The Wound of Knowledge

Rowan Williams, The Wound of Knowledge, 2nd rev. ed., London: Darton, Longman and Todd, 1990.
The title of this spiritually nourishing and academically challenging book its author draws from the poetry of R.S. Thomas. The Wound of Knowledge offers us poetry in the form of theological prose; Rowan Williams dissolves or, better, holds in dynamic, vulnerable tension a number of the categorical distinctions we so easily create: spiritual/academic; poetic/prosaic; love/reason; private/public. He flags in the first paragraph the “experience of profound contradictoriness” and “strangeness” (1) that constitute the ground of Christian belief. If the reviewer’s task is to provide an introductory overview of a work, Williams here creates an intractable problem, for although his narrative spans theological thought from New Testament writers through to Luther and St John of the Cross (d. 1591), he offers a patient, attentive discussion of love, reason, and will and their interrelationships, the various stresses upon which by different historical figures have far-reaching implications for their theology. He demands similar attentiveness of any reader.
            The opening pages lay out the central theme of vulnerability to which the author consistently returns. The feature of Christian belief that gives rise to this theme is its affirmation of the historical order, which closes off the path to “timeless truth” and “an escape into the transcendent, a flight out of history and the flesh” (1). Fusing the notion of “spirituality” with this insight, Williams reminds us that the spiritual life touches every facet of human experience, the public and social as well as the private realm. The goal is wholeness rather than either private experience or enlightenment. He sees each of the thinkers in his study as responding to this call, beginning with the experience of being accepted and held in the grace of God and folding in the mediation of “a shared life and language, a public and historical community of men and women, gathering to read certain texts and perform certain acts” (2). The vulnerability lies in the change which life in the world inevitably entails, and the realization that no Christian has fully grasped the fulness of God’s involvement in history.
           Williams’ analysis of the thought of Gregory of Nyssa is particularly fertile. He stresses, in a relatively lengthy discussion, Gregory’s commitment, along Pauline lines, to growth and to the paradox that “to stop growing and changing is to fall away from stability” (64). The author affirms the observation that Gregory overturns “the classical equation of change with immutability and immutability with good” (64). Accentuating the notion of making one’s life, Gregory celebrates the freedom of the will when enriched by the life of God. Williams sees Gregory’s contribution to Christian theology as a profound one:
“Throughout his work, the new Christian picture of human being is drawn with subtlety and exactness, the picture of a humanity no less tragically divided than in the classical Hellenic model, yet called forward out of sin and self to an unimaginable wholeness in that knowledge of God which is the following of Christ in inexhaustible love and longing.”(66)
Gregory shelters the role of the will by insisting on the human need for grace and liberation.
            For Williams, the role of the will emerges as an enormous problem for medieval theology after the era of Thomas Aquinas. In the thought of Thomas, understanding and will are inseparable, so that the human subject is both receptive and responsive. The functioning of these categories in a unified way ultimately takes the form of caritas, the genuine union of knower and known proceeding from object to subject in the case of understanding (intellectus), and from subject to object in the case of the will. This inseparability encourages an appreciation of the presence of the other. For Williams, love makes possible the bridging of the gulf between Creator and the realm of contingency in Thomas’s thought. Nominalism, in contrast, builds upon a suggestion by Duns Scotus of the superiority of the will that emphasises unconditioned decision. We return to the issue of vulnerability: “The equivalence of faith, knowledge and will serves to render belief invulnerable, at the cost of making it finally incommunicable” (144). The will can only function absolutely in a wholly private sphere; engagement with reason, with the facts of the social world and of history, constrain it to produce “direction-towards-the-other” (143).
            Theology is poised in works like The Wound of Knowledge to reorient humanism: on the one hand “the Word re-forms the possibilities of human existence and calls us to the creation of a new humanity…,” while on the other “only when we see that there is no place for the Word in the world do we see that he is God’s word…. And then, only then, can we see, hear, experience (what you will) the newness of that creative God…” (181). Williams has provided a template of vulnerability by which it can do that; it is a model that suggests the infinite possibilities of theological engagement, in the manner of Gregory’s vision, “by means of a far-reaching stripping and purgation certainly, but a purgation designed to allow for growth” (69).
Norm Klassen
St Jerome’s University

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