Every use of language can be a venture for truth and a denial of fantasy. The work of writers is to piece back together some of the brittle glass of ordinary human experience, to assemble little windows through which the world looks at God and God looks back at the world.
Writing, then, is a spiritual exercise. Its whole aim is to become supple and receptive, yielding gently to the strangeness of the one who is quietly and subversively at work in our words, ploughing the dark furrows of our language, sowing in our speech the seeds of a new world.
We are inclined to think of Christianity as a tradition of ideas, an elaborate system of beliefs stretched out across time. But Christian tradition is primarily and essentially a tradition of prayer. It is a millennia-long experiment in listening to God and replying to God while looking at the crucified Jesus. Christianity is the historical community in which this peculiar form of attention is cultivated.
This austere and reticent approach to the language of Christian hope springs from Williams’ most elemental intuition: that it is Jesus who teaches us to speak of God; that the bleak landscapes of Gethsemane and Golgotha map out the strange topography of God’s inner life. At the real heart of things are kenosis, crucifixion, resurrection - in other words, tragedy and its transfiguration. Christian hope is not a cosmic optimism, not a denial of tragedy. It is the vision of a lamb standing amid the ruins of history, ‘looking as if it had been slain’ (Rev. 5:6).
That is what it means to say that we ‘love’ God. Not that God gratifies us by fulfilling our fantasies, but that we have abandoned ourselves to the great landslide of self-displacement that is going on forever between the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.
The church, then, exists not for itself but for the sake of a reconciled humanity. We are a laboratory of human possibility, human flourishing, human belonging. And our materials are not test tubes and chemicals, but a book, a chalice, and the broken body of God.
As Williams sees it, the church is the rough draft of a new humanity, and the Spirit is its author. Rough drafts are always a rather tragic state of affairs. But as every writer knows, there’s only one thing to do about it, and that is to revise. That is the work of the Spirit: revising and repairing the human race, slowly and patiently, one fragment at a time.
Tradition is a theological reality. It is not meant to answer all our questions; its aim is to point beyond itself, to formalize its own unfinishedness, to hold open a space for new encounters with what Flannery O’Connor called God’s “dark and disruptive” grace. Tradition keeps the church is contact with its own traumatic origins: the dark grace of an empty tomb.
If Christ is not raised in bodily form, then he would remain foreign to embodied human experience, to all those awkward joys and sorrows of social existence. It is bodily resurrection that secures Christ’s relevance to our lives here and now.
God is what fractures our identity, and God is the new coherence of our stories. To perform this coherence, to make God’s reality legible in the embodied patterns of our lives, is what it means to speak of God.
Our religious language is shipwrecked on Christ.