I’m not an admirer of [Archbishop of Canterbury] Rowan Williams as a prose stylist, but just for fun I tried to read the passage held up for ridicule by Terry Sanderson [president of U.K.’s National Secular Society]. It seems to make sense. Theology, says Rowan, is not the study of God, who can’t be pinned down for study ("his word is not bound"). It’s not even the study of what God has done. Instead theology is language to make us aware what a huge task that study would be, because the awareness of that immensity is the beginning of the work and study of some small details is as far as we can ever get into it. This, he says, is also the method of St John’s gospel.
That seems perfectly comprehensible, whether or not it is true. It also implies something important about the distinction between theology and science: the purpose of scientific investigation is to produce reliable third-party knowledge which would be true even if there were no one to know it. But the purpose of Christian theology is to change the theologians. The knowledge it results in would then be inward, personable, and as incommunicable as any other aspect of experience.
And thus, if Rowan++ (Cantaur) is right, and I think he is, the Shroud of Turin can never be fully acceptable to science, authenticity-wise or otherwise, unless we choose to ignore its meaning.
Pope Benedict XVI recently caused a minor stir by referring to the Shroud as a relic in his newest book, Jesus of Nazareth: Holy Week: From the Entrance Into Jerusalem To The Resurrection. He wrote:
Equally important is the indication that Joseph bought a linen cloth in which he wrapped the corpse. Whereas the Synoptics speak simply of a linen sheet in the singular, John uses the plural "linen cloths" (cf: 19:40) in keeping with Jewish burial customs–the Resurrection account will return to this matter in greater detail. The question of matching this description to the Turin Shroud need not detain us here; in any case, the shape of that relic can in principle be harmonized with both accounts." (Emphasis mine)
Previously, he had used the term icon. Icon is less sure, bound up in interpretation and not in authenticity. Icon can mean a painting or work of art. Had the pope become more sure? Was that why he used the word relic? Was this, in a sense, a promotion in terminology?
I rather hope not. I hope he meant relic in a scientific sense and icon in theological sense. It can be both. Calling the Shroud a relic is comforting to those who believe it is authentic or want it to be. But does that really mean anything, theologically? If Rowan is right, then no; not as I see it. If the pope meant two things, then I agree with him.