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God talk and normal talk

24 October 2014

Richard Harries finds new insights in the 2014 Gifford Lectures

The Edge of Words: God and the habits of language
Rowan Williams
Bloomsbury £20
Church Times Bookshop special price £16

A BASIC presupposition of this book is that we are embodied intelligences who use language to negotiate and make our way in the world. Understanding "may best be understood as a matter of knowing what to do or say next". A question then arises about the relation between language and the world we inhabit.

Lord Williams rejects all attempts to see this purely in terms of physical stimuli, or cause and effect. Rather, there is a prior matrix of language which holds together the material world, other people, and ourselves. We do not know the world apart from the language in which it is saturated. Indeed, the world comes to be in and through our language. Like a smile or frown, it cannot be reduced to what is material, but can only come to us in the form of the material.

This process of knowing takes place in time as an on-going process, always unfinished business. So language in some sense tracks what is before us, as it makes itself known. Paradox, metaphor, silence, the breakdown of normal discourse, seem to indicate that "there is a 'sense' before we make sense." This is an exploration into truth; for, to use George Steiner's phrase, "We are a mammal who can bear false witness."

What particularly interests Williams are the points at which language no longer seems adequate, breaks down, and is reduced to silence. This silence is not a blank; for it is always related to the linguistic context in which it occurs. "To talk about silence . . . is always to talk about what specifically we are not hearing; or what we decide not to listen to in order to hear differently; or what specifically we find we cannot say."

At this point, we may find ourselves looking for a new kind of language altogether, one in a different register which shifts our whole understanding.

It is here that Williams locates the point at which natural theology and revealed theology meet. The traditional arguments for the existence of God, for example, do not work as proofs, but they indicate the point at which the nexus of cause and effect no longer applies, and, if there is anything to be said, it will be in a different mode altogether. "Revelation does not fill a gap, but shows why the gap is there, not resolving the difficulty but offering a perspective in which difficulty is what makes sense and what we must become accustomed to."

The idea of representation is a key one in this book for our understanding of both God and the self. This is "a way of speaking that may variously be said to embody, translate, make present, or reform what is perceived". If, for example, we ask what is the "real" self? "The only defensible answer . . . is to say that it is the action that here and now gathers events narrated from the past and possible courses of action in the future into one story that is unceasingly being revised from one utterance to the next."

This book, Williams's Gifford Lectures, with their magisterial grasp of the academic literature in a range of disciplines, is dense and not always easy. It is also important. It sets out a whole new way of thinking about what it is to be a language-user, how we know the world at all, and how we might come to utter some stammering words about God. It is a book that will surely give rise to extended discussion in the years ahead.

The Rt Revd Lord Harries of Pentregarth is the former Bishop of Oxford. A new edition of his Faith in Politics? Rediscovering the Christian Roots of our political values is being published by DLT for the General Election.

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