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It seems to me that the default position in the contemporary mind is often that there are two ways of talking – the literal (which deals with serious stuff) and the metaphorical (dealing with the eccentric, metaphysical or the largely unimportant). You take issue with both of those elements in The Edge of Words. Let’s start with the literal. When can and should we speak literally? Is there such a thing as ‘normal’, literal speech?
The more I think about it, the less sure I am that there is such a thing as straightforward, literal speech. Obviously, for lots of practical purposes, we use nouns conventionally to refer to recognisable objects that we all know about. We’re not going to spend huge amounts of metaphysical energy saying ‘how do I know that this is a chair?’
But as soon as we get anywhere beyond that very basic level of labelling, we realise that our language, whether it’s in the sciences or the humanities, is far more complex. In order to respond fully to the challenge that reality puts to us, which is to speak truthfully – to represent truthfully and adequately – we need a wide range of resources. It’s not an eccentricity of poetry or religion, but it’s right across the board, and that’s one of the things I’m trying to underline.
If we accept that the range of “literal speech” is inherently limited, and that the vast majority of what we say requires a vast range of resources, does that mean that religious speech is pretty much like any other discourse, or is there something fundamentally different about religious speech?
I think on that you are almost walking a tightrope. I feel it is important to say that in some very central respects religious speech is not as unique as all that. It’s certainly not more unique just because it’s more metaphorical. Its uniqueness has to do with the completely uncontrollable or uncontainable character of its ultimate subject. In other words, no language is ever going to be good enough for God. And you might therefore expect to see in religious speech a very particular or very intensified reaching around for a wealth of metaphor, and a very intensified use of silence.
We’ll come on to silence at the end, because the book concludes there, but I was struck in your second chapter by the George Steiner quote that we’re “a mammal who can bear false witness.” As you acknowledge in the book, it’s a slightly shocking sentiment. Can you unpack a bit how it is precisely our capacity to negate ‘that which is the case’ that is central not just to our habits of language but to our very human nature?
The short answer is that it has something to do with being creatures who exercise reflective freedom. Our responses to the world are not constrained, and that means that the awareness of the world that our speech is not controlled by the world. It’s responsible to the world, but to say responsible is also to say that I can be irresponsible. Dostoevsky, in Notes From Underground famously says that it is the distinctly human thing that, when irrefutable evidence is presented to you that two and two equal four, you have a little niggling thing that says “yes, but why not five?” That, in once sense absurd or unreasonable element of the uncontrollable in us, is part of why it is important to recognise that our speech is capable of lying as well as truth telling, and why truth telling becomes a proper moral and spiritual exercise, not just an automatic response.
Is that capacity to bear false witness, particularly relevant, or does it take on particular import, when it comes to religious discourse?
Could you say a bit more?
Well, the fundamental question of our attitude to God is more central to who we are and what our identity is, than our attitude towards other people, and certainly to other material objects, and therefore it seems that our ability to bear false witness – to deny God effectively – is crucial to us.
Yes, and this comes back to the old theological testament about God creating us with the ability to say no to him. Another Russian writer, Vladimir Lossky (about whom I did my research years ago), in relation to the old scholastic question about whether God can make a stone too heavy for him to lift, said ‘yes he can, and it’s the human heart.’
In so far as our truth telling about God is connected with our trust and love of God, that’s what can’t be compelled. So, to use Terry Eagleton’s famous example in which one day a great voice was heard from heaven saying “I’m up here you idiots,” that wouldn’t necessarily oblige truth and love.
There’s a novel by Bruce Marshall called Father Malachy’s Miracle, about a Roman Catholic Priest in Scotland who gets into an argument with a liberal Anglican, and volunteers to prove God. So he prays for a rather scandalous dance hall to be moved from opposite the parish church to the Bass rock. And it happens! Silently, gracefully, the dance hall lifts up and moves itself to the Bass rock, and sits down in the middle of the Firth and Forth. But does that settle any arguments? No it doesn’t, rather it stimulates a whole lot more. The liberal Anglican and his colleagues talk about mass hypnotism, the Catholic bishop is very disturbed that the ordinary course of things should have been upset. A cardinal is sent from Rome to sort it out, someone offers to make a film of the proceedings, and finally the manager of the Bass rock threatens to sue the diocese for lost earnings. And eventually, Father Malachy says his prayers again and the dance hall comes back, and everyone says ‘oh we’ll say it never happened’. And that’s a very good example of the freedom of bearing false witness.
