Rowan Williams, Muslims, and the Offensive Trinity
Posted by NT Wrong on July 16, 2008
Anglican Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams wrote ‘A Common Word for the Common Good’ (a letter to Muslim leaders and scholars) on July 14, 2008. In one part of the letter he explains the Trinity affirms God’s oneness and self-sufficiency while not positing any other beings alongside God (consistent with the teachings of Islam), yet further affirms that the divine life is lived “as three interrelated agencies” (the Christian peculiarity, par excellence). Williams is quite orthodox.
And he doesn’t shy from explicating the Christian distinctives, either. Rowan Williams acknowledges that the doctrine is difficult for, and sometimes offensive to, Muslims. But he notes that this offensiveness provides all the more reason to clarify the peculiarities of the Christian doctrine:
“… ‘God’ is the name of a kind of life, a ‘nature’ or essence – eternal and self-sufficient life, always active, needing nothing. But that life is lived, so Christians have always held, eternally and simultaneously as three interrelated agencies are made known to us in the history of God’s revelation to the Hebrew people and in the life of Jesus and what flows from it. God is at once the source of divine life, the expression of that life and the active power that communicates that life. This takes us at once into consideration of the Trinitarian language used by Christians to speak of God. We recognise that this is difficult, sometimes offensive, to Muslims; but it is all the more important for the sake of open and careful dialogue that we try to clarify what we do and do not mean by it, and so trust that what follows will be read in this spirit.
In human language, in the light of what our Scripture says, we speak of “Father, Son and Holy Spirit”, but we do not mean one God with two beings alongside him, or three gods of limited power. So there is indeed one God, the Living and Self-subsistent, associated with no other; but what God is and does is not different from the life which is eternally and simultaneously the threefold pattern of life: source and expression and sharing. Since God’s life is always an intelligent, purposeful and loving life, it is possible to think of each of these dimensions of divine life as, in important ways, like a centre of mind and love, a person; but this does not mean that God ‘contains’ three different individuals, separate from each other as human individuals are.” (p. 4)
But that’s not what you’d understand from the media reports of Rowan Williams’ letter, which have been wilfully (or perhaps ignorantly) inaccurate — much like the general misreporting of his comments on sharia law.
The Telegraph simply states that there is a conflict between the Christian Trinity and the Muslim Allah — the very conflict which Rowan Williams was attempting to challenge or at least nuance:
“Discussing differences between the religions, Dr Williams acknowledges that Christian belief in the Trinity is “difficult, sometimes offensive, to Muslims”. The Trinity is the Christian doctrine stating God exists as the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit and conflicts with Islamic teaching that there is one all-powerful God.”
– The Telegraph
Rowan Williams’ comments are taken out of all context with the opening line of the Daily Mail’s article, which generalises even more broadly:
“Christian doctrine is offensive to Muslims, the Archbishop of Canterbury said yesterday.”
– Daily Mail
And of course, the comments by readers of these newspapers misrepresent his comments even further.
Update: A later article by George Pitcher in The Telegraph is more judicious:
“… if you look at what Dr Williams said, over an extended and deep letter that lasts for 17 dense pages, you will notice two things. The “offence” to Muslims relates only to the doctrine of the Trinity, the most complex piece of Christian theology. Muslims worship a single unity in Allah. For some of them to be offended by this piece of Christian doctrine is hardly controversial … Christians who attack Dr Williams for trying to reach a mutual understanding with Muslims might dwell on how they would react if Muslims condemned their leaders for trying to engage in dialogue.”
– The Telegraph
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