R. D. Williams, The Edge of Words: God and the Habits of Language.
London: Bloomsbury, 2014. Pp. xii, 204. Hb. Â£20. ISBN 978-1-4729-1043-1.
This book is based on the Gifford lectures of 2013, and so must address
Giffordâ€™s requirement of 1885 that in these lectures, natural theology
should be treated as â€˜a strictly natural science â€¦ without reference to
or reliance upon any supposed special exception or so-called miraculous
revelationâ€™. 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 â€˜a form of natural theology that is not about avoidanceâ€™ (p. 3).
Williams bases his argument on the idea that â€˜the fact of language is a
good deal more puzzling than we usually recognizeâ€™ (p. ix). He explores,
for instance, our use of metaphor, inviting us to ask, â€˜What sort of truth
can be told by abandoning most of our norms of routine description?â€™
(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 â€“ 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
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 â€¦ 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.
And he reflects on the importance of historical context:
Modern Believing 56.3 2015