Advanced search Click here for the website of the current Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby

This is an archived website containing material relating to Dr Rowan Williams’ time as Archbishop of Canterbury, which ended on 31st December 2012

Skip Content

Archbishop's Holy Week Lecture: Faith & History

Wednesday 19th March 2008

A lecture given by The Archbishop of Canterbury in Westminster Abbey during Holy Week 2008 - the third in a series entitled 'A Question on Faith'.

Click downloads on the right to listen to the lecture [46Mb], and the question & answer session that followed the lecture [27Mb].

Read the transcript of the lecture below, followed by the questions & answers - or click here to go directly to the Q & A transcript.

Transcript of the lecture:

Faith & History

On Monday I outlined the way in which science needed to be seen, not as a single world view, but as a set of things human beings do: finding its meaning, its significance in the context of all the other things that human beings do, and therefore in search always of a framework of understanding about human dignity and human distinctiveness, which needed to be provided from somewhere other than its own methods and results. And that led on last night to considering the world of politics: a world where there is, or there should be, vigorous debate about these issues of human dignity. We looked last night at the ways in which a community with distinct and particular convictions about human destiny and human nature fitted in to a society very often far from sure about these things. And I made the point that where both science and politics are concerned, part of the function of the Church is to draw out the assumptions that underlie our most pressing public debates, and try and stimulate a more candid and a more far-reaching discussion about these fundamental matters. But to speak as I did last night – of the Church in particular as a community within society, that sees itself as a kind of 'citizens' body', as offering to the rest of society a distinctive set of beliefs about what makes human beings human – prompts the question of how the Church came into being, and the relation of its faith to historical events.

If we do indeed believe that a radically new possibility has come into the world, both of knowing about human beings and of acting humanly, that something new has entered into the world that affects the definition of human destiny, how exactly is such a belief brought into being? In its earliest phases of development this belief rests on the view at its very heart, that Jesus of Nazareth has re-defined what's involved in being human. And that is expressed in a variety of images and metaphors in the New Testament. Here is the image of God in humanity restored. Here is the second Adam, the beginning of the human race renewed. Here is the 'firstborn of all creation'. There's a powerful sense in the New Testament, that whatever else is said about Jesus of Nazareth, one thing has to be underlined: there is a beginning of something here. And that is the beginning of precisely that sense of an enlarged, expanded humanity, capable of things of which humanity was not capable before. Thus the events of the life of Jesus are understood as new beginning, as a gift and a breakthrough. Jesus doesn't simply appear as the natural conclusion of a long process and no more: something is introduced into our world and into our language by the events of his life. And that of course means that if certain things are not true about Jesus within the framework of history, there is no new definition of human destiny and there is no new possibility in being human.

Pontius Pilate in St John's Gospel is reported as saying; 'Behold the man', at one point in the trial of Jesus. As usual in St John's Gospel, what people say means a great deal more than lies on the surface: and from the very earliest days of Christianity, that – probably – sceptical phrase of Pilate's has come to be understood as saying; here is humanity, renewed. But if we're to take that seriously we need to pursue the question 'what do we need to know to be true about Jesus of Nazareth?' And on the basis on what we have before us, in the New Testament and elsewhere, what trust can we repose in these things?

So to begin with this evening, I want to suggest a number of aspects of the life of Jesus as reported to us in the Gospels, which are fundamental in understanding how a new sense of being human could have arisen from his life. The first is something reported on a number of occasions in the Gospel narrative and picked up by some of the earliest believers: the recollection that Jesus addressed God in a distinctive way, that he used for God the word Abba, 'father', a familiar and intimate word used significantly in the records of Jesus' prayer in the Garden of Gethsemane on the night before he suffered. That recollection preserved in the Gospel story is preserved also indirectly in the letters of St Paul when he twice refers to the fact that the Holy Spirit working in the lives of Christians gives us the liberty to call God exactly what Jesus called him. What Jesus says to God, and what his saying to God says about God, is part of the clearing of the ground for something new. Jesus addresses God with unprecedented intimacy, unprecedented within his own religious tradition, and that intimacy becomes characteristic of the way Jesus' followers talk to God. And to talk to God like this presupposes certain things about God, that God's attitude to us is fundamentally that of a parent, and that we are destined to be at home with God in the sense that a child is at home with a parent. There's more to be said about that, but I'm simply describing those minimum conditions which would need to be true about Jesus. If there had been nothing in the life of Jesus suggesting that distinctive intimacy with God, then his followers would not have spoken in those terms, would not have prayed in those words.

