Paper for Seminar 'Scriptures in Monotheistic Faith' at St Egidio Conference, Naples, Italy
Monday 22nd October 2007A lecture by the Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr Rowan Williams, delivered at the St Egidio Conference, Naples, Italy.
One of the major functions of Scripture in the three West Semitic monotheisms, Judaism, Christianity and Islam, is that they offer not simply a concept of divine unity but a history of divine consistency. The unity of God is established concretely by relating the story of God's people, understood as a story of God's unshakeable faithfulness prevailing throughout a history of change, or error or betrayal, rebellion and so forth on the part of God's human partners. And it is only by telling these histories of conflict or rebellion that we can properly grasp what is being claimed for God in monotheistic Scripture. It is not that God's unity is simply appealed to as the foundation for the unity of a people or nation, though that is an easy misunderstanding and one that we see within the pages of Scripture itself: when, for example, the Hebrews of the Old Testament seek to demonstrate their fidelity to the one God and his law by the exclusion and slaughter of others. We see it equally when Christians and Muslims reinforce violent exclusion by referring to the exclusive claims of their belief. All alike are misunderstanding something that runs through the whole of the actual Scriptural narrative (Quranic as much as Biblical). This narrative takes it for granted that the history of human communities, even (or especially?) communities of faith, is a record of disagreement, false starts, flawed perceptions. The earliest Christian gospel, that of St Mark, depicts the first followers of Jesus as regularly failing to hear and grasp his Good News and as ultimately willing to abandon him. But what makes such a history more than a recital of tragedy and failure is the presence which continually judges the violence or folly of the human community and consistently promises the possibility of something different.
The American scholar, Regina Schwartz, in a provocative book on the dangers of monotheism as reflected in the Jewish and Christian Bible (The Curse of Cain, Chicago 1997), has argued that underlying this question in Scripture is a tension between what she calls scarcity and plenitude. There is an emphasis on unity and exclusion that arises from the conviction that resources are scarce and we must struggle to guarantee that people like us secure as much as possible. Compromising the integrity of the group – which includes compromising the exclusive concern of God with the group – weakens the clarity we need in order to know who we must share with. Who is my neighbour? Against this is the tradition that sees God's gift to the human group to whom he speaks as something 'generative', something that constantly pushes at the boundaries of the existing group. There is a recognition that those who seem to be strangers may turn out to have a history that is not so strange (see, for example, Amos 9.7: 'I brought the Philistines from Crete and the Syrians from Kir'), and may be gifted with a capacity to do God's will more readily and instinctively than those within the household (the parable of the Good Samaritan). The chosenness of the chosen people is not a straightforward and exclusive privilege, but something richer and more challenging: it is the fact that God has chosen to show his patience and mercy by demonstrating in human history how he can keep his promise to one group, whatever their failings, thus enabling that group to become, by his gift, the bearers of a transforming insight to the entire human world, the insight that no failure can defeat God's renewing love. To the extent that this directly confronts our own terror of failure and exposes us to the abundance of God, it strikes at the very roots of violence.
The history related in monotheistic Scripture is the history of revelation – and therefore of God's particular relationship with an identifiable group. It is about relating to special times and places. It is not a compendium of general wisdom and spiritual information, however much it contains of wisdom and spirituality; what makes it distinctive is this story of a relationship. And the disagreements between the monotheistic faiths have to do essentially with how this relationship is to be conceived and where its boundaries lie. It is sadly possible, as religious history shows so plainly, to read Scripture without ever noticing the persistent ironies and critical moments within the text – to read without seeing that the goal of God's choosing is to demonstrate his absolute freedom to continue in relationship, undefeated by human unfaithfulness. For the Christian, this is why the narrative of Jesus' death and resurrection are central to the whole of the Bible. Here is unity tested to the limit: the unity of God with God's people is challenged by the rejection of Jesus by religious and political authority and by the desertion of his own disciples; the unity of Scripture is challenged by the question of how the suffering and failure of the Anointed One can be reconciled with type and foreshadowing in the history of the Covenant; the unity of God himself is challenged by the gulf opened up on the cross between the Father and the one who perfectly receives and embodies his gift of love. So the Christian believer reads Hebrew and Christian Scripture together as focused upon the moment of Calvary and Easter in which God enters uniquely into the fragmentedness of the sinful world and brings the promise of radical healing by re-establishing all these challenged unities. The horizons of God's people are decisively enlarged to universal proportions; the record of Scripture is read afresh so as to bring into central place the pattern of human rejection and the divine overcoming of that rejection; and the unity of God is re-figured as the unity of the Father's giving love, the Son's receiving love and the Spirit's 'adopting' love.
