Bringing Sanity to Theology: A Student Reflection on Rowan Williams & Paddock Lectures

From Left: Maryann Younger, Michael Curry, Kurt Dunkle, Rowan Williams, Jennifer Allen

From Left: Maryann Younger, Michael Curry, Kurt Dunkle, Rowan Williams, Jennifer Allen

by Jennifer Allen

Master of Divinity Student, Class of 2020

Studying theology is one of the great joys and challenges of being in seminary. When will I have the time to engage the great theologians again at this level? Once I’m in a parish (good Lord willing), how will I be able to carve out the time to read Tanner, Coakley, Farrer, and…Williams? And, if I do find the time, how will I struggle through difficult concepts and challenging ideas without sitting in a classroom with my peers and faculty? With these thoughts in mind, I was hugely comforted when Rowan Williams stated during the Paddock Lectures on February 11th that Thomas Merton, Karl Barth, and Austin Farrer helped keep him sane during his early years of learning theology.

Williams delivers the 2019 Paddock Lectures in the Chapel of the Good Shepherd.

Williams delivers the 2019 Paddock Lectures in the Chapel of the Good Shepherd.

Bringing sanity to the theological conversation is one of Williams’ gifts. And, sanity is badly needed today. As a remedy to the conflicting voices all demanding that they have the “right” answer to God and theodicy, Williams provides a sane voice reminding us that theology must move and grow in response to intense societal and cultural change. Williams reminds us to be skeptical of the non-provisional answers about God; he reminds us that “theology happens where lives are transformed.”

Williams took us through a lightning round of theologians, philosophers, and literary influences. From Irenaeus to Angela West, T.S. Eliot to Bonhoeffer, we reviewed how these thinkers helped Williams form his own theology, how he came to understand “a way of being in a world shaped by the incarnation.” He brought us to a theology which purges our “self-serving mythologies” so that we can find faith, hope, and love. When we are converted, we see a world which looks different.

In understanding this “different” world, interacting with society as those shaped by the incarnation, we come to the realization that living out the reality of Christ demands rearranging our understanding of how we are to interact with the world. How can we be an ecclesial family where everyone’s well-being matters? How can we demonstrate our truth of being not just a witness, but a “social fact” of the divine love of God? We can’t be non-political because being in the Body of Christ means we are living in community and living together is political. We have a responsibility to ask those in power, “what justifies you?”

Social witness is not the only responsibility which we have as members of the living Body of Christ. We also have a responsibility to resist the pressure to stay busy. As a seminarian, that is a message that I can fully embrace! We have lost some of the gifts of apophaticism. We hunger for silence and stillness, especially in a world where overstimulation is the standard. Busyness and noisiness are not gifts; we don’t have to stay busy and have all the answers. There is a special joy in letting go of the need to “know” the answers; a special joy in shutting up and giving God the space to be God for us. It is in that stillness that we re-energize in order to do the work of social witness and speaking to power.

Rowan Williams brings us 45 years of being Christian, and 45 years of sane exploration of how we make meaning. He gives us an invitation to explore creation and the Creator in the face of our rapidly changing world. From the past 45 years, he brings a little peace and stillness to help us face today.