Sometimes it makes sense to concentrate on a single concept in order to understand the contribution of an individual to the history of ideas. This may mean artificially reducing the complexity of a person’s thought and vision. It may, however, be helpful in finding a hermeneutic ‘entry door’ into those thoughts and visions.
I have come to the (preliminary) conclusion that “Decentring” is such a key concept in the writing of Rowan Williams. “Decentring” features in Williams’ work both on questions of individual spirituality and matters of collective well-being. In Williams’ approach the individual and collective dimensions are not to be viewed separately but together. Individual choices bear upon the order of state and society and collective decisions provide the framework for the welfare of individuals and their ‘pursuit of happiness’.
Benjamin Myers’ thought-provoking book on the theology of Rowan Williams “Christ the Stranger” (London 2012) lists in its subject index one term which is very close to “decentring”: dispossession. Myers, however, makes also use of additional terms within the same semantic field which do not feature in his index: dislocation, displacement, off balance, dethroned and occasionally decentring. All in all, these terms appear on every other page in Myers account. The reason for this accumulation seems to be that Myers hermeuntic entry door into the thought of Williams is the theological trope of “kenosis” – meaning the self-dispossession of the ‘pattern-man’ Jesus Christ as exemplified in St. Paul’s letter to the Philippians ch. 2: Christ “emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death – even death on the cross.”
“Decentring” may be identified as a derivative concept of kenosis. Where does it feature in Rowan Williams’ work? Some examples:
In “Silence and Honey Cakes” (Oxford 2003) Williams identifies one lesson of his reading of the Desert Fathers in the early Church as being the following: “To find my own life is a task I cannot undertake without the neighbour; life itself is what I find in solidarity, and not only in a sense of togetherness (…) but in that willingness to put ‘on hold’ the perspective I want to own and cling to and possess” (32). Two insights are contained within these few lines: Firstly, spirituality is never a lonely matter. It has to do with how I approach my neighbour. Secondly, including my neighbour in my own quest for a spiritual identity means that I must be prepared to be pushed out of the centre of the universe. I don’t find my own spiritual identity merely by looking into myself. I find it through my relationships with other people and, ultimately, with God. My view on that what is real and true shifts away from me as I appreciate that which is important to other people. I am being decentred.
The very same insight is included in one of the early works of Rowan Williams, “The Wound of Knowledge”, a history of ideas within the field of Christian spirituality (first published in London 1979; I refer to the 2002 reprint of the second edition from 1990). Towards the end of the book, in his treatment of the thought of St. John of the Cross, Williams comes to the following conclusion: “To be absorbed in the sheer otherness of any created order or beauty is to open the door to God, because it involves that basic displacement of the dominating ego without which there can be no spiritual growth” (180). The pillars on which my personal and spiritual identity rest have their foundation outside my own territory. Or better: only if I allow myself to be founded outside myself, will I be able to grow in faith and love.
Williams is convinced that I need to be made a stranger to myself, at least for a moment, in order to find my proper place within a community and before God. If I always insist that things are done my way, I will not be able to find a way out of a deadlocked situation or a political crisis. The political dimension of such a “decentring” is dealt with particularly in “The Truce of God” (first published London 1983; 2nd edition from 2005) and finally in the “Faith in the Public Square” (2012).
In “The Truce of God” it is clearly shown that collective well-being and individual spirituality are inseparable. This leads Williams to the following statement about contemplation, usually regarded as a very isolated activity: “Contemplation for men and women is looking and listening and being moulded by what is other” (40), the other being other men and women and, ultimately, God. Contemplation therefore is not a purely personal business. For Williams it has a political dimension (cf. Vita contemplative vs. Vita activa). Contemplation reminds me of my own limitations and liberates me from prejudices about other people and set presumptions about how order and stability have to be organised. For Williams, then, being decentred means “being part of an interdependent order” (95). It marries with the conviction of the “non-centrality of my ego” (103). This allows me to really engage with the needs and desires of other people. Widespread decentring in individuals furthers solidarity within a community as individuals learn to take responsibility for others and the whole of a community.
Finally, in his latest publication “Faith in the Public Square” (London 2012), Williams deepens his conviction in the importance of decentring for the well-being of all. He reminds his readers that theological insights must always be combined with a critical momentum. They are anything but staatstragend, stabilising the established order. Theology unsettles and so does orthodoxy: “Orthodoxy goes in tandem with the injunction to the dispossession of all self-centred perspectives, and the language of theology and worship is supposed to enact that dispossession” (19f.). Benjamin Myers echoes this thought when he concludes that “orthodoxy is messy” (Christ the Stranger, 48). Williams attributes to the Christian faith the capability to think twice, to review otherwise set beliefs within a secular society. In “Faith in the Public Square” he calls it the “double vision” (66) which enables the faithful to look beyond the apparent and learn something about the other, the impossible possibility (Karl Barth) of the kingdom of God. At the heart of faith, thus, lies the potential for an energetic spiritual force culminating in “radical social change” (3).
Whether the ultimate source of Williams’ concept of decentring is the thought of the Desert Fathers, the philosophy of Hegel, French post-structuralism, psychology or some other discipline, I am not quite sure. Taking in account that “Decentring” features in most of his books (including some which I have not referred to in this article), it can certainly be called a key concept in Williams’ thought. It allows him to develop a critical vision of the political and economical status-quo of today’s world, a critical vision which is deeply rooted in the prophetical and kenotical tradition of the Bible and the Early Church.
At least one question remains: how much decentring is possible without completely loosing sight of one’s own foundation? In „Faith in the Public Square“ Williams mentions the necessity for a „debate about foundations“ (20). Are we, however, only to debate about foundations or do we actually seek to be grounded in them? Decentring is not an end in itself but a means of growing in spiritual and civic maturity. It helps us to develop deeper roots in faith and neighbourly love.
Burkhard Conrad is a political scientist and Lay Dominican based near Hamburg in Germany. His research interests include the history of political and theological ideas. He is the author of the blog Rotsinn.