The Archbishop of Canterbury’s Hulsean Sermon—‘Seeing the Question: Revelation and Self-Knowledge’

Posted by Kendall Harmon

So it is that for the Christian, what is recognised as revelation is necessarily, inseparably, a moment of drastic change in perception of oneself; the story I usually tell myself about who and what I am is shattered and I have to discover different ways of thinking, speaking and imagining. For the Christian mystical tradition, this is only the beginning of a continuing process of loss and recreation, night and dawn. But it is at the heart of all Christian thinking simply because this is the way in which the New Testament itself presents revelation. The woman at the well of Sychar describes her strange interlocutor as a man who told her everything she ever did, and it is on this basis that she concludes that he may be the Anointed. And the conversion of Saul of Tarsus, which this day in the Church's calendar commemorates, is emphatically not just about acquiring the awareness of new information but about the discovery of a new and shocking identity. Who is Saul? Not the model servant of the Lord but the persecutor of the Lord. So who is Jesus? The one who lives and suffers in his friends. And so in turn comes the discovery which Saul spent the rest of his life struggling to express: the humanity of Jesus of Nazareth is not simply that of an individual in the past but lives and suffers and transmits grace now in the lives of those who have committed themselves to him.

The revelation of Christ's divinity enters the world of human language and interaction through this renewal and reversal of identity. I am not who I thought I was; I have been told who I am, 'everything I have ever done', in the sense that I must revisit and see afresh all my memories, knowing that my self-awareness cannot overtake the knowledge of who I am that belongs to the revealer. What begins to come into focus as we acclimatise ourselves to the presence of Jesus in human history is the sense that we may be comprehensively wrong about who we are – and yet that there is a just and loving knowledge of who we are that is 'held' by the transcendent seer. And it is when we grasp just how comprehensive this is that we understand why it is the presence of nothing less than the transcendent that we identify in Jesus. If I can never 'catch up' with this seeing, this knowing, which claims to search out where I cannot go even within myself, there is no end in Jesus' presence to the recognition of a mystery in me that is beyond my reach – and so too of a mystery in every human subject, which is one of the ways in which Christian ethics begins.

Augustine famously said of God that he was 'more intimate to me than I myself'; and this is not an extravagant statement of devotion but a sober definition of the nature of revelation.

Read it all.

Filed under: * Anglican - EpiscopalArchbishop of Canterbury * Theology

Posted January 27, 2009 at 6:10 am [Printer Friendly] [Print w/ comments]

1. Choir Stall wrote:

God forgive me, but can this man ever crawl out of the books long enough to live in the world?  I mean brilliance is only truly effective if it is taken towards the shabby darkness of error. RW’s plaintive tones and brilliance find a home nowhere because he truly stays as far away from challenging error as he can.

January 27, 12:26 pm | [comment link]
2. Terry Tee wrote:

I disagree with the previous poster.  First of all, remember that this was preached in Cambridge.  He was an academic addressing a congregation primarily of academics, in a university church.  Second, he was addressing, very astutely and indeed brilliantly, one of the most pressing questions of our time.  Let me explain:  the whole thrust of post-modernism has been to call into question any total account of reality.  A total account of reality, also known as a metanarrative or master narrative, is said to be inherently oppressive.  Such an account could be religious (Christian, Muslim) or it could be ideological (Marxism).  You could even make a case that Freud falls into the category.  Postmodernists would also be suspicious of assumptions that there is, for example, such a thing as ‘human nature’ - this too is seen an an attempt to create a universal model of understanding.  By contrast postmodernism insists that all knowledge is partial, limited by culture and power relationships.  Any attempt to argue for fundamental, enduring knowledge is said to be oppressive.

Now note what Rowan Williams has cleverly done.  He has taken a basic element of human experience, that of being observed, and pointed out how revelation corresponds to this basic experience.  Revelation is therefore not primarily a set of definitions, or explanations, or doctrines, but begins by our sense of the loving gaze of God.  Once we realize this, we have to question who we are, and how we relate to others.  And Jesus, to quote another Cambridge man, John Robinson, is the human face of God among us, the divine gaze in a human face.  Williams thus gives us an understanding of God’s revelation which meets the criticism of post-modernists.  More, it would even question the post-modernists:  before who, or what, are you accountable?

En route Rowan neatly skewers David Hume’s question of why God could not announce himself from the sky in a universal language.  Such an event would communicate nothing personal, nothing relational, would have no context and thus no meaning.

For the philosophers among you:  the unacknowledged presence in the sermon is that of the Jewish philosopher Emmanuel Levinas, whose whole metaphysic (not a word he would use by the way) is based on the face.  David Ford the professor of theology at Cambridge was greatly influenced by Levinas and I think Ford has influenced Williams.

And the money quote?  I think this is beautiful:  Revelation is the discovery that you are already, before you knew it, in relation to a vision that is both utterly compassionate and utterly truthful: to discover this in the face, in the presence of another human being within history [ie Jesus] .. starts the long, draining and exhilarating trail of recasting what has been taken for granted about God and the world.

