‘Looking East in Winter : Contemporary Thought and Eastern Christian Tradition’ by Rowan Williams (Bloomsbury Continuum)
This review by Philip Harvey first appeared in the November 2021 issue of The Melbourne Anglican
Rowan Williams has been engaged with Orthodoxy from his youth. He exemplifies the Anglican Church’s historical interest and deep conversation with the Eastern church traditions. His new book collects writings from the past ten years, but may be seen as a drawing together of learning over a lifetime, ranging from the early Greek Fathers right through to Mother Maria Skobtsova, John Zizioulas and present-day theology. He informs, questions, reflects and illumines at every turn.
Each chapter attends to a main aspect of Orthodox theology and spirituality, but Williams links each one through time, subject, and personalities. Thus, an up-to-date chapter on the great spiritual anthology the Philokalia leads into the next chapter, on desire and its relationship to logos, the embodied Word. Which, in turn, leads to a chapter firmly explaining deification, i.e. “participation in the life of God as the goal of God’s saving and restoring work in human beings.” As he puts it, this starts with the “fundamental norm in Christian identity” of addressing God as Jesus did, as ‘Abba, Father’, and orients us “towards a state of freedom from compulsion by instinct,” a state imitative of divine life that involves a share in divine wisdom. What I detail here is just one of many enlivening sequences throughout the work.
The abiding interest of the book is Christian anthropology, something we find recurring throughout his work: the question of what makes us human. Furthermore, what makes us more human, rather than less human. Complex theology is highlighted throughout by Williams’ characteristically felicitous turns of phrase, compression of materials, and enthusiasm to introduce readers to new and challenging ideas. While never shying away from the technical language and specialisation of Orthodox theology, his elucidation of its historical changes and central concerns offers us a valuable gift of learning.
The book’s title comes from an image used by the fifth-century writer Diadochos of Photike. “Looking east in winter,” writes Rowan Williams, “we feel the warmth of the sun on our faces, while still sensing an icy chill at our backs. Our divided and distorted awareness of the world is not healed instantly. But we are not looking at the phenomenon from a distance: we do truly sense the sun on our faces; and we have good reason to think that the climate and landscape of our humanity can indeed be warmed and transfigured … This is the promise that the Church must embody if it is to be credible in what is at the moment a notably wintry world.”