Rowan Williams: on not trying to make God feel better

by Kim on July 18, 2011

David Hare talks to Rowan Williams in the Guardian (July 8th).
With thanks to Jason Goroncy at
Per Crucem ad Lucem for the heads-up.

Williams speaks so gingerly about human beings, always unwilling to impute motive, that it’s shocking when you move on to theology and realise how uncompromising his version of God is. He rarely uses the word “faith”. He prefers the word “trust” because, he says, “it sounds less like product placement”. In print, he goes out of his way to emphasise that God doesn’t need us. “We must get to grips with the idea that we don’t contribute anything to God, that God would be the same God if we had never been created. God is simply and eternally happy to be God.” How on Earth can he possibly know such a thing? “My reason for saying that is to push back on what I see as a kind of sentimentality in theology. Our relationship with God is in many ways like an intimate human relationship, but it’s also deeply unlike. In no sense do I exist to solve God’s problems or to make God feel better.” In other words, I say, you hate the psychiatrist/patient therapy model that so many people adopt when thinking of God? “Exactly. I know it’s counterintuitive, but it’s what the classical understanding of God is about. God’s act in creating the world is gratuitous, so everything comes to me as a gift. God simply wills that there shall be joy for something other than himself. That is the lifeblood of what I believe.”

I say that’s all very well, but how then can he be so critical of self-absorption when he himself is a poet? Surely self-study is necessary to create art? “Ah, yes, two very different things. Self-absorption means thinking the most interesting thing in the world is myself. Self-scrutiny, on the other hand, is very deeply part of the Christian experience.” So is his religion a relief, a way of escaping self? “Yes. We are able to lay down the heavy burden of self-justification. Put it this way, if I’m not absolutely paralysed by the question, ‘Am I right? Am I safe?’ then there are more things I can ask of myself. I can afford to be wrong. In my middle 20s, I was an angst-ridden young man, with a lot of worries about whether I was doing enough suffering and whether I was compassionate enough. But the late, great Mother Mary Clare said to me, ‘You don’t have to suffer for the sins of the world, darling. It’s been done.’”

{ 15 comments… read them below or add one }


Pam 07.18.11 at 9:17 am

Like that last sentence of the post Kim!


doug 07.18.11 at 3:52 pm

Why does he not use the word Faith when Scripture in the NT states clearly says “Without Faith it is impossible to please God.” or When the Apostle Paul makes reference to God as “Abba Father”. As Believers, us doing the will of God to be “Holy even as your Father in heaven is Holy.” is not meant to improve God as implied here: “we don’t contribute anything to God”. It is because God calls us to, “Obedience is better than Sacrifice”. All this that I have said doesn’t take away or diminish the fact that “God is happy to be God.”, or “to solve God’s problems”, or “to make God feel better”. God knows that when we are obedient to God it makes US better than otherwise and allows us as Believers to “be further Sanctified”.

If this post is correct then why would the Apostle Paul refer to himself as “servent of the most high God”? The Epistles are stocked full of “holiness, obedience, doing the will of God, etc.” with all of the obstintions of sin and all the admonishion to “do the work of the evangelist”, etc., etc. However, these things don’t diminish or change the nature of God as being ominiscient, omnipresent, etc., that the writer wrongly thinks the view I presented is wrong.


Kim 07.18.11 at 7:55 pm

Uh, Doug, actually the NT doesn’t use the word “faith” either. It uses the word pistis.


Tony Buglass 07.18.11 at 8:24 pm

To elaborate a little, Doug: as Kim says, the Greek noun is pistis, the verb pisteo. The noun means both belief and trust. So there is a distinction between “faith” and “the faith” - the first is the trust IN Christ by which we are saved, the second is the beliefs ABOUT Christ by which we seek to explain it. When Paul is explaining faith in Rom.4, he means trust, not beliefs. His example is Abraham trusting God to fulfil his promises, not Abraham working out a correct set of doctrines about God. Correct beliefs are important, but they are by no means the most important thing - it is entirely possible to have a precisely formulated and correct set of Christian doctrines, but have no trust in Christ, and therefore remain an unbeliever. We could explain it in terms of ‘head-faith’ and ‘heart-faith’, if you like - both are important, but one is primary, the other secondary, until both become complementary.

