Sunday, 5 February 2017

Rowan Williams (2016) Being Disciples: Essentials of the Christian Life (SPCK)

In this little book, designed for study by church groups, Rowan Williams asks what it is that keeps the Christian disciple going.  His answer is not –  as one might expect from any former senior cleric other than Williams –  doctrinal and moral purity, but the qualities of self-awareness, stillness, growth and joy.  This book, which for me expresses in Christian and Biblical terms the basic truths of mindfulness therapy and Buddhist ethics, is an essential guide to spirituality, or faith in practice, for Quaker theist and non-theist alike.


Non-Christocentrics should not be put off by the blurb, which proclaims:
The aim of this little book is simple: to help you see more clearly, love more dearly and follow more nearly the way of Jesus Christ.
For Williams as a Christian, being a disciple means being with Christ but it also means, in non-religious language, questioning our consistency and honesty –  in other words, integrity and truth.  It is also about how Christians as a church go about being a learning community –  in other words, personal growth with others. 

Chapter 1: Being disciples

Taking Jn 1:36-39 as the text for his first chapter, Williams expounds discipleship as about being aware and attentive – living in awareness with mind relaxed but attentive.  Disciples are alert, attentive, watching symbolic acts (something irrelevant for Quakers) and listening for instructive words (very relevant to Quakers) in a quiet state of mind, which to me resembles mindfulness. Williams is careful not to use this term but the question he puts in the mouth of the disciple, echoing Bonhoffer  –  ‘What is Jesus Christ giving me here and now?’ –  is the Christocentric equivalent of the principle behind the work of Jon Kabat-Zinn and Eckhart Tolle. 

Community is also an essential part of discipleship.  Conceiving of Jesus as a living power, Williams says that being where Jesus is means being in the company of the people whose company Jesus seeks.  The non-Christocentric Quaker might say that the spiritually minded naturally flock together.  The attitude of mind of the disciple is one of being sufficient free of the preoccupations of the ego to be open to what God in Christ – the true demands of a reality properly understood, one might say –  is giving.  We have all got to grow into a mature stillness, a poise and an openness to others and the world.  

Chapter 2: Faith, hope and love

For the second chapter Williams takes as his text 1 Cor 13:8-13, the famous passage in which St Paul tells us that faith, hope and love abide, the greatest of these being love. Williams says we privilege a consumer mentality when it comes to desire so that we fail to ask the deep questions about the direction of the desire at the root of our being. The most important freedom is the freedom to discover how we should grow, to find the context in which we will grow as God, or Good Orderly Direction, means us to.  Love is an expression of the freedom to receive; is that which drives us to take time and let go of anxiety; is a state of openness and joy.  Love is not simply doing good but is a deep contemplative regard for the world, for humanity in general and for human beings in particular.  As the Buddhists would put it, love is compassion.  Williams admits it is a challenge for his Church to become a place sufficiently still for people to open up to receive the truth the universe wants to give them. (For Quakers  this is perhaps less of a problem.)  Love, together with faith and  hope, are about personal growth or, as Williams puts it, of our learning and growing in Christ.

Chapter 3: Forgiveness

The text for the third chapter, on forgiveness, is Mt 7.7-9. Forgiveness is a crucial feature of personal growth, to use the modern term that Williams is not afraid to do.  Forgiveness is one of the most radical ways in which we are able to nourish one another’s humility. The person who asks for forgiveness has acknowledged her own need for healing.  In one of those creative insights into traditional language and practice which so characterises Williams’ work, he suggests a connection between the prayer for daily bread and that for forgiveness.

Chapter 4: Holiness

The fourth chapter, headed by 2 Cor 3.17-18 and 4.6, is about holiness, which is about being involved, absolutely so, and not separated.   Truly holy people make you feel good about yourself and cast a new light on the landscape of life.  Such people are in love with themselves, not in an egotistic way but because they sense the joy that God takes in them. Williams gives Desmond Tutu as an example. A holy person is imbued with joy in the extraordinariness of God (or, if you like to put it in non-religious terms, the sheer joy at the good luck of being a live human being).  Williams goes on to suggest that holiness entails contemplation, or what he calls looking at Jesus, and exploration, or an open-mindedness about the human world.  (This is closely aligned with gratitude, another healthy state of mind).

Chapter 5: Faith in society

The fifth chapter has a lengthy text, 1 Cor. 12.12-26, and is about faith in society, about Christian social action.  It is a relief to find that Williams does not equate such action with simplistic and naïve left-wing politics.  Rather, he takes a philosophical position, saying that we are each of equal value to God –  something Quakers would wholeheartedly embrace –  and that we are all dependent on each other.  Christians and all people of good recognise that which is special about each other, difficult though it may be to pinpoint exactly what that amounts to in any one individual.  At the same time, we are dependent on each other, an idea which in Buddhist philosophy is that of interdependent origination.  That is why we should avoid discriminatory judgements about people based on categories of identity.  (Sadly, the mainstream churches continue to have a serious problem with this.) Williams quietly suggests that Christians should avoid large-scale issues of public prosperity, by which I think he means the often too partisan politics of health provision, welfare and defence, but concentrate on shifting attitudes.  He gives as examples the hospice movement, fairtrade and prison reform.  This is a very important insight for QPSW, who tend to take fixed campaigning positions on very complicated issues and thereby threaten unity.  What Williams suggests to me is that Quakers would do better to concentrate on those issues which they do well - those quiet processes about gender equality and peace-building, for example - and leave divisive questions of public prosperity to the political parties and secular campaigning groups.

