Rowan Williams on the Edge (of Words)

Rowan Williams, The Edge of Words: God and the Habits of Language
Chapter One: “A Future for Natural Theology?”

It falls to me to kick off our long-promised discussion of Rowan William’s Gifford Lectures. The Gifford Lectures are an annual lecture series established to “promote and diffuse the study of natural theology in the widest sense of the term — in other words, the knowledge of God.” It is a very high honor to be invited to give the Gifford Lectures. Most of the theological greats of the twentieth century have been invited, even though—somewhat amusingly—hardly any of them are fans of natural theology. Williams comes to the Gifford lectures more sympathetic than many to natural theology— or at least to natural theology of a certain sort.

In the first chapter, he outlines what I take to be the standard, broadly Barthian, theological objections to natural theology, and then begins to develop another form of natural theology, one that is especially attentive to language, that can (he hopes) avoid some of those same objections.

The broadly Barthian worries follow from the idea that a God whose existence can be demonstrated by arguments that are in principle accessible to all could not also be the “God of revelation,” a.k.a. “the God who acts.” The God of natural theology “is a God who waits to be discovered… essentially silent, passively there to be uncovered by our enquiries” (1). I will return to this worry later. I admit that for the most part it is not a worry that I share.

The alternative form of natural theology that Williams commends focuses on the ways in which speech about God differs from speech about everything else. According to Williams, “there are moments when our speech is jolted into a register different from its normal one, and more specifically a register that is generative of fresh meaning” (7). This more “defensible” natural theology “would be a discourse that attempted to spot where routine description failed to exhaust ‘what needed to be said’ (however exactly we spell out the contents of this phrase)” (8). The idea, I take it, is that sometimes our ordinary linguistic practices of asking for explanations and describing things gets stretched, such that we find we are able to ask meaningful questions (like ‘Why is there something rather than nothing?’) even though any answer to those questions must transcend the normal, intra-worldly answers we would usually give. An answer to “why is there anything at all” cannot be just another something. It cannot be one of the “things” that needs explaining.

All of this is straight out of the playbook of the Wittgensteinian Thomists, among whom I’d number Victor Preller, Herbert McCabe, David Burrell, Cornelius Ernst, Fergus Kerr, Denys Turner, and indeed Williams himself. Williams presents a nice example of how someone sympathetic to this line of thinking reads Aquinas’s Five Ways (9–10). Aquinas is “inviting us to develop the discourse of causality to the point where we sense the need to change gear: everything we encounter is involved in relations of dependence… we can reasonably say that [finite being] is invariably involved in processes of causation, and thus marked by dependence… to exist as a discrete subject of predication is to depend.” So that on which finite being depends “is evoked or gestured to; but… we can’t formulate a sensible question as to what sort of thing it is that doesn’t depend because, by definition, we have now moved away from asking about sorts of things, and the questions we started with no longer move us forwards.” (Note the slide from “finite being is marked by dependence” to “to exist as a discrete subject of predication is to depend.”)

A brief foray into Buddhist mediation sets the stage for Williams to suggest that natural theology might be understood as a practice— an idea with which I am very sympathetic. After that, for me at least, things get murky. In sections 5 and 6 (19—30), he articulates a distinction between “description” and “representation,” in which the latter is associated with metaphor, embodiment, and making present what is perceived (22). I understand some of what’s going on here. He wants to deny that either is a deficient form of the other, as well as the idea that ‘literal’ descriptive language is the more primitive, more fundamental bedrock of language. But he also uses this distinction to make some still very preliminary suggestions that the “generative” capacity of language and its unlimited expressive power somehow suggests that reality itself is “given” to us, with the result that reality itself is an expression of “generosity.” I look forward to seeing these ideas developed in future chapters, but at the moment, I don’t really understand what he’s getting at very well.

It is important to read Williams charitably, and especially important to keep in mind that Chapter One is mainly a programmatic introduction to the book as a whole. Even so, I’d like to ask whether this conception of natural theology is best understood as articulating an alternative form of natural theology, or whether it is best understood as articulating an alternative attitude toward natural theology? That is to say, is the target here a group of arguments— the traditional arguments of natural theology, that (presumably) cannot be made without falling into idolatry? Or is the target a group philosophers, who falsely think that they have proven more than they have with their arguments?

Take any of the major traditional arguments for the existence of God (cosmological, fine-tuning, ontological, etc.) It seems to me that without tweaking them much at all, they can all be read as pointing toward the existence of something that is not a “thing” because it transcends finite being. Is Williams’ point that that is how they should be read? If so, who doesn’t read them that way? What is the alternative reading of them that he rejects? Perhaps it is the suggestion that they prove the existence of the full-blown Trinitarian God of Christianity. But who thinks that?