You repeat throughout the book your antipathy to the idea that language merely denotes reality. You quote Merleau–Ponty in effect saying “words are fundamentally not objects designed somehow to depict other objects, but practices”. How are words practices?
Speaking is something we do. We can isolate it from the rest of what we do, but the fact is, speaking is one of the ways in which we are interacting with the world. It’s in some respects the most resourceful, the most surprising, the most generative of all the ways in which we interact with the world. But if you think that when a child learns language, he or she also learns gesture – coding and decoding gesture and facial expression. You couldn’t learn language without that.
So when I say, with Merleau–Ponty, that words are practices, it’s reiterated to remind us that language is, after all, a way of interacting with the environment, not just a labelling process which would have no connection at all with the business of finding your way around. As I learn a language, I learn not only to identify objects, I learn how to interact with another speaker. We all know what happens when people don’t learn that, when they speak without a sense of the codes that are operating – the tone, the timbre, etc.
I suppose that’s what panics people about, let’s say, a primary school teacher wearing the face veil. As a matter of fact I think that’s largely a misplaced anxiety, but I can see where it comes from. I’ve actually been in public discussions in Pakistan with women wearing full face veil, and you learn to read differently, it’s not that those codes don’t happen… but there’s a cultural obstacle to overcome.
So would all that make you a Wittgensteinian in the later sense? Everything you’re talking about – the embodiment of language in forms and practices – seems to point that way.
Yes, Wittgenstein, I suppose, is one of the biggest influences on my thinking over the years. Reading Wittgenstein’s Philosophical Investigations as a third year undergraduate made me think, ‘wow, now I see some things…’
But almost equally important is Merleau–Ponty, the Phenomenology of Perception, which I read in my early twenties, because it was Merleau–Ponty who really made me see, for the first time, how complicated apparently simple acts of perception really are. I see what some philosophers would describe as a simple set of sense properties, but I can only make them into objects in my mind by imagining their depth, their density. I don’t in fact register just a flat surface or an immediate diorama of the sense impressions.
I know that you have a back to your head, without looking at it, and I also know that I have a back to my head, because you know that I have a back to my head. It’s all that complex putting things together. So both Wittgenstein in terms of embedding language in practice, and Merleau–Ponty in terms of showing you the richness of simple acts of perception, have been very significant for me over the years.
Does that give you difficulties when it comes to talking about truth? I guess this is one of the objections people are always laying at the door of this argument – that at least descriptive language is, in simplified terms, falsifiable or verifiable.
I don’t see this nearly as much of a problem as some do here. Once again, we have practices for sorting out what is reliable and what’s not reliable, what we can share in our perception and what we can’t. We have ways of doing this, and part of Wittgenstein’s contribution is simply to remind us that we don’t need hugely complicated philosophical theories to account for the perfectly routine ways in which we recognise or don’t recognise one another.
So I don’t think there’s a huge problem, especially if you begin with the assumption that all that you say is going to be worked out with others – it’s never just up to you and your private preferences. You are always answerable to another’s perception and another’s presence, so you’re certainly not locked in solipsism.
What this approach would generally lead to is not to say that we don’t know any truth, but that we know all kind of true things, that we can make all sorts of true propositions. We simply need to bear in mind that the truth we are able to articulate is also an ongoing discovery. The really significant test or sign of truth telling is that a true statement is one that can generate new questions and new discoveries, precisely because it locks on to something that isn’t me – it’s bigger than me. So when I say something is true, I have locked on to something that is not me, but if it’s not me then I haven’t yet got to the bottom of it.
So to say something interestingly true is to prod me to a little more exploration, a little more reflection, and supremely of course when we say anything true about God. If I say, as I do with complete conviction, that I believe the Nicene Creed to be a set of true statements, I don’t mean that when you’ve said the Nicene Creed, you put it aside and think ‘okay, I’ve done God’. To call God the Father of Jesus Christ, to say that the second person of the Trinity is consubstantial with the Father, these are prods, these are things to think further about.
One of your key points is that human beings “live in an environment where intelligible communication is ubiquitous – where there is ‘sense’ before we make sense”. Can you expand on that?
