A Summary of Rowan Williams’ book Why Study the Past
In his book Why Study the Past?, Rowan Williams shows us how we can study “church history as a spiritual discipline, not only a critical or scientific one” (110). The point of this spiritual discipline? Unity with our brothers and sisters in Christ across time and space.
This unity is a full-bodied and multi-faceted unity, however, involving all the ambiguity, unknowability and familiarity of the strongest of human relationships. But the fundamental nature of this unity is that it is God-given: “Christian theology celebrates a divine stranger who creates a common world; and in so doing it establishes once and for all the possibility of a humanity that does not depend for its harmony on any transient human alliance or definitions of common interest or common purpose” (114). Rather than setting up criteria for unity to clarify our relationship with past Christians, our unity is given to us insofar as we have all been called upon originally by God. This divine initiative stands outside us and constitutes us. This is why the oneness of Christians in the body of Christ cannot be artificially constructed. To construct it with outward forms or inward assents to beliefs is exclusive both to other Christian groups (who happen to fall outside the particular criteria) and the strangeness in ourselves.
Thus the challenge of writing the history of the Church Christianly “is to trace the ways in which the Church has demonstrated its divine origin” (2). This is not just found in accuracy of doctrinal statements, moral standards, liturgical purity, etc. Christianity’s divine origin shines through in strange ways. The church historian must be prepared to be surprised by the past, then, at the same time as attempting to understand the past as part of his own history and self-identity.
This ambivalence to the past has been active within the Church as long as it has existed: thinking through the question of its connection to Judaism and the Event of Jesus Christ, the Church knew “the strange and interruptive has to be made into a unity, has to be made intelligible, yet not reduced and made so smooth that you don’t notice there is a problem” (9). Though the predominate movement in the Christian tradition – the movement that met the challenge of those we know call “heretics” – has been directed by the desire to “re-establish vision of the universe and its history that made one story, one system” (41), it could only do so by, paradoxically, including something that was outside it. This strangeness is integral to the Christian identity.
In this way, Church history necessarily involves “the attempt to define the very subject whose history is being attempted” (23). The scope of the identity of the Church determines the scope of the history. By reiterating again and again the need for an inclusivity of strangeness, Williams seems to imply that, to some extent, the best church history is that with the widest scope, for it gives a “sense of who we now are that is subtle enough to encompass the things we don’t fully understand. Just as, in a good analysis of an individual self, we emerge with a heightened awareness of the strangeness within, so with history” (24). Church history is directly related to self-understanding, and self-understanding is directly related to our relation with Otherness. With bad history, “we have no way of understanding where and who we are because we do not allow our ways of being and thinking to be made strange to us by the serious contemplation of other ways of being and thinking” (24).
All this means that through the spiritual discipline of church history, we are made aware of a deeper unity with past Christians than we thought possible, a sense of unity that heightens our own self-awareness because (a) the past Church is the present Church: “the Christian past is unavoidably part of the Christian present” (28); and (b) the past church is a stranger to the present Church.
This then is the value of church history: dialogue and unity. “If all serious history drives us finally, as I think it does, to recognize that some sort of conversation is possible across surprisingly wide gaps in context and understanding, the same is true far more profoundly for the Christian, for whom such a conversation is the sign of belonging in one network of relations, organize around the pivotal relation with Jesus and his relation with God, into which Christians are inducted” (29). When this discipline is performed well, it will begin with the awareness that “what we are attending to is the record of encounter with God in Christ” (28).
This spiritual discipline, like all others, requires work. However, it is a labour that calls to us from within us, since we and our history are one. It is, then, “self-motivating.” Williams stresses that “God revealed  himself in such a way as not to spare us labour; God speaks in a manner that insists we continue to grow in order to hear… So much of our debate can actually be an evasion of labour. And accepting the labour of having to live with a history that insists upon our involvement is one of the challenges of believing not only a revealed religion but in one that sees each of us indebted to all” (112). Christianity calls us to all kinds of responsibility, and one thing that William has done best in his books is articulate Christianity’s call to action that presupposes the reality of history.
What does this mean for the present? In discovering our unity with the past Church, we rediscover our identity and in it what makes us distinct from those “idolatrous claims of total power that may be made from time to time in the world” (58). To participate in the unity of Christ’s body, then, involves struggling in our own time towards an awareness of our separate identity, which is defined by “the difference that is made by the priority of what God does, the action of God in establishing his authority through the events of Christ’s life, death and resurrection” (59). Our sine qua non is this difference. Here are Williams’ challenging words: “An innovation is proposed; and the question about it should not be, ‘Is this a step towards an uncontroversial modernising of faith and practice, a step towards ‘inclusion’ or ‘pluralism’?’ but, ‘Is this something without which we could not, in the long run, make sense of the commitments that makes sense of martyrdom?’ Or: an innovation is resisted; and the question should not be, ‘Is this alien to our habits of interpretation?’ but, ‘Is this going to make it impossible to make sense of the Christian claim to an independent citizenship?’” (56-57).