared interpretations in two points of time. They apparently agree about intimacy of language, apparently, and about human potential (I'm not sure what this means), about absolution, and interpretations of crucifixion (which are not the same but become developed).
What would a historian make of this? Unfortunately, the records of the gospels and New Testament, and of what Jesus said, are conflated. The primary sources for the early Churches are the secondary sources for Jesus. But even if reliable, what is it that they demonstrate - for they have to demonstrate uniqueness, and this they cannot do. He says himself:
We have very little in the way of supposedly neutral records of Jesus in the first century. We have a couple of mentions in historians and others of the time, which tell us very little. We have the Gospels, written, it's fairly safe to assume, between twenty-five and fifty or sixty years after the crucifixion...
...these are records which came into existence within the lifetime of those who had been with Jesus. But that's only part of an answer to the question 'are these traditions trustworthy?'
It is not just this but whether the accounts give a picture of Roman and Jewish society at the time, he states.
So he is using credibility of the whole picture to decide the credibility of specific points. The problem is this: how strong a test are apparently credible accounts of the overall scene? How would it be if they were not credible? He says this:
[W]hat the Gospels present as central in the life of Jesus, fits into the context without too much strain. We know there were debates about whether it was possible for anyone to speak for God, debates about whether prophecy in the old sense happened any longer. We know there were debates about who counted as a member of the people of God and that there were rival systems and proposals for understanding that. We know that crucifixions – that is, executions for sedition – were widespread, and that anyone involved in challenging political authority in that context would have been very foolish indeed not to reckon on the possibility of execution.
To add to the credibility we have this:
Jesus of Nazareth was probably about five or six years old at the time of one of the great revolts against the Romans in Galilee, which produced, according to the historians, two thousand crucifixions along the roadsides. The young Jesus would have seen what a crucifixion looked like, many times over.
That Jesus would have seen many executions when young adds nothing; we have credible evidence far and wide that the Roman authorities crucified in mass numbers. What does it mean that Jesus would have seen crucifixions? Does it mean that Jesus would use the self-knowledge to exploit the opportunity to get himself killed in order to demonstrate the way of the suffering servant? Presumably not, though he may have done. That fact that he sees crucifixions is evidence of nothing but allows speculation.
What I am getting at here is an error being made: that events are events and interpretations of events are just that. So what? The history here is that a community has its interpretation and tells us that Jesus had their interpretations as well. So then Rowan Williams reverses this around, and states that Jesus must have had these original thoughts for the community to share the thoughts - and this makes it robust. It doesn't. Rowan Williams is doing on a small scale what some believers do on the larger scale: just as interpretation actually goes from New Testament to Old, and not some sort of Old to New prediction, so the community goes back to Jesus and selects what is significant. Nothing is of demonstrable consequence here.
Some documents, like the Gospel of Thomas, just describe Jesus's sayings. Because of this, and because of cultural shifts for others, Rowan Williams regards these documents as less useful:
[T]he Jesus who appears in many of these 'alternative' gospels is one who has a far less clear and specific historical anchorage than the Jesus of the Gospels...
[Jesus in other texts] might have been talking almost anywhere, whose specific engagement with the politics and society of first-century Judea is invisible. That in itself inclines me – you won't be surprised to hear - to feel unmoved by the claims of these alternatives.
Yes, but on the other hand, just having sayings in the Gospel of Thomas reduces some of the variables: and The Jesus Seminar uses this Gospel to vote on what Jesus may well have said as the members do with the others.
Nevertheless the absence of primary documents means that we do rely on the overall portraiture of cultural surroundings and the credibility of settings. However, the cultural argument is not necessarily about recognising and understanding politics and social life, it also involves thought forms expressed and so many that we would find bizarre. These are often brushed aside for a core translatable message, here being the apparent originality on key matters and realistic politics with social settings. But what about beliefs like: the world coming to a rapid end, sin being a cause of illness, low social status and death, an interventionist God, a dome above on which there are the lights we call stars (and that God is there but getting nearer), the fulfilment of the twelve tribes of Israel (most of which are missing)? There is a whole collection of beliefs selected out in a decision of ours about what are the essential ones that matter. How come? What sort of history is this? Let's do the whole, bizarre portrait.
