At the Beginning: An Introduction to Speaking Silence

Officially I'm James E. Faulconer. That's almost how my name looks on my church record, where my middle name is spelled out. It's how I sign the things I write for publication and what I put on my business cards. But to most people I'm just "Jim." When I was young I was "Jimmy," but by the time I was about ten or eleven I'd decided that "Jimmy" was far too juvenile for me. I wanted a more grown up name. The choices were "Jim" and "James" -- my middle name, Ernest, was impossible, both because it was already my father's name and because it was unfashionable. "James" seemed too formal, so I stuck with "Jim," though I've often wondered if I shouldn't have gone with "James." Too late now.

Choosing a name for this column has involved similar difficulties. What should I go for? Witty? A witty title would lead readers to expect something quite different than I'm likely to provide. Casual, perhaps? I'm a causal person, so that seemed right. But I couldn't think of a casual title that didn't sound flippant or inappropriately irreverent. Serious seemed the only category left, but seriousness runs the risk of pretentiousness. I decided to run the risk, and readers will have to judge whether I avoid it.

Patheos is a site where people are invited "to engage in the global dialogue about religion and spirituality." It "is designed to serve as a resource for those looking to learn more about different belief systems." So perhaps my title should say something about how I think about dialogue and difference. Part of my current job is to engage people in discussions across the gaps between our faiths, and sometimes across the gaps within my own faith tradition. Some of the most fruitful discussions require that difference. Without it, there's nothing really to be learned. Of course learning isn't everything. Worship is many things, but it is not usually learning, for worship requires that, at least at the experiential level, we already know. But dialogue about religion and spirituality is necessarily learning. It presumes a gap.

Sometimes the gap is symmetrical: I see from my side the same difference that the other person sees from hers. Sometimes it's asymmetrical. I know that asymmetry between myself and younger colleagues. They see and hear someone quite different than themselves. Yet I see them and see someone I used to be. Though a gap remains, at least initially I understand them better than they understand me.

The distance between those on the inside and those on the outside can be either symmetrical or asymmetrical. For life-long Mormons relating to non-Mormons, it is usually symmetrical. For those who are non-Christians or simply nonbelievers, the space is often symmetrical and sometimes very wide, a chasm. Each of us is ignorant of the other, though the Pew U.S. Religious Knowledge Survey suggests that nonbelievers are more likely to know us than we are to know them. For converts to Mormonism like me, the gap between ourselves and other Christians is usually asymmetrical: non-Mormon Christians tend to see a larger difference than Mormon converts do. Sometimes the gap is between those on the inside, and it can be either symmetrical or asymmetrical. Other Mormons may read what I write and wonder how that represents Mormonism. It doesn't describe their religious life. And, of course, that wonder can go both ways.

In each case, the question is how to speak across the gap between persons of good will, how to say what I feel and see on my side in a way that will be heard on the other. I'm not sure I can do it well. Perhaps I can't do it at all.

The problem is compounded infinitely in the case of religion, for there is another gap, prior to the one between us, that is at least as difficult to cross: the gulf between my encounter with the divine in prayer, worship, and service and my expression of that encounter in speaking or writing (or even thinking it to myself). I'm no prophet, but I share the Book of Mormon prophets' concern for their "weakness in writing" (Ether 12:40). Writing about God and the way that he touches my life is similar to writing about other events and persons, but there are also huge differences.

The more I think about the problem, the more complicated it becomes. What do I say and how do I say it, and what title will reflect that attempt? Silence is one way to respond to the problem of the gap. But silence could be only disguised hatred of others, a refusal of their legitimate demand for explanation. Yet silence is also often what life requires. I do not speak of things that are most dear to me, things intimate, things holy, because speaking of them publicly cheapens them. Or I remain silent about an experience so saturated with meaning that either I cannot yet speak or I don't know what to say. Silence is sometimes appropriate or unavoidable, but sometimes it is merely misanthropic. Garrulousness is the opposing twin of silence, with fewer redeeming features. Often it too is disguised hatred of others because it refuses to take the others' demand seriously, pretending friendship and even love, but merely filling the space between us with empty sound. Speech and writing are required if we are to "live together in love" as commanded (Doctrine and Covenants 42:45), but speech and writing must cross the gap meaningfully rather than fill it with more of the same old thing.

Timorously, in the tension between the demand for speech and the competing demand for silence, I hope to find a middle way, a way that crosses the several gaps -- between my experience and my writing, between those of other faiths and me, between me and those who share my faith but understand it differently than I do. I hope to speak the silence that marks these gaps between us and between us and God, and I hope to speak it in a way that reverences the necessity of silence as well as the necessity of speech. So my title: "Speaking Silence."

12/2/2010 5:00:00 AM
  • Mormon
  • Speaking Silence
  • Interfaith Dialogue
  • Mormonism
  • James Faulconer
    About James Faulconer
    James Faulconer is a Richard L. Evans Professor of Religious Understanding at Brigham Young University, where he has taught philosophy since 1975.