Addresses given to celebrate the centenary of the birth of Archbishop Michael Ramsey: I. Theology in the Face of Christ
Monday 4th October 2004A lecture by the Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr Rowan Williams, delivered at Lambeth Palace, London.
'For God...made his light to shine in our hearts to give us the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Christ' (II Cor 4.6).
It is a text that could plausibly stand as a summary of everything Michael Ramsey believed mattered most in Christian life and theology; the best work to be written on his theology to date has the simple title Glory: The Spiritual Theology of Michael Ramsey, and anyone at all familiar with his writing will know the omnipresence of this theme. But Ramsey's theology was not just a celebration of the divine radiance or beauty; or rather it was a celebration of divine beauty which assumed that 'the knowledge of glory' was more than merely a metaphor for the enjoyment of that beauty. Ramsey spelled out in several places the sense in which the Pauline phrase was a quite specific prescription for doing theology. And in this, as in many other ways, he stood close to perhaps the greatest theological mind in twentieth century Roman Catholicism, the Swiss Hans Urs von Balthasar, whose first major multi-volume work on theological method was entitled Herrlichkeit, 'Glory'. Indeed, as we shall see, the connection was more than a matter of parallels: Balthasar uses Ramsey's work in some key sections of his discussion of the New Testament, and helps us see where the Archbishop's fundamental theological insights might lead if developed more systematically.
The implication of Paul's words is that the face of Christ – not just the narrative of Christ or the words of Christ or even the work of Christ – is a source of knowledge because it is the bearer of glory. And early in his work on The Glory of God and the Transfiguration of Christ, Ramsey undertakes a careful study of the basic meanings of 'glory' in Jewish Scripture which begins to make sense of this in a way that takes it beyond a simply aesthetic response to revealed beauty. Like Balthasar again, he is concerned – though he would not have expressed it in these terms – to create a theological aesthetic, a doctrine of beauty anchored in consideration of God's own nature. 'Glory' is a word that expresses the internal solidity of some reality – it may be wealth or power or reputation, as in various passages from the Psalter and Isaiah, but it may also be the internal life of a person, as in Pss 16 and 108, and Gen.49.6. The root kbd expresses weight or magnitude; the verb kabed means to be heavy, to be many, to possess honour (just as we call someone a weighty person) – though also, by a quite understandable paradox, it can mean being dull or sad.
God's glory is thus, in this context, not only God's radiance, the visible form of God's power; it is inextricably linked with some idea of God's character, God's life. As Ramsey points out in these early pages of his book, the promise in the prophets that God will in the last days or in the new age manifest his glory is connected with the manifesting of God's justice: what is revealed is who God is. 'In the kabod of Yahveh,' he writes, 'radiance, power and righteous character are inextricably blended.' It is as if the word described the inner 'resource' of God, that which grounds and informs God's substantial, objective presence, a presence which is fleetingly uncovered in theophanies in the Hebrew Scriptures but whose full manifestation in the world awaits the last days. In the meantime, however, there is one setting in which we can say that the glory of God is regularly present and effective in ancient Israel – the Temple, upon which glory descends at its consecration (II Chr.5.13-14), in which Isaiah encounters the glory which confers on him his prophetic vocation (Isaiah 6), from which glory departs in Ezekiel's vision (Ez. 11.22-3). In the Priestly writings, this is first associated with the tabernacle in the wilderness and then with the Jerusalem Temple – a perceptible presence, whose virtually physical quality is vividly expressed in the statement in II Chr. That the priests could not stand to perform their duties when the cloud of God's presence descended. Although this manifestation seems less to do with character than some others, as Ramsey points out, it is worth noting that it functions in the texts referred to as a sort of intermittently visible sign of divine fidelity to Israel, so that it is not exactly neutral in respect of God's character.
