Offering Our Humanity Back to Us: Looking East in Winter by Rowan Williams

Good theologians offer us humanity, and Rowan Williams certainly does with Looking East in Winter (Bloomsbury, 2021). Williams takes his title from a teaching by Diadochos of Photiki (c. 400 to 486) about what it is like to stand in prayer, facing into the sunrise on a winter morning. We feel the warmth on our face and front while our back remains cold (8, 18). In such a moment, we understand that our entire body is made for warmth. There is no question about if our cold self or our warm self is more natural. We are a whole person capable of warmth even though we lack it for a time in half of our body. The warmth will eventually reach our whole person. Williams offers various accounts of this natural humanity to us through a host of voices and images across his 254 pages.

Being restored to our natural condition is at the heart of theology. Irenaeus says it best: “The glory of God is man fully alive, but the life of man is the vision of God” (Against Heresies IV.20.7). In expounding our humanity, Williams describes, for example, how each person consists of what they give and receive from all other persons as we each belong to a “natural place within the universal network of mutual gift” (54). As a quick aside, this phrase by Williams brought to mind the original meaning of hierarchy, a term coined by Dionysius the Areopagite as each being’s unique point of contact with the divine—as a direct recipient and conduit of God’s life from each being’s own particular place within the great chain of divine gifting and receiving. In light of this truth that our own personhood is a function of our complete openness to others, Williams says that our own “deification is an intensified vulnerability, not some movement into a secure isolation” (103).

He also writes of a “liturgical humanism” (the whole focus of chapter 6). Citing Olivier Clément, Williams says that “we do not need more and better conceptual refinement in meeting atheist arguments” or “more and better programs for self-improvement” or “more and better institutional solidarity.” What we need is “the experience of a distinct kind of humanness” (141) that comes to terms with the fact that “there is no life for us without …the call to answer to, and for, what is not ourselves” (143). Christian liturgy manifests this finding of our own identity in solidarity with others:

The elements of bread and wine are surrendered for transformation. Suffused by the Spirit of the Risen Christ, they are identified with his life; as such they act as instruments to unite the assembled. They are not possessed or deployed by anyone: they simply become the matter of a shared action, regarded as themselves active, as having an inexhaustible interiority. (149)

And this shared life extends beyond humanity to the entire world. “We can see the human renaming of the elements of the world utilized in the Eucharist as a refusal to treat the material world as ‘dead matter’” (132). Speaking of how the bread and wine become Christ and unite the church, Williams says that “these actions uncover meanings that are always latened in the world we know” (151). Our own humanity, in fact, depends on this understanding of our world as having a divine life of its own:

We are most distinctively human when we refuse to think of ourselves in isolation from matter and animality; and thinking of ourselves in solidarity with matter and animality involves, among other things, the thinking of the world around us as shot through with the same life of logos that we live from. …We need to think of other substances or agencies in the world in similar terms: they are what they are, they have intelligibility and unity, they can be spoken of and understood, ultimately because of the word that has invited them into life. The life they live cannot be at the mercy of human desire, collective or individual; and we live out our own invited nature, our role in the complex whole, by attending to what God invites other substances to be, and by acting towards them in the light of that discernment. (133-134)

Near the end of the book in chapter 10, Williams summarizes another anthropology where every one of us is made up of our combined experiences as both a mother to God (pierced with the sword of shared suffering) and a son of God (taking up our cross in obedience to our Father). Our willingness to suffer with Christ makes us all sons of God, and our solidarity with the sufferings of Christ in others make us all mothers of God. Our full humanity is made up of this conjoined image of sonship and motherhood which Williams notes is intentionally androgyne in the theology of Mother Maria of Paris (220) as she echoes Vladimir Solovyov (also spelled Soloviev).

In yet another angle on our humanity, Williams describes us all as “incompletely embodied spirits” (26). Christ’s resurrection body is the means whereby Christ is able to participate with each of us in our humanity through the Spirit and the Eucahrist so that we are collectively “the Body of Christ” that “Christ may ‘give those hearts of ours as food for the world’” (240). Williams recognizes a spiritual embodiment that transfigures our fleshly existence as we eventually inherit the first fruits of Christ’s resurrected body. All of creation has this purpose: to become a theophany “when God is all in all, in the Pauline phrase” so that “the eschatological consummation is a final and comprehensive ‘saturation’ of creation by divine act, without annihilating creation or absorbing it into the creator” (245). “Letting go of the fleshly other in the literal sense is not the end of love or of relation. Letting go of the fleshly Jesus, as understood in the Fourth Gospel, is in fact necessary so as to release something different and essential, the life of the Spirit of truth and communion; it is significant that the process is spoken of by the Johannine Jesus precisely as a birth giving or mothering” (237). While speaking of spiritual embodiment for us and for the whole world, Williams repeatedly affirms our flesh and materiality. He insists that if we “talk about spiritual transformation, it must be a way of talking about how we learn to inhabit our place in a connected environment, within a world of limit and mutuality” (69). Our fleshly existence is a gift of constant communion that supports our ongoing spiritual embodiment.

