Beyond Apophaticism?

Christ, the risen one, is against you. Rowan Williams drives home this trenchant insight in his reflections on the resurrection. With Iris Murdoch’s Barney and with Martin Luther, Williams recognizes the sinful manipulation by which Christ’s cross can be equated with our own pain, twisted into a self-serving prop for our own righteous suffering. Refusing this appropriation of Good Friday, Williams declares that “[Jesus’] cross is his, not ours, part of the history of a person who obstinately stands over against us and will not be painlessly assimilated into our own memories.”(1) Christ is other, not only in the seemingly familiar cross, but paradigmatically in the living, risen stranger whose appearances between Easter morning and the ascension disorient and amaze. The fear at the empty tomb, Mary’s misperception of the gardener, the veiled eyes on the Emmaus Road, the fishermen-disciples’ failure of recognition on the lakeshore: these scenes and others confirm the alienness and even the againstness of the risen Christ.

Thus far, Williams is a wise and helpful interpreter of the Gospels’ Easter accounts. Further, Williams exposes the “dialectic of the resurrection stories,” whereby “Jesus returns as a loved friend and brother, and at the same time holds us off.”(2) In other words, Christ’s Easter otherness is held in tension with opened eyes, true recognition, fleshly touch, swelling joy, genuine reconciliation – this, too, is consonant with biblical witness and orthodox theological conviction. How to articulate this tension? Here is where I find Williams’s response unsatisfying.

“A theology of the risen Jesus,” says Williams, “will always be, to a greater or lesser degree, a negative theology, obliged to confess its conceptual and imaginative poverty – as is any theology which takes seriously the truth that God is not a determinate object in the world.”(3) It seems that whenever there is a tension between knowing and not-knowing, the familiar and the strange, the latter prevails: apophaticism gets the final word. This is likely as it must be – at least in an epistemological and metaphysical register, or what Williams elsewhere refers to as critical theology.(4) The chapter in Resurrection that we are discussing, however, largely unfolds in a more homiletical style (Williams might classify it as celebratory),(5) in which the resurrection is not merely talked about but rather is actively preached to – even done to – sinners like Murdoch’s Barney, with transformative results. While the theologian is certainly entitled – even obligated – to switch between categories or methods of theological speech,(6) in this case, the homiletical voice would serve Williams – and the resurrection – best.

So this is my question: Is there a step “beyond” the description of the tension between the known and unknown Jesus, the imminent and transcendent God, cataphatic and apophatic theology? John the Evangelist and Iris Murdoch suggest that there is. The writer of the fourth Gospel is admittedly not sophisticated or subtle when he says it, but at least he is direct: “These things are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name” (20:31). In novelistic form, Murdoch describes one such outworking of the evangel: “It became clear to [Barney], with a sudden authoritative clarity, that it was the risen Christ and not the suffering Christ who must be his saviour. . . . [This] would be the rite of his salvation.”(7) The tension is not abstract for Barney, but personal and salvific. Unpacking Murdoch, Williams describes Barney’s conversion thusly: “It is a transition from the destructively familiar to the creatively strange.”(8) The adverbs are essential: it is not only a shift from the familiar to the strange but from the destructive to the creative. The risen Christ breaks through the old destructiveness in order to create something that is new and good – it is an act of creatio ex nihilo.

The resurrected one is not immediately recognized, but he makes himself so, even if only for a dazzling instant, as with Cleopas and his companion (Lk 24). Recognition is not yet reconciliation, but Jesus presses in that direction – toward encounter, repentance, forgiveness, commission – as with Peter and the other turncoat followers (Jn 21). Williams is right to name the shift from the “destructively familiar to the creatively strange” – what needs to be made clearer is what the stranger creates: namely, faith.

Faith is discussed by Williams in this chapter only briefly, as the cleansing of desire and loss of ego, which gives rise to the reception of forgiveness and the beginning of compassion. This, again, is good as far as it goes, but our concept of faith may profitably be enlarged to encompass not only the reordering of desire but more fundamentally the way in which we inhabit – and loosen our grip on – the tension between the known and unknown Jesus. Faith does not resolve this tension; it does not claim that we know more (or less) about Jesus than we don’t know. The mystery remains, but our proper place is not there. Faith shifts the question, and makes the question into a proclamation of – which is to say, an encounter with – the risen one: Christ is risen for you, so that nothing “will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Rom. 8:39). Faith is created in the unfolding mystery of the resurrection. This is the function, the effect, the act, the desire of the living stranger.

Christ, the risen one, is against you – because he is for you.

Rowan Williams, Resurrection: Interpreting the Easter Gospel (Cleveland, Ohio: Pilgrim Press, 2002), 72.
Ibid., 84.
Rowan Williams, On Christian Theology (Malden, MA: Blackwell, Felstead & Co., 2000), xv.
Ibid., xiii – xiv.
See ibid., xv.
Quoted in Williams, Resurrection, 68-9; emphasis added.
Ibid., 69.
Ibid., 77-78.

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