Secondly, Jesus in the Gospels is presented to us as engaged in the task of re-establishing, recreating, membership in the people of God. He doesn't simply rest content with existing definitions of what's involved in belonging to God's people. He proposes a new criterion: trust in what he himself is saying. The criterion of belonging with God is no longer an exact and complete observance of the law or the sacrificial system, it's no longer even ethnic identity, (although that doesn't come out wholly clearly in the Gospels themselves, it's followed through very promptly in the life of the early Church). Jesus is redefining what you need in order to belong with God, and redefining it in terms of trust in him as a person and in the words he speaks and the promises he gives. And on the basis of that, his first followers understand that the community of his friends and associates is potentially limitless. It is as wide as the human race itself.

Thirdly, Jesus is presented in the Gospels as someone who claims the freedom to declare to others that God has forgiven them. He claims in his work of healing and exorcism to clear the way between human .beings and the holy. By his act of reaching out, touching, healing, and forgiving, he establishes a relationship between a person and God. The Gospel stories reflect very sharply the controversy that this provoked, because of the obvious shock involved when someone claims to be able to establish relationships between human beings and God.

And the fourth element of basic significance, and perhaps the most controversial of these, is that Jesus is shown to us in the Gospels as someone aware that he lives at risk, that he is overwhelmingly likely to die at the hands of the political and religious systems of the day. But he is also presented to us as understanding that risk, that likely death, as significant, as something that unlocks or releases a future, that pays a price, that delivers a ransom, that in various other ways again establishes a relationship between humanity and the divine.

Now those different aspects of the story of Jesus as told in the Gospels begin to clarify for us what's distinctive about the claims, the self-understanding, of the earliest Christian community. It is a community which speaks to God in the language of intimacy. It's a community which sees its potential limits as set only by the limits of the human race itself. It's a community in which people speak to one another, in the name of Jesus, words of release -- absolution in the technical language – because Jesus has spoken to them words of absolution, of release. And it's a community which looks to the execution of Jesus as a significant, vital, central moment or event in everything that it understands and does. The cross of Jesus becomes an essential focal point in what's talked about. The community speaks of itself in terms of its members being 'children' and 'heirs' of God, and, in looking at the cross, the community sets itself under and judges itself by the death of Jesus understood as an act of self-surrender, self-giving. So that is in part, the way in which the story of Jesus and the understanding of the first Christian community, interlocks. If none of those things was true about Jesus, the community would rest upon a fiction. And so, although establishing any or all of those things about Jesus wouldn't instantly give a knock-down argument for Christian faith, Christian faith would not long survive the demonstration that none of those things was in fact true about him.

We have very little in the way of supposedly neutral records of Jesus in the first century. We have a couple of mentions in historians and others of the time, which tell us very little. We have the Gospels, written, it's fairly safe to assume, between twenty-five and fifty or sixty years after the crucifixion. Dates are notoriously debated among scholars. It's interesting to see that the consensus of a lot of recent scholarship has pushed the dates back rather than forward into a shorter time span. Whatever we say about that, these are records which came into existence within the lifetime of those who had been with Jesus. But that's only part of an answer to the question 'are these traditions trustworthy?' In some ways more interesting is the question of whether this picture fits generally into what we can know of the whole society in which Jesus lived; what we can know about Judea under Roman occupation in the first century. (Those of you who have been following The Passion on the BBC this week will have some seen some of the results of scholarship in this area portrayed effectively and very dramatically.) And one can at least say this: that what the Gospels present as central in the life of Jesus, fits into the context without too much strain. We know there were debates about whether it was possible for anyone to speak for God, debates about whether prophecy in the old sense happened any longer. We know there were debates about who counted as a member of the people of God and that there were rival systems and proposals for understanding that. We know that crucifixions – that is, executions for sedition – were widespread, and that anyone involved in challenging political authority in that context would have been very foolish indeed not to reckon on the possibility of execution. Jesus of Nazareth was probably about five or six years old at the time of one of the great revolts against the Romans in Galilee, which produced, according to the historians, two thousand crucifixions along the roadsides. The young Jesus would have seen what a crucifixion looked like, many times over.