I think the Archbishop prefers the word ‘trust’ because his Greek is excellent, and he seeks to avoid the tendency to make faith an intellectual game - his personal faith is that of a man who knows he is loved by God, who knows he can trust God, who also knows what it is to stand in utter adoration before the One who is beyond all doctrine. He chooses his words very carefully, and is fated to be misunderstood (like the erstwhile Bishop of Durham) by journalists and commentators who have simply failed to understand his precise nuances of meaning - even when they are as blatant as the one we’re discussing.


doug 07.18.11 at 9:03 pm

Tony, when I say “Faith” it is in reference to “heart Faith” so while I appreciate the clarification it doesn’t change really what I said. For all that you mentioned was “non-mentioned understoods”.

I know people who “trust” but don’t have “heart Faith”. Scripture states Faith (heart-Faith) so that is where my original statement comes from. To me “heart Faith” is stronger than “trust” or “belief”. Hense my original statement did NOT state “belief” but Faith. Does that help clarify what I stated?

I will add though that “heart Faith” for Salvation is completed when one “Confesses with their mouth the Lord Jesus and Believes in their Heart that God has risen from the dead you shall be saved.”

I know many a people who have “personal faith of a man who knows he is loved by God, who knows he can trust God, who also knows what it is to stand in utter adoration before the One who is beyond all doctrine.” who do not have a “heart Faith” in Christ for Salvation. However, I agree with you and my original statement does not contradict what you said about people having “head faith” vs. “heart Faith”.


Tony Buglass 07.18.11 at 11:36 pm

“I know many a people who have “personal faith of a man who knows he is loved by God, who knows he can trust God, who also knows what it is to stand in utter adoration before the One who is beyond all doctrine.” who do not have a “heart Faith” in Christ for Salvation.”

No, you don’t. You haven’t understood what I wrote. If you have the first bit, you have the second bit: personal faith (etc) is what I meant by “heart-faith”. Read it again.


doug 07.19.11 at 4:09 pm

I understand Tony I do understand. However, but isn’t true that not all “personal Faith” is “heart Faith” let alone that Salvation is in Christ and so one must understand the basics of who they are placing their heart Faith in or it isn’t heart Faith? That isn’t doctrine but a basic understanding of who the nature of Christ is and the Faith for Salvation in that heart, soul and mind and the confession that therein.


Richard 07.19.11 at 5:54 pm



Kim 07.19.11 at 5:59 pm

Doug, are you okay?


Tony Buglass 07.19.11 at 7:28 pm

Like I said, Doug, read what I wrote. I was the one who introduced the term to the conversation, and I did so with reference to an exposition of Rom.4. In that context, what I termed ‘heart-faith’ is trust in Christ for salvation. That’s what Paul was describing, that’s what I was referencing. And that’s why Rowan Williams used the word ‘trust’ rather than ‘faith.’ Clear?


Paul F. 07.19.11 at 7:43 pm

Don’t forget “gut faith”. “Head faith” and “heart faith” aren’t enough to be saved, actually. I’ve met many people who have “head faith” and “heart faith” in Christ for salvation, but, sadly, they don’t have any “gut faith”.


Kim 07.19.11 at 8:28 pm

X-ray vision, is it?


Tony Buglass 07.19.11 at 9:15 pm

“Heart faith” is the anglicised rendition of “gut faith.” The Hebrew ‘qereb’ (heart), ‘me’im’ (bowels), and ‘rachamim’ (guts, meaning womb) are used interchangeably for the seat of the emotions, the heart of the person. The Greek is ’splangchna’ (bowels or guts) used in the way English speakers think of the heart.

Again, I refer the honourable gentleman to my reference to Rom.4.


doug 07.19.11 at 9:41 pm

Richard, I’m okay. I’m actually being rather nice and straightforward and even asked questions. I’m doing better by asking questions. Maybe your surprised by that? :)

Tony, I see what you are saying. I agree with your analysis of “gut” and “heart” being equivilent terms. 100% agreement. I agree with what you have been saying, your final explaination is perfect, on “heart faith”. I just don’t know from what Rowan is saying see your definition of “heart faith” in his response. I think for me I see Faith as a more appropriate word than trust. For example, I trust the government but I don’t have faith in the government. It seems to me that the more appropriate term for these issues is faith as opposed to trust.

For trust doesn’t imply “heart faith” in every case. However “heart faith” and/or faith defined as such by solely “heart faith” IS “heart faith” in every case. Does that make sense?

Tony, I love your latest two responses and agree. Hopefully the latest responses here will help you understand the reaction prior to all of the clarifications. Still have concerns but at least it makes sense after this full discussion.

Thanks Tony.


Pam 07.20.11 at 3:53 am

I just checked the Ten Commandments and “do not confuse people by talking goobledegook” is not one of them.
So I guess you’re safe.

Leave a Comment

You can use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>