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Rowan Williams Returns

Orion Edgar

Gifford Lectures
Rowan Williams
New College, Edinburgh
4th-14th November 2013

Between the 4th and 14th November at New College, Edinburgh, Rowan Williams delivered six Gifford Lectures in a series entitled Making representations: religious faith and the habits of language. Since 1888, the annual Gifford Lectures, given at the Universities of St Andrews, Glasgow, Aberdeen, or Edinburgh, have included such theological luminaries as Charles Gore, Karl Barth, and Jürgen Moltmann, as well as leading philosophers like William James, A. J. Ayer, and Hannah Arendt, and have addressed questions of ‘natural theology in the widest sense.’ These lectures mark Williams’ first major new work since his return to academic life in January and show his remarkable intellect as penetrating as ever.

In the first three lectures, drawing on the thought of Stanley Cavell and Richard Sennett, Williams presented a powerful case for an understanding of language as ‘representational’ rather than merely descriptive—language does not simply label things in the world, making them available for human manipulation, but involves the active human imagination, re-shaping both ourselves and our world. Linguistic representation is not an attempt to translate determinate sense-perception into a description but a festive ‘holding up’ of what is perceived, a poetic and playful re-presentation of the world in which we are engaged. Williams defended the view that language, whilst a physical process, is not governed by a mechanical determinism of stimulus and response. Nor is it simply epiphenomenal; it is always bound up with our engagement in the world. We see both the freedom and the limits of language when we encounter the difficulty of human communication. Drawing on the later Wittgenstein, he argued that what is said becomes material to the next utterance, so that there can be no straightforward repetition: language is always unfinished, and we speak in the hope of recognition; understanding means knowing how to ‘go on’ in conversation.

In the later lectures, Williams developed his reflections on the bodily nature of language, beginning with Phoebe Caldwell’s work with people with autistic spectrum disorders and learning difficulties. Williams argued that language is formed as our response to a world which has the potential to confuse us and that successful communication depends on building trust, where we see our physical responses to the world echoed and developed in the behaviour of others. Williams offered an engagement with the philosophy of Maurice Merleau-Ponty, for whom language does not correspond to an interior mental description of the world but rather “manifests a link between human agents and the world.” Communication is not a matter of passing on information but of establishing a world in common, so that, from the first, we apprehend objects as shared—we never need to make a leap from our own experience to the existence of other minds. As we attend to the physicality of speech, it becomes clear that language is never pure description and that the embodied speaker is not a ghost in a machine, but a body bound up with a shared world through language. And the mutual recognition which this shared world implies forms the basis for an ethics which is universal without being grounded in absolutes. All this leads to the theologically modest claim that the intelligible unity in our field of perception suggests an organising intelligence, as it did for Thomas Aquinas, for whom “the knowledge of God is the cause of things”: that is to say, the shared world, represented and articulated in language, ‘indicates’ God.

In the penultimate lecture, Williams went on to deal with ‘extreme language,’ reinforcing the claim that language is more than description by reflecting on metaphor (and its limit case, paradox) as an essential element of language. The difficulty of speaking rightly, putting pressure on language, pushing it into newer (and truer) patterning, is not at the borders but at the heart of linguistic practice. Drawing on experimental literature by Russell Hoban and Alan Garner, and on the strict meters of classical Welsh poetry, Williams argued that difficulty drives us to reconsider the sense of language, as when poetry, by squeezing the substance of our language through rhyme, rhythm, and metaphor, generates different (and more appropriate) ways of being precise. Thus religious language is not a ‘special case’ to be distinguished from everyday speech; rather, it reveals to us the problem of all communication, always straining to find better ways of speaking; and in fact we act and speak as though our language carried resources beyond its immediate vocabulary.

This prepared the way for the final lecture, which asked “Can truth be spoken?” Here, Williams argued that silence is not a pure absence, outside of language, but rather an essential element of communication: silence is always not saying something in particular, in a specific situation. If silence is considered—with the postmodern iconoclasts—as a space which makes room for the presence of the other, what about the silence of those who have been silenced? Silence can admit the deepest level of difficulty to language—but silencing can also be used to avoid difficulty and elide the inconvenient truth. Silence above all refers what is said to a hinterland of significance, and again Williams reminds us that we are always saying more than can be grasped.

Summarising these lectures, Williams argued that natural theology begins from a suspicion that claims to revelation can obscure the natural grounds for talking about God. A deep moral concern (which deserves to be taken seriously) lies behind the Enlightenment attempt to undermine the authority of oppressive and irrational forms of religion, an authority which was based on claims to revealed truth. But speech about God in fact begins from all sorts of places within the contingencies of human life: not simply from a monolithic ‘revelation’, nor from appeal to universal natural knowledge. If human beings are made in the image of God, he claimed, then we would expect some of the things we do to connect with God. Thus these lectures were an attempt to push back against those who want to make our talking less than it really is, by reducing it to a mechanically determined process, by ignoring its determinate physical situation, or by failing to reckon with its metaphorical and poetic excess. This is not, for Williams, only a matter of finding a language for God, but also of finding a way of speaking about humanity, an anthropology. Williams made appeal to the idea of a ‘Campaign for Real Language’, which deals with human life in its complex ambiguity, resisting the reductions of sloganeering journalists, politicians, bureaucrats, and marketeers.

Williams’s lectures were warmly received and he answered questions with his usual grace, warmth, wit, and deep insight. These lectures chart a deeply interesting course, with Williams engaging with serious and technical philosophical questions, but always with one eye on the bigger picture, offering a cogent and humane account of modern life, related to his faith but far from inaccessible to those who do not share it. His magnanimity and capacious intellect will surely find a new maturity as he returns to academic life (in which he seems newly assured and at ease) from the demands of his former role.

Orion Edgar read for a PhD in Theology at the University of Nottingham and is now theologian in residence at All Saints, Worcester.