Against this background, it is clear that the conception of glory in the face of Christ immediately speaks of Christ as revealing the divine character, the inner integrity of God, as we might put it, in the promised last days. If we say that we have seen glory in him, we recognise that the messianic age has come. Ramsey shows how both Paul and John work with this idea. Paul declares that Jesus already fully inhabits and diffuses glory, so that believers are promised both the vision of that glory and a share in its light: they too will be radiantly transfigured presences. Already we reflect glory when our faces are turned to Jesus; in the age to come we shall do so completely in our whole (renewed) material identity. For John, Jesus' journey towards the cross is the record of a gradual unveiling of glory, moving in exact step with the outward closing in of Jesus' mortal fate: the cross is in this sense the eschatological moment, the new age breaking in as its kairos arrives, and the followers of Jesus who have seen his glory gathering throughout the ministry have been made ready to receive the outpouring of the Spirit on the day of resurrection. They begin thereby to enter the state of glory promised them in Jesus'prayer in Jn 17; the mission that was Jesus' now becomes theirs by the gift of the Spirit, and if Jesus is glorified by the performance of his mission from the Father, so believers, working and witnessing in the Spirit, are equipped to share the same glory.
What is new in John, and decisive for Ramsey's theology here and elsewhere, is the focus upon John's association of glory in its fullness with the cross. The glory of Jesus in the Fourth Gospel is always related to what might be called the 'other-directedness' of Jesus' vision: he receives glory from the Father because he does what he sees the Father doing, he accepts his identity, his destiny, from the father's hand, so that his glory is always that of a Son whose being is derived from the Father's (Jn 1.14). Since the cross is the climax of Jesus' obedience to the Father's will, it is the moment in which he is most entirely receptive to the glory given by the Father. On the cross, he has nothing of his own: he 'hands over his spirit' (19.30) and becomes wholly transparent to the divine presence and action in that moment of self-dispossession. Already in The Gospel and the Catholic Church, Ramsey had emphasised that in the New Testament the distinctive sense of 'glory' was given by its association with 'self-giving' (p.92), with a self having 'its centre in Another' (p.25), so that the disciples are summoned to share in the divine unity by sharing in the divine 'self-negation'. And while this may be disputable as a general judgement on the New Testament's vocabulary, it is obvious that Ramsey sees the Fourth Gospel as providing the ultimate integrative principle for the rest of that vocabulary. It is perhaps also worth noting that he will have known the passing comment of his teacher, E.C.Hoskyns, on Jn 1.14, that two texts in Leviticus (9.6 and 9.23) associate the manifestation of God's glory in the Tabernacle with the hour of sacrifice (Hoskyns, Fourth Gospel, p.148); given that, as Hoskyns also noted, the incarnate Word in the Fourth Gospel is understood as one 'whose Body is the numinous Temple of God' (149), the connection of thought is very plain.
This is already a rich vein of exegetical reflection, and it was to be steadily mined in various ways by Ramsey in practically everything he wrote in the rest of his career. My question in this lecture will be how these themes can now help us 'plot' the locus and path of theology in a time when the biblical theology of Ramsey's era is largely forgotten or rejected. Ramsey's method of exploring and aggregating the meanings of key words in Scripture has long been overtaken by new techniques of textual analysis and historical research; as John Court observes in a critical essay on Ramsey as exegete, the theological dictionary is the typical deposit of this style of theology, with its assumptions that 'biblical' concepts in general are naturally distinctive and that they have a sort of intrinsic directedness towards a full and normative explication in the pages of the New Testament. The effect is to obscure the real distinctiveness of specific texts and traditions from each other and to flirt with a supersessionist attitude to Jewish words and meanings (Gill and Kendall, p.97). While there may be some debate about how just this assessment is overall, it is certainly true that Ramsey's approach seems to reflect a 'dictionary' method. I want to ask how seriously this affects the essence of what he is arguing, before going on to see what further development of his basic ideas may be possible.