Alternatively, does Williams think they are invalid or unsound? If so, why? Take the kalaam cosmological argument, as formulated by Craig. Which step goes awry, or which premises are false, and why are they false? Or take the Fine Tuning argument. What’s wrong with it? Why can’t both arguments be read in the same spirit in which Williams reads the Five Ways?

To ask the same question again: why should anyone assume that the traditional, unreconstructed arguments of natural theology presuppose that God is a passive, silent, “thing in the world” etc. etc. in the deprecated sense?

Or again: suppose that I’m a fan of traditional natural theology, and am then convinced by Williams’ Wittgensteian Thomist line. What follows? What should I do differently?


6 thoughts on “Rowan Williams on the Edge (of Words)

  1. Thanks for the post Bill. My read on this chapter is slightly different, but I agree with you about the representation/description distinction. It is, in my opinon, an unhelpful one (not least etymologically: re-presentation being merely a slightly more visual alternative to de-scription in many ways: potentially a facile point, but I think it points to the fact that Williams is misusing either one or both of these words in the name of theoretical exigency. Somewhat hubristically, I actually think he’s trying to get at something closer to the taxonomy/topography claim I made in an earlier post; though that distinction itself might not be much better!).

    In terms of the chapter as a whole, I’m not sure Williams is actually directly arguing for a natural theology in the traditional sense (i.e., a theology which seeks to discern truths about God from truths in nature), but instead arguing that insofar as theology is a linguistic practise, it is also itself natural, and so subject to natural linguistic analyses. Over the course of the text, I think he then employs these analyses to develop a sort of negative theology, where we learn something of God from the intrinsic limits of linguistic practise which are carried over into theology. Because these intrinsic linguistic limits arise out of the limits we find in our lives and existences (specifically, the fact of our dependency, but set in the context of an indeterminacy which prohibits us from using this dependcy to reduce our ‘representations'(?) of the world to terms of mechanical process), however, we actually learn more about ourselves from these limits than God, such that this natural theology tells us quite a lot about how we are to live as Christians without saying much direct about the divine nature, even negatively. This is a rushed account of my understanding of what Williams is trying to do here, in any case, and I am broadly sympathetic to it. But if I’m right in thinking that he’s trying to use the limits of language to discern something of the nature of God in a negative fashion though (alongside and within his analyses of ‘religious’ registers), he keeps too much of the (I think?) Thomist direction for my liking! And insofar as he attempts to give a general anthropology in terms of these limits, without grounding that anthropology in scripture/God’s Word to Man, I think he goes too far against the Barthian suspicion of natural theology for his own reservations regarding natural theology in this first paragraph.

    I’ll have a go at writing this up using actual quotes from the actual book when I’m not on my lunch break! For now, hope it’s at least comprehensible/not entirely stupid. (I should also add that I really, really liked the book!)


  2. (Also maybe writing something which engages directly with the questions you pose and your analysis. A radical idea perhaps, but there we go…)


  3. Thanks, Ed. Those are some helpful clarifications. I have only read chapter one, but based on that I do agree that he isn’t trying to develop a traditional natural theology. The apophatic program you say he is pursuing is consistent with the Wittgensteinian Thomism that I see in chapter one. The question I was trying to ask is: why aren’t the stereotypical arguments of traditional natural theology consistent with this approach? It seems to me that all of the traditional arguments end in a claim like “there is some X, on which everything depends [or that exists necessarily]. Call that X ‘God’.” That seems to me to be a claim that tells me something about myself and my world but not much about the divine nature. I’ll be interested to see him develop the idea that his version of natural theology tells us a lot about how we should live as Christians. That sounds like a fruitful line of inquiry in any case.


  4. At a couple of points you mention the Fine-tuning argument. It seems that this argument might often fall in to the category of arguments that Williams wants to avoid, that argue from particular features of the world to the probable conclusion of God’s existence (eg p10). This might at least be harder to construe in terms of pushing a discourse to a point at which we cannot frame an answer. Perhaps the fine-tuning argument pushes back to the question of why there is any intelligible order at all, and then we might be in a similar situation in having unanswered questions about the intelligibility of reality: the question of why we are in a situation where we can develop understanding and language might not be answerable from within our normal notions of intelligibility and language. This moves the fine-tuning argument away from the specifics of fine-tuning though- we might equally ask these questions even if the margins were not at all narrow, since the universe would still be intelligible. Should Wittgensteinian Thomists stick with cosmological type arguments (if they accept that some of these arguments can be understood something like the way in which Williams interprets Aquinas)?


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