• To Speak Truly About God: A Review From Marginalia

    The beginning of the essay over on Marginalia, by Rowan Williams:

    When we say that something is true or adequate, what are we claiming?

    We might be implying that we have captured the essence of what we are talking about, that we are representing exhaustively or isomorphically the structure of the object. Increasingly, though, philosophical discourse has rendered such a claim problematic, and in connection with language about God it is especially difficult: such claims can be morally objectionable as well as philosophically over-ambitious.

    Wittgensteinian caution (about imagining that language can capture essences and fix meanings once and for all) and Heideggerian hostility (to any metaphysics that absorbs the elusiveness of Being into the habits of the human subject) prompt us to rethink reference in general, and theological reference in particular. Allowing for these two critiques (the therapeutic and the apophatic) we can say that truthful speech is speech that manifestly intends to continue a practice, that recognizes the authority of precedents, and that attempts to produce a recognizable continuation of what these precedents embody.

    In the Christian theological context, this view about speech entails an appeal to the Holy Spirit as securing a continuity of usage with Jesus and the apostles: to claim to be speaking truly about God means to go on in a way that can be identified with acknowledged precedent, to reproduce the commitments of precursors. Meaning is established by charting a normative trajectory in usage. And this normative trajectory can also generate self-critical moves in the discourse because there is always a surplus of normative resource that may only come to light when uses are challenged in the light of perceived inequity or incongruity produced by existing usage. We can confidently defend a mode of speech about God as genuinely representing extra-mental truth in virtue of the self-aware and self-challenging practice that can be demonstrated in our usage — and without explicit or implicit appeal to a metaphysical claim to have embodied some essence in our words.

    Read the full essay here.

    (Have you heard? Marginalia has joined LARB’s new Channels Project. The LARB Channels — which include the websites Avidly and Boom, along with Marginalia — are a community of independent online magazines specializing in literary criticism, politics, science and culture, supported by the Los Angeles Review of Books.)