First of all, it is indisputable that, for example, kabod in Hebrew has precisely the physical connotations that are important to Ramsey and that we understand something of the word's use when we grasp this; and Paul's passing use of the phrase 'the weight of glory' suggests that he is not unaware of this background. Equally, it is clear that many of the texts of Christian Scripture under discussion are consciously reflecting on the complex of uses and meanings in Hebrew Scripture. Indeed, the truth is that, for the writers of the New Testament, the theme of God's glory is already a literary and theological datum; as Ramsey notes, it is something discussed in Jewish literature of the period. For the early Christians, it is, so to speak, already a 'dictionary' issue – that is, it has become one aspect of the literary unity that is 'Scripture' for Paul and his contemporaries. They are doing biblical theology: they are treating the texts of Hebrew Scripture as a synchronic reality, something that can be engaged with as a coherent whole. Of course there are differences between Hebrew usages and between different New Testament responses to them. But there is more of a continuum than a critic might at first allow. And one of the interesting features of some recent New Testament scholarship is, ironically, the recovery of certain lost or obscured themes that draw diverse material together: the significance of the ritual and myth of the Temple for the entire period, to take a pertinent example, has been identified more decisively than ever.
So it would be a mistake to conclude that Ramsey's method is as artificial as Court seems to suggest. Undoubtedly, scholarship has moved on; but its movement has not nullified the idea of searching for thematic connections. Reference to the Temple in recent exegesis points up very clearly the significance for first century Jewish people of the building and the sacrificial system as concrete embodiments of divine presence. That Temple-related language is so widely spread in the New Testament writings implies that it was indeed debates over the location of divine kabod that fuelled much of the earliest Christological reflection. Certainly for Johannine thought, the actual material presence of Jesus is in the strongest possible sense the habitation of kabod; and it is not fanciful to see in the falling-back of the soldiers confronted with Jesus in Gethsemane a serious echo of Old Testament imagery such as that in II Chr: here too glory has a presence as powerful and exclusive as that of a material other, it impinges on those in its field of force. We are not dealing with a simple manifestation of divine radiance, but with something apprehended as both more continuous and more active. Granted the reservations that may be entered against certain versions of 'dictionary theology', the fact is that John's gospel in particular is a complex single text reflecting on a complex scriptural heritage that is seen as a unified whole. It is not an arbitrary exercise to trace theological continuities and implications in such a setting.
John's gospel famously lacks a transfiguration narrative: when those around Jesus see or are invited to see his glory, it is not an exceptional visual phenomenon that they are directed to. They see (or fail to see) in the context of Jesus' human activity – and ultimately in the context of his human suffering. In other words, to see glory in the Johannine world is to be given a possibility that is not just inherent in ordinary human capacity. The believer sees that God's solid, resistant objectivity, God's activity which 'pushes' at our own boundaries, is wholly identified with the physical presence of Jesus: not with particular works of power, though these may trigger recognition, nor with words of wisdom or prophetic insight, though these may be seen to be fitting to the underlying reality, but with the entirety of Jesus' identity, and most particularly his most unequivocally human and finite moment, his death. And such a vision depends upon some modification in the believer's capacity, depends, in fact, upon the believer's 'death': John's gospel ends with the enigmatic recommissioning of Peter for a future in which he will be bound and delivered up like his master. As we have seen, Ramsey insists, in The Gospel and the Catholic Church, on the Johannine linkage between unity and death: the trinitarian communion into which believers are introduced is a life in which all believers have relinquished their own centre in themselves so as to be centred in Christ and in the human other (pp.24-7). Thus the truthful vision of Jesus which is given to the believer is a vision from somewhere other than the natural centre of the ego; it is the truth given by the Paraclete.
