Representing reality: Williams is back in his element

By Simon Barrow
November 5, 2013

It was good to see Dr Rowan Williams back in his element yesterday (4 November 2013), giving the first of his six Gifford Lectures on 'Making representations: religious faith and the habits of language'.

The series is being delivered at the University of Edinburgh, continuing tonight at 5.30pm. It is also being live streamed, and will be made available in webcasts and later in published form.

As Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr Williams was often swimming in waters not of his choosing and not in accord with his temperament. Politicking, managing and administrating are not where his primary gifts lie, and in attempting to reconcile the irreconcilable in a dysfunctional set of institutions it often seemed as if his good nature was being far too easily abused by those intent on winning rather than listening or thinking.

By contrast, he looked, sounded and felt far more at home with an audience wanting to explore the parameters and boundaries of thought – and he gave a typically dense, reflexive, exploratory and learned paper to open up this important series of talks. It was entitled 'Representing Reality'.

"When we speak about the world we inhabit, we do so in terms that go well beyond simply listing the elements of what we perceive; that is, we construct schematic models, we extrapolate, we invent, and we use our imagination.

"If we think harder about what is involved in representing things (rather than simply describing or replicating them), we may discern something more. We may discover that the way believers talk about God is closely linked to the ways in which what we call 'ordinary' speech seeks a truthfulness that is more than simply replication. Moreover, we may understand how speech is regularly stimulated to do this in moments of linguistic crisis or disruption."

God, he reminded us, is not to be thought of as another object in or attached to the world, and our speech about God becomes fundamentally distorted (as both Richard Dawkins and religious fundamentalists so readily and repetitively illustrate, I should add) when this is not understood.

Rather, in referring to God we are drawing out resonances, hints and clues within language about a reality that cannot be captured within the usual object-subject world. God-talk is not the only place where language breaks down, but it is perhaps the supreme example of needing to find another register when descriptive and analytic categories exhaust themselves – but reality continues to stretch out before us and closure cannot be determined.

Citing particularly Wittgensteinian sources, along with the Australian cartoonist Michael Leunig and others, Dr Williams suggested that a useful and important distinction can be made between description as an aggregation of "bundles of facts" and representation as the task of metaphoric, poetic or other utterance that reaches out towards elements of reality presented in reciprocal experience which are not exhausted by descriptive or empirical categories, and which in turn may potentially point us towards a certain kind of beyondness in the midst.

That, I should stress, is my own feeble summary of part of what Dr Williams was saying. Far better to listen to the lecture. For illustrative and explanatory purposes he also delved into Buddhist meditation and neuroscience, taking in an alternative account of Aquinas's 'Five Ways', and suggesting that the chasm between natural theology (alleged inferences of God in the pattern and the world) and revealed theology (an account of divine 'interruptions' to our usual ways of speaking, perceiving, thinking and acting) could be re-thought if not reconciled by a revised account of representation and deeper reflection on the nature(s) of language(s).

It was thoroughly absorbing stuff. Among those present -- in spirit, if not physically -- was Professor Nicholas Lash, whose work on the no-thingness of God as a fundamental characteristic of traditional (and ever new) Christian speech has been a major influence on Williams - and, rather less significantly, on me! See my paper, 'What difference does God make today?' (

Tonight, Rowan Williams moves on to ask, 'Can we say what we like?' in considering language, freedom and determinism.

He writes: "If speech is a physical act, is it ultimately something we must think of as part of a pre-determined material system?

"It is difficult to state this without contradiction. Indeed, once we recognise the unstable relationship between what we say and the environment we are seeking to put into words, we cannot treat speech as simply another physical process. Further, we cannot ignore the way in which speech is 'bound' to stimuli that it does not originate (if we did, we could have no conception of what a mistake or a lie was).

"We use our language in order to enhance or refine our skill at living in a world that both demands understanding and invites us into the awareness of an unconditioned intelligent energy."

* Full details about the 2013 Gifford Lectures, including booking and webcast links, here:


(c) Simon Barrow is co-director of Ekklesia.

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