I have just started Rowan Williams’ charming little book, Tokens of Trust: An Introduction to Christian Belief (Westminster John Knox Press, 2007). It presents edited-for-publication “talks” that the Archbishop of Canterbury gave during Holy Week in 2005. In the talks, Abp. Williams summarizes the fundamentals of Christian faith to an era in which the long catechumenate of early Church history (which would have filled the current void in basic pre-Baptismal instruction) has been long abandoned.
Now an excursus: I would give money to have available to me such a series of homiletical lectures by a scholarly (or even remotely theologically astute) bishop. Such an experience seems to me to be what bishops and Lent and Holy Week are for. It is, to my eye, a measure of the degradation of the Church that we (and here I include most “denominations”) have allowed the office so to deteriorate that bishops are more comfortable discussing terms of 401k plans (or whatever they are in the non-profic sphere) than Christological controversies.
But back to Abp. Rowan.
In his first talk, the Archbishop sets the fundamental theme of his talks – viz., that Christian faith is trust in God. The title of the essay is “Who Can We Trust?” (OK, a complaint: Abp. Rowan is a good thinker and pretty felicitous writer, but he has some nasty habits resulting in errors of grammar and punctuation. These should have been corrected by his editors. I mean, I know that we are always to treat God as “subject” and not as “object,” but I don’t think the rule extends to our grammar. "WhoM can we trust?" – that’s what it ought to have said. And there are several other misuses of the objective case already in only the first chapter.)
At page 12, he says this:
A word of caution here: some modern thinkers have been very tempted by language that seems to suggest that God is in some way in need of having something else around in order to become more fully himself. … But I think we have to face a challenge here; we must get to grips with the idea that we don’t ‘contribute’ anything to God, that God would have been the same God if we had never been created. (Italics added.)
And it’s that last phrase, “God would have been the same God if we had never been created,” that brought me up short. My initial reaction was, “Wrong!” And the more I thought about it, the more convinced I became in my original reaction.
I readily admit at the outset that I am no philosophical theologian (I can’t even play one in Sunday School). And I am not particularly facile in the arguments surrounding the Theopaschite controversy. And I figure that with the heft of his tome on Arius, the Archbishop is fluent in the controversies of Christian polemics. But I can’t figure out how one -- i.e., he -- squares the claim that Jesus was God and that he died with the claim that God would have been the same had that not happened. Here’s my reasoning.
God is what happens among the Father and the Son and Holy Spirit. The Father is not God without the either the Son or the Spirit – and the same holds for the others. (And I think this stands up whether the Spirit proceeds from the Father or from the Father and the Son.) God is dynamic, relational -- an event, even. He is not static or reified in the way a statue or a photograph is.
God created humanity (as a part of the creation of all that we know) ex nihilo. There was something new brought into being and, thus, already something must have changed in the nature of the relationship among Father and Son and Spirit -- which is to say, in God --, because the love that binds them in their eternal perichoresis was in some sense adjusted or opened to include what had not been there before. Doesn’t that mark a difference already in God – not exactly an evolution (I’m not that daft!), but certainly a change (as in a change in the dynamic)? Admittedly, I suppose, it represents no fundamental change in the essential nature of God (if one wants to go all Aristotelian). But it does change God. Does it complete God in some way? No, but it does complicate his existence.
Take it to the next step: Only because God created humanity did Jesus become human. (Obviously, that is speculation, but it does seem naturally to follow from the Christian reading of the "Fall" which followed from the creation.) The Son took on flesh and lived, suffered, died, and was buried in both his human and divine “natures.” Now look: If Jesus was both fully human and divine, then when he died, the Son died, didn’t he? And if the Son died, God died – because God is what happens among the Father and Son and Holy Spirit. If there is no Son, there is no longer God -- at least in the sense that there was God when the Son was alive. Because of the contingent nature of the Christian narrative, are we not compelled to say that had humanity never been created, God may never have died. But since God did die, was God not different from what he would have been had he not died never created humanity?
Did God not weep over
My reading of Heilsgeschichte is that God regularly changes his mind, alters his course. These changes are perfectly consistent with his fundamental identity, which is love. But are we so to isolate God away from human experience that we can – or that we want – to say that God was affected by none of this?
Fundamentally, we I don’t see how we can continue to hold that God did not change, did not experience different things differently, did not suffer as a result of the contingent event of his creating humankind – that is, unless we want to put everything on the level of pagan myth. It seems to me, without knowing what I’m talking about, that I must be a heretic of the Theopaschite variety. The immutability of God may have served an importance at one point in history. Now it seems to be to be something better ignored.
In my defense, I think that I can find support for my position in a number of big-wig theological thinkers who are not talking through their hats: Barth, Bonhoeffer, Moltmann, and others (don't I remember something from Jenson's Systematic raising this point?) seem to be on board with a new reading of that old problem.
I suppose, from the Archbishop’s perspective in his lectures, it makes sense to stress the unchangeability of God to underscore God’s reliability (although that's not what the context suggests). But I think his assertion goes too far and ultimately undercuts the theme he pursues.