The Edge Of Words – God and the Habits of Language

edge of words

The Edge Of Words – God and the Habits of Language
By Rowan Williams
Bloomsbury – £20.00

To call this book dense is akin to calling Rome old, Paris beautiful or inexorable talent shows, the worse thing to have evolved since the outbreak of cholera or the unstoppable rise of the Nazi Party during the thirties. Then again, the subject matter the former Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, is writing about, isn’t exactly akin to the ideologically disposable likes of such fleeting, translucent nothings as say Peter Andre or Natasha Hamilton.

In fact nothing could be more polar or theologically provocative, more conscientious or analytically considered.

The Edge Of Words – God and the Habits of Language enters into an exceedingly acute, challenging gambit of literary and theological themes that one more often than not, takes for granted – at ones’ peril I hasten to add. From experts in the treatment of the autistic condition right through to those who dabble, if not completely subscribe to the ancient as well as modern philosophies of language, religion and science – by way of Augustine, Wittgenstein and Mary Hesse, to name but three.

In so doing, the trajectory of thought both clamours and collides in such a way as to occasionally leave the reader reeling upon a perplexed precipice of unresolved, theological know-how/know-not. For instance, in chapter one (‘A Future For ‘Natural Theology’?’), Williams writes: ”natural theology provides no positive information about what God is like, but something like a system of warnings about the misuse of language.” To which I couldn’t help but question: who and what does provide positive information about what God is like?

The pulpit? The Vatican? The Holy Bible? The Prime Minister?

As for the ‘misuse of language,’ well this ought hardly be surprising given theological parameters of (gross) misconduct and misinterpretation; although I’m sure Williams is all too well aware of this. And I say this because all six chapters are anchored yet analytically dissected to such a didactic degree, that it’s almost impossible – or very difficult at least – not to sonorously take on board what he’s writing about.

Already in the Introduction, Williams immediately lays his credible cards on the table: ”So this book will not be attempting to offer that unlikely product, a new and knockdown ‘argument for the existence of God.’ But it will be seeking to place our talk about God in the context of what we think we are doing when we communicate at all, when we aim to ‘represent’ our environment, when we press our words and images to breaking point in the strange conviction that we shall end up seeing and understanding more as a result. If this book persuades some readers to to be more puzzled than before over the ways we use language, it will have done part of its work; if it persuades them to listen afresh to how and where the language of faith in a communicating God comes in to our habitual speaking, it will have done what I most hope for.”

Suffice to say, such considered preparation – in as much as one can continue to ponder, disagree altogether or indeed; ‘listen afresh to how and where the language of faith in a communicating God comes in to our habitual speaking” – certainly triggers a menagerie of theological thought. Theological thought after all, being the silent antithesis of the already, (m)orally accepted. A philosophically induced chain of thought(s), that is partially touched on the final chapter (‘Saying The Unsayable: Where Silence Happens’): ”Thomas Cromwell’s speech, from the climatic trial scene in Robert Bolt’s play A Man for All Seasons, vividly expresses the recognition that silence is not pure absence […]. We can mean something by not doing or saying; withdrawing from speech allows something to be communicated. But, in Cromwells phrase, this is ‘according to the circumstances.’ We cannot imagine an ‘unframed’ or pure silence: we can only imagine the silence in which we are not hearing anything, not hearing what we might expect to hear.”

The final sentence, ‘not hearing what we might expect to hear,’ is of course, resoundingly bang on the money. For how many of us are guilty to the fact that we (perhaps subliminally) only engage in hearing that which we want to hear? Rather than expect or should hear hear?

Might silence be truly golden after all?

Saying the unsayable is what accounts for The Edge Of Words being as profound and deliberate as it is; while, where the silence happens, merely echoes and remains.

Remains for us to grapple with. To comprehend. To hopefully, finally embrace.

David Marx


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