To Speak Truly About God – By Rowan Williams

Rowan Williams on Kevin Hector’s Theology without Metaphysics

theology without metaphysics 2
Kevin Hector, Theology Without Metaphysics: God, Language, and the Spirit of Recognition, Cambridge University Press, 2011, 302pp., $31.99

When we say that something is true or adequate, what are we claiming?

We might be implying that we have captured the essence of what we are talking about, that we are representing exhaustively or isomorphically the structure of the object. Increasingly, though, philosophical discourse has rendered such a claim problematic, and in connection with language about God it is especially difficult: such claims can be morally objectionable as well as philosophically over-ambitious.

Wittgensteinian caution (about imagining that language can capture essences and fix meanings once and for all) and Heideggerian hostility (to any metaphysics that absorbs the elusiveness of Being into the habits of the human subject) prompt us to rethink reference in general, and theological reference in particular. Allowing for these two critiques (the therapeutic and the apophatic) we can say that truthful speech is speech that manifestly intends to continue a practice, that recognizes the authority of precedents, and that attempts to produce a recognizable continuation of what these precedents embody.

In the Christian theological context, this view about speech entails an appeal to the Holy Spirit as securing a continuity of usage with Jesus and the apostles: to claim to be speaking truly about God means to go on in a way that can be identified with acknowledged precedent, to reproduce the commitments of precursors. Meaning is established by charting a normative trajectory in usage. And this normative trajectory can also generate self-critical moves in the discourse because there is always a surplus of normative resource that may only come to light when uses are challenged in the light of perceived inequity or incongruity produced by existing usage. We can confidently defend a mode of speech about God as genuinely representing extra-mental truth in virtue of the self-aware and self-challenging practice that can be demonstrated in our usage — and without explicit or implicit appeal to a metaphysical claim to have embodied some essence in our words.

As a positive argument, the account I have just outlined has many virtues. The idea that we learn to apply concepts successfully through a history of mutual recognition, based on judgement of relevant similarity among experiences, is a helpful move. And such a broadly Davidsonian picture of reference allows a fruitful theological move in locating language about God firmly within the practices of the Spirit-filled worshipping and reflecting community. But Kevin Hector’s recent work, Theology Without Metaphysics, suffers badly from two related problems.

The most obvious is the repeated use of the term “metaphysics” to mean what he inelegantly calls the “essentialist/correspondentistic” model of reference — the idea that for a term or concept to refer successfully is for it to capture an object’s essence. Although he allows that “metaphysics” may mean other things, and that he does not intend to rule out strong realist claims for theological and other language, he constantly writes as though “metaphysics” meant no more than a very particular kind of atomistic (early Wittgensteinian?) realism, and as though most alternative strategies were one or another version of post-Kantian disjunctions between concept and reality. Hector argues for “a deflationary account of ‘being in touch’ as this emerges from a de-metaphysicalized notion of concepts” — a via media between essentialist claims on the one hand and, on the other, notions of inaccessible noumena which leave us especially at sea when we try to speak of a living and active deity.

The second, related problem is the combination of what he calls the therapeutic and the apophatic critiques: philosophical eclecticism is not an evil in itself, and much of the interest of this book is its admirable familiarity with both European and Anglo-American idiom and argument. But this also means that an analytical critique of crude correspondence claims is shot through with the rhetoric of epistemological violence familiar from the Heideggerian world. A strictly conceptual problem is reconfigured as a moral one. And we are throughout left unclear as to who exactly is claiming what Hector attacks. Some versions of Russell’s realism probably come closest to his targets. The irony is that these are also among the more metaphysically modest or agnostic schemes in modern philosophy.

Allegory of Theology, Prague – Image via Wikimedia Commons
Allegory of Theology, Prague – Image via Wikimedia Commons

So this is a book whose positive proposals are welcome and interesting: what it might mean to claim a properly referential element in theology without extravagant aspirations to exhaustive descriptive adequacy is a challenging agenda which Hector handles well and freshly. The stress on recognizability and on the appeal to credible or authoritative precedent in establishing a defensible case for of realism is valuable, and the connection of this with a doctrine of the Holy Spirit in the community’s life is an original insight deserving enthusiastic welcome and exploration. Hector is also adept at seeing off objections based on the potentially static implications of such a view, and his discussion (for example) of why Jensen is wrong to assume that referring to God as “Mother” could not possibly be to refer to the God Jesus called “Father” is admirably clear, philosophically elegant and, I think, decisive.

But his loose use of the word “metaphysics” overshadows the whole argument. He is clearly not arguing that language in general and theology in particular can manage without any ontological commitments. He wants to say that theology tells us the truth about God and that it is possible to represent aptly or successfully what is the case with the world around us; in that sense, metaphysical assumptions are still alive and well, and we might still raise the question (current in some recent discussion of thinkers like Austin Farrer) of whether any theology is thinkable without some commitments as to how we conceive substance itself. But the title and much of the content have the potential to mislead quite seriously as to the book’s ambitions.

That being said, it is an important essay. The style is laboured and rather repetitive — an unredeemed dissertation shows through the printed veil. Terms like the horrible “correspondentistic” and “precedential” would have been better paraphrased or symbolized. But he says some profoundly helpful and constructive things. It matters to be able to think of reference in the terms proposed here and to be liberated from the tyranny of mechanical picture theories — and only so can a theological account of reference be credibly defended. And the fusion of philosophical and theological concern is well-managed and suggestive. Hector is likely to be a creative voice in discussion of these questions, and this reader, for one, looks forward to more of his insights, preferably with some of the rather mixed philosophical messages better sorted.