“Does the way we talk as human beings tell us anything about God?” In The Edge of Words, the product of his 2013 Gifford Lectures, Rowan Williams explores the ways in which “ordinary language” gestures in the direction of what he refers to as a “hinterland” of meaning. In so doing, Williams reimagines the task of natural theology as a theological discourse about discourse. In contradistinction to both attempts to secure a watertight argument for the existence of God (the kinds of arguments dismantled by Kant) and theological protests against the very possibility and/or desirability of engaging in the exercise of natural theology (the kinds of protests raised by Hauerwas and Barth), Williams invites us to investigate whether the way we “‘track’ the distinctive patterns of intelligible talk” links with “what religious believers claim about God” (p. 172).
According to Williams, “the more we reflect on speech and its claims to represent an environment… the more our universe looks like a network of communication” (xi). Language—characterized by Williams as “indeterminate, incomplete, embodied, developed through paradox, metaphor and formal structure, and interwoven with a silence that opens up further possibilities of speech” (p. 170)—behaves “as if it were always ‘in the wake’ of meaning, rather than owning and controlling it” (p. 173). Human speech presupposes both an inherently intelligible universe and the infinite resourcefulness of the reality that we inhabit. That is to say, human speech is never the “first word” (language is always a response to a prior reality of address) or “the last” (reality always evokes further representations). Considered theologically: “If we are oriented to perceiving intelligibility,” it is because “we are oriented to an ultimate intelligible energy shaping the intelligible particulars in the universe.” Every truthful act of speech—every faithful representation—is therefore a finite act of participation in the “unbounded intelligence” of God that is “reflected in bounded form” (p. 64).
Williams’s investigation of the way that “ordinary” language works involves him in a conversation with a staggering number of thinkers and disciplines—from the usual suspects in theology (Augustine and Aquinas) and philosophy (Wittgenstein and Cavell), to recent developments in neuroscience (Iain McGilchrist) and interpretations of Autistic Spectrum Disorder (Phoebe Caldwell). After an initial treatment of the nature of natural theology (chapter one), Williams confronts overly deterministic renderings of language (e.g. Rorty), arguing persuasively on the basis of the “difficulty” of speech that language is characterized by freedom (chapter two). In chapter three, Williams explores the extent to which language is always socially and temporally conditioned. In chapter four, Williams treats the intricate relation between language and materiality, dispelling crude construals of the mind-matter dualism and insisting upon the intrinsic intelligibility of the material universe. In chapter five, Williams explores examples of “excessive speech” (e.g. poetry, parabolic discourse and the ironies of fiction) by which we are prompted to acknowledge that “the environment we encounter and inhabit is more than it seems” (p. 139). Finally, in chapter six, Williams treats the representational work of silence, noting the ways in which silence “speaks” of the “excess of world over word” (p. 162). With subtlety and immense creativity, Williams explores the ways in which “ordinary language” witnesses to the extraordinary. The Edge of Words is a remarkable contribution from one of today’s most influential theologians.