What history needs is an event, a documented event, that is not a selection of interpretations backwards (however important is interpretation) but one that demands a going forward and shifts thought forms. The historian needs to locate, to find documentation, to see interpretation at the time, and see a shift to the new.
This is why, for all the apparent and untestable originality of other things, the resurrection is important. It is the miracle, the big one: and resurrection gets subjective spiritual interpretations (which range from the atheistic in terms of a loose definition of spiritual to the fully ghostly) and objective spiritual and bodily interpretations by believers even today. Rowan Williams does not say all that, but he addresses the most sceptical subjective approach:
[I]t might still be possible to say that the Church existed because it was inspired by Jesus, but the New Testament from its very earliest layers, says more than that. It says that the Church is, presently, here and now, addressed by Jesus, activated by Jesus; Jesus is not a figure of the past, he is someone whose breath, whose spirit, here and now animates the community of believers. He is an agent, a subject, not a memory, he doesn't appear as passive or something/ someone who is thought about or remembered by believers who are active: he takes initiatives and is present as an agent, a judge, a friend, someone who invites and welcomes, someone who actively introduces us into the presence of the God he called Abba, Father, so that as we breathe his breath we say the same thing to God.
In other words, there is an objective Jesus present and active after his death, according to these early Churches records of belief. He also says that a priori miracles should not be dismissed:
The philosopher Wittgenstein (no great pillar of Christian orthodoxy) remarked on reading the Gospel of St John that we could have no prior idea what the Act of God would look like if translated into human terms, and therefore he was not at all prepared to approach the Gospel of St John with a set of ready-made, rationalist questions.
Yes, but what that says is not that we should believe in miracles, but that there is cultural untranslatability - that approaching the Gospel of John with rationalist principles does violence to a whole other thought form that created the gospel. Lack of translation is no proof of anything, other than they had different thought forms - and this we know because of all the beliefs these early Churches' writers are putting on display!
So we come to an event, the resurrection. It is in those same secondary documents. How are we to know that it is real, and not just part of a further mush of interpretations: interpretations inside a shifting and religiously charged culture altering a shifting culture? Rowan Williams says:
[T]he actual form of the narrative in the Gospels tells us a good deal.
...whereas in the rest of the Gospels you will frequently find what you might call 'well-polished' ways of story telling,... the stories of the Resurrection have about them a quality of 'rawness', an unpolished character, which is very striking when set against the rest of the Gospels.
So, about miracles within his ministry there is textual polishing, and also about his death too there is polished narrative, but there is a struggle in how to tell the resurrection stories and this lacks polish. He gives some examples:
You find in the various stories of the Resurrection - the story of the walk to Emmaus in St Luke's Gospel, and the story of Jesus appearing to Mary Magdalene in St John's Gospel to take the two most marked examples - narratives that don't sound like anything else in the Gospels, or indeed anything else in the whole Bible. And I think that basic, literary fact about the way the Resurrection stories are told should make us think. We're not here dealing with events which fell into familiar patterns.
We get Rowan Williams's favourite word here bashed into use:
The level of sheer unclarity in some of the stories, particularly where they touch on the difficulty of recognizing the risen Jesus: the unclarity about the sense in which you can say that he appears as a body and yet clearly doesn't behave like a body (coming through locked doors); all these tensions and stresses within the story-telling itself suggest – at the very least – that what happened on the first Easter Sunday was surprising. It still is. It doesn't fit into the conventions, it generates its own forms of story-telling, so that it becomes far more plausible to say that, whatever happened on the first Easter Sunday, it was something which caused people to revise their perspectives, to cast around for new language and new images to speak about it, something which allowed the friends of Jesus to think through once again the story and the teaching and the death of Jesus, as a unit, and to leave a great deal of unfinished business which the whole of the New Testament seeks to deal with. It's what makes the story of Jesus' death not just a story about another martyr for a good cause:
Pause here, however, because he then partially self-destructs his own point:
it's what makes the story of Jesus' after-death reality not just a story about how he was spiritually exalted to heaven; there's something else going on which is about a return to the circumstances and relationships of this earth on the far side of death. And that is of course how the Jews of those days understood Resurrection - not a transfer to another realm above, but people standing again upon the earth.
So it does fit into conventions then! It clearly is related to conventions. On the more general point: is he right? Are these unpolished?
