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Francis celebrates Mass at the Church of St Gregory the Great in Rome (CNS)

From the print edition, September 27, 2014

Ritual includes elements of drama, but is not identical with it. Building on definitions offered by Richard Sennett, we could say that ritual is repetitive, transformative and publicly theatrical. It traces the same pattern of performance in different enactments over time; it makes ordinary physical stuff (including words and gestures) carry meanings that are not intrinsic to themselves; it involves us in performance that is about more than what happens to be in our individual minds. It has a nuanced relationship to the passage of time: rituals are conserved over time, so that it appears that we are doing the same thing at different moments in time, and the time of the ritual itself provides a narrative sequence that does not vary; yet the reason they are conserved is that they are believed to be pertinent to a constantly changing context of human action and utterance.

To return again to a ritual form is to bring together my/our current situation, choices made or to be made, so as to allow them to be informed by patterns of intelligible act and speech which are not directly conditioned by that present situation. In other words, the story of my/our current doings is located against the backdrop of another and supposedly broader narrative canvas.

When we join in a celebration of Remembrance Day in the UK, we juxtapose our current lives with the record and collective memory of major international conflicts, so that issues around our corporate identity, vision and well-being are configured differently. When Christians join in a celebration of the Eucharist, they allow themselves to be interrogated by the story of Christ’s self-sacrifice, to be questioned as to whether their present lives are recognisably linked with Christ’s and to be reconnected with the story of Christ’s death and resurrection by the renewing gift of the Holy Spirit. So the awareness here and now of how my life is unfolding, and my reflection on what I am going to put “out there” in linguistic exchange to be recognised and responded to is confronted and enhanced by a story whose form is already fixed: a story which has happened, in such a way that my present options are extended or altered. Effective ritual is a matter of holding myself to account, not of retreating to a comforting alternative time-track in which everything is resolved.

Part of seeing the speaking self as time-bound is thus also seeing the self as capable of being “brought to account” in ways like these. The self ’s development normally moves in dialogue with “normative” discourses, internalising the values ascribed to this or that action or style of living; but these normative points of reference are themselves regularly embodied in narrative, drama, ritual. To grow as a reflective speaker and agent is to learn how to engage with these; to become “conversant” with the worlds of imagination they present in order to continue to be able to imagine oneself – to go on projecting possible futures of acting and speaking. To let yourself be questioned is, as we have seen, integral to the whole business of intelligent speech; and this is all the more significant when we are thinking of the fundamental questions of what we value or how honest we are that arise when we seriously try to “let ourselves matter” to others. The varieties of ritual imagination exist to enable and equip that questioning. It’s an instance of that deliberate complicating or “stressing” of discourse which we practise in order to extend our imaginative and moral reach. And when we think about the processes by which we educate our feelings and reactions, our sensibilities, we commonly think in terms of exposure to an increasingly resourceful set of narratives, dramas and rituals.

We might, in the context of British culture, reflect about what was the best time to introduce a child or young adult to his or her first “proper” theatre outing, to a Dickens novel, a funeral, a football match, a rock concert or even a visit to family abroad, perhaps living in a more formal and traditional setting (there are several British cultures, after all). And we think about such things in order to assist a younger generation in understanding how to “go on” in various contexts by showing them what an intelligible flow of action looks like in these highly formalised environments. We say, in effect: “This is – in intensified form – what it is to grow up as a human agent/speaker: to become increasingly aware of ways in which we can continue an exchange, a discourse we are sharing.” And it is in this connection that we may start thinking about what the inescapably temporal character of our speaking has to do with language about God or the sacred.

Our speaking is always time-related; it is always incomplete, and in search of the perspective of another; it is characteristically engaged not only with other speakers in the same direct environment but with the more radical sorts of otherness represented by ritual and fictional narrative or drama; it is in search of tools for the critique and enrichment of its “repertoire” – and quite often in full flight from such resources when they threaten to become excessively critical and unsettling. Speaking in a way that is conscious of the time-related nature of language requires a measure of humility and of courage, a mixture of reticence and bold affirmation (the staking of a position).

In what ways does all this bear upon the affirmations of religious faith? It might be thought that faith has an investment in “finished” stories and the avoidance of the kind of risk we have been thinking about; and there are undoubtedly varieties of religiousness that work in just such a way. However, this is a monumental misreading of the issue. What we have been exploring in this chapter are the implications of knowing that I am finite – that my thoughts and words are learned over time, that my utterances are open to the – perhaps abrasive – responses of others, that I do not have the resources as an individual to sustain meaning or honesty in my own practice. Choosing finitude, says [Stanley] Cavell, is “the choice of community, of autonomous moral existence”; that is, to be an autonomous moral agent is, counterintuitively, to be an agent aware of choices that are real because they are limited, limited by the sheer thereness of others and by the factors that have as a matter of fact made me the agent I am. Adult autonomy – contrary to what is lazily assumed by much of our culture – is never the liberty to decide in abstraction from what others are, what others say. It is not, after all, the exclusive opposite of dependence. It is the “staking” of ourselves precisely in recognition of the non-transparent thereness of others, committed to the risky business of being there with or for them in their radical difference.

But this means that if we are to speak honestly about ourselves, we are committed to a more and more far-reaching investigation of dependence. We are, as speakers, in search of the most dependable and comprehensive resource for our truthfulness and clarity; we are moving in the direction of something to which we can be unequivocally present, by which we can “allow ourselves to be comprehended” in the most extensive sense imaginable. This is not something we can depict: to depict it would be to reduce it to the scale of what our minds can construct. And even to “represent” it, in the specialised sense I have given to that word, is a complex and risky enterprise. We can say that it is the invisible end of a trajectory whose beginnings we can trace, the trajectory of exposure to an other whose presence both assures and challenges. And for such an other to be a presence that is not merely the presence of another interest, a point of view that itself needs assurance and challenge, it cannot be reduced to being represented as a further item in the list of things that there are. It cannot have interests that are in competition with the things that there are in the universe. To hark back for a moment to [William] Downes’s argument, whatever it is that would make this aspect of our linguistic practice fully intelligible and adequately grounded would have to be “unrepresentable”, in an even stronger sense than the unitary self.

Simone Weil famously said that she was “absolutely certain that there is a God, in the sense that I am absolutely certain that my love is not illusory” and equally “absolutely certain that there is not a God in the sense that there is nothing real which bears a resemblance to what I am able to conceive when I pronounce that name”. The implication is that to speak of a “divine” other is in an important sense more even than projecting an infinite line out of the trajectory we now discern, but at least we have a basis for some sort of linguistic representation in so far as we can talk about the imagined effect of an other to whom we were unconditionally present, in terms of an unconditional permission to question and reimagine the self without any anxiety that the project would ultimately run out or terminally fail or undermine itself.

To live and speak from such a place of non-anxiety is one plausible account of “faith”; and it is the point of connection between the process of repeatedly “staking” oneself in the incompleteness of language and the stability of faith.

© Rowan Williams, 2014. Taken from The Edge of Words: God and the Habits of Language. To buy The Edge of Words at 25 per cent off the RRP click here and use discount code EDGE25 at the checkout