The physicality of language and the fleshy word

By Simon Barrow
November 12, 2013

The fourth lecture in Dr Rowan Williams' Gifford Lecture series, "Making representations: religious faith and the habits of language", was given on Monday 11 November 2013 at the University of Edinburgh.

The theme was 'Material words: language as physicality'. I was not able to be (physically) present, as I was celebrating my 18th wedding anniversary - so I am joining many others in watching the videocast [see below].

As it happens, my first meeting with the woman I was fortunate enough to marry was at a seminar/workshop I was leading in south London in 1992 on contextual theology. It was entitled, aptly enough, 'Words Made Flesh'.

Rowan Williams writes of his lecture: "When we analyse speech, we are not only discussing how words work. Speech also includes gesture and rhythm. As such, speech is a means not only of mapping our environment, but also of 'handling' our environment and its direct impact upon us (a point that can be illustrated with reference to studies of autistic behaviour)."

Autism, it has been suggested, results from the overloading of the brain by multiple stimuli, and the anxiety about control this makes when this cannot be handled.

Dr Williams continues: "When we speak we create a new material situation. Correspondingly, we cannot actually think and 'represent' the reality of material situations without assuming an intelligent or intelligible form of some sort: 'mindless' matter is a chimera.

"In our physical involvement with the world, the natural order evolves a representation of itself. This observation casts some light on classical Christian reflections of the world's transparency to divine meaning - which Christians perceived as a symbolic cosmos, which was no less symbolic for being material."

Correspondingly, I would add, the central Christian conviction is that it is first and foremost a fleshly, living Word in whom God is made manifest, dynamic and available. This Word can be pointed to and communicated in narrative form constituted by words. But the words themselves, though they may – depending on how they are used – participate in the symbolic, substantial, historical and communal worlds generated by encounters with the Word that is Jesus the Christ (and the disruptions this evokes), are not to be taken as a disembodied reproduction or repetition of the Word that has become flesh. This is the mistake of bibliolatry, the characteristic sin of certain forms of evangelical Protestantism.

On the other hand, those same words do invite a continual series of tangible and symbolic participations in the continuing Body of Christ which thereby create representations of the fleshly Word that is "the beyond in the midst" (Bonhoeffer).

In this way, the words we speak and the actions they both presage, create, illuminate, indict or enlarge may be a participation in the life that speaks, sustains and redeems (re-deems, note) us.

Believing in the God narrated for us in and as Christ, discerned through the Spirit in community, is therefore not primarily a matter of proposition but of participation - trusting into a new reality (a new register of living and of possibility) that reveals itself to us as we embrace it. That's how I would put it.

* Tickets for the Gifford Lectures are free, but booking is essential. You can book online for each lecture via EventBrite. Full details and booking links are here: http://www.ed.ac.uk/news/2013/lord-williams-gifford-171013 At the time of writing, there is one left: 14 November 2013.

* On the whole series: http://www.ekklesia.co.uk/node/19384

* Representing reality: Williams is back in his element: http://www.ekklesia.co.uk/node/19390

* Language as unfinished business: http://www.ekklesia.co.uk/node/19405


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

Although the views expressed in this article do not necessarily represent the views of Ekklesia, the article may reflect Ekklesia's values. If you use Ekklesia's news briefings please consider making a donation to sponsor Ekklesia's work here.