Essay – On Silence

And then there is silence.  In the Christian Faith there have been many examples of silence as written by Dairmaid MacCulloch in his book Silence a Christian History. Silence as contemplation, silence in politics, silence in schisms, wilful silence. He ends his book by discussing the ‘divine wild-track’ whereby faith is grounded equally in the noise of worship and the absence of it.  And he arrives at silence by saying what it isn’t in the same way negative theology, that of what God isn’t, is used as an understanding of who or what God is.  The book is really about Christian noise, for how can one write about Christian silence without the use of noisy words such as Crusades, Reformation, Nicodemism?

One chapter is interesting because it is political. It is the chapter called Things Not Remembered which touches upon three Church controversies, Christianity and slavery, Christianity and Nazism and Christianity and Clerical Child Sexual Abuse. The chapter is political because MacCulloch urges noise on these subjects. Christian involvement in these aberrations demands ‘constant rupture” for “on such noise does the health of Christianity depend”. There is one other, on being gay and Christian, wherein the noise of gay marriage regularly resounds.

Silence is a constant threat to organized religion. When an individual’s head is bowed, is motionless, hands to one’s side, in a Church, out in a field, on a mountain top, the mind blank, the senses acute, and the communication with God as real as silence. Who needs priests, Imams, edicts, Churches, ceremonies, rituals, liturgy, prayer, when in silence does God communicate best? For God (you must forgive me here because I am not a believer) to be true God can only be silent. And silent communication with God can only work on that ‘wild-track’ frequency which is not divine at all. It is the dead silence after worship and before thought begins again. God is there for sure, the unimaginable, dead silent God. The God which does nothing until a thought emerges. But can that thought be trusted? Love maybe. Kill?

Communities are never silent. They share all things human. The loves, tragedies, daily business, success, failures and all else which make up families. Churches are not silent, nor are mosques or any place of worship. And yet silence is the touchstone of divinity, of purity and of grace. To achieve the virtue of silence is to achieve reverence. Monks and hermits are well known for doing it. Outwardly anyway. In mind, who knows? God might be the next meal, the next wash, the next donation, the footy. But if the mind is truly blank, as through meditation, then the silence of the mind is with the silence of God.

MacCulloch’s book is interesting but confusing by virtue of its scholarly name dropping. So many Christian tribes! It should have been as thick as his History of Christianity. Dissent is a vein in the book which runs through to the end. From the Gnostics through to the Oxford Movement. Thus throughout Christian history there has been very little absence of noise. God be praised, and dissent be squashed. The Quakers have been deadly in their questioning of the literal Bible. Good noise some would say. The Church has been deadly silent on child sexual abuse. Bad silence many would say.

To whom do these Christian sayings apply? “Even fools are thought wise if they keep silent, and discerning if they hold their tongues. And, O that you would be completely silent, and that it would become your wisdom!” The Church on its abuses? The one who meditates on his or her surrounds, minds ablank, and afterwards refreshed to re-enter life with nothing to say? They apply to both of course. But the outcomes are as opposite as good and evil.

And so Christianity and more widely organized religion is full of noise. One is wise when silent. Perhaps the time has come for ‘foolish noise’ to cease for awhile so that God silence might have its turn. The Church could examine itself. And should other institutions. The faithful might rethink their idea of God. Shut their minds off God for awhile. Go naked but be clothed in any spirituality. The Church and other religious institutions probably will never shed their noisy clothes. And ragged they will look in the eyes of those who no longer trust them.


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