Baptismal identity

Rowan Williams has a great new lecture available online, which, to my mind is remarkably germane to some of our recent discussions about the nature of Christian identity:

. . . the identity of the baptized is not first and foremost a matter of some exclusive relationship to God that keeps us safe, as opposed to the rest of the vulnerable and unlucky world.  It is at one and the same time living both in the neighbourhood of the Father and in the neighbourhood of darkness.  That is why we speak of being baptized into the death and resurrection of Christ, not simply baptized as a mark of our affinity or alignment with Jesus in a general way, not baptized as an external sign that we more or less agree with what Jesus says.  Our baptism is a stepping-into Jesus’ place with all that that entails.  And it means that Christian baptismal identity is—again at one and the same time—both a depth of human experience that brings us into at least the potential of intense, transfiguring love, the Trinitarian love in which Jesus himself lives, and a continuing experience of expectation, humility, penitence and hope.  The experience of the baptized is not the experience of endings, but of repeated new beginnings.  We don’t simply acquire a relationship with God the Father which then requires us to do nothing more.  On the contrary, to be baptized is to be constantly re-awakening our expectation, our penitence, our protest, our awareness that the chaos and darkness of the world is not what God wills; our awareness that we are colluding with that state of chaos which God does not will.  So as baptized persons we look constantly into ourselves, rediscovering over and over again the hope that comes out of true repentance.

22 comments on this post.
  1. Chris Donato:

    Let’s not make the mistake that those who give pause to some things you’ve written in the previous post are touting some kind of theology of glory, or ecclesiological triumphalism. No, we all ought to agree on the “kenotic ecclesiology” (did I get that from F&T?) Williams alludes to here, the cross-shaped community of those united to Christ through baptism.

    Nor does this undermine the notion that at Pentecost the church is given for good the utterly gracious gift of God’s life-empowering Spirit, which makes it the kingdom of God on earth. The two go together: the potential for “intense, transfiguring love” that is ours in baptism is conjoined—that sacrament being the bridge—to the unbreakable promise that God through Christ has said: “I will build my church.” The whole is never in question, even if its particulars, at various points throughout the course of its life, are.

  2. Adrian:

    I’m with Williams until the very last sentence: “So as baptized persons we look constantly into ourselves, rediscovering over and over again the hope that comes out of true repentance.” Why are we to look inward, and not rather to Christ? Can gazing into myself for repentance possibly produce it? Or, can I even find true repentance within myself? I’m just not sure what the archbishop means here.

  3. Halden:

    I think he means a sort of communal self-criticism is integral to the life of the baptized. At least that’s how I take it. If he means a sort of sentimental or individual introspection, then I agree with you. But that’s not how I initially took it, anyway. I think he’s just referring to the fact that the church cannot assume itself to be a stable ground, but rather must always and again look at itself and do the hard work of naming itself truthfully in the light of Easter (to pick up on some Williamsian language from elsewhere).

  4. Nate Kerr:

    I think this could be read in terms of a kind of Augustinian or Kierkegaardian inwardness — one where the “turn inward” is about the refusal of objectivity and the determination of identity in such objectivist terms. Such a turn inward is about the kind of subjectivity in which we come to realize that in ourselves we are nothing but sinners (“subjectivity is untruth”), and that we are who we are only as God is closer to us than we are to ourselves — precisely as, paradoxically, coming from without.

  5. Billy Daniel:

    When reading Williams, I think you have to do so in light of Gregory of Nyssa: “Our greatest protection is self-knowledge… You alone are the made in the likeness of that nature which surpasses all understanding; you alone are a similitude of eternal beauty, a receptacle of happiness, an image of the true Light; and if you look up to Him, you will become what He is, imitating Him Who shines within you, Whose glory is reflected in your purity.” Knowledge of God, then, is specifically in terms of deification. Character and cognition go hand in hand. This, I think, is precisely what Williams means when he says, “Our baptism is a stepping-into Jesus’ place with all that that entails. And it means that Christian baptismal identity is—again at one and the same time—both a depth of human experience that brings us into at least the potential of intense, transfiguring love, the Trinitarian love in which Jesus himself lives, and a continuing experience of expectation, humility, penitence and hope.”

  6. Adrian:

    Hmmm. That’s a significantly more palatable interpretation. I’m going with it.

  7. Billy Daniel:

    Heresy is always more palatable.

  8. Halden:

    Is this a serious accusation or just an exercise in philosophunculism?

  9. R.O. Flyer:

    Funny, I interpreted it as an exercise in sphallolalia.

  10. Frank Valdez:

    It’s a reminder that “palatable” is not a theological category.

  11. Billy Daniel:

    Since using the word philosophunculism is an act of philosophunculism, and because not knowing the term sphallolalia is unphilosophunculistic, I suppose I fail on both accounts… Briefly, it is the matter that Kerr evidences a misreading of Augustine, Kierkegaard and Williams. But it is the “nothing but sinners” claim that is most troubling. Is not the end of every human to become truly human—in the specific Athanasian sense that God was made man, or is human being-as-nothing-but-sinful dissolved in an Origenist union with the One? It seems here that human freedom and volition are impossible, if we are “nothing but sinners.” To say that “I am a sinner” is very different than saying “I am nothing but a sinner.” Did or did not Christ re-deem fallen humanity, especially in the sense that Williams outlines in his address: “To be baptized is to be identified… with Jesus who, in the depths of hellish human experience, remains united to his Father.” I guess I’m just trying to figure out whether or not the apocalyptic imaginary leaves room for God to create human essences. It appears that the transcendent God of apocalyptic theology does not leave room for the solidity of creation, that humans do not have a being analogous to Being—God, but are expressions of Being in momentary acts of God in creation. I trust that I am misunderstanding apocalyptic theology here, but this is what appears to be meant.