The point I'm making is that those areas of the portrait of Jesus which the Gospel gives us and which I've described as arguably central to the understanding of the early Church, are aspects to which the historical context we know about is quite friendly - curiously, in some people's eyes, more friendly than that historical context might be to some of the attempts, in more recent years, to reconstruct a portrait of Jesus radically different from that of the Gospel, often on the basis of discoveries or supposed discoveries, alternative gospels, or alternative traditions. Leaving gently on one side, for one moment, the extravagant fantasies of The da Vinci Code, we still have a series of minority Christian documents from a little bit later: the Gospel of Judas, which made a great impression a couple of years ago; and similar texts from the early Christian period which are often seized upon by those who would like to construct an alternative portrait. Many things could be said about the arguments involved. But one perhaps not often enough underlined is that the Jesus who appears in many of these 'alternative' gospels is one who has a far less clear and specific historical anchorage than the Jesus of the Gospels. The Jesus who speaks in these alternative texts is, as often as not, someone who might have been talking almost anywhere, whose specific engagement with the politics and society of first-century Judea is invisible. That in itself inclines me – you won't be surprised to hear – to feel unmoved by the claims of these alternatives.

It's been pointed out that some of these versions of Jesus in alternative gospels from probably later periods, fit very happily into a modern spiritual framework, which is very wary of pinning itself to any specific community and tradition, or any particular human story. The timeless wisdom associated with Jesus in these stories sits quite easily with post-modern framework. But what is lost in all this is precisely the Jesus engaging with, arguing with, and transforming a real and specific social and political world, and I think that is a significant loss – to put it very mildly.

So far, we've been looking at aspects of the story of Jesus as the Gospel tells it, and aspects of the early Church, to understand how the way in which the Church began to think and speak about itself is bound in with the kind of life that Jesus is claimed to have lived: but there is something more, something much more challenging and problematic. Given all of this, it might still be possible to say that the Church existed because it was inspired by Jesus, but the New Testament from its very earliest layers, says more than that. It says that the Church is, presently, here and now, addressed by Jesus, activated by Jesus; Jesus is not a figure of the past, he is someone whose breath, whose spirit, here and now animates the community of believers. He is an agent, a subject, not a memory, he doesn't appear as passive or something/someone who is thought about or remembered by believers who are active: he takes initiatives and is present as an agent, a judge, a friend, someone who invites and welcomes, someone who actively introduces us into the presence of the God he called Abba, Father, so that as we breathe his breath we say the same thing to God. In other words, Jesus, for the first Christian communities is alive. And that brings us on to the largest historical question that there can be: that of the Resurrection. The early Christian community exists, not simply because it believes all these things about Jesus as a matter of historical memory, it exists because it understands Jesus to have been raised from the dead.

It's simple enough, in one way, to dismiss any further discussion with the claim that 'miracles don't happen'. But that may be a slightly risky assumption if you believe in a God who is eternally and unconditionally active. The philosopher Wittgenstein (no great pillar of Christian orthodoxy) remarked on reading the Gospel of St John that we could have no prior idea what the Act of God would look like if translated into human terms, and therefore he was not at all prepared to approach the Gospel of St John with a set of ready-made, rationalist questions. What would be 'natural' for a person embodying God's 'action without reserve'? Beware of approaching that with too many a prioris. But let's be more specific: what is claimed about the Resurrection of Jesus in the Gospels; and what kind of credence ought to be placed in the story as it's there told?

I want to spend a little time looking at the way in which the story is told; because I'd say where the Resurrection is concerned the actual form of the narrative in the Gospels tells us a good deal. And one aspect of the form of the narrative is this: whereas in the rest of the Gospels you will frequently find what you might call 'well-polished' ways of story telling, nuggets of tradition that have been polished and refined and handed on in conventional form, and whereas you'll find in the rest of the Gospels, allusions to this or that event having happened, especially in the story of Jesus' passion 'so that prophecy might be fulfilled', the stories of the Resurrection have about them a quality of 'rawness', an unpolished character, which is very striking when set against the rest of the Gospels. It's rather as if people don't yet quite know how to tell this story. Jesus performs a miracle of healing in his ministry (let's say) and those who witness this and pass on the story, imperceptibly mould this in the shape of stories about healing associated with the prophets Elijah or Elisha in the Old Testament. There's nothing sinister about this, this is how stories get told. This is the kind of event for which you have a model of story-telling. More radically, the story of Jesus' death shows evidence of people reflecting long and hard over its details, to find connections with texts of the Old Testament. Jesus' robe being gambled for by the Roman soldiers becomes the fulfillment of the words in the Psalms: they cast lots for my garments. You can see the story-telling process at work, what I call the refining and polishing.