To survey and summarize a book of such depth and breadth is overwhelming. However, Williams offers several strong connecting threads. The related ideas of solidarity and place hold much of the book together. Saying that our existence is a result of our communion with the entire cosmos might seem to leave us hopelessly displaced or abstracted, but Williams makes it clear that only what is really present to us (in our own place and moment and in the most concrete needs and hurts of our neighbors) brings us into communion with the eternal and creative life of God across all time and space. Our personhood is made up of a specific and unique set of relations with other creatures that both give and receive their being from all that surrounds them. In this way, creation as a network of mutual gift imitates the triune life of God whereby each person of the Trinity continually empties themself in kenosis as a gift to the other two and has life only by this eternal giving and receiving of it.

As our goal is to be faithfully present to each other and to God within our places, the enemies of this are abstraction and ideology. These easily take us down one of two lazy shortcuts: traditionalism with its fantasies of an ideal past or progressivism with its utopian demands regarding an abstract future (254). Instead, Williams insists that every moment is open to the eschatological in-breaking of God’s life which we can learn to see by receiving the other, as they are, as God’s gift of divine presence with us. Although rooted in contemplative practice, this vision makes constant active demands of us in the most tangible ways. Two great heroes of the book are Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Mother Maria (Skobtsova) of Paris, both of whom gave their own lives gladly in service of fully embodied visions of life—a life that was literally constituted by service to others within a particular place.

What emerges from this book, practically, shares a lot of common ground with the lifelong writings of Wendell Berry. His insistence upon place and attention to human scale and upon nature as a neighbor to us all with a life of her own—these each align very closely with the solidarity and embodiment that Williams expounds theologically. Likewise, Berry’s public aversion to “movements” of any kind lines up with the insistence by Williams that both the conservative and liberal approaches to political life in the modern world are off the mark.

Another contemporary author of whom I am reminded is Zena Hitz with her book Lost in Thought. It also makes a bold case for solidarity grounded upon a plea for a restored contemplative life. Specifically, this beautiful passage from Hitz recalled a lot from Mother Maria of Paris:

Under the new aspect of faith, the tensions in me seemed to stretch out to the bounds of the world and to pull at sharp hooks anchored in the depths of my inner life. I began to see that human suffering was not limited to special events and that it could not be ended by reversing particular policies. There was no need to wait for disasters to strike: they were omnipresent, as was responsibility for them. Suffering was a cosmic force, an ever-present reality, Christ crucified at the heart of the world and suffusing it up to the edges. I tried to stop shifting the suffering of others out of view, as had been my constant habit. I began to seek it out, to force myself into regular contact with it.

Despite the remarkable range of contemporary connections and the constant appeals to application in everyday life, Looking East in Winter remains dense and technical throughout. Williams takes up a difficult set of tasks as he unpacks two challenging touchpoints in Eastern Orthodox theology: the writings of the Philokalia and the theology of Mother Maria of Paris. Through these two topics, Williams spends some time with Evagrius Ponticus (a major and controversial contributor to the Philokalia via Maximus the Confessor) and Sergei Bulgakov (a spiritual father to Maria of Paris who sparked substantial theological controversy in his own day). These are figures that are an ongoing challenge to Eastern Orthodox theologians, but Williams engages them with confidence and perspective as an Anglican who has loved and read theology in the Eastern tradition for decades.

On this point, Williams models a love across traditions that is a blessing for those inside and outside of Orthodox Christianity. While the title of his book is about our humanity (and only obliquely a reference to the book’s examination of specifically Eastern theological traditions), Williams does have generous words for Eastern Christians at several points. For example, in his beautiful chapter on the liturgical humanism of Olivier Clément, Williams notes:

Orthodox theology …sees more clearly how and why the action of the liturgical assembly is the defining reality of the Church, not in what it articulates in word or concept but in its character as manifestation. It is a theology that expects to find an anthropology in the liturgy, in a way that Western theologies have not on the whole sought to do. ….What we are looking at is how this activity specifies and incarnates a culture, which poses serious questions to aspects of our prevailing cultural scenes. Liturgy, especially though not exclusively the eucharistic liturgy, claims that certain human possibilities have been definitively realized and that these are the deepest, most durable and most universal determinations of our humanity. We discuss with agonized intensity how Christian identity is to be embodied in the world in such a way as to make it clear that it does not depend upon a political or intellectual legitimacy gained from some other discourse; but we have not explored with anything like the imagination of a Clément or a Schmemann how what we do in liturgical assembly constitutes a distinctive culture. (152)

