Richard Briggs, Director of Biblical Studies and Lecturer in Old Testament at Cranmer Hall, Durham, reviews Rowan Williams’ Luminaries: Twenty Lives that Illuminate the Christian Way (London: SPCK, 2019).
In a little under 150 modest pages (small page size, large font), Rowan Williams takes us on a guided tour of 20 people whose lives have something to say to us. The ‘us’ in that sentence, I guess, is people who are interested in learning from the lives of others, and who have broad interests in church history ancient and modern, and are willing to believe that illumination could lie anywhere. My own experience of reading this book was that it does indeed lie rather more widely than I might have expected.
First a description of what Williams does. He takes anything from 5 to 12 pages over each ‘life’, typically 7 or 8 pages, and offers the briefest context before probing one or two key points that speak to us today. The material is eclectic, and sourced from various places. By my count, 7 of the pieces were sermons, 7 more were lectures or addresses, 3 are extracts from previously published works of his, 1 was a radio talk, and 2 are not credited (including the longest piece, 12 pages on Theresa of Avila, about whom Williams once wrote a book). The result of these origins as (mainly) oral address is that the book feels quite informal, and also quite focused on delivering a short, sharp message to take away from each chapter.
Secondly: whose lives are included? We start with the apostle Paul, presented as a man of passion and deep thinking combined. Then three early figures are Anselm and the two Augustines. From the medieval age come Anselm and Meister Eckhart. After Cranmer and Tyndale, more modern figures range more widely, including spiritual writers, figures from the arts (Dickens gets a chapter), noble fighters for truth (Wilberforce, Bonhoeffer), several people caught up in the Holocaust (as Jewish thinkers loom large), and finishing with Oscar Romero. The chapters are in chronological order. I cannot imagine a reader who will not learn a fair bit about several of the lives covered here – Williams’ breadth is remarkable. He also has quite a winning way of deflating his own account. He likes to say: this is one perspective, or one point, or a view on a widely contested issue, and of course others will know much more about many matters arising. I am not sure that is always true. Or at least, it is hard to imagine anyone who could contest his account of Sergei Bulgakov, for example, while also knowing more about Florence Nightingale than is portrayed here. So I would happily recommend this book to readers far and wide. There is much to learn.
Thirdly, an example of how it works. Williams’ chapter on Augustine of Hippo is a masterpiece of compressed insight. (I write as one who has not read his book of essays on Augustine.) First he clears away, briefly, the ‘ridiculously bad press’ that Augustine has had in wider circles, ‘from people who often have read only a tiny portion of his writing’. Then he plunges into the Confessions to draw out Augustine’s concern with self-deception and the ways we filter our knowledge and awareness in making choices. But then he pivots on this interest in the ‘self’, and shows how Augustine finds a way out: we think we will find fulfilment by pursuing happiness, or mystical experience, or whatever it might be, and then we come to God as a potential candidate for the goal of our searching. But crucially, God does not simply slot into the category we already have, as if our selves were up and running and just looking for the right answer, but rather God reconceives in us what it means to long and to love and to seek. God is never an object we possess, but is the creator remaking what it means to be human. Six short pages on Augustine cannot resource anyone for saying they fully understand him, but what a probing first step that is.
My experience with a good half or more of these essays was similar: a fascinating insight that left me wanting more, but seeing better questions to ask. A personal opinion: the pieces on Cranmer and Wilberforce were both particular highlights for showing how faithfulness works its way out in the midst of awkward circumstances and practical difficulties. And the Florence Nightingale chapter is a masterpiece of how to appreciate one thing about somebody while admitting that other things might have been a bit problematic. But in every case, more or less, you feel like you’ve been given a way in to thinking further with the person in question. It’s like being dropped into the theological gloom with a torch (that’s a flashlight for American readers) and starting to see one or two things clearly.
Finally, two related questions for further reflection. How do we understand our lives in the wider communion imagined here, and how do we cultivate the kind of learning found here? It seems to me that we arrive at theological questions as newcomers to conversations that have been going on for centuries. Sometimes the lines are clearly drawn (I’m for this, or against that). More often, there are nuances, or competing coherent views, and I find it helpful to hear the perspectives of others and try to work out why things look the way they do to others. No one here has a final word, as indeed none of them really had a first word. All were responding in turn to prior words – and we join them in living in a chain that goes all the way back to the first Word, God (in creation, in Christ, and so forth). I think that’s a great gift. And this book offers 20 windows into that wider world. Of course part of the on-going conversation would be how to assess what counts as a faithful witness to that original word in the (very) different times and cultures on view here. Williams largely leaves that for further exploration, but to do otherwise would have made the tone of the book very different, and altogether less of an introductory invitation.
One reflection on reading these ‘illuminations’ was how few, if any, of these 20 people theorised their way first to a theological position and then simply deployed it through life on a case-by-case basis. Rather, unpredictable and difficult life experience provoked them into fresh theological thinking that was often, indeed, a surprise to themselves. Take Bonhoeffer’s involvement in the plot to assassinate Hitler, or Romero’s confronting the rulers of El Salvador, as simply two of the latest examples of that in this book. How shall we in turn let our theological thinking be ready for such trials, which may very likely come in the form we least expect them and at the time we least imagine them coming? Is there any better way, or more character-shaping way, than in joining in the conversation of words that reach all the way back to the original life-giving word?
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