Being Disciples

Looking to God, Studying Human—Rowan Williams’s Being Disciples

As I flip through many books, some are thick with heavy stuff, which still makes me feel that I have little to learn from them, yet others are thin, and on the surface full of easy things; still, they make me come back to them over and over again for meditation. Rowan Williams’s Being Disciples is one belonging to the latter category.  It is 88 pages total in English, composed of 6 chapters.  The book treats the Christian faith as public and personal, as academic and existential, and about Sunday and Monday.  I have read the book twice as I sit down to write this review, yet I am awed with the weight of Williams’s thinking.  The first chapter of the book is an overview of what it means to be disciples, summed up as staying with God through following Jesus.  Chapter 2 connects faith, hope, and love to reason, memory, and will in the contemporary context.  Chapter 3 draws out the deep wells of the Trinitarian relationships as the resource for forgiving and being forgiven, which is centered around the meaning of being human.  Chapter 4 shatters out prejudice toward holiness as separation and snobbishness, re-categorizing it as following that of Jesus who did not mind going into the darkest realms of being human.  In chapter 5, Williams fathoms the meaning of public faith not in terms of polemical academic discourse, but of the existential and practical ways of living out the dual convictions of the Christian faith (all human persons being equal and the mutual dependence of every human person upon one another). Lastly, in chapter 6, Williams discusses the core of the so-called spiritual life as self-knowledge, stillness, growth, and joy.

In each chapter, the weight of each topic with which Williams delves into is really category-shattering, showing us what it means to “reorganize the real around Jesus Christ.” Because of this, the book feels like reading the one with 400-500 page length, even when its real length is mere 88 pages.

In chapter one, Williams begins with the ancient meaning of being disciples not just being students in the modern sense, but “shadowing” the master, following him everywhere he goes, and spending time with him the vast majority of the day.  Moreover, for Williams this is not just deriving from the ancient usage of the word, but more from looking into the Triune life, for that is what the relationship among the three persons of the Godhead are like.

In the second chapter, Williams connects the human reason, memory, and will to faith, hope, and love, respectively.  When it comes to reason, it is nothing but instrumental in our times, for we are almost always talking about developing our rational faculty for the purpose of making more money and being economically strong.  However, Williams points out that that is not what our reason is all about.  In fact, it has everything to do with pursuing truth, which is based on our conviction that we can know and sense the truth, at least to a certain extent.  However, in our postmodern age, no such conviction is possible, for everything is relative, and no one can tell you for sure the absolute truth about anything.  In this context, Williams argues that the need for faith is more urgent than ever, for the faith trail-blazes where the reason cannot attempt to venture.  Drawing upon the Saint John of the Cross, Williams says that the faith begins where the reason becomes bounded by its own limit.  According to Williams, the Christian puts faith in “God who never abandons us, and in Christ who never leaves us.”  The function of reason consists in knowing something transcendental, yet the function of faith also consists in knowing the limit of its knowing capacity, and that is where the faith begins.

Memory is problematic for contemporary people because our memories are all fragmented and sectionalized.  This directly leads to problems over the personal identity.  Unlike those living in the past where communal lives help them anchor into the deep sense of who they are, contemporaries cannot build their identities around anything like that, and that is where the Christian hope becomes meaningful and important, for our hope lies in the one “who never forsakes us, who knows us as thoroughly as possible, much more than we know who we are.”  Therefore, our identities are not dependent upon our own memories, but on looking to God who tells us who we are.  This is the essence of the Christian hope.

Likewise, the problem of will is that our choice and freedom is ultimately not about following whatever we want, but acknowledging and examining the fact that what we want is dictated by what our hearts love.  I am empathetic about this part specifically because my favorite pastors and theologians such as Tim Keller and James K.A. Smith are all talking about the same things.  Williams puts it this way, “this freedom is not the kind of freedom in the sense that we claim whatever we want, but the kind of freedom to be whom God wants us to be.”  Thus, the issue of will is eventually the issue of love, who “never abandons us, who always remembers who we were and who we are and who we will be with constant, loving gaze, and who bears witness to who we are without wavering at all.”

In chapter three, Williams meditates on forgiveness and being human.  Not forgiving, nor asking for forgiveness, means that we refuse to come out of our own comfort zones which we originally went in to because of the wounds in our heart or of the fear of humiliation when we ask for forgiveness.  Only when we come out of such comfort zones could we finally begin to walk on the path of being human.

The topic of chapter four is holiness.  Unlike our stereotypical thinking about holiness, Williams urges us to follow Jesus’ holiness who did not mind being pushed to the farthest periphery where the most forsaken and the most marginalized reside.  If holiness is one of God’s qualities, then we are very much mistaken about what is holy! For the Lord Jesus ventured into the darkest realms of being human, by which he was called holy.

In chapter five, Williams discusses the public dimension of faith on more personal and communal bases.  Personally speaking, I thought that Williams should have really provided more details in order to get his points across more cogently.  Initially examining the secular, Williams moves on to various alternatives to the secular, one of which is Islam.  However, Williams concludes that Islam is unfit to be the dominant thinking framework worthy of replacing Christianity in the West.  All in all, Williams is not focused upon hegemonic religious warfare, but on how the Christian convictions such as the equality of everyone before God and the mutual dependence of every human person on one another, could be conducive to building the common good in the secular and religiously plural society. Given that this book is a beginner’s guide to Christian discipleship, attempts like these are themselves meaningful, yet I could not dismiss the feeling that more details are necessary.

In chapter six, he talks about what constitutes a spiritual life, which is basically virtuous life.  He provides four guideposts for leading such a life: self-knowledge, stillness, growth, and joy. Self-knowledge is making a space between who you are and what you desire, feel, and etc, so God can come in and examine you and tell you that you are not dictated by whatever you feel or desire or follow, but by God’s calling your name.  Stillness is a natural corollary of self-knowledge, for as many times as you experience and become aware of God’s presence and your identity through such presence, then you will experience stillness.  As you experience self-knowledge and stillness, growth happens naturally.  Also, the denouement of all these is joy coming from God, which Apostle Paul speaks of even when he was imprisoned.

Overall, this book review is a mere summary of the book, for I don’t think I digested the book fully.  I am thinking that I will come back to it over and over again to chew over its message prayerfully. I highly recommend this book to anyone wondering about the ABCs of the Christian discipleship.

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