Modern Believing

Book Reviews

Modern Believing (2015), 56, (3), 343–404.


BOOK REVIEWS R. D. Williams, The Edge of Words: God and the Habits of Language. London: Bloomsbury, 2014. Pp. xii, 204. Hb. £20. ISBN 978-1-4729-1043-1. This book is based on the Gifford lectures of 2013, and so must address Gifford’s requirement of 1885 that in these lectures, natural theology should be treated as ‘a strictly natural science … without reference to or reliance upon any supposed special exception or so-called miraculous revelation’. This stipulation has posed major problems for previous Gifford lecturers; but, while Williams shares their unease, he suggests that an examination of the ways in which we use language, speech, may offer ‘a form of natural theology that is not about avoidance’ (p. 3). Williams bases his argument on the idea that ‘the fact of language is a good deal more puzzling than we usually recognize’ (p. ix). He explores, for instance, our use of metaphor, inviting us to ask, ‘What sort of truth can be told by abandoning most of our norms of routine description?’ (p. 6) His thesis involves close engagement with philosophical, psychological, linguistic, and neuro-scientific debates (one of the delights of his references is that they are by no means all to recent or mainstream scholarly work – the dynamics of debate, central or fringe, are ever-present). He examines issues of freedom and determinism in our use of language, how we often have problems in expressing what we mean: To struggle, to test and reject and revise, is to experience language as a project requiring intelligent discernment, choice and action: language cannot be left to the realm of fixed and predictable responses to the environment … We cannot easily imagine human speaking without the risk of metaphor, without the possibility of error and misprision, without the possibility of fiction, whether simply lying or cooperative fantasy. (pp. 59–60) And he reflects on the importance of historical context: Modern Believing 56.3 2015 doi:10.3828/mb.2015.30

Access Token
If you have private access to this content, please log in with your username and password here