But how are you going to tell this story? You find in the various stories of the Resurrection - the story of the walk to Emmaus in St Luke's Gospel, and the story of Jesus appearing to Mary Magdalene in St John's Gospel to take the two most marked examples - narratives that don't sound like anything else in the Gospels, or indeed anything else in the whole Bible. And I think that basic, literary fact about the way the Resurrection stories are told should make us think. We're not here dealing with events which fell into familiar patterns. The level of sheer unclarity in some of the stories, particularly where they touch on the difficulty of recognizing the risen Jesus: the unclarity about the sense in which you can say that he appears as a body and yet clearly doesn't behave like a body (coming through locked doors); all these tensions and stresses within the story-telling itself suggest – at the very least – that what happened on the first Easter Sunday was surprising. It still is. It doesn't fit into the conventions, it generates its own forms of story-telling, so that it becomes far more plausible to say that, whatever happened on the first Easter Sunday, it was something which caused people to revise their perspectives, to cast around for new language and new images to speak about it, something which allowed the friends of Jesus to think through once again the story and the teaching and the death of Jesus, as a unit, and to leave a great deal of unfinished business which the whole of the New Testament seeks to deal with. It's what makes the story of Jesus' death not just a story about another martyr for a good cause: it's what makes the story of Jesus' after-death reality not just a story about how he was spiritually exalted to heaven; there's something else going on which is about a return to the circumstances and relationships of this earth on the far side of death. And that is of course how the Jews of those days understood Resurrection - not a transfer to another realm above, but people standing again upon the earth.

All of this is part of what makes me continue to take the stories of the Resurrection in the Gospels with complete seriousness, as reflecting a historical reality. In spite of endless scholarly investigation and debate it's proved very hard indeed to move the stories of the empty tomb and the apparitions 'out of focus'; they won't easily be dissolved or rationalized. And it's interesting that the Gospels themselves already anticipate the sort of objections you might raise: 'yes' says St Matthew, 'you could say that somebody stole the body'; 'yes', says St Luke, 'you could say that this is a ghost story'; yes, you could say this is about hysterical illusion on the part of over-excitable women. The Gospel writers already know the sort of questions that are likely to arise, and yet they obstinately go on telling the story as if to say 'but we don't know what else to say', because that is what is received. And so if we're talking about breakthrough -- the sheer literary shape of the Gospels, the way they're written, the way the story is told – this seems to prompt the question of what it was that caused this explosion of new story-telling and new language strong enough to persist in a way that allowed the first Christian communities to say without ambiguity, He is alive. The breakthrough is not only into a new theory about humanity, but into a tangible reality, a new world of experience in which Jesus is encountered as living. If the tomb was not empty and the stories of apparition and encounter are fiction, it is indeed very hard to understand how and why the conviction of Jesus alive became so dominant. You have to come up with a better theory.

I hinted already that it's extremely hard to come to absolute certainty on any matter of history, including those about the life and Resurrection of Jesus. Coming to the evidence in the way that any historian might, perhaps all the historian as such can say is that something happened, obscure to the processes of investigation, which generated a new community and a new language. But neither the historian nor anyone else has a set of neutral facts lying around, waiting to be interpreted once they've been carefully catalogued. Ultimately, belief that the Resurrection happened remains a step of trust, of faith, a step associated with understanding yourself, your humanity and your future, in the context of this new community.

When I first began to study theology, it was quite fashionable to quote the German philosopher who had said that 'eternal truths can't be proved by matters of accidental historical fact' and therefore to pull apart faith and history. But the fallacy in that axiom is of course that what is proposed by Christian faith is not a set of eternal truths, as it were, a mathematical formula. What is proposed is life in community in what's been called the Body of Christ, life in a community defined by relationship to Jesus, and that does depend on a historical narrative and a historical location.

I've been trying to outline what it is about the life and ministry of Jesus, first of all, that shapes the way in which the first Christian communities talk about themselves, but then to look at that crucial, triggering moment which allowed the emergence of new ways of talking and thinking, new ways even of story-telling, which is somewhere in-between the execution of Jesus on the cross and the appearance of the communities whose literature we read in the New Testament. In that gap is the Resurrection. The gap itself is undoubtedly a historical fact, as even the most sceptical historian would have to admit. The Christian is challenged to take the step of saying 'this is what happened', and I believe that that step is not groundless or irrational.

