Do We Speak the Same Language as God?

Rowan Williams opens the introduction to his new book by asking, “Does the way we talk as human beings tell us anything about God?”, adding immediately, “This may sound a slightly odd question.” The answer that his book would seem to suggest might be better understood as directed to the question of what our way of talking may tell us about what it is to be a human being and just why that way (or ways) may lead us to go on to talk about God, a God or even Gods. But, if I have understood that answer aright, my use of the word “just” in the preceding sentence may itself be taken to be a fair exemplification of a typically misleading linguistic habit, with its suggestion of an answer claiming to be more exact than, according to its own underlying argument, it could possibly be. It is remarkably hard to pin down in any very exact terms “just” what this centrally underlying argument amounts to. But that, paradoxically (or perhaps not so paradoxically) enough, would seem to be one of its own main points.

A significant part of this main point lies, then, in its insistence both on how our use of the meaningful symbols through which we are enabled to make thinkable the world which we inhabit, demands always to be understood in terms of our having to carry on from what has gone before linguistically, and as being always susceptible to moving, or being moved, off in different and hitherto unsuspected directions. In this Rowan Williams’s sense of the irreducible indeterminacy of language, including its inherent lack of any determinate beginning, is strikingly reminiscent of that expressed by Jacques Derrida who, as just one among a remarkably wide range of thinkers and experts of all kinds with whom, as the blurb puts it, “Williams enters into dialogue,” does indeed make a fleeting appearance on page 152 of the main text, but not, curiously enough and as do most at least of the others, in the index. A bibliography would have been helpful — but its lack must be accounted a relatively minor complaint in the context of a notably stimulating and remarkably wide-ranging discussion.

Rowan Williams’s main contention, as I understand it, is that the practice of our engagements in language, and in our conceptualised and conceptualising interchange with the world in which we find ourselves, cannot in principle be understood and explained in terms of the causal structures of our existence alone; and this, he argues, carries with it the irresistible implication that the universe which we inhabit and about which we are able to think and to communicate our thoughts with each other has somehow to be understood as the manifestation or “representation” of an underlying and all-pervasive intelligence. Moreover — and this is a further and crucially important part of his argument — we cannot seriously suppose that the only way in which to record the true nature of this universe must be through the cumulative stating of facts about it or through hopefully accurate descriptions of its various aspects and workings. For one thing, the universe does not impose on us any one “true” way of formulating or expressing those facts; different “natural” — as indeed different “artificial” — languages carve them up and re-present them sometimes very differently.

But experience of the limitations of descriptive or would-be fact-stating language pushes us to see that there are other ways of “representing” the truth of the sometimes “extreme” situations in which we may find and recognise ourselves. Rowan Williams is not only a former Archbishop of Canterbury, he is also an accomplished multi-linguist, a distinguished academic theologian and a poet, with a strong sense of the difference between poems that “ring true” and those that may not; and all this comes through very strongly in this book.

What exactly does all this add up to? Well, for one thing, that the word “exactly” is here as inappropriate as was my earlier use of the word “just” — and if this seems to present some sort of paradox of reflexivity, it is in the context a paradoxically appropriate one. No doubt that all engagement in language has to be seen as a form of what Chapter Four presents as “material practice”, that is to say as consisting in its enactments of a series of macro spatio-temporal events, and as such subject to the kind of explanation structured in terms of (preceding) cause and (subsequent) effect that must in principle be presumed to govern all such occurrences. At the same time, to take part in meaning-orientated activity, to think and/or to act linguistically, is to engage in a rule-governed activity, only properly understandable as a goal- or future-directed effort to meet standards of evaluation by which its success or failure in the transmission or deciphering of meanings may be judged. Attempts to show how one might hold together these two schemata of explanation within one and the same framework of humanly rational understanding have lain, and still lie, at the heart of many of the great philosophical enterprises and controversies; and it may indeed be that the best that one can hope for is a rational understanding of why that cannot in the end be done.

Where this would leave us poses, of course, an immense question — to which the only certain answer may be that it leaves us with both the inescapability and the ultimate unanswerability of the question itself. As Rowan Williams puts it towards the end of his concluding chapter, “There are versions of human self-description which in effect make it impossible to understand at all what is going on in the language we actually use — and thus make it, if not impossible, at least unintelligible that we ourselves should speak. And this,” he quite rightly comments, “is not an easily sustainable position.” And for him “this means that the most comprehensive . . . account we can give of what is recognisably human is deeply implicated in concerns about ‘the sacred’ — about what is not yet said, what is not sayable . . . Such an account does not deliver a ‘proof of God’s existence’ [but it does] enable us to see that what is affirmed in the language of specific religious ritual . . . goes with the grain of what matters most . . . in anything claiming to be an adequate picture of our human speaking.”

One of the many striking things about this whole mode of argument is how ecumenical it is in both implication and spirit. Ronald Dworkin’s last book was entitled Religion Without God, and he was and is very far from being alone among those unable to attach any clear sense to talk about God, but in finding themselves nevertheless impelled to ask Y a-t-il du sacré dans la nature? (the title of a book, edited by Bérengère Hurand and Catherine Larrère, containing the papers from a conference held in Paris in 2012). It would seem surely to follow from such a line of argument that there can be little clear reason to attach any cognitively (or “factually”) distinctive importance to the language and doctrines of any one given religious-cum-theological tradition rather than to that or those of any other.

It may go without saying that, so far as he himself is concerned, the former Archbishop of Canterbury does indeed fully “accept the Christian revelation”. But does this — can it? — mean that he should regard other religious traditions to be, perhaps even grievously, mistaken in their prima facie cognitively incompatible doctrinal claims? Or should we — should he? — understand the repetition of these claims in one traditional context or another, whether it be one of private or of common utterance, not so much as expressions of explicitly cognitive affirmation or endorsement, but rather as the performance of a verbally structured practice of continuing commitment to the community of which one may see oneself and be seen as a member — or indeed, as in the case of bishops, archbishops and the like as an institutionally important representative?

The continuing observance by their members of their traditional customs and practices plays, of course, a crucially important part in holding families and communities together across the generations with all that that means in terms of mutual recognition and support. And that other families and communities have each their own established traditions of shared practice, both verbal and non-verbal, is something much easier to accept — and even on occasion to take part in as honoured and respectful guest — than differences in belief as to the very nature of the universe and of the cognitively doctrinal demands that its supposed Author may be thought to make of us. Men and women of very different religious traditions, or even none at all, may perhaps ecumenically agree that there is indeed “quelque chose de sacré dans la nature“, even if they have also to agree that it must in the end be impossible to specify, let alone actually to agree on just what may be meant by “the sacred”, or how best to express one’s recognition of it. But what the implications of such ecumenical agreement may be for the working theologians of different faith communities, and more especially of communities with long established traditions of their own specific revelation, is a question that one can only leave for debate among the theologians of such communities themselves.

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