Yes, I think I quote Connor Cunningham in his wonderful book on Darwin, in which he says that it’s “intelligence all the way down”. To recognise intelligible pattern in the world around us, is to recognise that there is an order, a coherence, in what comes to us, that calls out to be made sense of. That’s putting it metaphorically of course, but why not?!
That the trajectory of evolution is, it seems, towards intelligence – you don’t get mindless stuff in the sense of absolute, inactive, disordered matter. Wherever you look, something is developing intelligible shape and reaching out as something that can be conceptualised and imagined. In a sense that’s what the evolutionary doctrine is all about. The bizarre thing about Darwinism, and this is Connor Cunningham’s point again, is that it leaves you with a material order which is suffused with intelligible patterns, and that at least ought to make us pause. We do sometimes assume that there’s dead stuff out there, and there’s live mind in here. Well where is this dead stuff? More and more we appreciate that continuities of pattern and action go right through.
Do you know Simon Conway Morris’ book, Life Solution? I found that very helpful, the idea of the inherence being pervasive throughout all creation.
Yes, and that of course relates to the so–called mind–brain debate, which can again be so bizarrely configured as if it were about whether the mind and the brain are two kinds of stuff. Whereas to say that the mind is the material brain in action – well of course! What else would it be?
We ought to go back to Wittgenstein, when you talk about the expression on a face. You look at a human face, and of course you recognise an expression. Tension, boredom, delight, happiness… but where’s the expression? It’s the face, but when you describe the components of a face have you described an expression? No, you haven’t even begun to. Which of course, to add another footnote, relates to the Iain McGilchrist stuff about the healthiness of the brain. There’s a particular kind of lesion of the brain that does allow you to recognise the component parts of a face, but leave you unable to recognise expression.
Let’s talk about God. At one point you say that “God is never a candidate for description as a member of the field of objects I encounter, how do I presume to represent God?” If the resources that we need to talk about “the field of objects I encounter,” particularly the human person, are pretty extensive and demanding, is it even possible to talk about God?
Well, the remarkable thing is that people do, of course. And they do it in a number of interrelated ways. First of all, I think that God is witnessed to, and in that sense spoken of and communicated by lives that in their practice continually refer to him – lives that looks toward God for renewal and repentance, adoration.
You could say that you can read off from certain kinds of life what God they believe in. Watch what they’re doing, they’re kneeling, they’re silent, they praise, they intercede. And then there’s largely arising out of that, the formulations we come to on the basis of a particular kind of history or reflection on God – events that prod us to think more deeply about God – and eventually these crystallize themselves in what I think of as holding operations, heuristic formulae.
Now given all that, probably the best thing we can say is, in the New Testament, “We have lived through the record of the experience of the death and resurrection of Jesus, the expansion of the community, gifts of the spirit. It looks as if the sort of thing that we’re going to have to say about the God who is involved in all this is…” And that’s how the early church works. Not cataloguing elements of the essence of God, which nobody thinks they can do. But if we track the way the divine reality impinges on us, then this is the kind of thing we’re going to have to say. If we track the way that the life and death and resurrection of Jesus impinges on us, we end up saying something like the definition of the council of Chalcedon – that this is one who is perfect in what belongs to him, perfect in what belongs to us, the two natures of divinity and humanity woven together, without confusion, without separation, without change, etc. All very technical, anorak stuff, but coming out of that moment of “I suppose what we’re going to have to say is…” And also, responding to other kinds of talk – heretical talk, where if you say that, then you’re letting this bit drop off the table, that bit drop off the table, and what we’re trying to do in an adequate doctrinal statement is to keep the maximum amount of stuff on the table.
I wonder whether one of the besetting sins of Christianity is to lose sight of that initial life to which we are responding, and then arguing profoundly over these statements as if they’re analytic statements as opposed to responsive and discursive ones.
Yes, somebody said years ago that maybe we ought to sing the creed more often than we say it. Now I don’t think that’s a covert way of saying ‘and that means we don’t have to believe it’, but it does tell us that the creed is that kind of thing.
