I have been reading Ben Myers‘ exploration of Rowan Williams’ theology, Christ the Stranger. It is a book that repays slower reading, and I’ve been taking a chapter a day for Lent so far. As Ben points out, Rowan Williams’ thought “resembles nothing so much as the forty days of Lent, a theology of slowness and discipline, abstinence and privation” (p117). That makes this book particularly fitting for the time of year, although Myers is such a sympathetic interpreter that reading his book is a spiritual exercise — reading +Rowan as attentively and patiently as the archbishop writes.
Myers’ interweaves Williams’ biography and poetry throughout this exploration of his theology in ways which are helpful and illuminating, and remind the reader repeatedly that for Williams theology is a spiritual discipline above all else. If Williams is difficult to read (and he often is), it is because God is difficult to speak of, and our words (as T S Eliot says) “slip, slide, decay with imprecision … will not stay still”. Williams stretches language to try to encompass that, probably more successfully as a poet than a prose stylist. Myers is sympathetic but critical, and manages to help the archbishop speak more clearly than he sometimes writes.
One of the few missing features – perhaps weaknesses – of the book is a lack of notice that +Rowan usually speaks far more clearly than he writes. Williams’ writing can often seem a difficult, dry, protracted and sometimes depressing exercise in spiritual renunciation of the fantasies of the heart and mind. By contrast his presence in person is attentive, humorous and kind. There is a self-forgetfulness (literally a forgetfulness of self) to the archbishop that is very attractive, and it presents as a joyful counterpoint to the willed self-renunciation of his theology. The book, by its concentration on the theology, gives Williams a dourness that belies the man in person.
That is a minor cavil. This book opens up for the reader what is often difficult theology, and puts it in its context with verve, clarity and intellectual and spiritual depth. Along the way, although this is not Myers’ overt intention, it helps explain why +Rowan is the kind of archbishop he is, and how what looks to some like an inability to give a lead is a principled theological commitment to a very particular but costly understanding of the Trinity and how we come through the crucified and risen Christ to share in God’s truth and love.
The archbishop has found himself a very able and illuminating interpreter here, who presents his theology as a profound encounter with God, an ever deepening exploration of truth, and an ongoing attempt to renounce the temptations of the heart’s’ self deceiving fantasies. This is a book worth reading, and slowly.