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Faith, hope and charity in tomorrow's world

Saturday 6th March 2010

The Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr Rowan Williams, gave a lecture at Lincoln Cathedral where he looked at how modern day society looks at understanding, remembering and wanting things, and how the Church can turn this outwards into faith, hope and love.

Read a transcript of the lecture below, or click download on the right to listen [57Mb]

To be able to be part of a celebration of the legacy of Bishop King is a very particular privilege for me, having first encountered the memory of Bishop King when I was a teenager and having read his biography when I was a student I feel that he continues to set a benchmark for all those who seek to serve as teachers and pastors in the Church and very specially in the Church of England.

I've been given and have accepted one of those titles which can happily mean almost anything you want it to mean. And I'm going to cheat very slightly in the way I approach my title.

Faith, hope and charity are generally agreed to be good things. And to get any particular kind of grip on the subject is not easy just because they're generally agreed to be good things. And so I'm going to come at this in a slightly roundabout way by approaching them as they are dealt with by one of the great mystics of Christian history, the sixteenth-century Spanish friar St John of the Cross. And I've decided to approach faith, hope and charity by way of St John's writing because of one very distinctive insight which he has about them.

St John -- like everybody else in his generation of Catholic theologians -- takes for granted a picture of the human mind which sees it as working in three basic ways: the human mind understands, it remembers and it wants. Or, in more abstract terms, the human mind is made up of the interaction of understanding, memory and will. And the distinctive and fresh insight that St John of the Cross offers, is that if you put together understanding, memory and will with faith, hope and charity you have a perfect picture of where we start and where we finish. In the Christian life, faith (he says) is what happens to our understanding; hope is what happens to our remembering; and love is what happens to our wanting. To grow up as a Christian is to take that journey from understanding, into faith, from memory into hope and from will into love.

St John also believed that in that process of Christian growing-up, one of the very difficult things that happened was that we lost our bearings on the way. What we thought we understood we discover that we never did; what we thought we remembered is covered with confusion; and what we thought we wanted turns out to be empty. We have to be re-created in faith and hope and love for our understanding our memory and our will to become what God would really want them to be.

So, I've used that structure as a way of getting into thinking about faith and hope and love. What I'll be looking at is what some of the problems and crises are that in our contemporary culture confront us in respect of our understanding, our remembering and our wanting; some of the ways in which we try to deny or run away from the way the problem is posed; how we as people of faith recover our direction and enter into the fullness of our humanity.

So let's begin with understanding, with intelligence. I was going to say that at the moment we live in a culture where intelligence is not very much prized – but that's probably a bit of an overstatement; let me explain. How do we understand things in an environment where it seems that any opinion or conviction is often regarded as being as good as any other? How does intelligence work in a culture where people are constantly asking, 'What is truth?' and 'Is there such a thing?' On the one hand we have very often an approach to intelligence or knowledge which treats it in a very functional way. You're most of you familiar with the kind of official document on the purpose of education which tells us that its primary aim is to make us a more competitive economy. Whatever exactly that's about, I don't really think it's about intelligence. (You might like to think about the uses of intelligence in the financial world during the last couple of years: but that's another lecture and a longer one.)

So on the one hand there is a philosophy – what someone described as an 'official' philosophy of education – which doesn't really seem to prize intelligence in the old sense; which doesn't seem to give much scope for the mind being stretched and challenged and enriched in completely unpredictable ways – and actually in what may be completely unprofitable ways in terms of visible measures of economic production. But at the same time we have what's usually called the post-modern environment in which any view may be as good as any other, in which a claim to truth (let alone absolute truth) is regarded by some as offensive or oppressive. We are in a period which St John of the Cross might well have described in his characteristic language as a 'dark night' for intelligence. We don't quite know what knowing is for. We don't quite know that we can know or what we can know. And it affects our Christian self-understanding as well. We've lost a great deal of our doctrinal certainty, however loudly we may shout about it. We've often lost a sense that we can confidently trace the works of God and confidently relay to the world what God has said. And we deny this sometimes by slipping back into tribal and moralizing and noisy forms of faith, which never quite come to terms with the huge challenge and crisis in the middle of it all.

