Book Review: The Edge of Words by Rowan Williams

Natural theology is now more commonly propagated by philosophers than by theologians. There is a gentle dig at one of the more eminent practitioners of the genre, Richard Swinburne, in this volume of Gifford Lectures by Rowan Williams delivered in Edinburgh in 2013. But Williams does not go along with another famous Gifford lecturer, Karl Barth, in dismissing the possibility of natural theology. He admits to sharing the unease of Barth and of a more recent lecturer, Stanley Hauerwas, but argues ‘the story is not quite over for natural theology’. Williams’ attitude to natural theology is set forth most clearly towards the end of this book. It does not provide arguments for God’s existence or offer answers to unsolved puzzles so much as tell us that the difficulties and questions we encounter are what we should expect if the universe is as the believer claims. This cautious approach has much in common with Alister McGrath and Thomas Torrance.

4255242420It is a chastened natural theology. It suggests not that there are explanatory gaps only God can fill but that very often more needs to be said and that existing discourse should be supplemented to take into account other ways of seeing things. Williams worries that one of the problems with natural theology is that it wants to get behind history and revelatory claims and reduce God to an ‘extra item in our routine description of what is the case’. He fails to mention another Gifford lecturer, James Barr, who argued that natural theology is a significant element within the Bible itself. But Williams always expresses himself so cautiously and modestly, qualifying almost every point, that it is not easy to argue with him. Sometimes it is difficult to dig out exactly what he is trying to say but the effort to do so is usually rewarded. In the first chapter, for example, there is a very astute defence of St Thomas’ appeal to dependency against criticisms of Anthony Kenny and Immanuel Kant. But for most of the book Williams does not comment on the classical arguments of natural theology. His main concern is with language and the book looks at such issues as the nature of representation, language as behaviour that is not simply predetermined, language as something that never arrives at finality, at what it means for us to speak as bodily agents, at lessons to be learnt from the gaps and excesses in language and at the role of silence in renewing and reshaping our speech.

The book proceeds in a stimulating multi-disciplinary dialogue with thinkers from a number of areas of study. It is no surprise that Simone Weil is here but there is also a good deal of attention to the work of William Downes who bridges linguistics, the cognitive sciences and the humanities and whose book Language and Religion: A Journey Into the Human Mind provides Williams with material for reflection, as does the work of Stanley Cavell. Among the theologians, John Milbank’s influence can be detected but there is also an interesting discussion of two ‘maverick Thomists’, Cornelius Ernst (Catholic) and Victor Preller (Anglican). Essays from the 1970s by the American Catholic novelist Walker Percy are resurrected and used effectively. Central to Williams’ argument is the conviction that religious language is not odd or unique but that ‘the way human beings use language is full of oddities and potential frustrations if what you are looking for is an account of an orderly behavioural pattern, let alone a causal sequence’. But although Williams is clear about the limits of language he has no time for ‘cavalier dismissal of argument and labour’. What Williams offers us is not so much an argument for God based on language but what might be termed a ‘suasion’ or a persuasive consideration. There is, he claims, a sense of finitude and dependence in the use of language combined with a sense of ‘not being a determined vehicle of natural processes’ that suggests there is ‘some connection between language and the acknowledgement of a creator’. “It is here,” he writes, “that the concepts and images of theology and religious belief touch the basic questions of how we make sense of what we as humans characteristically do.”

One of the most interesting chapters of the book is the one in which Williams looks at what he terms ‘excessive speech’ or ‘language in extreme situations’. He quotes Iris Murdoch’s comment that language can ‘make jokes in its sleep’ and Aquinas’ opinion that the crudest metaphors for God are often the best because no one could mistake them for accurate descriptions. This is not a long book but it is a profound one. Many readers will find it worthwhile reading each chapter at least twice. It is a book that will influence both the way theologians understand language and their approach to natural theology.