Rowan Williams Speaks on “Revelation in the Context of Interreligious Dialogue”

by Margo Borders


On Monday, April 7, the Church in the 21st Century and the BC Theology Department hosted Rowan Williams, Emeritus Archbishop of Canterbury and Professor of Theology at Cambridge University. Williams gave a lecture entitled, “Revelation in the Context of Interreligious Dialogue” as a part of an annual lecture series on topics of interreligious dialogue.

Williams first introduced the definition of divine revelation as “God being active.” He challenged this definition, however, because it is not a helpful paradigm. When thinking of divine revelation as divine action, it is a paradox to speak of a God who reveals Himself because of the contradiction between a deterministic and free God. A God who acts out of freedom is a God who cannot be contained. This definition also leads to the idea that other faiths, especially non-Abrahamic traditions, are limited by human achievement.


Williams then spoke about divine action in Abrahamic traditions. The action of God in the Jewish, Christian, and Islamic traditions is unlike human action because there is no gap between action and circumstances. Williams pointed out three points that emerge from this idea. The first is that divine act is the eternal enactment of divine being. It expresses what it is to be God. The second is that divine action is never reactive or triggered into being. Divine action is free, but not arbitrary. The last point is that God’s actions are always self-consistent. Because God is a covenantal God, He can be relied upon. These points give us clues about thinking anew about divine action and the context of revelation and interfaith dialogue.


Next, Williams spoke about the divine action of Jesus. Revealed in Jesus is a God who does not hold back divine love in its radical fullness. Jesus’ salvific gifts are not conditional upon human achievement. Jesus’ actions are encountered in and through relations of self-disposition. In our own struggles of being selfless, we can align ourselves with this God who revealed Himself through Jesus’ selflessness on Calvary. Jesus’ revelation of God does not reveal pieces of information, but rather habits or actions that show us how to find God revealed in the world. We can learn how to be a disciple.


Williams then focused on the interreligious encounter. He said that dialogue begins in the moment when the Christian invites their conversation partner to think about habits and how they manifest themselves in their life. The Christian seems to say, “this what we’ve learned through the habits in you, and we would like to know how you have learned and cultivated these habits.” Williams suggested that to believe in a God revealed in Jesus is to believe that meaning is found in all things looking towards God, and cannot be exhausted.


Williams argues that open religious dialogue is a mark of confidence instead of weakness of faith. A person who is willing to be open to dialogue is certain that what is embodied in Jesus cannot be contained and can be found in all people. We cannot think that the endeavor of dialogue will bring us further from Christ or his teachings. Ones who believe and are confident will engage in dialogue because what they believe cannot be superseded or relativized.


When asked if he wants everyone to be Christian, Williams responds, “No, I want everyone to know the person of Jesus Christ as the incarnation of the Eternal Word.” Williams suggested throughout his lecture that one’s own faith will continue to be renewed through dialogue. Revelation continues to happen because we are revealed to ourselves in dialogue, as well as God. Williams’ call to action was to approach other faiths with eagerness.


“The very act of dialogue is a potent and unambiguous witnesses we can bear to Jesus,” Williams said.


Williams acknowledged that this idea of faith and openness to dialogue is a paradox, but not an impossible one. He ended the lecture by saying that wherever we go, an act of Jesus Christ waits for us. We should expect the unexpected in these encounters, as we do with a God who cannot be contained.


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