We've lost a lot of our bearings. The Church at large continues to say what it has said; it says what it has always said in the context of worship and it reads its Bible faithfully. And yet in so much of the life of the Church there is a degree of loss of nerve and loss of confidence. Can we really understand God? Can we really expect people to absorb the doctrinal universe with its full and rich pattern that an earlier generation – or so we think – inhabited? But in among all this is also a problem which the present Pope has identified very shrewdly more than once. He's spoken sometimes of a loss of confidence in reason in our contemporary world. And I don't think that he meant by that a loss of confidence in rational procedures so much as a loss of patience with argument, real mutual persuasion, a loss of the idea that by mutual persuasion and careful argument we might have our minds enlarged to receive more of the truth. So our intelligence is not in a very good way it seems, either in or out of the Church. And we've devised a number of quite successful ways of pretending there isn't a problem.

Now, what St John of the Cross says to us – and he's not just writing for Carmelite nuns in sixteenth-century Spain – is that out of this sense of a 'brick wall' before our intelligence, and this sense of confusion and loss where our understanding is concerned, faith grows in its true meaning. It appears not as system, not as a comprehensive answer to all our problems. It appears quite simply in the form of 'dependable relationship'. You may not understand, you may not have the words on the tip of your tongue, but you learn somehow to be confident -- or at least to be reliant – on a presence, an other who does not change or go away. You realize that when the signposts and landmarks have been taken away there is a presence that does not let you go. And that's faith, I would say, in a very deeply biblical sense. Look at the disciples in the gospels. Look at the number of times when they say something spectacularly stupid and Jesus says, 'Don't even you understand?' Look at the times when they ask the silly questions, the times when they try to turn away, when they manifestly don't know what's going on. But in the great words at the end of John 6 spoken by Peter, they also say, 'Where else can we go?' They know that the presence that has called them is dependable and that while they may be insecure, volatile, and easily capable of betrayal, forgetting and running away; what they confront in the one they call Rabbi and Master is one who will not go away.

The loss of understanding, a clear sense of what we know and how we know, is part of the difficult business of learning to question at every level who we are. But we are somehow set free to face all that and live with it by the conviction that we are not 'let-go' of. Faith as dependable relationship is something other than faith as a system of propositions, faith as confidence in my own capacity to master truth; it's much more a confidence that I can be mastered by truth, that I can be held even when I don't think I can hold on.

And so in our age and in the age that lies ahead, the faith we as Christians proclaim will need to be not a glib system but the possibility of dependable relationship. We need to point quite simply to the God who does not let go, to the Christ who does not run away – and (here's the rub) we need ourselves to be dependable people. We need to be people in dependable relationship, people who are there for those who feel abandoned and for those who don't know who and where they are. By our faithfulness to the lost, the suffering, the marginal we begin to show what it is to have faith in the one who doesn't let go. And one of the biggest challenges to the Church in our age is how we embody that kind of dependability in this society and throughout the world, which does require a bit of a shift in the kind of Church we think we are, given that we are most commonly perceived as people who are anxious who they should say 'no' to. So there's the challenge: in the age of a dark night of the intelligence we are being led – not for the first time – in a very definite, decisive way towards dependable relation. We are to embody it and to offer it.

But the dark night and the brick wall affect memory just as much. People sometimes speak about our social amnesia in this society. And once every six months or so, one or other of the newspapers will start again asking the question, 'What is Britain?' or 'What is British-ness?' And, 'Have we forgotten our history?' or 'What's being taught in our schools?' If the problem of intelligence is, 'What is truth?' the problem before our memory is, 'Have we forgotten who we were?' Crises of identity are common now in society not just individuals. What is it to be British? But what is it to be Western? Christian? Modern? What is it to be Muslim? Jewish? Because the crises of identity are there as well. But the crises of identity for individuals are no less serious. And they have a very particular form in our age because they seem to be crises about continuity, 'Am I the same person as I was?' In a culture where the average person is likely not to have a job for life, where increasingly, sadly, the average person is not likely even to have a set of stable relationships for life, is there something that holds together the various coming-and-going experiences that enter into the mind and the psyche? Fractured careers and fractured relationships seem to be the order of the day. Is there one story to be told after all about who I am and about who we are?

