Ben Myers on his ass

by Kim on April 29, 2009

Most of the usual suspects at Connexions will also be frequent flyers to Faith and Theology, the outstanding theological blog of Dr. Benjamin Myers. Ben plays a starring role in the recent collection On Rowan Williams: Critical Essays (Eugene, Oregon: Wipf and Stock, 2009), edited by Matheson Russell. It is worth the price of entry to this volume just to survey his contribution “Disruptive History: Rowan Williams on Heresy and Orthodoxy”.

Against the conventional wisdom, Ben, with Williams, argues that we should regard Christian orthodoxy not as a done and dusted “deposit of faith”, but, on the contrary, as an intrinsically untidy, unsettling, and unfinished project under continual negotiation. Not only must we reckon with “the sheer unaccountable strangeness of the past, the capacity of the past to disrupt and unsettle our complacency, to bring us into contact with a reality that questions us and submits us to judgement” (p. 50), but we must also be open to reconfiguring the past in more than just emergent, indeed in genuinely novel ways - precisely, if counter-intuitively, in loyalty to tradition’s intentio fidei. Orthodoxy, we might say, is more a palette than a painting.

In his Arius: Heresy and Tradition (1987, 2001) - the epigraph of which is: “Traditions, when vital, embody continuities of conflict” (Alasdair MacIntyre) - Williams explores the church’s early fourth century Christological disputes as a case study for his reading of doctrinal history as an ongoing process of faithful reinvention. Here is a snippet of Ben’s take on Williams’ magnum opus:

“According to Williams, the Arian controversy was fundamentally a series of debates about the nature of Christian continuity. How does the church in a new historical situation remain faithful to tradition? Should the church simply remain committed to the language and formulations of the past? Or is theological innovation necessary in order to secure deeper continuity? Although Williams depicts Arius as an unconventional philosophical thinker, a central claim of his study is that Arius was a ‘traditionalist’ and ‘a committed theological conservative.’ Indeed, Arius emerges not only as the ‘archetypal heretic,’ but also as an archetypal conservative who viewed himself as a guardian of Christian formulae, standing firm against the threatening encroachment of the Nicene innovators….

“In contrast to Arius’ staunch attachment to traditional language, it was Athanasius’ genius to perceive that continuity with tradition can demand a sharp break in linguistic continuity… Indeed, Athanasius realized that there can be no question of a choice between conservation and innovation tout court. The question posed to the church, rather, was ‘what kind of innovation would best serve the integrity of the faith handed down,’ since the continuity of Christian belief involves much more than the mere conservation of dogmatic formulae” (pp, 51-52).

Conversely, if orthodoxy is a work in progress demanding (to shift metaphors) creativity in the kitchen, heresy amounts to an unproductive copying of the credal cookbook: it represents “the impoverishment of the church’s theological imagination” (p. 55). Nevertheless, heresy itself “plays a vital role in the creation of Christian orthodoxy,” for it “is a failed attempt to achieve the same thing for which orthodoxy struggles” (pp. 57).

“And so” what T. S. Eliot says about poetry goes for theology: “each venture / Is a new beginning, a raid on the inarticulate / With shabby equipment …” But of course! For the foundational event of faith itself, the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, is “an event of rupture, … ‘an event [in Williams' words] on the frontier of any possible language,’ since it both shatters our speech and breaks it open to new possibilities” (p. 60). Indeed orthodoxy, like heresy, is always a failure; the only difference is that orthodoxy fails better. Ultimately, orthodoxy is ortho-doxological; as such, it is an eschatological concept.

Thus my take on Ben’s take on Williams. Williams has famously remarked “that the best theology is like ‘the noise of someone falling over in the dark’” (p. 66). I predict that Ben Myers is going to be spending a lot of his vocation as a theologian on his skinny Aussie ass.

{ 3 comments… read them below or add one }


Jason Goroncy 04.29.09 at 9:34 pm

Thanks Kim. You’ve sold me the book.


Ben Myers 04.30.09 at 6:02 am



Byron Smith 05.16.09 at 3:48 pm

Ben Myer on an ass? Sounds faintly messianic…

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