Academic journal article Anglican Theological Review

The Edge of Words: God and the Habits of Language

Academic journal article Anglican Theological Review

The Edge of Words: God and the Habits of Language

Article excerpt

The Edge of Words: God and the Habits of Language. By Rowan Williams. London: Bloomsbury, 2014. xiii + 204 pp. $34.00 (cloth).

The Edge of Words is Rowan Williams's first major book since leaving his role as Archbishop of Canterbury, and is a revision for publication of his 2013 Gifford Lectures given in Edinburgh. It is also, in his own words, an opportunity to work through "an assortment of questions and reflections jotted down over a number of years" (p. vi). These reflections focus on the nature of our language, and what our speaking implies about ourselves, our universe, and its ultimate context. It is an essay, true to the bequest behind the Giffords, in a certain sort of "natural theology." At the heart of these chapters is an argument, or at least a series of allusive provocations, that language is not a false or arbitrary construct pushed upon nature. Rather, it arises from a communicative intelligibility intrinsic to nature. Our speaking is at home in the world. More than this, it endlessly and generatively unfolds the world in representing it. This points beyond the world and our speech to an intelligible-if unrepresentable in any normal sense-extra-natural context (that is, God). What, at multiple points, is gestured to in the phenomenon of our language is something, quite literally, at "the edge of words."

Williams is careful not to offer this argument as a watertight theistic proof. Nor is it a "bad" natural theology that offers up God as another datum for dissection. Rather, he pursues the intuition that language truthfully and neverendingly represents reality, but "cannot describe or contain the conditions of its own possibility" (p. 172). It suffers from an allusive and tense incompleteness, a sort of "difficulty" (a common word in Williams's writings) that would be the case if language's possibility and premise was a communicative intelligence that cannot be denominated as just another item within the world.

This intuition of the allusive, if always incomplete, nature of our speaking and the way this leads us toward "difficulty" is encoded into the very way Williams's case is made. Those looking for a clinically logical progression in the argument will be disappointed. What they will find, instead, is a series of intertwined conversations and essays. There are forays into multiple fields, including neuroscience, philosophy, poetics, and literature-the last two registers being where Williams seems the most comfortable. …

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