Just as with intelligence, so with memory; we can find strategies of denial both for Church and society and indeed individual. We can construct satisfying stories and we can recreate an imagined past. We can take refuge not in tradition (which is a good thing), but in an artificial traditionalism (which isn't). We can make up continuities and pretend they're there when they're not: a dark night of memory. But what would St John of the Cross say to that?

Hope, when it comes to birth, is not just a confidence that there is a future for us, it's also a confidence that there's a continuity so that the future is related to the same truth and living reality as the past and the present. Hope is again hope in relation; relation to that which does not go away and abandon, relation to a reality which knows and sees and holds who we are. You have an identity because you have a witness of who you are. What you don't understand or see, the bits of yourself you can't pull together in a convincing story are all held in a single gaze of love. You don't have to work out and finalise who you are and who you have been; you don't have to settle the absolute truth of your history or story; because in the eyes of the presence which does not go away, all that you have been and are is still present and real; it is held together in that unifying gaze as if you were to see a pile of apparently disparate, disconnected bits suddenly revealed as being held together by a string, twitched by the divine observer, the divine witness.

That's very abstract but it's put much more vividly and personally in an extraordinary poem written by Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the great German theologian and martyr. It's a poem written when he was in prison for his share in the plot to assassinate Adolf Hitler. Bonhoeffer writes, '... they tell me I step out into the prison yard like a squire going to walk around his estate'. (Bonhoeffer was a man of rather aristocratic background and bearing.) And the poem is about the great gulf between what 'they' see – a confident, adult, rational, prayerful, faithful, courageous person – and what he knows is going on inside; the weakness and the loss and the inner whimpering and dread. 'So which is me?' Bonhoeffer asks. Is it the person that they see or the person that I know when I'm on my own with myself? And his answer is surprising and blunt: 'I haven't got a clue; God has got to settle that. I don't have to decide if I'm really brave or really cowardly, whether I'm really confident or really frightened, or both. Who I am, is in the hands of God.' And that, I would say is the hope that St John of the Cross might be talking about. It goes beyond the assumption that I am only what I see or know. It tells me that I am more than I realize, in the eyes of God, for good or ill. It tells me to hope in 'what is unseen' (a good biblical phrase) and to hope in the one who doesn't need to be told about how human beings work because he knows the human heart (John 2.25).

Hope then, not simply confidence in the future, but confidence that past, present and future are held in one relationship so that the confusions about memory – who were we? Who was I? Who am I, and who are we? -- become bearable because of the witness in heaven, a witness who does not abandon. And that suggests a Church marked by profound patience: patience with actual human beings in their confusions and uncertainties; patience in an environment when so much seems to be unclear and in danger of getting lost; patience in the sense that we realize it takes time for each one of us to grow up into Christ, and if takes time for each one of us then it takes time for the Body, the community to grow overall. Hope and patience belong together. I would say that only a Church which is learning patience can proclaim hope effectively.

And then what about what we want? What about the will? We talk a great deal about choice, in our culture. And sadly what we often mean is not a great deal more than what some would call the 'supermarket shelf' choice. There are a lot of things and I'm free to have whatever I like. That treats our will, our choosing as a series – once again – of disconnected, fractured acts of choosing, expressions of the surface of what I want. I'll have that one, and not that one, but it doesn't much matter. What matters is that I'm 'free' here and now, to effect my choice.

Somewhere in that kind of talk about freedom, we lose touch with the sense of the deep desires that actually make us who we are. We lose touch with the sense that there is a current in our lives moving towards a goal. In a strange way, in this society we have underplayed the reality of eros. Odd to say that, isn't it? Because we often think that eros, in the form of sexual imagery, is absolutely everywhere, and so, alas it is. But it is eros in the sense of the profound desire that makes me who I am, that makes the whole of my life drawn-towards something beyond myself which gives meaning, the other person that I love, the God I seek to love, that's not quite so clear in our society. We privilege the consumer mentality and we also fail to ask some of the deep questions about the direction of the desire at the root of our being. And we attempt to deal with this and again to deny it very often by finding strategies that increase consumer choices in society, and also strategies that sharpen up our aggression and our self-assertion in individual contexts. We use the language of being 'purpose driven' when often, alas, we just mean 'made capable of more aggressive assertion'. We market books about the secrets of successful people, which are mostly about the tactics of treading on the toes of others. We lose touch with the notion that the most important freedom is the freedom to be ourselves and the freedom to grow – not to 'be ourselves' in the sense of asserting what we want, moment by moment, but to discover slowly and patiently the direction of our life and to find the context in which we will grow as God means us to. Will and choice belong in that framework not simply in an act of assertion, or choosing in a vacuum.

