The Limits of Language – By Michael P. Jensen

Michael P. Jensen on Rowan Williams’s The Edge of Words

Rowan Williams, The Edge of Words: God and the Habits of Language, Bloomsbury, 2014, 224pp., $34
Rowan Williams, The Edge of Words: God and the Habits of Language, Bloomsbury, 2014, 224pp., $34
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Talking seems so simple and so habitual, that we forget how fraught with difficulty our speaking is. Yet, as any argument with a spouse or family member will show, we may badly misunderstand even the words of those people we know best. Human language stretches wonderfully to describe the universe of things, of creatures, and of ideas, but also shows itself to be incomplete and insufficient, even as it succeeds. It fails even as it works.

This basic and strange feature of human language is the fundamental observation which sparks a rich and complex theological discussion by Rowan Williams in his book The Edge of Words: God and the Habits of Language.

It has become by now a standard trope of Rowan Williams-Kritik to complain that the former Archbishop of Canterbury, now the Master of Magdalen College, Cambridge, is given perhaps somewhat more than is necessary to prolix and convoluted prose.

Nothing that Williams writes is easy. But the complaint misunderstands Williams’ resolute commitment to subtlety and nuance. He is as a theologian utterly focused on virtue rather than on virtuosity. More than that: Williams, as a poet, as a philosopher, and as a man of prayer, is in all of these roles painfully aware of the sheer difficulty that language itself presents. If a reader were to complain to him that his language is difficult, one feels that Williams may well reply, “That is because language is itself fundamentally difficult, and it is dishonest to pretend otherwise.”

The Gifford Lectures famously present a scholar with an opportunity to address “the study of natural theology in the widest sense of the term — in other words, the knowledge of God” (to cite the terms of Lord Gifford’s will). Williams has chosen to think, at length and in depth, about language itself. Having viewed his debate with Richard Dawkins in Oxford, this comes as no surprise. In that debate Williams focused his remarks less on standard so-called ‘proofs’ for the existence of God, and more on anthropology and the astonishing, unparalleled phenomena that is human language. Williams challenges a non-religious person to construct a coherent view of the human person in a universe which appears to have evolved to a point at which a creature within it can meaningfully describe it, at least in part.

What he only hints at in that debate, Williams now expands. His intention is apparently modest: to point to the way in which human language both shows how human beings have an ordered intelligence capable of speaking about the world, but also that at the limits of our speaking to one another, there are signs that there is something beyond what we can say — the unknown, the transcendent, the divine.

His modesty, however, masks the significance of his argument. It is in many senses a standard, if not widely known, theological move to make. John Calvin and Augustine of Hippo, to name but two, point to the necessity of a close connection between what we can say about the human and what we can say about the divine. The natural theologian has every right to probe the human side of the equation for evidence that our human existence — especially as it is framed by and prompted by the activity of speaking — opens us up to the possibility of divine speech, even if it is always metaphorical.

And what might have been thought a desperate difficulty for theology, turns out in Williams’ interpretation of the matter to be taken as an advantage. That is: the slipperiness of human language — “the unfinished character of human language” — with its imaginative turns, and its falsehoods, and its openness to metaphor, and its incorrigible incompleteness, actually shows us a glimpse of the kind of creatures we are, and yet points us to the kind of being who created us. That language is unfinished and incomplete establishes as creatures who are constantly trying to “respond” to things in our world, and suggests that we are in some way “addressed” — that is, spoken to before speaking.

Finite being is, as Williams argues, always dependent. And yet it is also “representable.” Our finitude means we speak with difficulty; and yet, we do still speak intelligibly. The suggestion therefore is that what we are dependent on is “an act of intelligent and beneficent ‘bestowal.’” Without being too bald about it, Williams is of course suggesting that language is a gift to human beings from a speaking God.

The Edge of Words has five exploratory and discursive chapters. Williams is never polemical, but he does not avoid sophisticated philosophical argument. His task is to show that we are, as human beings, surrounded by language at every turn, which is both our delight and our despair. It is, for Williams, self-evidently the case that the question of language circumscribes all other considerations. Even science itself is outflanked by language: it must utilize the medium of language, not just as a medium to convey pre-linguistic ideas to others, but from the beginning. As a form of thought it is linguistic right down to the bottom.