I have already mentioned von Balthasar's citations of Ramsey; and it is specially in the context of these themes that Balthasar most suggestively refers to him. Balthasar's discussion of the way in which God's life is present in the entirety of Jesus' humanity (Herrlichkeit III.2.ii, pp.300-6) notes Ramsey's stress on the 'quasi-physical' character of glory in respect of Jesus' human story in making the point that the Hoheit, the exalted splendour, of Jesus is not something that can be separated, even by the most sensitive surgical tools of research, from the facts of his life. It is not a literary device or a matter of psychological reaction. It is the sense of divine freedom permeating Jesus' human identity; and it is recognisable only by gift, the gift of what Balthasar calls a Sensorium, a transformed sensibility, or, in scholastic language, a connaturalitas, a community of nature and instinct that allows us to see God's freedom in the light of or in virtue of a freedom granted to us. A little later (p.328), Balthasar again refers to Ramsey to bear out his argument that Luke's Jesus is in fact set before us in a narrative in which it is just as clear as in John that his entire existence is to be seen as manifesting glory. Interestingly, Balthasar also refers to Kierkegaard's great meditation in the Philosophical Fragments on the anonymity of God in Jesus; though he (rightly, I think) identifies what is missing in Kierkegaard's reflections as the trinitarian dimension which alone gives its full (and positive) sense to the Johannine narrative. The hidden glory is not simply an arbitrary paradox or simply a consequence of the impossibility of God appearing as God in the created order: it is the outworking in finite form of the eternal self-yielding, self-hiding we might almost say, of the Son before the Father, the Son who does not will to be 'visible' except as the living act of the Father – which take us back to Ramsey's repeated emphasis on the eternal and inner-trinitarian ground of the Johannine sense of glory.
In the light of Balthasar's elaborations of the same basic motif, we can perhaps see more clearly how and why the glory of God is, for Ramsey, a reality that is about knowledge – as the Pauline text with which we began implies. The relinquishing of a centre in the self, the drawing out of love and faith towards Christ actually makes possible the understanding of who God is in Jesus – of the trinitarian life and the incarnational sacrifice. As the believer begins to be free of self-absorption, s/he begins to see a little of what might be thinkable about a God wholly free of self-interest. Such a God is, on the one hand, free to be present without self-protection or reserve in any place, including the places most remote from 'heaven': he can be in the hell of suffering and abandonment without loss of self, since the divine self is utterly invested in the other; and on the other hand, such a God cannot be conceived as an eternal individual self, but as a life lived eternally in that 'investment' in the other. Thus the believer perceives what I have called the interiority and integrity of God, the resource and solidity of divine life: what is indestructibly solid in God is this life-in-the-other. To see the freedom of God to be in the cross is to see glory, because it is to see how God's utterly non-negotiable presence and action can be real in the physical body of the tortured and dying Jesus.
The Jesuit theologian Edward Oakes, writing about von Balthasar, quotes a French Catholic philosopher as saying that in the life of faith, 'Perception of credibility and belief in truth are identically the same act' (p.141). Oakes explains why this is not in fact a wholly adequate formula, but there is a point here which illuminates Ramsey's thinking once again. Seeing why Christian belief is credible is inseparable from that transformation of the self and its habitual ways of working that is prompted by grace; when you see that the gospel is believable, you do so because you have in the same moment believed, that is, trusted yourself to the presence that decentres and dispossesses the self. The judgement that the gospel is believable is an act of self-commitment. Oakes' reservation is that this initial act is a sort of submission before it is really vision; fides ex auditu, 'faith comes from hearing', because there is a sense in which we hear before we see, we are addressed, affected, acted on, in a way that the language of 'seeing' doesn't quite capture. I think, though, that this is in fact some of the force of speaking about 'glory' and beauty in the way that Balthasar and Ramsey do, and the force of their stress upon the physical resonance of such words. Precisely because glory is not something that is capable of being mastered and because beauty is not something that can be domesticated into the self's agenda, encounter with glory and beauty might be said to be more like hearing than some kinds of seeing. Ramsey would have referred us to the proximity in II Chr. of 5.13-14 and 6.1: the glory of the Lord is perceptible as a cloud, and God is one who 'dwells in thick darkness'. Similarly, Balthasar's theology of aesthetics turns on the fact that the crucified Jesus has no 'form' that is attractive to our expectations. The seeing of glory in the cross and the crucified is not a panoptic sweep of the landscape, but a synoptic moment of grasping together unreserved love and unqualified pain and abandonment – seeing the cross as an event whose 'centre' is an eternal and infinite stripping of self. It is the sole finally convincing demonstration of freedom, the vision of God's liberty to be not only for but in the other; as such it is the vision of glory, the inner resource, the inner logic, of God's life.