St John of the Cross would tell us that if we face the problems and the apparent 'dark night' around will and freedom and choice and look hard at the trivializing of those realities in ourselves and in our culture, maybe we shall become able to grow into love. Love: an expression of the freedom to receive. Love: that which drives us to take time and to let go of anxiety. Love: that which permits us to be enriched and to be 'given to', made alive, to be breathed-into. Not a passive thing as some of those images might suggest, but a state of openness to joy. Love: not simply as doing good but as a deep contemplative regard for the world, for humanity in general and for human beings in particular and for God. When St Paul writes about love in 1 Corinthians 13 where he spells out the significance of faith, hope and charity, he makes it very clear that love simply as 'doing-good' isn't enough. Love has to be the delight in another, the refusal to be glad at another's failure and the willingness to receive truth as a life-giving, joy-giving thing. Love is something generated by being loved; not that we loved God, but that he loved us – says the First Letter of John.

And that's where all the themes I've been touching on so far come together. That presence which doesn't go away; that presence which remembers and holds in a single gaze what has been true and is true of us; that eternal, unshakeable witness to what we are; that dependable presence, is love. We are seen, known and held but above all we are welcomed. We are the objects of an eternal delight. And if that is sinking into our being, then what the Church is fundamentally and must show itself to be, is a place where time and space are given, where people are allowed the space to experience eternal love, a place where nothing needs to be left at the door and where people are made free to receive in a world which so often seems to be demanding of them all the time – demanding that they give, that they trade, that they offer, that they're out there making a difference. Is the Church an environment in which people can learn to open themselves to joy? The joy that can only come by letting themselves go, of anxious selfishness and the obsession with choosing in the way that I've outlined.

Just as it is a great challenge to the Church to be a place that is dependable, and a place that is patient, it's a great challenge for the Church to become a place sufficiently still for people to open up, sufficiently quiet and un-anxious for people to learn that they can receive what the ultimate truth of the universe wants to give them.

So these are some of the ways in which in our particular cultural context with the anxieties and obsessions that characterize our age, we might – through the crises, the dark night or the brick wall – come to rediscover those three theological virtues of faith and hope and charity. We rediscover them as we discover that relationship which makes us whole, that relationship with the unconditional presence and witness, absolution and affirmation that belongs to God. We discover all this, in short, in relation to the God of the Gospels, the God of Jesus, the God Jesus is. Because the Gospel of God, as the New Testament puts it before us is good news about an eternal presence, an agency and intelligence wholly committed to who we are and who we shall become. Wholly committed to our growth into what we are made to be. Wholly committed to each person in their distinctiveness; patient, undemanding and massively demanding. A God who offers us life, peace, presence to ourselves and to him, who offers a gift which—in T S Eliot's words – 'costs us not less than everything' and in another sense costs nothing at all because gift is what it is.

Can the Church begin to speak of these things and show these things? Yes, if it's prepared to acknowledge its own denials, its own refusals of faith, hope and love, and if it's also prepared to do a little bit of diagnosis of the denials of the society we live in, the denials that enslave us and trivialize our understanding and our remembering and our wanting. Yes if the Church lives consistently, courageously in an awareness that the power that made us and redeemed us is a power devoted to the fullness of life. Faith and hope and love, these three, says St Paul, are the heart of all our learning and growing. The greatest is love, because once we have understood the nature of that to which we are present in its eternal, unchangeable radiance and glory, everything else falls into place.

So, God help us learn that and live it and be a Church that can be dependable, patient, and above all give the space for men and women to receive the joy it is God's purpose to share with us.

© Rowan Williams 2010

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