Piercing the Silence

Every religion which does not confirm that God is hidden is not true. Blaise Pascal

One of the most fascinating and troubling verses in the Jewish scriptures is from the book of Proverbs:. “It is the glory of God to conceal a thing, and the glory of kings to search it out.” I, as many people of faith, often wonder why the divine is so unavailable, so frequently silent. I, as many people of faith, have often assumed that this silence is my fault—especially since various people in my life since my youth have claimed that God speaks to them on a regular basis. The divine, in my experience, has always been elusive, showing itself just often enough in oblique and enigmatic ways to verify that the quarry I am stalking actually does exist.

Deus Absconditus 2

But Proverbs 25:2 tells a different story. God likes to hide and conceal, so much so that those who claim to be in possession of the divine and all of its characteristics, personality traits, likes and dislikes, as well as possessing tools appropriate for distinguishing who is godly and who is not are probably in possession of something other than God. Something like a projection of themselves. The question is—why is God hiding? Why is God so often silent?

As I write this I am on a three day retreat at a tiny Benedictine abbey about an hour north of us in Massachusetts. When I agreed a few weeks ago to take on a challenging administrative position on campus in addition to my teaching and committee duties this coming semester, I decided to find a place to go on retreat for a few days before the semester begins. It’s been at least three years since I did anything like this. I should know better, because such retreats match both my natural inwardness and recent spiritual experiences very well.

Part of my planning for a silent retreat usually includes a couple of days of careful thought about which books I should bring with me. This time, thanks to a snowstorm the day before leaving and hours of shoveling the morning of the day I was to head out, no such planning took place. I just grabbed three or four books as I quickly threw stuff in my book bag, including a couple of books by Barbara Brown Taylor, books that happened to be the first ones my eyes landed on when glancing quickly at the bookshelves in our library room.

One of these books is When God is Silent. I know I’ve read it before, because there are some passages marked with my cryptic book-marking hieroglyphics, but as I started to read it, I found that I remembered virtually none of it. I usually hate it when that happens, but as I read the book cover to cover from late Friday night into the wee hours of Saturday morning, I was glad that it was striking me as brand new. Each page seemed to have something written directly for me with clear applications to where I find myself professionally and personally, as well as relevance to the increasingly unsettling and disturbing contemporary landscape we all find ourselves grappling with.

Our world is so full of words that they have come close to losing their significance. I contribute to this onslaught of verbiage with at least three thousand words per week on this blog, hoping that maybe a handful of people might find something interesting or thought provoking in what I write. But most of us are suffering from a severe case of word overload. For those who profess the Christian faith, this is a problem. Barbara Brown Taylor observes that Christianity is “an overly talkative religion,” not surprising, perhaps, since one of the favored descriptions of God in flesh is “The Word.” We say and sing words in worship, while we listen to more of them read from the lectern, preached from the pulpit, and recited from the altar. Words, words, and more words.

When God is Silent is a series of lectures on preaching that Taylor delivered to an audience including seminarians, clergy, professors, and lay people at Yale Divinity School, persons with a shared concern for how to proclaim the gospel to a world already overfilled with words. One of Taylor’s most important suggestions for such persons is that they should lean into the divine silence that is found throughout scripture.

We find in the Jewish scriptures, for instance, that God’s preferred way of communicating with the children of Israel was to do it directly, but people found the living God too intimidating and frightening to be in the same space with. They insisted that Moses find out what God wanted of them, put it into a form they could handle, and act as the middle man between them and the divine. The result was the law, and God, for the most part, stopped talking.

As Taylor notes, through words remain our preferred method of domesticating the divine.

Many people pray for an encounter with the living God. Those whose prayers are answered rarely ask for the same thing twice. . . . We are not up to direct encounter with God. We want it but we don’t want it. Safe fire is our own invention.

Scripture tells us that our God is a “consuming fire.” We use words to turn God into something safe, manageable, and as unlike the real thing as a YouTube video of a burning fireplace is unlike what burns in a real fireplace.

The Jewish prophets often railed against those who claimed to follow God for precisely this reason. God has withdrawn and is silent for reasons that, although written over two centuries ago, have a remarkably contemporary relevance.

They have substituted liturgy for justice. They have fasted without offering their  untouched food to the hungry. . . . God is silent because they do not speak God’s language. But it took God’s silence to teach them that.

There is a reason why the Second Commandment is a prohibition against graven images and idolatry. Human beings are incurable idolaters, choosing to replace the real thing with something domesticated and manageable. God’s silence and elusiveness, Taylor says, is a deliberate response to our idolatrous tendencies.

Silence becomes God’s final defense against our idolatry . . . God deflects our attempts at control by withdrawing into silence, knowing that nothing gets to us like the failure of our speech. . . . Only an idol always answers. The God who keeps silence, even when God’s own flesh and blood is begging for a word, is the God beyond anyone’s control.

For a person of faith in pain or in need, the silence of God becomes personal. At a workshop, an ordained minister seeking guidance once told Barbara Brown Taylor that “all I want is to hear God call me by name. I would give anything just to hear God say my name.” The very Son of God longed for the same thing in his darkest pain, and received . . . silence.

In Gethsemane, Jesus asked for bread and got a stone. Finally, in the most profound silence of his life, he died, believing himself forsaken by God. . . . In the silence surrounding his death, Jesus became the best possible companion for those whose prayers are not answered, who would give anything just to hear God call them by name. Him too.

And yet we know that from this mysterious silence, a silence rooted in love, transformation and salvation emerge.

Sometimes the best thing to do is to stop talking. The deepest truths are often those that cannot be said. We will always seek to capture the mysterious and ineffable in words, and in so doing will effectively remove the mystery. Taylor concludes that

The divine silence is not a vacuum to be filled but a mystery to be entered into, unarmed with words and undistracted by noise . . . Our job is not to pierce that mystery with language but to reverence it.

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