‘Religious Language under Pressure': Rowan Williams’ Edward Schillebeeckx Lecture

duck rabbit illusionOn 13 December last year, Rowan Williams was at the Radboud University in Nijmegen to deliver the Edward Schillebeeckx lecture, an event organised by the Soeterbeeck Programme and the journal Tijdschrift voor Theologie. In what was a very stimulating lecture – are Williams’s lectures ever otherwise! – Williams draws inspiration from Michael Leunig, Cornelius Ernst, Thomas Aquinas, Victor Preller, Buddhist meditation practices, Maurice Merleau-Ponty, and, of course, Edward Schillebeeckx.

Picking up on the theme of the lecture, Williams argued that ‘Our language becomes “religious” when it is most under pressure; when what it does, says, or expresses, or embodies, is a kind of letting go under the pressure of recognising that we have to change the discourse, that the questions no longer work. We let go and ask – ask rather than answer! – “Are there other ways of speaking or seeing or being?”‘

And he unpacks five implications:

1. Language is not just ‘stimulus and response’, a system of cause and effect. We can’t predict or control speech or the way we understand it. Language is risky and unpredictable.
2. Language necessarily has an unfinished/unclosed character about it. There is always something more to be said. One implication of this is that repetition is not really possible.
3. Language is something one does with one’s body. Speech is a bodily event, an act which takes place from a particular location.
4. We place our language under pressure so that we can think better, think more deeply, discover something new; so that we can move out of the frame we started with.
5. Silence in our speech is significant. We expect silence to do some work for us. In other words, silence is never empty. It’s not even silent.

He concludes with these words:

Our religious language is no more than our ordinary language – a simple set of descriptions. We do not look out from the castle of our brain and label that object called ‘God’. On the contrary, when we believe we have found, for the moment, an adequate way of talking about God – a doctrinal formulation, an image, a scriptural text – we need to remind ourselves of exactly what it is we are talking about; which is, supremely, the uncontrollable, the unconditioned. Like the Buddhist, faced with what comes at the far end of meditation, we have to say there are no words that are going to hold this. However satisfactory what I have said so far may appear, I have to recognise what it doesn’t say. I have to put my religious language, so to speak, under the judgement of a God who can’t be exhaustively and finally spoken of. I have to allow my religious speaking to move in and out of silence for contemplation. To put it another way: I have to put my religious language under pressure; I have to make sure that the language of my faith, my creed, my doctrine, is not left to sit complacently without that tightening of the grip of mystery on it which prevents it from being authoritarian, or oppressive; which respects that ‘openness’ (once again to use Father Schillebeeckx’s word), [which] prevents that openness surviving.

And one of the paradoxes about this, a paradox well worth reflecting on, is that instead of this meaning that our religious language is ‘a shot at the truth which makes no great claim to tell us, truthfully, something about God’, the contrary is true: the more our religious language shows that it is under pressure – under scrutiny, under judgement – the more we recognise that what we have said may be true but not adequate, the more we speak truthfully about God, the more we declare and show what God is, or who God is.

Some people speak as though a tentative approach to the language of our doctrine, our creed, our liturgy, will somehow resign all claims to truth, or revelation, or whatever, somehow blur the clear boundaries of the faith we have received. But I don’t believe that. When I say the creed, I do so without any reservation, but I try to do so without any complacency. When I make the declarations I make in the creed – about God, about the Incarnation, about the last things – I accept that these are the best words I can find to carry what needs to be carried, and precisely because of that they remain something that falls short of what is really there. And in that recognition that they fall short, and in the continuous self-examination – [and the] self-questioning that comes with that – I show that God is more than just the content of my mind, or the collective content of human minds, or a construct of the imagination.

If I am showing that it is difficult to talk about God, I am showing something true about God. Let me just repeat that because I do think it’s crucial: If I am showing that it is difficult to talk about God, I am showing what is true about God. And those who speak easily, glibly, fluently about God, may be less truthful because there is less of that openness to the infinite, unconditioned, mystery of the God we speak of. That sense of infinite, unconditioned mystery surrounding our words and our actions, soaking through the practice of our faith, spilling over in different ways into the events and exchanges of the world; that sense of where we stand, how we speak, in the presence of the difficult God was, I believe, something profoundly close to the heart of Edward Schillebeeckx’s theology. What I have shared with you this evening owes a great deal to the inspiration of a theologian who was not afraid to say ‘If it is difficult to speak God, that’s because that is the truthful way to speak of God.

Theologians need, I believe, not to be afraid of recognising that creative, essential, difficulty as the way of finding truthfulness and, perhaps, as one way of recovering that natural theology faithful to human experience which Edward Schillebeeckx shared with us, and still does.

[HT: Thanks to Chris Green for drawing my attention to this lecture. Chris was particularly enamoured by the section around the 01:01:00 mark; i.e., with the section which I have typed up.]

2 thoughts on “‘Religious Language under Pressure': Rowan Williams’ Edward Schillebeeckx Lecture

  1. Wasn’t there a time when Chris – while the jensonian influence was strongest – thought that +Williams just wasn’t committed enough to doctrinal language? Now he’s all into that dark spirituality…

  2. Recently, one of my students actually described my theology as “dark”: I thought of you, ADH, and I knew you’d find it fitting!

Comments welcome here

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s