Rowan Williams on Revealed Religion

The Archbishop of Canterbury was invited to preach the annual Hulsean Sermon on “the excellence of revealed religion”.

In a typical way the Archbishop turns the thing around on its head and points out that there’s more to the issue of revelation than one might first guess. He takes as his subject in the sermon the question of what effect the act of revelation has upon the beholden. In particular he looks at how we are changed by knowing that God sees us in the totality of our being.

After teasing out the recognition by the beholder that the presence of a startling revelation properly leads to an intellectual humility, and finding evidence in the biblical witness about how this played out in the life of the woman by the well in Sychar (“I met a man who told me everything I ever did”) and Paul of Tarsus. (He could have included Nathanael of the Gospels as well.)

Finally, discussing the implications of a proper dose of intellectual humility for the Academy and the recognition that revelatory knowledge has on epistemology, Williams ends thusly:

“Revealed religion can so easily be presented as the enemy of many things that our culture holds precious: intellectual humility and intellectual adventure; the sense of ultimate otherness or strangeness within our relations with one another; the fascination with our own inner elusiveness, our otherness to ourselves.  Yet all these themes seem themselves to arise out of the gradual apprehension of what revelation actually entails.  If theology – the theology of revealed religion – has a place in the academy, it is because of the way in which it underscores the strength of the goading to know that drives all serious mental enterprise and at the same time the unfinished character of that enterprise.  It does so not by appealing to a vague belief that all verbal forms are provisional or that the spiritual nature of human beings is worth taking seriously, but as a discipline that wrestles with intractable history and particular narrative, with the ways in which human beings think within time and relationship and create language together.

In a cultural context where – so we are repeatedly told – ‘spirituality’ is more popular than ‘religion’, it doesn’t hurt to remind ourselves of what the claim to revelation and the focus on historical particulars involves for the life of faith and the exploration of that life in art or theology.  Here at least we are in a world in which the characteristic pressure of intellectual activity makes sense – the conviction of an obligation to persistence and honesty, the cautions against imagining that issues have been resolved when they have only been named; here the life of the mind and of a properly demanding imagination are recognisably involved.  Grace and struggle both belong inseparably in the process of receiving and responding to a revealing God.  What the preference for a generic spirituality may lose hold of is just this partnership of the awareness of gift and the pressure to speak as truthfully as can be in the light of the steady weight of that gift as received by generations.

To enter the world of revealed religion, to make one’s own the vocabulary of a free self-disclosure on the part of the transcendent, is not to abandon discovery or darkness: because it is grounded in the simultaneous new awareness of who God is and who I and my neighbour are, it cannot be simply the delivery of the last pieces in a puzzle.  To become conscious that you are seen is potentially frightening; to become conscious that you are seen by a presence that has no selfish interest, no advantage to be exploited, no will to manipulate, but one that gratuitously shares the secret of itself, its reality and ‘density’, is perhaps not less frightening (you hate it because it hurts’) but is also to find yourself just beginning in the way of fearlessness.  My story is told to me afresh; and I find that it is embraced, graced, opened.  ‘You must change your life’; but in fact my life is changed, not by me, if I can bear the gaze.”

Read the full sermon here.

The last paragraph puts me in mind of the Ugaritic mythological Watchers. I never quite understood why their echo could be found in the Old Testament. Now, seeing the implications of being watched, perhaps I may be able to find a satisfactory answer.

Author: Nick Knisely

Episcopal bishop, dad, astronomer, erstwhile dancer...

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