I still think you’re making claims when you sing, but singing it just reminds you where it belongs. I made an argument some years ago about the origins of the creed, that certainly some creedal forms that we find in the fourth century are a direct transcription from elements in the Eucharistic prayer, because you can see in some of the ancient Eucharistic prayers in the near east, that at the beginning of the great prayer of thanksgiving, you spell out what God has done. After “the Lord be with you” dialogue – “and it is right to give thanks and praise”, and you say “it is right to give you thanks and praise” – “creator of all things, visible and invisible, without cause and without generation, without antecedent, whom from your abundance brought forth your only begotten son, who for our salvation became human, who was crucified and raised and again and through whom you poured out your spirit.” You spell out the grammar of God. And I think that in some of these texts there are just enough parallels with some of the fourth century creedal texts, actually not the Nicene creed as much as some others, but where it does look as if there’s this crossover between the act of praise and the Eucharist – naming the God you’re addressing – and a creed that then abstracts from that.
I wonder whether the fact of the incarnation legitimises forms of habitual language about God that otherwise aren’t… does it legitimise a degree of concreteness?
That’s a very important point actually. Clearly if we believe that the act of God has taken this tangible form in this human life, then what is said by this person and what is generated by the experience of this person must be something that can respond truthfully to the act of God. So yes, just as the incarnation has often been prayed in aid when people think about the legitimacy of Christian art, controversy about icons for example, so I think, very generally with Christian speech, if this is an event in which the action of God is uniquely transparent, uniquely focused, then yes, the speech that emerges out of that, with its concreteness, with its relational and personal quality, does have its own privilege.
Which is why, at the end of the day, calling God Father for example, is just one of those things that Christians are going to go on doing I suspect. When all is said and done about the difficulties of managing the language of patriarchy and so forth, there’s something you are driven back to there.
When we do talk about God, we should expect to ourselves to reach some point of silence. But not one that is an excuse for vagueness, nor one that you say we should take refuge in too soon. Can you expand on that?
One philosophical friend of mine, years ago, used to talk about what she called ‘tight–corner apophaticism’, that is turning to negative theology or language about mystery whenever things get difficult. That really won’t do. If you look at the really great figures of Christian thinking, like Augustine or Aquinas, or indeed Richard Hooker, you see them racking their brains over solutions and saying, ‘yes, this may be nearly it’, and ‘we need to say something like that’, and ‘okay, there’s a bit of unfinished business there’, but really that’s about as far as we can go. We’ve stretched every muscle, we’ve strained every resource, we have seen just a glimpse of how it might all fit together, but at that point we really do have to acknowledge that it is God we’re talking about, and therefore we don’t expect to have it tied up.
So Aquinas famously, in his old age – well, middle age, he did have a stroke – says ‘everything I’ve written looks like straw’. He just sort of broke. And Augustine can speak in his commentary on the Psalms about how our language is stretched out, pulled out, stretched like a string on an instrument, as tight as you can get, and then God touches it. Richard Hooker says, right at the beginning of his Ecclesiastical Polity, that ‘our safest eloquence is silence’. Although we have received revelation of course, although we can have confidence that we’re not talking nonsense, we just need that reminder that it is God we are talking about. Therefore whatever we say, more than in most cases of speaking truth, it has to have that extra dimension of openness.
There’s a nice tension there, isn’t there, in the sense that speech is that which in one sense ennobles and that marks us out as different in the way we are, and yet, unless we retain that proper humility, we’re going to get speech wrong, particularly speech about that which we cannot fathom.
E.M. Forster famously coined the phrase ‘poor little talkative Christianity’.
Isn’t it! That was partly in the context of writing about the Hindu world – he was doing a kind of reverse cultural snobbery really, saying that these profound, mystical Hindus, they don’t natter away. Well I think Hindus natter away as well, and so do Buddhists for that matter – it’s not that any religious tradition just shuts up, but possibly Forster was only familiar with a kind of Christianity that didn’t know its limits, or that was unduly talkative. But it’s good to have these phrases in your mind from time to time.
Rowan Williams’ new book The Edge of Words: God and the habits of language is published by Bloomsbury.
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Nick is Senior Fellow at Theos. He is the author of a number of books and reports, including Magisteria: the entangled histories of science and religion (Oneworld, 2023), The Political Samaritan: how power hijacked a parable (Bloomsbury, 2017), The Evolution of the West (SPCK, 2016) and Atheists: The Origin of the Species (Bloomsbury, 2014). He is host of the podcast Reading Our Times.
Posted 20 October 2014
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