The Edge of Words: God and the habits of
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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
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
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.