But before I finish, I'd like to turn very briefly to the related question affecting issues around faith and history: whether the history of the Church itself – the community of faith – generates faith or not. If the Church claims that humanity has been renewed, does it look as if it has been? Because if we were able to point only to two thousand years of conspicuous moral failure by the Church, there would be – at first blush – a case for saying 'whatever you might think ought to have been possible for humanity turns out not to have been: we've gone on much the same as ever'. There's quite a strong case for that. The history of the Church overall is not uniformly and shiningly an example of humanity transfigured. And yet the Church continues to say every time it acts liturgically, performs public worship, we believe we have been made anew, created afresh in and through Jesus. We believe Jesus is active in his spirit here and now. It is said very particularly in those actions that Christians call 'sacraments'. And that is one of the things which might perhaps give us a little bit of pause before we assume that the history of Christianity is simply one massive dis-proof of the claims of Christ. The Church doesn't say 'we are perfectly realizing the possibilities of new humanity'; the Church does say that when it gathers to receive the bread and the wine which Jesus gave over to his disciples at the Last Supper, someone is active in our midst other than ourselves. We may be conspicuous failures in our new humanity - we normally are - but there is something that does not desert us, there is a possibility renewed by Jesus. More than that, however, if the overall history of Christian faith across the centuries is, at best, a little bit uneven, it remains true that the Church points to certain human lives – the lives of those it calls 'holy', the Saints – as if to say 'well, it can happen', and if only one saint across those twenty centuries has been credible and authentic, the sceptic has got to explain that away. People have sometimes said that, whereas the Christian has to struggle with the problem of evil, it's equally true that the sceptic has to struggle with the problem of good. If it is shocking, dreadful and agonizingly difficult to understand how dreadful evil in human beings and in the world around is possible in a world made by a loving God, one is still left with the question of how then there come to be human lives which have about them certain qualities of newness, of radical challenge. For the Christian, those are the lives that make not only belief in God but belief in humanity and its transformability, credible. And even one such life becomes in its own way, a kind of argument.

The poet W H Auden abandoned Christianity quite early in his life. During most of his early adulthood he was involved in a wide variety of political activities and intellectual commitments which were about as hostile to traditional Christianity as you can get. When he finally, and rather reluctantly, came back to the practice of Christianity it was, he said, because he'd met a good man and it had shaken him. The good man in question was Charles Williams, novelist, poet and essayist. They'd met on professional business because Charles Williams worked for the Oxford University Press. W H Auden said that when they met, they didn't discuss anything except publishing business, yet Auden went away with the conviction that he had seen something fresh and challenging which he had not otherwise encountered in human beings, and he needed a way of making sense of it. It's just one story about the way in which a life can appear transparent, can break through a huge accumulation of perfectly good and plausible arguments against belief. Even one saint might tip the balance. But that, to sum up, is a challenge to the Church itself, a challenge to the Church to make history: that is to go on striving to make what it says credible by nurturing transformed lives; to pass on the record of lives which realize what has been promised; and perhaps, as importantly to pass on the skills of repentance and honesty, the skills of recognizing how we fail, and where we fail. It's in this dual way that the Church moves through history inviting faith. It points to what doesn't change, the givenness of a presence in the midst, an agent who invites. And it proposes for our belief a set of assertions about Jesus of Nazareth, rooted in a familiar history, but not confined just by record of the past. The Church points to that, and points to the way in which Christians, however far they range afield are drawn back to that presence and that record, to examine themselves and discover afresh who they are, which is what repentance means. And the Church also proposes for our consideration, those lives in which repentance has borne fruit, where a new creation has become more visible.

And so it is that, drawing together the themes of all these three evenings, the Church offers to the world around not so much a single, quickly-digested, ready-made system of ideas: it offers a place in which to stand, from which we may see certain things about God and humanity. It offers a set of practices claiming to give a context to all else that we do: a vision of what humanity is capable of – for good and for evil – that will help us orientate ourselves in the decisions that face us. It offers – at the end of the day – precisely what Jesus himself is said to have offered and it proclaims what he proclaimed. 'Change your mind', says Jesus in the Gospels: 'Pick up the instruments of execution and follow', says Jesus in the Gospels: 'Knock, and the door will be opened to you', says Jesus in the Gospels: 'And when you talk to God, say Father'. That remains the heart of the Gospel that Christians proclaim, the Good News which we ambitiously but humbly believe is that which orientates and shapes all our human enterprise God-wards.

© Rowan Williams 2008



Questions and Answers following the lecture:

What do you think of the theological movement in the Church and the University world now known as 'Radical Orthodoxy' as articulated by writers like John Milbank?

A number of the people who've been involved in that movement have been close associates, students of mine and others, and I have huge admiration for what they're doing. For those who don't know the detail, it's a movement which has attempted to recover a sense of the confidence and independence of Christian discourse as something that can't just be reduced to sociology. I think that's good news.