What about the question of our freedom to speak? The temptation of much latter-day popular philosophy, in the thrall of neuroscience, is to propose a deterministic account of all human action, let alone speech. As Williams points out, the possibility of a human being saying what is not the case — of lying, or of creating fictions — ought to remind us of the way in which language invites us constantly to escape the from the orbit of something simply determined.

Williams then addresses himself to the (for humans) inescapable context of time. Language is always ‘temporally enacted’, and thus always open to more things to be said. There is not, in human experience, an end to speech. Why should this matter for a theological account? The unfinishedness of language “will not allow us easily to settle down with an account of language that treats it as a purely self-generated thing.” We, as speakers in conversation with other speakers, are ever attempting? to capture a reality which never stands still. Our words themselves create new contexts of meaning that make subsequent words different even if they are the same words.

Williams’ most interesting chapter addresses the essentially embodied nature of human language. The discussion of so-called “learning difficulties” in this context is a familiar Williamsian theme. What he interestingly notes is that, in speech, despite its materiality, the material world is forever proposing the “possibility of alternative worlds.” That is to say, material things are able to speak of becoming more than they already are, with more than they already have. Finite events are, through symbol and promise, vehicles of divine significance. Williams is cautious here to avoid over-claiming, or God-of-the-gaps reasoning; but merely states:

There is in every situation the possibility for the human intelligence to receive some kind of formation by the infinite intelligent act of God.

The world is, as British theologian the late Colin Gunton once put it, “a revelatory kind of place.”

Language is a complex and teasing phenomenon, including the possibility of not saying something, too. There are things that cannot be said, before which we must fall silent. But we can, with language, trace out the possibility of the unsayable. The long Christian tradition of the via negativa, which had such fascination for Jacques Derrida, delivers for Williams the entirely comprehensible notion of a God who is appropriately mysterious to human minds, yet still someone of whom something can intelligibly be said.

The Edge of Words is not a feisty apologetic designed to give courage to the embattled faithful. David Bentley Hart’s The Experience of God is far more rousing. Williams is content to make a more cautious and exploratory case. Nevertheless, there is surely a great seam of rich coal to be mined by Christian apologists in these hills, however undulating.

My first complaint against Williams is that, in making language so irredeemably difficult, he makes it very hard to say much with confidence about God at all, or to believe that if God does speak we would be equipped to understand it. Can an orthodox Christian theologian really sit still at that point? It is possible that in offering such a fragmented and inchoate account of speech, even as a preparatory ground for revelation, he has made it impossible to believe in a Christian revelation should one be found — or at least, impossible to say what it is. Christian faith is not just the claim that we can speak about God in such-and-such a way, but the claim that in Christ we see “God revealing God to man” (in the words of the old hymn). God has spoken, by his prophets in diverse way, and latterly by a Son. The doctrine of the Incarnation enables Christians to admit much of what Williams has admitted about the difficulty of human language (unlike, for example, an Islamic view of the Qu’ran), and still see it as a vehicle for divine revelation.

In particular, Williams’ insistence that all theological speech is metaphorical could be challenged as unnecessarily weakening the tea (as opposed to Hart’s much stronger brew). Metaphor is basic to language itself, and it is obvious to the point of banality that religious language makes heavy use of metaphor. We could not have talk of God without it, true. But is it really the case the no sentence beginning “God is…” can have a non-metaphorical predicate? Scripture abounds with metaphors of just this kind: God is Rock, Fortress, Father, and so on. Partly, though, this comes from the concreteness of the Hebrew language itself, which did not develop abstract nouns in the way Greek or Latin did. Perhaps I want to allow that, even if, as we say (for example) that “God is the Creator” we notice that there’s an analogy at play with our experience as creators of things, the notion of God as a doer of actions is not meant as metaphorically but quite literally true. Likewise, if we want to claim that “God speaks,” we know that he does not speak with lips or diaphragm — and in that sense God speaks — but we do mean that a communicative event takes place between one being and other beings, a unique one, granted, but not just a kind of a one. Actions are done, and words are said. Persons, divine and human, encounter one another.

There is also perhaps lacking in his account a chapter on the intertwining of human language with human evil-doing. Surely here is one of language’s greatest difficulties. We do not only speak to deceive. We also obfuscate, and refuse to listen to the address of our creator. We “suppress the truth,” and most particularly about God. The Book of Proverbs, in particular, has much to say about the abuse of language — its bad habits. If we are not hearing the speech of the divine, could it be that we have stopped up our ears?