Language and Communication

Speculations about Rowan Williams’ Recent References to Rhythm

My colleague and I had the pleasure this week of taking some students to hear Marilynne Robinson and Rowan Williams speak at the Wheaton Theology Conference. The two of them (as well as Tiffany Kreiner in particular) gave beautiful and inspiring presentations which will take me some time to digest, but I was particularly struck by the fact that Rowan Williams referred to rhythm a couple of times in his formal conversation with Robinson.

As far as I know, Williams does not treat the subject of rhythm in any of his books in any direct way or in any detail, although it has been very difficult for me to keep up with his publishing speed lately (if somebody knows of a place in his corpus where he does deal with rhythm, please let me know!). Nevertheless, he made rhythm a central dimension of his response to two different questions:

  1. The first question asked about how Williams communicates his theology so well and so clearly and what he had to say about the fact that so much theology is so poorly written and communicated. After a characteristic remark about how one should not shy away from writing difficult theology since difficulty in and of itself is not problematic – “what’s the difficulty with difficulty?” – he said that there is nevertheless the question of audience. And communicating to an audience is very much a matter of the rhythms that you want the people to take away with them. He suggested that there is a musicality to communication, that it is a matter of communicating a certain beat. I am left wondering what this means. This was about as much as he was able to say on the point. In fact, he seemed to have some difficulty expressing this idea. He just kept coming back to the idea of rhythm without really being able to explain what he meant by this, like it was an intuitive principle for him which frames his communication but which is, itself, difficult to communicate (rather like God, perhaps).
  2. The second question was about the sorts of spiritual disciplines that the church needs to cultivate. Here he appealed to rhythm again as his first response. He said that rhythm is a sort of lost practice, that we have lost the ability to encounter God in the everyday rhythms, through the formation of habits. We instead tend to expect that encounter with God occurs in disruptive moments of ecstasy, that it is a matter of arresting experience rather than everyday rhythms.

In both of these cases rhythm was the first idea for which Williams reached. I have heard these sorts of questions before and the idea of rhythm is not typically or necessarily what respondents talk about. So this leaves me wondering whether Williams may be thinking about rhythm more generally at the moment such that he was responding to these questions out of things that he is already thinking through in other contexts.

Granted, in both cases, Williams was not responding to questions about theology as such but questions about communication or what we might call spirituality (a term which Williams himself uses only with significant hedging). This is fairly typical – where we see rhythm addressed in theology, it is typically with respect to matters that are peripheral to theology itself. However, I don’t necessarily think that this division holds, certainly not in Williams’ work. When he speaks about spirituality, it is always with the caveat that this is not something that should be divorced from the more critical thought of theology (I just read something to this effect in his introduction to Resurrection). Likewise, he has examined language and communication as matters of theology as well (The Edge of Words). So it may be appropriate for us to draw connections between his remarks and concerns that are typically thought of as more central to theology. In particular, I think his points raise the following theological questions: if rhythm is a fundamental dimension of communication and human experience, what does that mean about the sort of world that we’re in, the sorts of creatures we are, and the ways in which God relates to us as those sorts of creatures?

Of course, I do not know whether or not Williams is explicitly thinking through these questions but I would be fascinated to know. However, even if I am only projecting, I do think his points about rhythm in communication and spirituality nevertheless demonstrate why I believe rhythm to be an important theological category.

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