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Rowan Williams, God and Language

Rowan Williams, God and Language


Let us begin charitably and venture that the whole sorry New Atheist spasm was about language, a colossal and cantankerous misunderstanding about how we talk about things that we can’t see, touch or taste. It hasn’t, of course, but the idea is not entirely silly.

The ungodly (or at least some of them) posit that when scripture, tradition and modern believers say that God is x or does y, then they mean that God is x and does y, in much the same way as you are x or I do y. Then, when it becomes clear than God isn’t x and doesn’t do y in that way, then it becomes equally clear, apparently, that believers are simply deluded.

Some believers undoubtedly do talk and think in such a way, but others submit that this is an overly simplistic or literal way of interpreting religious language. What believers are in fact doing is saying that in x and y we get a sense of who God is and what God does but that, properly deployed, such language is always humble (which is not the same as vague) and ambiguous, conscious that x and y, whatever they may be, distort as much about God as they reveal.

This, the godless retort, is sophistry or special pleading or both. If science, shopping and sport don’t need to fall back on this slippery ‘I don’t mean as much as I do mean’ cobblers, why religion? Because God isn’t like science, shopping and sport, the godly reply.

And there the two parties rest or, rather, lurch back and forth like hyperactive children on a see-saw, with lots of shouting but no progress.


Rowan Williams lived through the worst of this shouting and, doubtless, bears the scars. Shortly after he escaped Lambeth, he delivered the prestigious Gifford Lectures, and The Edge of Words the result. The book is short, dense, and sophisticated, full of Williams’ trademark sentences, coiling round metaphysical propositions like ivy round a tree. The result is that the reader gets a good impression of what is being said, assuming he looks hard enough, even if the precise contours are a bit unclear.

That overall impression is, in effect, to challenge the final retort in our dialogue above, namely that God isn’t like science, shopping and sport. Of course, God isn’t like these or indeed anything else we can imagine, but to state it as baldly as this is to fall into the mistake of believing that one set of things – e.g. science, shopping and sport – we can talk about ‘normally’, whereas another – i.e. God – we can’t. This, Williams contends, is wrong. “‘Ordinary’ language is a lot less ordinary that we usually suppose.” We deceive ourselves if we imagine there is a straightforward, ‘literal’ use of words, which is accurate and true, and an altogether different metaphorical use, which isn’t.

God-talk is indeed ‘metaphorical’ but recognising this “is not to abandon truth claims, nor to suggest that such language is the cosmetic elaboration of a simpler and more ‘secular’ literal truth.” Nor, crucially, though, is it to imply that there is a “simpler and more ‘secular’ literal truth”, into which everything else falls. Such a division of language into “description”, which tries to map reality, and “representation”, which tries to “embody, translate, make present or re-form” it, is grossly over-simplified. Both literal and metaphorical speech “seek to secure the intelligible presence of what it perceived.”

This does not mean that there isn’t such a thing a “normal” speech which “does not… require much in the way of schematic or representational treatment” or that “language about God is…not unique in having a disruptive effect.” What it does mean is that God-talk is not so very alien to other habits of speech and that, therefore, “the labour involved in scrutinizing and using language about God with integrity is bound up with the scrutiny of language itself” Or, put another way, the way we talk about things, including especially ourselves, can help illustrate the way we talk about God.


The Edge of Words is a series of explorations into the way we talk about things, our “habits of language”, scrutinising those areas that best illustrate the complexity, the indeterminacy, the materiality of language.

The first example is our capacity to lie. Against deterministic theories which he disposes of with brief courtesy – “to give reasons for believing determinism is true is to undermine determinism” – Williams draws out the indeterminism inherent in language. Speech is inextricably tied up with our capacity “to utter falsehood… to negate what is the case”. Mistakes, “counterfactual assertions” and poetry (of which there is more later in the book) are indicative not simply of deceit but may be meant “simply to provoke new possibilities into life.” “Our sense of what is distinctively human is…bound up with our ability to be wrong or even untruthful in our representing of the environment.” Thus is the first wall of the language-as-straightforward-description edifice undermined. Speech, and not just godly speech, cannot but be about misrepresenting, deliberately, provocatively, creatively, or destructively.

The following chapter looks at the “unfinishable business of language”, the fact that our speech is always “time-related… always incomplete, and in search of the perspective of another”. To speak is to be “open to the … responses of others”; to understand is to “inhabit a narrative of learning”. There is no “last word” in language. Thus, if human speech is naturally representative (rather than simply descriptive), that representation is (naturally) “temporal, unfinished, cooperative”. “The way we know and understand is by representing, and then risking the form or our representation in shared discourse as time unfolds.” Williams goes on to explore what this says about human self – simultaneously “irreducibly time-bound” and “continuous” – although such ponderings do not materially affect the key point of the chapter: that language – and, again, not just God-talk – is naturally provisional, unsettled, even humble. Another wall crumbles.

Following chapters look at language as a “material practice”, language deployed “excessive” or “extreme” ways, and language withheld, the discipline of silence. These are themes with which Williams’ many readers will be familiar. The material universe, he writes, is “inescapably ‘symbolic”.  Rather than there being any such thing “as a fixed relationship between two different things called language and fact”, material existence is “always already ‘saturated’ with the workings of the mind”.