Chapter 6: Life in the Spirit

Williams summarises the life in the spirit in his sixth chapter, taking as his text Gal 5.16-22.  What keeps us as disciples is:

  • self-awareness
  • stillness
  • growth 
  • joy   
Williams' list is strikingly similar to the Buddhist Seven Factors of Enlightenment, which are mindfulness, intention, zeal, joy, calm, concentration and equanimity.  It also resembles the Quaker notion of the light which, admittedly, most Quakers would not say was the same as enlightenment.  In any event, for Williams, salvation is not the continuation of the individual consciousness after death in some earth-like paradise but enlightenment here and now in community with like-minded people.

Something I have also discovered since reading this book is that there are traditional values within the Christian Church, the seven graces of the Holy Spirit, and that Williams' exposition is in line with that tradition. Early Christian thinkers, the Fathers of the Church, identified a set of seven values which resemble the Buddhist Seven Factors of Enlightenment and, furthermore, the Eightfold Path.  These  Seven Graces of the Holy Spirit are divided into the intellectual and the theological.  The four intellectual Graces are wisdom, understanding, knowledge and counsel or right judgement; the three theological Graces, which draw us to God, are fortitude or courage, piety and wonder or fear of the Lord.  There is an obvious overlap with the seven cardinal and spiritual virtues (prudence, justice, fortitude and temperance; faith, hope and charity) and it is noteworthy that modern secular philosophers have taken an interest in the ethics of the virtues including the intellectual virtues.  There is also a connection with positive psychology.  It is heartening that so many thinkers, past and present, have emphasised the virtues and the moral and intellectual gifts we have, or potentially have, rather than seek to control us through demoralising emphasis on sin and our shortcomings.  The early Quakers, in emphasising the Light and our ability to discern right from wrong by the powers each and everyone of us possess to some degree, took on the controlling and miserable Puritans like Richard Baxter.  Indeed, the scope for, and duty of, personal growth is what Robert Barclay draws attention to in Proposition VIII of his Apology for the True Christian Divinity, concerning perfection.  The founding Quakers accepted the doctrine of original sin but, unlike Baxter and the other Puritans, believed that the salvation through Jesus Christ is available in this world and that perfectability is to be had now in the present kingdom of God. Barclay says of his Proposition that 'this perfection still admit[s] of a growth' in this life.  In other words, redemption from sin and, beyond this, further spritual growth is possible here and now.  Penn in No Cross No Crown talks of Quakers' opponents being themselves 'opponents of perfection'.  Given the Quakers' firm commitment to salvation and perfectability in this life, it is odd some modern Quakers make such free use of the term 'brokenness' even to the extent of referring to the brokenness of God (QF&P 26.50), which strikes me as heterodox.  Barclay is clear that conquest of sin and spiritual growth is possible in this lifetime through Christ Jesus, and there is every reason why modern Quakers should continue to adhere to this proposition, whether or not they choose to put it in Christocentric terms.

What I find most impressive about Williams is that he takes his readers beyond the tired old dichotomies between theism and non-theism, Biblical inerrancy and the Bible as myth, with a message that is both Christocentric and biblical but also universal.  As I have tried to show, it is possible to transform the self by giving his words their full intellectual and emotional meaning.  If I have one complaint about Williams, it is that he is prone to redundant language.  Phrases like ‘quite simply’ pepper the text.  This may be because this book, like his Tokens of Trust, is based on talks which may in turn have been partly extemporised and so the book may have captured his habits of speech.  In addition, at £8.99 for 86 pages Being Disciples is expensive for what is not much more than a pamphlet, though I am glad to see that the publisher has cooperated with the profiteering stateless corporations of global capitalism by providing a Kindle edition at the lesser price of £5.98.

1 comment:

  1. Thank you, Mark, for this fine and thoughtful review. I will purchase a copy of William's copy on this recommendation. One thing: you mention "the tired old dichotomies between theism and non-theism, Biblical inerrancy and the Bible as myth". I wonder how 'tired' they are because when I give workshops to non-Quakers for instance it is these sorts of issues that come up time and again. Another one is 'almighty God'. In fact, I'm giving a talk in Brisbane in a few weeks on the 'Toxic God' and a fair-sized attendance seems to be the go. I remember giving a talk at Australia YM a few years ago on the nature of Jesus with the focus on the 'revolutionary politics' of the 'Kingdom'. It produced a lively discussion about the divinity of Jesus, the nature of God, transcendentalism, immanence etc. 40-50 Friends turned up in the evening session and another 20+ at a repeat gig the following day. I suspect that these issues are still alive and well out there and not just among mainstream Christians. Just a few thoughts, Mark.