Theology as Ascetic Practice: Rowan Williams as Lenten Theologian

“For Williams, therefore, the point of theology is not solve our puzzles or answer all our questions. Nor is it the hubristic enterprise of creating unassailable systems of thought. Theology rather is a spiritual discipline, a labour of intellectual asceticism. It is the cultivation of patient, attentive adoration of the mystery of God. Theology and spirituality meet in contemplation, where we are no longer describing God from a distance, but participating in a mystery that penetrates the whole world of human experience. We ‘are questioned, stripped naked and left speechless’ by a reality we cannot control.” Ben Myers, Christ the Stranger: The Theology of Rowan Williams, quoting from Rowan Willams, The Wound of Knowledge

These words from Ben Myers excellent treatment of Rowan Williams’s theology, Christ the Stranger, not only speak to a core theme in Williams’s thought and spiritual practice, but also to an idea that I have blogged about frequently, namely the interplay of theology and spirituality and the abiding and unfathomable reality of mystery.

If the sentence, “Theology rather is a spiritual discipline, a labour of intellectual asceticism”, were tattooed on the forehead of every would be theologian, (I include myself here), we might end up with less theology in the world, but the theology we did have would, I dare say, be the richer for it.

It must be said, that linking prayer with theology, or saying that theology begins in prayer is not uncontroversial, but again I would say as someone situated in the church, who has to stand up and speak about God, I have to hear these words. I have to be driven to my knees. If not, how else would I dare to ever say anything? Balthasar famously said that theology begins on its knees, and as a churchman this is intuitively the case, and to forget it is to risk more than I am willing to venture.

Beginning in wonder and nourished by contemplative receptivity, for Balthasar, there is no real theology that is not marked by both adoration and obedience. If this is true, how then does William’s own spiritual practice, his own asceticism shape his theology? Myers speaks convincingly of the austerity of Williams’ theology, an austerity that he says comes from Williams formation in Russian Orthodox theology and, more importantly, contemplative prayer.

Williams’ thought is not just rooted in ascetic practice, but also in an ascetic frame of mind, for Myers also describes Williams’s approach as a Lenten theology. He helpfully adds that though such theology might be a necessary corrective to overblown and overly optimistic accounts of the faith, “A theology of Lent is a great thing: but one cannot live by ash alone.” This is so nicely put and so apt, I had to quote it, but I also wanted to say that as we move into Lent in 2020, perhaps Williams might be an able guide, and perhaps he can lead us first into the silence of the wilderness, where we can wait, where we can prayer, and where we might hear anew.

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