We should not confuse confusion and ambiguity with lack of polish. For example: why does Paul's resurrected Jesus have a body, and no body? The answer is because Paul claims spiritual experiences, but has the language of Judaism which is that of the body. So he talks of a spiritual body. We might equate this with a square circle. Nevertheless, this resurrection gives Paul what he needs to have a salvation scheme, to participate in the acceleration of the titles relating to Jesus (about whom, the human, he is remarkably ahistorical).
Why is there with Paul a resurrection like a roll-call of Jesus visiting leaders and includes, in effect, the congregation? Luke has the same with the very significant synagogue quota of 120. It would not be polished writing that suggests legitimacy and authority for the leaders, would it?
In John's gospel, the disciples are shut indoors for fear of the Jews. This is clearly a reference to the division with Jews decades later - it is meaningless otherwise. He gives a Church saying, Peace be with you, more than once, and the body is emphasised (that is, here is the same Jesus). He then breathes on them power to do what he did, putting into them the Holy Spirit - a Church term and use. This is surely polished writing, because it is about, again, authority and legitimacy from a Church stance. That the body is recognised is one reason why John's gospel did make it into the canon - the importance of the body (and also the tomb in later proto-orthodox Christianity as it struggled with the Gnostics) as Christianity struggled with those who would have departed from Judaism more completely than John was doing.
The encounter with Thomas in John is to tell the community who have not seen Jesus (after all, the resurrections stopped with the Ascension) to have faith, and it is better to have faith without such evidence. It is rather a well polished and concluded piece.
In John he meets the disciples who have caught little fish. He gives advice and they have too many. This is rather polished - evangelism is from him. It gets all eucharistic too.
In Luke why does someone walk with Jesus and is unseen, and yet on having the meal that matches the eucharist is seen, recognised and disappeared. This suggests polish: that until they 'get the point' they don't see Jesus; then it links up with the eucharistic meal, and they see him, and once they have got the point and seen him, he is gone. It is very well written. It is indeed written.
So the argument that these texts, unlike the earthly ministry texts, are unpolished, won't wash. They are full of theological content for the early Churches, indeed they are all about the early Churches.
The difference of course is that with Jesus as the first of the resurrected there has to be some sort of adaptation, and this is what happens in new movements in religion: somewhere the new does not fit into the old (otherwise it would not be new!).
Over and again the appearances suggest not just presence but absence, and this is an important element of the stories. In fact the writing is not just polished, it is sophisticated.
What is actually historical then?
Some say "something happened" by which is meant a spontaneous event or events. But we simply cannot get behind the texts. All is speculation. A body thrown into a pit rots very rapidly, a body not thrown into a pit rots quickly. This is why, today, organs for transplant must be removed at speed. We have tomb stories that, reliant on women for first evidence, are perversely more credible; or we have tomb stories that, because they are reliant on women as witnesses, explain their lateness into the community memory; they can be evidence of loss (but bodies cease to be recognisable quickly) or evidence of a later secondary story to affirm the bodily nature of resurrection as well as the absence of any tomb worship - he ascended into heaven, as risen, not waits (again) in a tomb. We have there continued messianic expectation (we have an unknown time gap but limits between his death and the Church); we have a situation where, once dead, Jesus is either the Messiah himself or nothing (before he died the coming of the Son of Man could have been him or another person - he was likely thinking he was crucial to bring either about); we have that the disciples would have continued religious observance; there is the fact that various Jewish movements continued and the militant ones all failed, and here is an expectant movement using the way of peace (possibly); and remaining is a key religious ritual element around food, which is a focus for spiritual presence.
Looking at this historically means looking at it from when the documents were produced. History is about documentation in the end, preferably primary documentation, of which there is none.
All of this is part of what makes me continue to take the stories of the Resurrection in the Gospels with complete seriousness, as reflecting a historical reality. In spite of endless scholarly investigation and debate it's proved very hard indeed to move the stories of the empty tomb and the apparitions 'out of focus'; they won't easily be dissolved or rationalized. And it's interesting that the Gospels themselves already anticipate the sort of objections you might raise.
Actually they don't raise many. The raise some. I have raised far more, and here there is a difference with science. Science looks for simpler explanations: cultural explanations can be as complex as you like.
So what does Rowan Williams go on to claim?