So it is by narrating a history of human instability that the self-consistency of God is brought most fully into focus. When we speak (as Jews, Muslims and Christians) about God's unity, the heart of what we say is surely this recognition that God is 'at one' with himself – that God is not the victim of circumstances, that God is not an arbitrary and unpredictable will, but a life of infinite internal harmony as well as fidelity in relation to what he has made. The single story that Scripture tells, of a community constantly restored from its own self-wounding unfaithfulness by the fact of God's fidelity – and indeed of a whole cosmos sustained by this fidelity – is not a story of sin or violence overcome once and for all by human resolution or human virtue, but of God's unfailing judgement against the human community when it simply seeks to use him to defend its own cohesion. Once again, the Jewish prophetic tradition is clear about this: the chosen people must learn to depend on God for their security by letting go of all the tempting strategies that may be devised to bolster that security. Depending on God is the opposite of a strategy in this context: when it is distorted into a strategy it makes God a tool for the people's welfare.
That is why the way Scripture introduces us to the unity of God is not in terms of an abstract idea. The Hebrew Shema, 'The Lord your God is one' or 'The Lord is God alone' (Deut.6.4), is a key moment in the Deuteronomic author's long meditation on how God keeps his promises even when the actual life of God's people repeatedly provokes judgement so severe that it can be felt as abandonment. And the apostolic appeal to 'one Lord, one faith, one baptism' (Eph.4.5) is framed within a discussion of the peace that should prevail within the community when the diverse gifts of particular persons are working together within a single hope directed towards God the Father. God's unity is manifest in this context through the one direction in which believers are drawn by their incorporation into Christ and by the shared confidence in the future that God promises – because, as Ephesians has already argued, what is revealed in Christ is seen as the fulfilment of a consistent but hidden purpose running through the whole of God's dealings with humankind.
As we have noted, tensions are never fully overcome within human history, and the Jewish and Christian Scriptural record is marked by points of inconsistency and inner strain in the narrative and interpretation (we may think of the strongly exclusivist philosophy represented in the Books of Ezra and Nehemiah, for example). But that is to say, the unity of the Bible itself is not a finished product: it can only be understood as one text in the light of a conviction about one history reflecting a self-consistent divine gift and purpose. And, although the Muslim interpretation of the Qur'an does not readily admit of the same acknowledgement of inconsistency as might be the case with Jewish and Christian Scripture, the literary form of the Qur'an obliges the believer to see its unity not in its organised serial unfolding but in its single divine point of reference. All the monotheistic Scriptures, in other words, represent in their very written form the message they convey about the unity of God as manifest through the narration and depiction of human diversity held in a single purpose that is enacted through time.
So it is entirely appropriate that Jewish and Christian Scripture is, among other things, a set of texts 'performed' over a cycle of time (the notion of performance has been richly developed by the British theologians Frances Young and Nicholas Lash) – it is the 'script' for the drama of the liturgical year, so that the community of believers is reminded annually of the pattern of events through which God's unity is revealed and led to perceive the same revelation in the process of relating the liturgical narrative to their own personal and communal histories. In this connection, we might say that there is no way of reading Scripture liturgically that is not in some sense penitent – that does not oblige us to see our own histories as marked by the same patterns of betrayal and divine reclamation that are laid out in Scriptural history. One natural implication of this for Christians is to recognise that the unique Scriptural recitation at the heart of the eucharistic action is the paradigm for Scriptural reading, the commemoration of fellowship broken and restored at Jesus' table before and after his death and resurrection. The 'sacrament of unity' is such not only as the symbol that binds the Church in one, but as revealing and enacting the unity of God's act in Christ, especially in the paschal events.
So in conclusion, scripture in the monotheistic faiths is thus a voice which calls the believing community to fix its attention on God and God's fidelity to his promise and consistency in action. It teaches the community to be deeply suspicious of understanding its own unity in terms of what it has achieved and secured and to turn repeatedly to the promises of God. And in this sense, Scripture, for all its inner tensions and for all those elements that can be used to reinforce exclusivism and mutual hostility between human groups, may yet be a crucial resource which anchors us in the abundance of God and in the eternally renewed grace of God, these realities which we narrate when we read and perform the Scriptural text. And, as such, it stands against the violence and the rivalry of our world and of our own hearts; like all that God gives, it is a word that summons to repentance and to peace.
© Rowan Williams 2007