Magazine article The Spectator

'The Edge of Words: God and the Habits of Language', by Rowan Williams - Review

Magazine article The Spectator

'The Edge of Words: God and the Habits of Language', by Rowan Williams - Review

Article excerpt

The Edge of Words: God and the Habits of Language Rowan Williams

Bloomsbury, pp.224, £20, ISBN: 9781472910431

It used to seem rather obvious that the world was full of evidence for God. These days, theologians no longer beat this drum -- but some of them still give it soft little taps from time to time.

Such tapping is what Rowan Williams is drawn to, now that he's free of the obligation to dance around homosexuals and Muslims, so to speak. In this book, adapted from his recent Gifford lectures (a famous lecture series devoted to 'natural theology'), he ponders the philosophy of language, and suggests that there is a deep affinity between how humans make meaning and how religious language makes sense.

It's a meticulously restrained and complex performance, as you'd expect -- but worth straining to hear. Is he saying that there is some sort of proof of Christianity's truth in the linguistic structure of reality? No; but he is saying that serious attention to language tells us that there are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamed of in the crude scientism of the atheists.

He argues that we must get away from the idea that language essentially describes reality, as best it can. If you say that the cat is on the mat (and the cat is on the mat), you are not mirroring reality through language; you are making some weird noises with your mouth (and maybe waking up the cat). Language is creative, poetic; metaphor's its métier. And it's practical; it's what humans do. Language isn't a tool for describing a non-linguistic, brutely material reality: it is more like the engine of reality.

And, Williams convincingly argues, language underlies scientists' theories. The idea that language can be understood as a product of evolution gets things back to front: rather, it is language that allows us to see this process in nature:

We have no choice but to talk about [matter] as a linguistic or symbolic reality, whose processes we can only understand by analogy with our own conscious systems of recognition and collaboration.

This view of language as creative of meaning (which he sums up in the term 'representation') has a sort of ethical implication, he begins to argue. It shows us our dependence on those around us, and inherited patterns, for meaning is a shared, public thing, and a practical thing, made by bodies in time and space. (Wittgenstein is still at the heart of Williams's thought.) This view ought to make us utterly resistant to neat tidy systems, and final explanations. …

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