Was Jesus real in the way that Mohammed really existed?

Why doesn't the Church recognize Mohammed as a prophet, as the mosques affirm that Jesus was indeed a prophet?

To the first: I'm perfectly clear that Jesus existed, and indeed exists. And I think that the evidence for Jesus as a historical personality is as good, as solid as the evidence for Mohammed's existence or for that matter the existence of Julius Caesar. I realize there are some scholars in past generations who have argued that Jesus did not historically exist; I think it's a very, very tough case to make indeed. I have no doubt at all of the historical reality of Jesus' existence. But the more difficult question about the relation between Jesus and Mohammed requires a longer answer. For a Muslim, as I understand it, Mohammed comes at the end of a continuing sequence of prophets revealing aspects, dimensions of the word of God and the demands of God to the world. In that sequence of prophets Jesus occupies a crucial, very important place, and is regarded with profound respect by Muslims. Nonetheless for the Muslim, the whole point of Islam is that Mohammed is – so to speak – the end of the story, the point to which the others are moving. For the Christian, Jesus is the defining moment in the whole story of God's dealings with humanity. It may then be possible for a Christian to recognize Mohammed or other religious teachers, as conveying something of the truth about God, and yet that would have to be for the Christian, interpreted in the light of the identity of Jesus, his teaching and his nature. And that's why it is not quite a simple matter of Christians and Muslims in this area 'exchanging mutual courtesies' and recognition in the same terms. We have different convictions about how God reveals himself to us, and there's no short cut in dealing with those, I believe.

Could you believe in a faith whose fundamental narrative could clearly be shown to have been fabricated? How important is the credibility of the historical narrative to your faith?

I was asked this question in another context a couple of weeks ago and I had to reply that if the bones of Jesus were discovered in Palestine I could not be a Christian in the way that I now am. I could not celebrate the Sacraments: I could not understand the life of the Holy Spirit as I do: I might still want to be associated with some of the insights and values of the Christian tradition but you would no longer have me as Archbishop of Canterbury (I rather hope you wouldn't have anyone as Archbishop of Canterbury!) because I actually don't think that the Church would be credible in its central historical shape. So it does matter, and when you ask 'could I believe in a faith whose foundations could easily be shown to have been fabricated?' well, I have to say that that is a risk that every Christian takes: the risk of believing that a difference truly has been made to the world: a risk which depends upon the fragility of these historical affirmations. History alone doesn't give you a knock-down argument for faith, but I couldn't do without it because of the very nature of that faith, that at some point God worked, specifically in this way, in human history, and that was the beginning of something different. Christianity has shown itself reasonably robust in seeing-off what some people have thought to be easy and obvious attempts to shake its historical credibility, but that there remains an element of risk I think is undeniable. And that is, depending on your temperament, either something very worrying or something really rather exhilarating. There is a degree of adventure at least, about this, as Dorothy Sayers liked to say about the Christian claim: call it what you like, but not boring.

How do we understand Mark's Gospel ending so abruptly and fearfully?

A very good question about the earliest detailed narrative of Easter morning, the original ending: they said nothing to anybody, they were afraid. I think one has to understand it in connection with the whole of the way Mark tells the story of Jesus. Throughout his Gospel, Mark emphasizes again and again that those closest to Jesus don't fully see who he is and what he's about, they misunderstand his priorities, they fail to see the point of the parables and so on. And so at the very end Mark tells the Resurrection story in such a way as to maximize the shock and the difference: this, like everything Jesus ever said, was something impossible, challenging, even appalling to those who might be expected to understand him best. Throughout, Mark underlines that mysteriousness, that almost numinous difference and darkness about Jesus. Not even the Resurrection is allowed to be blazingly clear, because if it were it would be a danger of fulfilling all our expectations and so being boring again. And I think Mark is quite deliberately underlining over and over that element of mystery, surprise, astonishment and frightening difference that there is, in the reality of Jesus.

You centred your comments on the stories as related in the Gospels. St Paul, writing earlier than the Gospels, doesn't seem to regard the 'empty tomb' terminology in the same way, though clearly the resurrected Jesus is central to his presentation. Does this suggest that the bodily Resurrection is a late development?