Williams made it clear in a 6 December 2021 interview about this book with David Benjamin Blower on the Nomad Podcast that he has no plans to become Orhtodox himself and that any such move would feel like playacting to him at this point. However, his evident love for a tradition that is not his own, sets an example for all Christians of how to engage with earnestness and appreciation across the boundary lines of our broad Christian divisions. And Williams does bring this strength of Orthodoxy into substantial conversation with related voices from other traditions, such as the Integral Humanism of Jacques Maritain and the liturgical philosophy of Catherine Pickstock (147, 157-158).

As I bring this review to a close, it is impossible to grapple with all that this book brought to mind. I will resort to a closing list of only some of many other topics that I would love to comment on at more length:

  1. A wonderful overview and defense of a non-dual theology and metaphysics with regard to God’s relation with creation as well as with regard to human personhood (over against the poverty of modern individualism). On the ideas of the human self, Williams mentions the valuable concepts provided by Buddhism “which denies both the affirmation and the denial of ‘self’” (109).
  2. An exposition of Christian gnosis as propounded by Evagrios and carried forward by Maximus the Confessor in the Philokalia (60-62).
  3. Removing all scholastic ideas about two-tiered grace or revelation so that the natural and the supernatural are returned to one category of the simply natural. There seems to be substantial common ground here with the forthcoming You Are Gods: On Nature and Supernature by David Bentley Hart, April 2022.
  4. In both chapters 7 and 11, Williams writes at length about the dependence of a living tradition upon the category of eschatology. This seems very much in keeping with the new Tradition and Apocalypse by David Bentley Hart, February 2022.
  5. Finally, as I mentioned above, there is a theme of spiritual embodiment. This shares some territory with “The Spiritual Was More Substantial Than the Material for the Ancients” by David Bentley Hart from 26 July 2018.

As a proud reader, I am always seeking to find errors or gaps, but my capacities here were not up to the task. I found only two questions. First, when Williams says that “making space for the other whose life has been denied …does not figure in the Russian holy fool tradition” (213), I wondered if Williams was missing the example of Xenia of Saint Petersburg who wore her deceased husband’s military cape for the rest of her days and lived her own remaining life as if to complete his unfinished one.

My second question involves a critique made by Williams of how Evagrios would have most likely devalued bodily sensations (65). While I don’t know enough about Evagrios to say for certain, I suspect that the positive value given to bodily sensations by another Christian neoplatonist, Dionysius the Areopagite, might provide a strong line of defense for Evagrios on this point. Eric D. Perl writes in Theophany: The Neoplatonic Philosophy of Dionysius the Areopagite:

All sense perception is an apprehension of symbols of God, [and in] the ascent from sense to intellect to the union above intellect, …the sensible symbols are not merely left behind. …The ascent from symbols is the penetration into them. To rise to unknowing, to remove all the veils, to take away all things, is most fully to enter into the symbols, or beings. …The mystical union is not a non-symbolic encounter with God as an object other than all things. It is rather a penetration into all things to God who [is] ‘all things in all things and nothing in any.’

This affirmation of bodily sensations by Dionysius as our way into the presence of God—a presence that indwells and sustains everything around us—echoes the phrase used by Williams of an “inexhaustible interiority” in the bread and the wine of the eucharist (149). My own guess is that Evagrios, like Dionysius, would have fully supported this high valuation of our bodily sensations.

In the end, Williams makes his book a call to a Christian communal life that centers around eucharist, scripture reading and prayer. He clearly wants his book to be fully applicable to all Christian readers. Those contemplating the whole scope of the book from various homes in the Western church might feel pulled in multiple directions: both homeward and eastward. Very pragmatically, Williams is evidently commending what has been a blessing to himself in his own long career of service to the English-speaking church: continuing to find a real contentment and joy within whatever home you already have while at the same time cultivating some intentional habits of participation in Orthodox church services (perhaps praying in such services as a regular guest) along with continued study of Eastern theology and spiritual practice. His own example here is compelling for those both inside and outside of the Orthodox church. Certainly, this book will remain with me as a strong example and a bright source of insight to which I will return again and again in my own quest to remember and be who I naturally am.

One thought on “Offering Our Humanity Back to Us: Looking East in Winter by Rowan Williams

  1. Pingback: Rowan Williams and Peter Bouteneff on Schmemann, Bulgakov and Much More | Jesus and the Ancient Paths

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