Silence is not just the absence of sound. It can be a posture of stillness, a place of restraint, even a preciousness of attitude—a quietness that should mark the Christian life, which obviously includes public discourse.
In today’s politically charged public square Christians should reconsider the cultural norms, which encourage brash discourse and vitriolic rhetoric, and take up the mantle of uncommon silence.
We, The Great Barking Monologuers
This week New York Times columnist David Brooks encouraged readers to read Martin Buber instead of reading the polls. Buber is famous for his take on the I-Thou relationship, which is direct, personal, dialogical.
“A Thou relationship exists when two or more people are totally immersed in their situation, when deep calls to deep, when they are offering up themselves and embracing the other in some total, unselfconscious way, when they are involved in “mutual animated describing.”
Think about life as if it were one giant conversation. Conversation is a dialogue between two or more people, which makes those we live with and among part of the dialogue. There is give and take, reciprocity, and confrontation. We serve the conversation when we listen, considering the other person’s needs more important than our own–self-abandonment. It can be a beautiful dance.
But when we live in a way that serves our own ambitions and desires—placing them above the needs and considerations of others–the dialogue breaks down. It becomes one-sided, a monologue.
In a monologue, only one person speaks, only one person matters. A monologuer does not stand in a position of true relationship. He stands alone, barking lines to everyone.
The monologuer does not need interaction, because he just wants to control people and events. To the monologuer, people exist as a means to a selfish end. She does not understand others, nor is she understood. She speaks, and lives, to hear her own voice.
Do We Relate To God This Way Too?
When our public discourse sounds more like a monologue, and less like true conversation seasoned with the preciousness of a quiet spirit, then perhaps we should stop and weigh our motives. The monologuer, in his line-barking, sees the world as his audience, the stage meant only for him. He speaks from a position “of his own,” as Oswald Chambers puts it.
Is this the position from which we speak to God as well?
The stiff and rigid, brash and bold monologuer loses out on the expected beauty and romance of dialogue with God if, indeed, this is the their spiritual stance as well. For there must be tender compliance as we speak to and with God. As the Teacher reminds us in Ecclesiastes, we must come first to listen, keeping our words few and our hearts open, ready for the radiance of the Father.
In his book Prayer, Richard Foster talks about how approaching God while “completely abandoned to the hands of God” can deepen us. Here, we run into the idea of self-abandonment. Our greatest act toward God is a life offering, one ready for his will alone.
To Foster, prayer—dialogue with God—sweetens our relationship with God and sets our course in life toward the consummation of that relationship. But as well-seasoned monologuers, we must drop the act and everything that goes with it. We must allow ourselves to be stripped down so we are unencumbered by our barking lines.
An Extraordinary Way
As Christians, we are to seek the good of others above our own–self-abandonment. In The Cost of Discipleship Dietrich Bonhoeffer presents the question, “How then do the disciples differ from the world? What does it really mean to be a Christian?”
He answers this with the word perissos, or “extraordinary.”
But his use of the word extraordinary is not how we normally define it. Bonhoeffer uses it as a term for uncommon living. Christians are called to go beyond what is expected in society.
For example, if the world expects that we promote ourselves in order to achieve fame, then to be extraordinary, according to Bonhoeffer, is to seek that which is uncommon. Instead of elevating ourselves, we elevate others in their endeavors; we serve them.
Being extraordinary in our faith is being the light that shines before the world.
Bonhoeffer reminds us that it’s not that we have light; it’s that we are the light. We are, therefore, visible to the world, loving our neighbor, caring for the widow and the orphan, forsaking all to know him. These and other actions should make us visible. They are selfless actions, actions that tell the world our care is not about our own monologues, our own selves; it is about the extraordinary way of Christ. All else is advertising.
Bonhoeffer continues, “The better righteousness [that which is extraordinary] of the disciples must have a motive which lies beyond self. Of course it has to be visible, but they must take care that it does not become visible simply for the sake of becoming visible.”
So it comes to motive.
The Christian motive should compel us to be hidden—in Christ. When we attempt to communicate like the world, barking our lines to the world, airing our opinions at the expense of others, are we being extraordinary?
Or are we merely rising to the world’s standard, which goes no further than self-glorification?
In today’s monologue-centric public square, on the web, and in our personal conversations, may we seek discourse that honors, discourse that is fair, discourse that is genuine, discourse that exposes our hearts as truly submitted to God. And may we live the extraordinary, self-abandoned life of one following hard after Christ.
I discuss this topic more in-depth in my book Veneer: Living Deeply in a Surface Society