And so if we're talking about breakthrough - the sheer literary shape of the Gospels, the way they're written, the way the story is told – this seems to prompt the question of what it was that caused this explosion of new story-telling and new language strong enough to persist in a way that allowed the first Christian communities to say without ambiguity, He is alive.
...If the tomb was not empty and the stories of apparition and encounter are fiction, it is indeed very hard to understand how and why the conviction of Jesus alive became so dominant. You have to come up with a better theory.
The cultural theory is better. It is better because it is encompassing, and has the means to deliver the explanation. Of course it has no historical documentation either, but he is making a claim to history - and I am not. And what is this explosion? This won't do either. There was no explosion. The explosion is (again looking backwards) given to be Pentecost, the Church's birthday. The resurrection itself is not so dramatic.
My theory is this (and it is not original): that culture shifts and yet exerts a powerful grip on reality. This was expectant Jewish sub-culture and a bereavement situation of a charismatic leader who may well return to institute that Kingdom. His death may or may not have been disappointing; it may have been seen as tragically necessary (afterwards). By the time Jesus didn't return to institute the Kingdom, a religious-cultural shift was on again to focus more upon him as himself the eschatological fulfilment, who would still deliver all that change in a later future. And still we wait.
Movements arise and also fall not based on history but based on belief. Interpretation is all you need, whether there is anything behind it or not. People are gripped under such made reality. Most of the Jewish beliefs of the time we would find bizarre, but they gripped Qumran, John, Jesus, untold others, and the early Churches, and after Jesus's death come shifts along the way into Hellenistic space.
In the end, what is required is some stance of faith, not in an impossible history, but in groups and oneself.
Coming to the evidence in the way that any historian might, perhaps all the historian as such can say is that something happened, obscure to the processes of investigation, which generated a new community and a new language. But neither the historian nor anyone else has a set of neutral facts lying around, waiting to be interpreted once they've been carefully catalogued. Ultimately, belief that the Resurrection happened remains a step of trust, of faith, a step associated with understanding yourself, your humanity and your future, in the context of this new community.
Sceptics do not need a different theory, actually. I am one - a believing sceptic. All we need to say is that reality is in culture-grips. We today cannot see how future generations will believe so differently from ourselves. Yet they may well, and regard our overarching Darwinian ideology as inadequate. Culture evolves: and just like in evolution, stressful times means beliefs shift. An individual and a movement finds the moment, and a junction is made, and more.
The question is what we do with faith. Faith is about trust, and should be transforming:
If the Church claims that humanity has been renewed, does it look as if it has been? Because if we were able to point only to two thousand years of conspicuous moral failure by the Church, there would be – at first blush – a case for saying 'whatever you might think ought to have been possible for humanity turns out not to have been: we've gone on much the same as ever'.
This is evidence for two things: that we are indeed pretty much muddling along as we have before, and have periods of conflict with moments of goodness within and between. Related to this is the second evidence that no Kingdom of God has yet arrived.
So what is Rowan Williams's qualification for this failure: that something actually is different?
[Y]et the Church continues to say every time it acts liturgically, performs public worship, we believe we have been made anew, created afresh in and through Jesus. We believe Jesus is active in his spirit here and now. It is said very particularly in those actions that Christians call 'sacraments'. And that is one of the things which might perhaps give us a little bit of pause before we assume that the history of Christianity is simply one massive dis-proof of the claims of Christ.
This is indeed a leap of faith: these sacraments cannot of themselves make up for a failure of a different renewed humanity. The sacraments make no difference about proof or disproof in any historical sense.
On the other hand, as Marcel Mauss has shown, a ritual of passing a token in exchange, of material giving for a spiritual gift, the latter being greater than the former, has the consequence of binding people one to the other. This is reciprocity. This is not history either, but it is open to anthropological research at points in time. It does not have to be Christian, but the Christian sacraments fit this scheme quite neatly, as do the Jewish rituals that came before. The spiritual gift is a form of presence.
Thus I would say the whole history debate is fruitless; in Rowan Williams's case it comes down to narrative (look how he tackles the something in history - leads to stories being told) and it does partly for me too. For me it is therefore about culture, language with symbolism, the body, the tribe and the institution as an extension of the body. History is but recordings of moments on the way and this is what is lacking, and given the need for faith, such recording was always going to be lacking.


Adrian Worsfold

Pluralist - Liberal and Thoughtful