Personally, I've never quite been able to see why St Paul's statement that Jesus was 'raised on the third day' should imply anything other than that the tomb was empty. Paul is a rabbinically trained, first century Jew: when he talks about 'rising' he means what he says, he means what the prophet Daniel says, he means 'someone being restored to the earth'. I don't think that this alleged polarity between what the Gospels say and what St Paul says in I Corinthians 15 is anything like as marked as some would like to make it. So, given that St Paul is clearly drawing on some of the same reservoir of tradition that you find in Mark or in John: I don't think I'd want to entertain the idea that the empty tomb is a late-comer in the story. And if it were, I think we'd need quite a good explanation as to why it came in when it did and what the work was it was supposed to do. If Paul already assumed that Resurrection was the Resurrection of a body, I think he must have been taking it for granted.

Doesn't emphasis on the historical truth of the Gospels bring unwelcome focus on the exclusive aspects of faith? Could not Jesus have been a marvelous myth based in all likelihood on a highly charismatic historical personage? If he was, none of the marvelous things about Christianity that you've identified would be invalidated.

I think what would be lacking would be the conviction that the forms of holiness and access to God that Christians talk about were rooted in a specific life which created that possibility. That's where I have to stand; that's not to say that there can be no lives of transparency and holiness and transcendent goodness outside the visible Church. My questioner here mentions Gandhi, to take the most obvious example and I quite see that, though that would lead to another long discussion about the relation between faiths. But I feel that if Jesus were a myth, then the possibilities we're talking about would be possibilities finally generated by human beings thinking something up, I don't mean deliberately fabricating, I mean coming to conclusions. But the Gospels are about an initiative from elsewhere: breaking through a deadlock in human existence which human beings can't break for themselves. That's how I read the Gospels, and I can't see them in any other way, and I think anything other than that would have to be something other than historical Christianity.

Other Christian scholars take a less positive view of the historical accuracy of the stories of the Resurrection of Jesus. Do you see that as simply a different historical judgement or as a failure of faith?

I think those who take a less positive view are wrong; it's as simple as that. It's an argument that I and others have had with those who take a less positive view, over many many years. I do sometimes suspect that that climate of the modern age makes it a bit less easy for people to settle with the kind of interpretation I've given, but I suppose one of my reasons for holding to a more traditional, more material view, is admittedly not a historical reason at all but it's the way in which these claims about the – in some sense material - Resurrection interlock with how we understand the Sacraments and the nature of our prayer. And I feel that to unscramble one bit is to unscramble it all and I've no reason to unscramble it all. So there may be a loss of nerve somewhere, there may be a too ready buying-into the assumptions of the age but we have to go on having that historical argument. I do accept, as somebody else raised the question, that there are Christians who, in good conscience, can't see their way to accepting the emptiness of the tomb and yet live lives of exemplary Christian devotion. I can't see that their position is consistent, but I respect it as a position that is held by prayerful, thoughtful Christians. I wish they could see it otherwise, but this isn't the Spanish Inquisition, and I'd like to think that some people grow and move in their understanding of these things as well. A very significant Anglican theologian of about a hundred years ago, described in a review in a periodical how he had over the years come to move from a rather sceptical approach to the historicity of the empty tomb to a much more receptive view of it, on the grounds he said, that as he grew older the world looked stranger and fresher every day. And he was no longer prepared simply to assume what could and couldn't happen. That's one way of growing older in the faith.

If Christ's incarnation, death and resurrection took place in the present day rather than the first century, would history notice and would the Church come to being and grow as it has?

I've no idea how one could translate a first-century story simply into our own age, partly because so much of the framework of our own age is shaped by what happened in the first century. So I just don't know, I can't speculate. Had history gone on without the incarnation, death and resurrection of the Lord, where would we be now? We wouldn't just be here as we are, but it is quite important to remember the sort of difference that the coming of Christianity did make. For example, in the long and protracted but very important ways in which Christianity 'softened the fabric' and changed the frame of reference of human society. Very gradually, it made slavery indefensible, to take just one example: gradually establishing the notion that there are no 'spare' human beings without dignity. In other words, we can't imagine the incarnation, death and resurrection of Jesus happening now because the now we're in is already formed by the history we have.

What about the historicity of the apostolic succession? For example St Ireneus meeting St Polycarp, meeting St John, meeting Jesus of Nazareth ... and your present position in relation to the sixteenth-century Cardinal Pole for example?

