Tuesday, September 14, 2004

Rowan Williams in Egypt

On September 11, the Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr. Rowan Williams, delivered a lecture at the conclusion of the September meeting of the Dialogue between the Anglican Communion and al-Azhar al-Sharif in Cairo.

In his address, the Archbishop spoke of the need of both Christians and Muslims to speak with one voice against violence;

The greatest challenge today for our world is how to react to circumstances in a way that is faithful to God’s will. Undoubtedly, greed and revenge affect all of us. We feel that we want to defend ourselves in the way that a person without faith or hope or love would understand – in anger and bitterness and unforgiving cruelty. But when we act in such a way, we show that we do not really believe in a God who is living and self-sufficient. We do not believe that God’s will is enough; we act as though the circumstances of this world could so change things that cruelty and fear could become the right tools with which to defend ourselves.

So when the Christian, the Muslim or the Jew sees his neighbour of another faith following the ways of this world instead of the peaceful will of God, he must remind his neighbour of the nature of the one God we look to, whose will cannot be changed and who will himself see that justice is done. Once we let go of justice, fairness and respect in our dealings with one another, we have dishonoured God as well as human beings...

...We may rightly want to defend ourselves and one another – our people, our families, the weak and vulnerable among us. But we are not forced to act in revengeful ways, holding up a mirror to the terrible acts done to us. If we do act in the same way as our enemies, we imprison ourselves in their anger, their evil. And we fail to show our belief in the living God who always requires of us justice and goodness.

So whenever a Muslim, a Christian or a Jew refuses to act in violent revenge, creating terror and threatening or killing the innocent, that person bears witness to the true God. They have stepped outside the way the faithless world thinks. A person without faith, hope and love may say, If I do not use indiscriminate violence and terror, there is no safety for me. The believer says, My safety is with God, whose justice can never be defeated. If I defend myself, I seek to do so only in a way that honours God and God’s image in others, and that does not offend against God’s justice. To seek to find reconciliation, to refuse revenge and the killing of the innocent, this is a form of adoration towards the One Living and Almighty God.
Much of the rest of his address seems to be a discussion of the Trinity, a belief that often becomes a stumbling block within interfaith dialogues with Muslims. One particular segment caught my eye;

And the Christian also says something which may again be a source of disagreement. God is a loving God, as we all agree; but, says the Christian, God does not love simply because he decides to love. He is always, eternally, loving. His very nature, his definition is love. And the interaction and relation between the three ways in which God lives, the source and the expression and the sharing, is eternally the way God exists. The three centres of divine action, which we call Father, Son and Spirit, pour out the divine life to each other for all eternity, a sort of perfect circle of giving and receiving. And the only word we can use for that relationship of pouring out and giving is love. So as we grow in holiness, we become closer and closer in our actions and thoughts to the complete self-giving that always exists perfectly in God’s life. Towards this fullness we are all called to travel and grow.
This description is a great improvement on my own feeble attempt to talk about the Trinity;

...my preferred model of understanding the Trinity; Lover, Beloved and the Flow of Love between them that has constantly flowed before time began. Through the Incarnation, the Beloved came to dwell among us. When we stand in the place of the Beloved, when we accept the offer to become the adopted sons and daughters of God, we also become the Beloved of God, and share in this same Flow of Love.
If a person of another faith tradition read that description, it would certainly sound like I was talking about three distinct gods, wouldn't it? I think speaking of "the source, and the expression and the sharing" as "three centers of divine action" who "pour out the divine life to each other for all eternity, a sort of perfect circle of giving and receiving" captures a much better image of the Trinity while still retaining the unity of God.

I believe Rowan Williams to be the right person at the right time to be involved in the dialogue between Christianity and Islam. In his book, On Christian Theology, within the chapter entitled "Trinity and Pluralism", we glimpse his particular perspective on such dialogues;

We do not, as Christians, set the goal of including the entire human race in a single religious institution, nor do we claim that we possess all authentic religious insight - the "totality of meaning," to pick up a phrase used to good polemical effect by Jacques Pohier. And this is a problem only if we expect - as Christians, as religious people of other traditions, as philosophers - to be able to provide a theoretical programme and explanations for the unifying of the human world. If there is such a unification possible - as Christians and others believe - it is attained only in the variety and unpredictability of specific human encounter, and so can only now be a matter of hope; though this is a hope nourished by the conviction that the story of Jesus and the Church, of Logos and Spirit manifest in the world, affords us a truthful vision of how God is - not exhaustive, not exclusive, but truthful. And the practical thrust of this truthfulness is its grounding of hopeful and creative pluralism, its affirmation of the irreducible importance of history, of human difference and human converse.
- On Christian Theology
, p. 177.
Nice balance; not relativist, and not exclusivist, yet clearly Christian.

I'd be interested in your thoughts, either on the dialogue between Christianity and Islam, the Trinity, or whatever else might be on your mind.


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