Tuesday, February 03, 2004

Sacraments by Rowan Williams

Badges of Profession: Sacraments and Archbishop Rowan Williams

Clint usually respects my job by refusing to suggest books for me to read. He literally did cry out in protest when he recently found out that I have not read anything by Rowan Williams. At least not that I can remember. So he laid the imperative on me quickly to do so. And, I do what I'm told.

So I picked up his On Christian Theology and looked at some of the essays on the sacraments. One of them approaches the sacraments anthropologically, from the perspective of human community and communication. He compares the sacraments as signs (using traditional western language) to human sign giving and making. This enterprise, he argues, is fundamentally religious. He then says, of course, Isreal had signs that constitute their community. The Torah functions in all sorts of ways and so on. The same thing happens in the church and in Jesus.

He draws upon the identification of Jesus as the unique sacrament of God. This then leads to some excellent comments on the sacramentality of the church and some proposals to stem off the questions of human and divine action in the sacraments.

I have to say that despite some excellent insights, Williams fails to presuade me that I should care all that much about the church's signs or the sign community. He interprets the churches signs wholly in a way that he does not argue for how they differ from the general human creation of signs. That he does not need to do if he is presupposing this and then utilizing the ritual descriptions to enliven his sacramentology. But there is not a hint of this. I am too pursuaded by the crisis in theology provoked or indicated in 1919 by the Romans commentary of Barth (as well prepared for by previous theologians in his heritage, such as Ritschl, even Schleiermacher) to so readily grant this basic continuity between human sign making and sacramental sign making. God's action in all human and creaturely things is of course there. God works life and death and all in all. But that God's work is hidden becuase it is the work of God who actively hides himself from us.

Of course, it God speaks to the creature through the creature, as Oswald Bayer quotes Johann Georg Hamman. Williams is of course on to this fact. But his discussion requirs more at this specific point to show the transition from our mode of observation of human communicative action and its sign-character to the invocation of God's action. Indeed, from what I can glean from just this essay, Williams is very wooly about that point of speaking through the creature. That God speaks to us, he wishes to say. But to identify this action or its relation to human action, Williams' essay seems to think that in the discussion of sacraments, it may be quietly passed over. He does get at it somewhat in the end in claiming that all human sign making is enabled by God's primordial act of love. I'll have to think more on this.

At any rate, I am grateful for the suggestion, Clint. Now just dont' suggest anything more until September.

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