At The Limits Of Language

Recently we featured a review of scholar and priest Rowan Williams’ new book, The Edge of Words: God and the Habits of Language. In an interview that explores its themes, Williams articulates the difficulties of speaking and writing about God:

One philosophical friend of mine, years ago, used to talk about what she called ‘tight-corner apophaticism’, that is turning to negative theology or language about mystery whenever things get difficult. That really won’t do. If you look at the really great figures of Christian thinking, like Augustine or Aquinas, or indeed Richard Hooker, you see them racking their brains over solutions and saying, ‘yes, this may be nearly it’, and ‘we need to say something like that’, and ‘okay, there’s a bit of unfinished business there’, but really that’s about as far as we can go. We’ve stretched every muscle, we’ve strained every resource, we have seen just a glimpse of how it might all fit together, but at that point we really do have to acknowledge that it is God we’re talking about, and therefore we don’t expect to have it tied up.

So Aquinas famously, in his old age – well, middle age, he did have a stroke – says ‘everything I’ve written looks like straw’. He just sort of broke. And Augustine can speak in his commentary on the Psalms about how our language is stretched out, pulled out, stretched like a string on an instrument, as tight as you can get, and then God touches it. Richard Hooker says, right at the beginning of his Ecclesiastical Polity, that ‘our safest eloquence is silence’. Although we have received revelation of course, although we can have confidence that we’re not talking nonsense, we just need that reminder that it is God we are talking about. Therefore whatever we say, more than in most cases of speaking truth, it has to have that extra dimension of openness.