January 27, 1:36 pm | [comment link]
3. Dale Rye wrote:

He is also responding to the New Age notion that religion can be a matter of warm fuzzies to the exclusion of cold intellectual effort:

In a cultural context where – so we are repeatedly told – ‘spirituality’ is more popular than ‘religion’, it doesn’t hurt to remind ourselves of what the claim to revelation and the focus on historical particulars involves for the life of faith and the exploration of that life in art or theology.  Here at least we are in a world in which the characteristic pressure of intellectual activity makes sense – the conviction of an obligation to persistence and honesty, the cautions against imagining that issues have been resolved when they have only been named; here the life of the mind and of a properly demanding imagination are recognisably involved.  Grace and struggle both belong inseparably in the process of receiving and responding to a revealing God.  What the preference for a generic spirituality may lose hold of is just this partnership of the awareness of gift and the pressure to speak as truthfully as can be in the light of the steady weight of that gift as received by generations.

This whole brilliant defense of revealed religion is a challenge to “the shabby darkness of error,” and I am sad that #1 cannot recognize the fact.

January 27, 1:47 pm | [comment link]
4. Sherri2 wrote:

Terry Tee, thank you for this post. Can you point me to something by Levinas that would be fairly accessible to a layman? This strikes another chord for me - I was reading something last week in which it was suggested that the human face has been lost from post-modern literature and that an author dates himself if he describes a face. It is, to me, a very dehumanizing - and maybe de-spiritualizing? - aspect of post-modernism.

January 27, 1:48 pm | [comment link]
5. Choir Stall wrote:

Re # 2
Does academia exist to serve the Church or does the Church exist to serve academia?  Stratospheric ruminations serve academia only.
Meanwhile the Church crumbles and suffers because it is starving for meaningful attention and reformation.

January 27, 2:18 pm | [comment link]
6. Terry Tee wrote:

Sherri, I wish there were such a book but alas Levinas is famously difficult to read.  If I may be immodest, I have a Ph.D and count myself as having a good vocabulary, but when I read Levinas I had to have a dictionary next to me all the time.  For example, I had never come across the word maieutic.  Your best bet would be to get from the library (do not buy it) Colin Davis Levinas:  An Introduction and read pp 131-136.
Dale Rye is right.  Rowan is a gentle riposte to those who believe in spirituality without religion. For if there is no relationship, there is no transcendence, and thus no challenge to the ever-greedy ego.
Regarding academia:  it is part of the world.  Part of the glory of what Christ has done for us is give us a way to God that is open to the simplest, most humble people, and yet profound enough to engage the cleverest of minds.  I would add that postmodernism has had a terrible impact in our colleges and universities, and indeed on popular culture.  Surely it is right for a discerning mind to engage with this dangerous and destructive philosophy.
Ahoy Richard Kew up there in Cambridge:  were you there for the sermon, and how did it come across to those present at the time?

January 27, 2:29 pm | [comment link]
7. Choir Stall wrote:

Just to be clear. Scholastic pursuit is necessary. Admirable. Reformation has happened because of scholasticism combined with the burning heart. It is best done by those who are committed to suffer because of it. How much suffering by academics came from that elaborate sermon? At a time when the Church is being ignored by millions, and the faithful are suffering for a lack of leadership, I truly cannot identify too many doctors of the Church who have sacrificed much to shine in the shabby darkness of error.
Academics in the Church are called to serve the Church. That means to give a clear account and to defend truth pointedly. That is not accomplished in academic pulpits, but in Synods. RW’s defense of the faith through his synodical work is dismal at best. Truth is merely pretty in collegiate churches and among those who say “interesting” after the sermon. The results are where?

January 27, 2:34 pm | [comment link]
8. Terry Tee wrote:

Stalled chorister, I have to disagree with you when you write that ‘stratospheric ruminations serve academia only’.  A stratospheric philosophy (postmodernism) has had a terrible trickle-down effect and has taken many popular forms.  One of the ways that we combat it at the popular level is by showing its incoherence at the epistemic, or stratospheric level.  Second, it would be disastrous if truth were defended only in synods.  We have to engage with popular culture.  The Hulsean lectures were endowed in 1790 to promote sound philosophy of religion;  the Hulsean sermon, as preached by Rowan Williams, is associated with this;  it has a high public profile.  I would guess that there were quite a few very clever Cambridge types there that evening, some not believing or half-believing, whose pre-conceptions were challenged by the sermon.  The sermon, by the way, is tackling one of the basic issues of Christian faith:  divine sovereignty and human freedom.  How can God be sovereign and yet men/women act freely?

January 27, 3:41 pm | [comment link]
9. Chazaq wrote:

A fun thing to do with everything Rowan Williams emits is to scramble the nouns and see if it makes any difference.  For example, the title of this thing can be:

“Seeing the Question: Revelation and Self-Knowledge”
“Seeing the Revelation: Knowledge and Self-Questioning”
“Seeing the Knowledge: Question and Self-Revelation”

Makes not a bit of difference!

January 27, 5:17 pm | [comment link]
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