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Rowan Williams: Being Human

Being Human: Bodies, Minds, Persons

by Rowan Williams (SPCK 2018)

Available now at St Peter’s Bookroom $26.95

Reviewed by Carol O’Connor

'I cannot know myself alone. I cannot invent language for myself: I have to be spoken to. I cannot picture myself as a body unless I am seen and engaged with.'

Language. Imagination. Relationality. If there were three words I would choose to describe themes which consistently run through all Rowan Williams’ writings, (at least those books I’ve read and addresses I’ve listened to) and which capture my attention again and again, it would be these. His recently released Being Human continues the series Being Disciples and Being Christian, and doesn’t disappoint. For again Williams finds that beautiful balanced modulation between his personal voice - ‘if you see what I mean’ and ‘to put it in plain English’ - and his keen, sharp theological note: ‘…how we talk about God as God, is not only to do with clarifying and purifying what we say about God, it is also, crucially, a purifying of what we say about ourselves.’

Our lives don’t begin alone, but with the capacity to imagine the other. It’s only via our faculty of imagination that we are enabled to experience empathy, be attuned to and speak with one another. These three words: language, imagination and relationality are not entirely separate or reducible forms. For a human being to flourish we need some sense of each happening interdependently, like a dance, inside and outside ourselves:

Speaking changes things. To say something introduces new possibilities. To be conscious, to be part of this narrative, relational, localised life….is to be a speaker….an agent inviting listening, interpretation and so on. Speaking changes things….

Our first relationship begins with the ground of the sacred, of love, in God. Rowan Williams draws on St Augustine for this foundational theological assumption. For me, this understanding only became comprehensible from the decision many years ago to take the risk and attempt to live out from this relationship. As Williams understands, it’s something that can be only apprehended in the living out of, rather than theology as an academic exercise. In referring to Augustine he says:

The deeper I go into the attempt to understand myself, who and what I am, the more I find that I am already grasped, addressed, engaged with. I can’t dig deep enough in myself to find an abstract self that’s completely divorced from relationship.

Not only does Rowan Williams reaffirm my own growing understanding about the importance of being a relational being, he has the knack of furthering my imaginative capacity for this. He helps further our understanding about what this means. As I have a relationship in and with God, so do others:

When I look around, my neighbour is also always somebody who is already in a relation with God before they’re in a relation with me. That means that there’s a very serious limit on my freedom to make of my neighbour what I choose, because, to put it very bluntly, they don’t belong to me and their relation to me is not all that is true of them, or even the most important thing that is true of them.

So, it’s about loosening that confidence that we have control or power over others. As Christians we each premise our life on relationship with our Creator, in other words, ‘a relationship outside my power and control.’ Such a relationship brings with it the experience of reverence which overflows into a regard for human dignity. And,

when we claim human dignity …..we’re not just asserting that somewhere in us there is something making imperative demands. We’re trying to affirm a place, a proper place in relation with others. We’re trying to affirm that we are embedded in relationship. I am, and I have value because I am seen by and engaged with love…always and unconditionally the love of God.

The dignity that we search to have for each other is an ‘echo’ of this ‘permanent attitude of love, attention, respect which the Creator gives to what is made.’ And the more we realise that dignity, lessen reducibility of knowledge to a set of facts or strategies, learn how to walk around this environment and imagine or postulate possible resistances, the more then can we begin to expand our own emotional environment. In other words, we start to get the bigger picture.

Rowan Williams acknowledges in Chapter 3 that some of the books he’s written have ‘not always been easy reading.’ He has been considerate of his wide readership in his introduction by clearly and helpfully outlining the content of each chapter. At the end of each chapter he also includes two brief personal questions for reflection or discussion. Our own our theological engagement and spiritual considerations about what it means to be human, matters. This is an invitation to dialogue, not pedagogy.

Compared with previous works such as On Augustine, Arius or Dostoyevsky Rowan Williams is speaking less abstrusely and more plainly in Being Human. However, he does not pander to a reader’s desire simply to be spoon fed. For good things, and this includes deep understanding, requires the taking of time. Learning a craft or art takes time, gaining wisdom too takes time but we have become ‘short termist, almost by compulsion these days.’ For Williams this is where ‘difficulty’ becomes a gift, that it can teach us patience with other people, with other cultures, the nature of challenge helps us learn that building solidarity and communion takes time:

I think difficulty is good for us….difficulty…obliges us to take time. The more time we take, the more our discovery is likely to turn into habit and into inhabiting. The less time we take with something, the easier we find something to resolve, map and digest, the less value, the less significance it will have.

Rowan Williams knows how in his prose to make us think hard and knows the value of this as a learned habit. The place where thought is brought out from and goes to rest is silence. Although the final chapter is on the transfiguring of Jesus at the Ascension, ‘the extraordinary fact that our humanity in all its variety and its vulnerability has been taken by Jesus into the heart of the divine life’, the penultimate chapter pauses on the value of silence as intrinsic and necessary to our maturity as human beings.

Of all its extraordinary features, the good as well as the dehumanising (for ‘Silence like a cancer grows’ The Sound of Silence which Williams takes pains to point out is not the sense of silence he is referring to) the silence he references which I resonate with is that one of being ‘taken beyond the familiar and the controllable.’ It’s that uncomfortable moment when silence is necessary because it feels like the only authentic response. But it also feels like it’s taking us into strange new territory. For Williams, this silence of ‘I can’t domesticate, I can’t get on top of this’ is part of growth into human maturity. This is enormously hard work because it opens us up as Christians, to those things we face that we can’t control.

Imagine this: the silence of Jesus before Pontius Pilate. ‘Don’t you know I have the power to crucify you or release you?’ Pilate says, in St John’s Gospel, and he then is ‘amazed’ by the silence of Jesus. For Williams this is not because Jesus has been ‘shut up’ but ‘opened up.’ It’s a place that all human beings can come to share: ‘it’s not my speech and your silence, it’s everybody’s silence in the face of these deep and difficult aspects of being human - and of course everybody’s silence in the face of the utterly unmanageable, which is God.’ Before God we are all silent.

Language, imagination, relationality, and of course the silence-dipped-spirit working around and inside us, can be a helpful way in to understanding what it means to be human, and also what it means to be attuned to God. Being human means having the capacity to be in relationship with our Creator, and the gift of language means we can dare to speak of this relationship. And it also means our sensitivity and listening engagement to risk sharing and nurturing this language amongst one another.

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