And the way in which Ramsey and Balthasar alike reach for the apparently crude and mythological imagery of the oppressive material cloud in the sanctuary is not only that it secures the notion of an otherness as starkly 'in the way' as any bodily presence, but that it also evokes that aspect of physical encounter which tells us that sheer material contact does not and cannot offer us a finished conceptual picture, an object or thought, but primarily an occasion for thought, the beginning of a process that will not ever supplant the encounter itself. Thought begins only when we have first been interrupted by encounter with the non-negotiable. This is true of all intellectual activity worth the name; but it is clear that where theology is concerned it is true in a very particular way which asserts that the 'object' of theology continues always to have this character of interrupting and resisting any possible attempt at conceptual finality. The bare thereness of Jesus as part of the material history of the world tells us that in no way can God be less resistant to our minds and agendas than the rest of the material order. Yet the unbreakable association of the infinite God with the material Jesus underlines, paradoxically, that God is never part of the system of the universe because he is absolutely and unreservedly free in his love to be, to live, in the place of death and hell. Seeing God in Jesus is at once to see that there is no way around or even 'through' the concreteness of the incarnation, and that it is this very fact that establishes as nothing else could the complete liberty of God, and thus his radical difference from all finite reality, caught up in the balances of action and passion, initiative and response, conditioning and creativity. These polarities are somehow transcended in the fusion of Jesus' helpless passion with God's most supremely free action.
This is why, for Ramsey, there is nowhere else for a theologian to begin but with the paschal event (see GCC pp.5-7). The Word made flesh is never an object for theology; the Word on the cross is the actual condition for the perception, Balthasar's Sensorium, of theology's business. Yet it is at the same time the cross as proclaimed, not as bare event – and so the cross as the cross of the Risen One. God's own witness to, God's 'owning' of, the cross as the place he has made uniquely his place is part of what makes glory visible (which is why Ramsey could never have managed to settle for a mental, internalised account of the resurrection; its witness is again as non-negotiably mysterious as any other moment in the material world). We do not – as some, including Ramsey, would say a theologian like Rudolf Bultmann does – present the cross and appeal to some intense inner drive of blind trust and self-projection that allows us to acknowledge the Lordship of the crucified. We are overtaken by the resurrection as the event that will not allow us to ignore the cross or mourn it or regard it as a past event of failure and shame. Here again, I suspect Ramsey had in mind some of the most complex and demanding pages of Hoskyns on the Fourth Gospel, where he develops the idea of the Spirit in John as God holding before us, inescapably, the events of Jesus' life and death, as well as the text of Scott Holland which he quotes about the whole earthly life of Jesus being raised in the event of Easter (The Resurrection of Christ 9-10).
The theology that is revealed in the face of Christ, in the perception of glory in humiliated humanity, thus determines that our theology has to be done 'in the face of Christ'. It is necessarily a theology that is rooted in relation to the concrete Christ – the historical figure as held before us through the event of the resurrection and the continuing action of the Spirit. And for it to be a truthful activity, manifesting somehow in words what it is talking about, it has to be a kenotic activity, a speech that is 'dispossessed' by the encounter with Christ. As such, following through the logic of Ramsey's whole scheme, it does not happen outside the Body of Christ, which is, as GCC puts it, the 'expression' here and now of the paschal event of death and resurrection. Theology in the Body does not only talk about this event or seek to understand it; it seeks to embody it.
