Rowan WILLIAMS. The Edge of Words: God and the Habits of Language. London: Bloomsbury. 2014. Pp. 195. $24.92, pb.ISBN978-1-4729-1043-1. Reviewed by Nathan KOLLAR, St. John Fisher College, Rochester, NY. 14618
In a world filled with patterned sound this is a book that says “stop. “Listen to and recognize that the silence within which all sound resides is telling us more about ourselves and the life we live and hope to live than all the sounds from the moment of the big bang onwards. It is a book of natural theology in the tradition of the Gifford lectures, of which it is one. It is a book written by one deeply immersed in the rituals, texts, theologies, and polity of the Anglican communion of churches – the former Archbishop of Canterbury. It should be read by anyone accustomed to abstract thought, seeking to discover another way of thinking about God, reviewing ideas about language, and the silence that holds our ideas in existence.
This is an exercise in “natural” theology, so that means that we think about ourselves and the world we live in without the aid of revelation. But it also means that we have presuppositions about how we experience, understand and talk about everything we think about. Williams immediately discounts a model many of us older Catholic theologians took for granted when talking about understanding and truth: Veritas est adæquatio intellectus et rei. What happens, then, when we begin to remove not only the dualism of things out there and things in my mind but also the dualism of God out there and me right here? Quite a lot. His books provides a clear path to understanding why Thomas’ correspondence theory of knowledge and truth needs to be seen differently and why natural theology is “…an exercise in locating and mapping difficulty” rather than in discovering the truth about God. (Difficulty does not equal unsolved problems) Truth seeking is an exploration into the metaphors and paradoxes that are inherent in much of our natural conversations and, therefore, inherent to our conversations about what we call “God.” The “God” word/symbol is a fragile word linking us to many attractive and easily experienced and understood realities but also linking us to many frightening destructive mysteries inherent to living in our contemporary world. “Meister Eckhart called God omninominabile –nameable in every way – as well as innominabile – not nameable at all.” The word and concept “God” becomes, in its own way, like a koan that may awaken us to the consequences of God’s presence in our life and the necessity of deepening our capacity for receptive stillness that resides in this awakening.
Williams’ chapter headings give us an idea of how he goes about explaining what I have so briefly summarized: “A Future for ‘Natural Theology’?” “Can We Say What We Like? Language, Freedom and Determinism;” “Speech and Time: The Unfinishable Business of Language;” “Intelligent Bodies: Language as Material Practice;” “Excessive Speech: Language in Extreme Situations;” “Saying the Unsayable: Where Silence Happens;” “On Representation.”As long as you don’t mind thinking, this is an easy to read book filled with great examples of the use of language and comparisons among diverse theories of language. It is wholistic and relational in its thought processes. It offers a very interesting road to discovering a God who is revealed in all the diverse forms of biblical writtings.