This has several implications. It suggests that matter, far from being “mindless” can only be discussed as “a linguistic or symbolic reality”, only understood “by analogy with our own conscious systems of recognition and collaboration”. Language is, in effect, “the natural integrating factor in the evolving material universe”:

“Rather than looking to material processes, understood in a mechanical fashion, as they key to understanding what language is, it would be nearer the truth to say that we look to language to show us what matter is.”

It means that communication is everywhere, that “any and every event in the world is potentially a communication of infinite intelligence”, or “in more epigrammatic terms, each situation is a ‘word’ from God.” Perhaps most strikingly, it points towards conclusion in the long-standing mind-matter debate.

“So far from consciousness or human intelligence being a somewhat embarrassing excrescence on the surface of rational material processes, it would appear to say that intelligence is literally the only phenomenon in the universe that makes sense of the overall direction of material existence towards coherent, sustainable, innovative adaptable forms.”


Williams is not, of course, in the business of proving anything about God, but rather talking about him, and this moves centre stage in the books final two chapters. The penultimate of these looks at how “extreme speech” – intentionally strange and provocative habits of language – are vital not just for our God talk but for all talk. Drawing on several well-chosen and well-analysed examples of poetry and prose – Russell Hoban’s Ridley Walker, Alan Garner’s Boneland, the poetry of Waldo Williams – Williams shows how “the complicating of what seems normal” can “uncover what ‘normal’ perception screens out”. The world is stranger than ‘ordinary’ speech often admits, and its takes extraordinary speech to show how.

As with the world, so with God: given that God “is never a candidate for description as a member of the field of objects I encounter,” we should expect God-talk to be eccentric, unsettling, wrong. Indeed the more wrong it is, the more right it can be.  Thus, the “crudest” metaphors for God – God as rock, God as fire, God with wings, God as house – can be the most successful “just because no-one could mistake them for accurate depictions”. Or at least that’s what you’d hope: years of experience have suggested to me that plenty people can and do make that mistake, but the point still stands. If our words about God are a series of “carefully calculated shocks” we might be getting somewhere.

A similar paradox runs through the final chapter on silence. “Withdrawing from speech allows something to be communicated”, he posits, with examples from psychotherapy and literature and a nod toward Diarmaid’s Macculloch history of Christian silence. The idea of silence brings into focus many of the book’s themes. The “non-determinate character of our speech” means that “there is always a possibility of silence”. The “unfinished character of language” means that “we are always aware of what has not yet been said”. The idea of language as “an embodied activity” means that not only “gesture and noise but sheer physical presence is in some way communicative”. And the idea of language “under pressure” in extreme speech, “creates a distance between what is spoken of and what is said… into which silence insinuates itself.”

Silence also brings the theme of God-talk into particular focus. Because God-talk has all the challenges of other forms of speech, and then some, we must expect it to bring us to silence. “The test of anything claiming to be authentic representation of God must be whether what results is some sort of dispossession, some deepened capacity for receptive stillness.” This is not to say that we can “take refuge in silence too easily or too soon”. We need to go on talking about God just as we do about everything else, and when we do so, we need to be alert to the indeterminacy, incompleteness and sheer strangeness of our speech. But we also need to be willing to remain silent, more willing than many of us naturally are.


If this review has made The Edge of Words comprehensible and accessible (which I doubt), it will have succeeded – and failed. The book is not an easy read and it would be an omission to avoid any remarks on Williams own prose style, given the topic the book.

Williams can write with clarity and succinctness and at times with vividness. “To speak as some do of a need for the ‘re-enchantment’ of a world shrunk and bleached by science is not all that helpful”, he says on page 120. “Shrunk and bleached” is masterful, a little very twist on the topic of science that illustrates so much of what the book is about. And then, on the opposite page comes the following sentence:

“If we recognise that every specific act of existing, or currently actual confluence of agencies, is one way in which an eternal act of existing is shared, this reinforces the idea that our linguistic response is a search for transparency to the full range of the active situation in which we are set – and so, ultimately, transparency to the eternal act.”

It is unfair to take any sentence entirely out of context and the issues Williams is discussing are difficult, but that is all the more reason why 61-word abstract sentences of this nature need, like banks, to be broken up and made more accountable at street level.

Some of this difficultly is down to the academic’s habits of specificity and qualification: “the language we use is an heuristic tool, and that we need to specify its context very carefully if it is not to lead us into nonsense”. These are not problems in themselves, although they can become wearing. A greater reasons comes in Williams’ own distinct and, I would guess, deliberate prose style.

“One of the foundational impulses of art,” he observes “is to increase the ‘pressure’ on habitual discourse or description in order to dismantle the world of fixed concepts and self-enclosed objects” he writes at one point. And not just art, one is tempted to add. Williams’ own language fits this bill, seeking to “unsettle the simple notion of basic solid elements” to encourage readers to see anew.

And for this we may give two cheers, but only two. Good prose, like poetry, can help us know the world afresh. But to do so, it must also help us know it for the first time, explain what it means before going on to show us that, if we look closely enough, it doesn’t quite mean what we think it means. Williams’ prose, to my mind, does the latter too readily, pointing out the endless peculiarities of the landscape, before it has sufficiently identified for the reader its basic contours. It makes reading him demanding work, to which The Edge of Words is certainly no exception. But then, as others who disagree with me on Williams’ prose style insist, if you don’t make the effort, you don’t deserve the reward.

Nick Spenccer

The Edge of Words: God and the habits of language is published by Bloomsbury

Image from wikipedia available in the public domain.


Posted 20 October 2014

Theology, Philosophy

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