Apostolic succession is the transmission of continuous tradition and teaching from the time of Jesus to the present day, symbolized and made concrete in a succession of Bishops, Priests and Deacons. I think that the notion of the visible transmission of what Jesus handed on, is an important part of being a Christian. I believe in that continuity of succession, though I believe that in the history of the Church it has fractured in a number of different directions and that what matters most about it is perhaps a little less the transmission of Bishops laying hands on the heads of others through the centuries than Bishops conveying the integrity of the faith from generation to generation. And where that transmission of the integrity of the faith has become a matter of dispute and conflict as in the dispute between Christian East and West and the dispute between the Churches of the Reformation and the Churches faithful to the Pope: that process is no longer just one line. So, yes I stand in the succession of Cardinal Pole in the sixteenth century, and believe that in some sense – whether he knows it or not – he has transmitted to me the Catholic faith, the integrity of belief. It has come to me through a process which has also challenged and argued many things that he would have taken for granted.

Do you and the Church of England believe that this historical Jesus is both the Son of Man and the Son of God?

Yes, absolutely I believe that the figure I've been speaking about this evening, the figure that history gives us some information about, where we can have some degree of certainty, that this person is the embodiment of that aspect or dimension of God's being that we call the Son or the Word. I believe that the action of God was, without qualification, alive and at work in the action of Jesus, and that's the foundation of my faith and indeed the faith historically of the Church of England.

I find the Trinity confusing. Do we pray to the Father, or the Son or the Holy Spirit?

One of the things I was trying to suggest rather indirectly this evening was that the doctrine of the Holy Trinity comes from the way in which Christians experience their prayer. The Spirit of Jesus, alive in Christians, gives to them the freedom and the power to say to God what Jesus said to God: 'Abba, Father'. The Spirit brings us therefore, to be where Jesus is, gazing on the Father, reflecting the Father's glory: we pray to the Father, we pray to the source of divine life. We pray in and as the Son, the eternal one who responds to the Father in love: before the world began, that response which was made particular and immediate in the humanity of Jesus. And we pray out of the power and action of the Spirit: that agency which draws us into the life of Jesus and gives to us the capacity to speak as Jesus spoke and to see what Jesus sees in God the Father. That's how the doctrine of the Trinity comes into being in that dynamic of our prayer.

When you say that Jesus is an agent, to what extent might he be the instrument of God rather than his own agent?

This is partly covered by my previous answer. Jesus is an agent, as risen from the dead, who is also the one who realizes what God the Father desires and wants to bring into being. In that sense you could say 'an instrument' though it's language I'm not completely happy about.

I find it hard to believe. What comfort can you give me of God's existence?

I was asked a little while ago whether I found it hard to believe, and my answer was in one sense I did, but I couldn't think of any other way of living my human life. And the hardness of belief was really the difficulty of sustaining a commitment which demanded of me a self-sacrifice, a level of love which naturally I'm not that much inclined to give. The hardness of believing isn't just a matter of ideas; it's a matter of how I want to live. But what comfort can I give in respect of God's existence? I think I can say that for me what is most compelling is the fact that there are people, as human as I am, for whom trust in God transfigures everything: people whose lives, emotions, priorities and visions are completely shaped by that belief in such a way that the human life that emerges is compellingly attractive. 'I want to be human like that'. When I look at some of these lives, even one Saint at the very least suggests that something else is possible. And if you can trust the instinct of a Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a Desmond Tutu, a Mother Teresa, and say 'that's where humanity comes through most obviously, then somehow their belief helps to make yours possible. Establishing the existence of God is not simply a matter of abstract argument, it's a matter of whether you find lives like that, trustworthy, worthy of respect, worthy of imitation.

On the question of coping with appalling, unexpected loss and how God is to be seen in the middle of that: there are never any generalized answers that will help, never. There is only, once again the knowledge that Christians, like other through the ages, have seen death and tragedy as dropping into the hands of a God whose love is not exhausted, who still has purpose for the life of the departed and for our own lives. That is an immense challenge. There are no generalities that help.

What is so compelling today about Christianity? Why can't I just be a modern, good pagan?

Feel free! But what's compelling for me is that I know of no system, religious or secular that is so wonderfully ambitious about humanity. Christianity claims that our humanity is 'open at the top', it can grow into a fullness of joy and liberty that is part of God's own joy and liberty without limit. And when you see that kind of immense horizon opening up in actual prosaic human lives like yours and mine: that has about it something compelling and attractive. The good pagan, I would say, for all his or her admirable qualities, will end up living in a rather smaller world than that. Part of the attraction of the offer of Christianity is living in a larger world, a world that takes human potential as seriously as God takes it. And I think that is in a world where often humanity is being shrunk and distorted by our systems and our ideologies and our politics, that sense of taking humanity with the seriousness God takes it and seeing that immeasurable possibility ahead of a joy that's continuous with God's own joy: I think that's worth believing.

© Rowan Williams 2008

Back · Back to top