What precisely this must mean in practice Ramsey does not say – though some would say he succeeds in showing. It is certainly, in intention, a relativising of theology. 'The Church is pointing beyond theology', as he says in GCC; the theologian's work and 'ideal' has to be lost in the reality of the Body for it to find its proper meaning. It also demands what GCC so emphasises, a penitential clarity about the Church's failings, the sense of a community under judgement as the only credible sign of the true presence of the Body; if theology is in some sense lost in the life of the Body, this is not at all to say that the concerns of an institution are now allowed to absorb or neutralise the asking of unwelcome questions. The unwelcome questions, however, are not speculative but moral and spiritual, questions about whether the paschal mystery is in fact honoured and lived among those who call themselves believers. If theology has a role in this, it is again and again to recover the vision of the Church as it fundamentally must be, as witness to the cross and resurrection. Hence Ramsey's surprising and insightful comment (GCC pp.202-3) that Barth and Brunner have restored to Protestant theology a proper understanding of the Church's function – a Church always characterised by 'tribulation' because always the meeting place of sin with the love and judgement of God. Ramsey refers to Barth's Romans Commentary on this point, to a passage where Barth insists that we discuss the manifest failings and betrayals of the Church only within a strictly theological context: to see the tribulation of the Church clearly is to see the scope of divine love. It is in fact a sort of echo of Ramsey's own central theme. Seeing God in the midst of Godlessness is to see glory; to apprehend the liberty of God in the Godlessness of the Church is to be at the heart of the one theological mystery, the paschal freedom of God to be where love insists on being, in the depths of what is other.
Gradually some sense of what Ramsey might mean by a 'dispossessed', self-losing theology comes into focus. It is not and cannot be a systematic edifice, constructing a picture of the universe and of God's action in it that could be contemplated as an object (and remember that Barth always denied being a systematic theologian). It is a constantly renewed struggle to keep the paschal reality at work in the Church's language – for praise and thanksgiving (which is why the Eucharist is always a fundamentally theological occurrence) and for self-scrutiny on the part of the community and acknowledgement of failure. Theology has to spell out what it can of how and why the face of Christ is what transforms the human world; having done that, it does not seek any further place or dignity, but stands ready to resurrect the question when the Church's practice and speech have overlaid it. Hence Ramsey's approving reference, at the end of GCC, to Maurice's description of theology as digging rather than building, removing debris, undermining the partisanships of believers so as to unite at the foundational level where the act of God is at work.
And it is Maurice who gives Ramsey one of his most evocative pictures, in an address delivered in Cambridge for the centenary of Maurice's death. Maurice, he reminds us, believed that theology was everyone's business. Sometimes he allowed this to lead him into rather ambitious generalisations about what the ordinary person knew or believed. But behind this lay a solid awareness that the subject matter of theology is every man, woman and child, so that the struggling and not very articulate awareness of even the poorest and least intellectual Christian living in the face of Christ has as much claim to be theology as the 'professional's' work. On his deathbed, Maurice began talking very rapidly but indistinctly...about the Communion being for all nations and peoples, for men who were working like Dr Radcliffe (his physician). Something too about it being the work of women to teach men its meaning...(Canterbury Pilgrim, p.44)
Neither Maurice nor Ramsey is the most obvious recruit to feminist or liberation theology; but the picture of the dying Maurice pouring out those barely intelligible words about those who are able to uncover the meanings of the mystery brings us momentarily into a similar world. It addresses the 'professional' theologian in a way that sobers and challenges. Ramsey very evidently believed that theology needed doing and doing well, with the tools of historical and linguistic and philosophical expertise. But the doing of it well was never to be thought of as the successful polishing of argument or refinement of concepts; whatever of this needed doing was subordinate to the work of the Body – not as a directive and inquisitorial overseer, but as the environment in which the transforming seriousness of God's glory in Christ was definitively at work. Theology would have to begin, just as Luther argued, with the knowledge of the cross; but the cross always as that place in creation where we may find God's integrity made plain. And that integrity is made plain only as the theologian's mind is converted – lost to the ambitions of a pattern-making ego or an ideological programme.
It is not, in the nature of things, a job description, a set of conditions that must be met by anyone professing to make contributions to a subject conventionally called theology. It is something recognised in and by the Body, recognised in gratitude for the way in which it digs down to what is alone truly generative of the common life and the common prayer. In the long run, the Church discerns those who are in a particular sense its theologians. Few would doubt that Michael Ramsey has been and still is discerned as such.
© Rowan Williams 2004