Teaching with Rowan in the Room

by Dr. Michael DeLashmutt

Vice President and Dean for Academic Affairs & Associate Professor of Sacred Theology

Almost 12 years ago I purchased a copy of Rowan Williams’s On Christian Theology. I can still remember reading the chapter ‘Between the Cherubim,’ in which Williams compares the empty tomb in John’s Gospel with the empty mercy seat in the temple. Something about these two images of God’s presence in the face of divine absence deeply resonated with me. At the time, I was in a period of prolonged spiritual dryness. I found great comfort in the idea that God was present with me, even if God seemed absent to my experiences of prayer, worship or community. Since reading On Christian Theology, I’ve turned to Williams’ work again and again as a source for celebratory, communicative, and critical theology (to use a taxonomy advanced by Williams). 

So when, early last year, the Dean announced that Williams would join us for the 2019 Paddock lectures, I was elated to meet a theological hero. I had expected that I might have a few minutes to shake his hand and thank him for the contribution he’d made to my intellectual development. Little did I know that I would end up sitting next to him while he guest-lectured on a course that I was teaching entitled, “The Theology of Rowan Williams”!

As we gathered around the seminar table early on a Tuesday morning, I awkwardly introduced our guest (as if Rowan Williams needed an introduction?!) and handed over the reins to his far more competent hands. The course schedule was designed so that Williams would coincide with our discussion of Vladamir Lossky’s The Mystical Theology of the Eastern Church. Williams’ Oxford D.Phil. (1975) was on Lossky (who then was relatively unknown in the West). One of the central theses of this course is that, along with Donald MacKinnon and T.S. Eliot, Lossky’s voice has remained a constant presence in Williams’ theological writings, turning up not only in the footnotes, but also in a methodological orientation toward ascetical theology. 

Williams led us in an artful, illuminating, and at times humorous journey through Lossky’s life and work. He helped us understand the tensions between Lossky and Bulgakov over the authority of the Church; discussed the joys of his own research into this subject in the 1970s when Lossky (along with Orthodox theology as a whole) was relatively unknown to the West, and gave us a clearer sense of how an Eastern Trinitarian imagination might inform our life of prayer. 

I wasn’t surprised by the enthralling seminar (it was really amazing!), but I was surprised—or, perhaps more precisely, thrilled and delighted—at witnessing the skills of our amazing students as they interacted with this master-teacher. They had all spent the better part of the preceding month combing through really challenging academic theology (some by Williams and some by others). Their questions not only demonstrated academic proficiency, but more importantly, their curiosity and intellectual humility. I was thrilled to bear witness to such loving and lively dialogue!

I will not soon forget the experience. In fact, I can imagine that in future versions of this course (which I plan to continue to offer as an elective each year), students will be repeatedly reminded about the time when Rowan Williams came to the seminar.