  12. Nate Kerr:

    Yeah, that whole analogia entis thing — its too palatable for my tastes.

  13. kim fabricius:

    Sorry to come so late to this thread. I would just want to confirm that the last thing Williams could possibly mean by “look[ing] constantly into ourselves” is what Adrian fears. Williams is thoroughly Augustinian about the perils – viz.., the fantasy and self-deceit – of introspection, and equally thoroughly Wittgensteinian in his suspicions of the “private self”. You might want to check out two of his essays: “Wittgenstein and Bonhoeffer” (1988) and “Interiority and Epiphany: A Reading in New Testament Ethics” (1995). Not, of course, that Williams rejects the notion of the “inner life” as such. But as he puts it in the former essay:

    “Religious interiority … means the learning of patterns of behavior that reinforce the awareness of my finite and provisional status, my being in time. It is neither a flight from relation, nor the quest for an impossible transparency or immediacy in relation but that which equips us for knowing and being known humanly, taking time with the human world and not aiming to have done with knowing (and desiring).”

    Precisely because of the instability of the self – and the church – not to mention the human heart of darkness – watchfulness with patience, suspicion with grace, truth with tenderness, are key Williamsian virtues.

  14. Billy Daniel:

    So, out with the Cappodocians then. That’s a shame. I guess recapitulation is out too; certainly can’t have assimilation. Do humans really exist?

  15. Studiosus Sorenus:

    I dare say that it is not since the Bishop Mynster himself that we have witnessed one who is so masterfully adept at such an obtuse wielding of his own teacher’s equally obtuse ideas.

    Indeed, God creates out of nothing. Wonderful! Yes, wonderful to be sure. Let us press this point home, let us not grow weary, and let us press it home with such directness that we negate that one thing more wonderful that those Christians of our day insists that God does still: viz., making saints out of sinners. Of course, let us not forget that our ana-logic of being requires that we shall have to reject even this if it calls into question the necessary existence of Lord Everyman. Our sin may persist eternally, but at least we shall “be” — according to that great Nevertheless of humanity itself! — from all eternity!

    There is certainly no reason to reply any further at all to the Reverend Kerr. He no doubt must believe that he is bound to be understood so poorly he shall soon be declaring that even his complaints about people not understanding him are being misunderstood! With such pitiable complaints about not being understood, he is surely to miss the one point that we should all so clearly be capable of coming to understand: humanity exists! His teleoscoping of the singular and the subjective is bound to bracket and omit that one most universally objective truth of all. Humanity exists!

  16. Frank Valdez:

    We need to remember Williams’ great work “The Wound of Knowledge”. His discussion of Gregory of Nyssa there cannot be understood very well in terms of “stable” versus “unstable” identities. It is our continual growth into the life of the Trinitarian God that gives us both stability and instability . Stability because we are always growing in the same direction, one of increasing conformity to the Image of God, Jesus Christ. Instability because that continuing growth always calls us to become more than what we have thus far become and will therefore repeatedly plunge us into recurrent crises in which we must learn how to reconfigure and redescribe what we’ve already learned in startling new ways. This is what Gregory describes as “epektasis”. This is why Williams sometimes sounds like Nate Kerr and sometimes sounds like David Bentley Hart. Let’s not ignore the fact that he was John Milbank’s teacher.

  17. Adrian:

    Thanks a lot Kim. I’ll be sure to be on the look out for both of those essays.

  18. R.O. Flyer:

    Wait, the rejection of the analogia entis leaves no room for the “solidity of creation?!”

  19. Billy Daniel:

    Evidently you don’t exist, either. Or maybe you only exist when the Spirit plugs you into the matrix for a momentary event of being, but as soon as it’s removed you’re back to non-being.

  20. Adrian:

    I’m sorry I don’t follow. Why must I adhere to the analogia entis so as to secure my existence? How is an understanding which grounds existence in a different theological category (election, etc.) deficient for the solidity of creation?

  21. R.O. Flyer:

    What is gained by merely asserting hackneyed dismissals of those who reject a pseudo-Przywaraian doctrine of the analogia entis? Really, what’s the use of dialogue?

  22. Billy Daniel:

    If the “hackneyed dismissals” are directed toward my comments, my sincerest of apologies. Dialogue is necessary, and as Rowan Williams himself has reminded, to end the conversation is to end theology. My questions have to do with what sort of existence does apocalyptic theology offer the human, and yes, with regard to the analogy of being, but specifically as articulated by Maximus with Irenaeus:
    “We believe that the logos of the angels preceded their creation; that the logos of each essence and of each power which constitute the world above, the logos of men, the logos of all that to which God gave being… but this same logos is manifested and multipled in a suitable way to the Good, in all the beings who come from him according to the analogy of each, and he recapitulates all things in himself… For all things participate in God by analogy, insofar as they come from God….”