Monday, March 29, 2010

Jesus in the Balance: Interpretation in the Twenty-First Century IV


What is "the work of silence?" By this phrase I mean the process of arriving at interior stillness at the deepest level of our core silence, especially receptivity to what transpires out of sight of the observing I/eye (self-consciousness). This process is not only an important tool for interpretation of and discernment in ancient practices and spiritual texts, it is also an important interpretative tool for making them alive for congregations in the 21st century. In the brief sketch that follows, I will use the work of silence as a way of understanding Philippians 2:5-11. I also will suggest that its process generates the ethics associated with Jesus, and that it is possibly the most objective tool of discernment for doctrinal, liturgical and political sifting. My use of the term "mind" in this discussion includes the heart, even though the work of the mind may appear to be foremost, because the mind is where articulation and self-consciousness reside.

Coincidentally, the simple process I am referring to has increasing validation in contemporary scientific work on the brain. While this validation is interesting, in some ways it lags far behind ancient and medieval understanding. The news, for example, that paradox governs insight is no news at all for the ancient and medieval worlds. [11]

To reflect on one's own mind does not require education: as Jean Gerson (1363-1429) remarked, "Even women and idiots can reach the highest levels of contemplation." [12] Humans have long understood that while self-consciousness—the awareness that we are aware, the observing I/eye—seems to distinguish us as humans from animals, [13] its elision opens us to the divine. To realize our full humanity, we must put on divinity.[14] To realize our divinity, we must put on the "mind of Christ" (the work of silence). To put on the mind of Christ means a kenotic relinquishing all of the contents of our self-consciousness—experience, perspective, interpretation, emotion, imaginative stereotypes and projections—into silence so that we may be sprung from the trap of our own circular thinking. This breakout is salvation, for everything that we call "law" arises from the insecurity underlying the world of illusion we create with our self-consciousness, driven by its fear of death. (Heb. 2:15)

Imitation opposes the mind of Christ. To imitate is to pursue a life based on imaginative stereotypes and projections, which are easily formed and insinuated by a controlling hierarchy. Imitation, however piously and devoutly meant, becomes a kind of religious performance art, progressively reductive with the passage of time. Imitation breeds dependence on arbiters of stereotype and fear of consequence if one does not measure up. By contrast, putting on the mind of Christ results in an inviolable vulnerability, a healthy autonomy and an unshakeable integrity.

The work of silence has been endlessly and beautifully elaborated but its elements can be simply stated. The process takes us beyond the level of everyday noise and self-consciousness through various stages until we engage a deep silence where self-consciousness is not operative. This suspension of self-consciousness happens many times every day in the normal course of things but unless an unusual amount of time passes unawares the absent "I" goes unremarked. There is also a suspension of self-consciousness that occurs during meditation. But both of these examples are ephemeral. With repeated practice and a focused intentionality, the part of our brain not actively in use can rest in and help us live from the well-spring of silence.

In our core silence the distortions of self-consciousness are not operative. It is here that the content of our lives is transfigured—in both the literary and religious sense—and given back to us a new creation. In this core silence we meet God: incarnation, transfiguration and resurrection are conflated. Repeated practice effects metanoia, gives us an ethics by which to live, and, for Christians, casts a very different light on what we commonly think of as doctrine. In Julian of Norwich's terms, perseverance in the work of silence enables us to "seek into the beholding" seamlessly and continuously as we go about our daily round, our self-conscious mind informed by and continually referring to the silence, from which our living truth unfolds.


[11] Jonah Lehrer, "The Eureka Hunt," The New Yorker, July 28, 2008, 40-45
[12] Georges Duby and Philippe Braunstein, “The Emergence of the Individual” in A History of Private Life, vol. II, Revelations of the Medieval World, ed. Georges Duby, trans. Arthur Goldhammer (Cambridge, Mass. and London: Belknap Press, 1988), 619. Of course the Latin can also mean "unlettered" but I have translated according to the more common attitude toward women.
[13] An assumption that today is radically called into question as numerous animals and birds have shown themselves to be self-aware.
[14] For a very different approach with a similar conclusion, see, for example, Gerd Theissen, The Historical Jesus: A Comprehensive Guide (London: SCM, 1998) 561.

Monday, March 22, 2010

Jesus in the Balance: Interpretation in the Twenty-First Century III

Luther's crisis is provoked in part by the mental feedback loops that take over when the language of faith no longer refers to the silence from which it arises and to which it returns. His realization that "the righteousness of God was not 'active'—that by which God condemns—but 'passive'—that by which he finds us acceptable by making us righteous" points toward the silence tradition, as Rowan Williams suggests. [7]

But he is perhaps too damaged by what he suffered early on, too hemmed about by institutional concerns, and too badly in need of a means of discernment to be able to break away from the language wars and a need for a confession of faith. The word "faith" is key to his theology, but it in the end it seems to require framework, sympathetic to, but falling short of the open-ended intransitive verb of the Gospel of John. [8]

Although, in the West, the silence tradition vanishes from mainline institutional practice and interpretation in most denominations, it is kept a live by a dwindling number of advocates: dissidents (e.g., Quakers, Shakers), humanists, metaphysical poets, and, in the twentieth century, by figures such as Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Simone Weil. Weil seems particularly difficult for modern scholars to appreciate, unfamiliar as they are with the silence tradition, kenotic theology and the exaggerated metaphor often used to express them. In fact, lacking the most basic knowledge of these traditions, modern interpretations of ancient and medieval writings, of scripture, liturgy and doctrine are often fatally short-circuited.

The disappearance of the word "behold" from modern bible translations is symptomatic. The word is beautifully amplified by Julian of Norwich. [9] Behold is a theological word signifying more than union, an exchange of being between God and the human person. "Behold, a virgin shall conceive." It is in the beholding that Mary conceives; the rest of the sentence is for those who do not behold. [10]

[7] Williams, 147ff.
[8] This insight derived from a lecture by Judith Lieu given in the Oxford University Classics department in the autumn of 2006.
[9] This text cannot be translated. The best version is edited by Marion Glasscoe, Julian of Norwich: A Revelation of Love (Exeter: University of Exeter, 1993). To read this text is no more difficult—and uses the same skills—as reading cell phone text messages.
[10] Vincent Gillespie and Maggie Ross, "The Apophatic Image: The Poetics of Effacement in Julian of Norwich" in The Medieval Mystical Tradition in England V, ed. Marion Glasscoe (Cambridge: D.S. Brewer, 1992) 53-77.

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Invitation to a Silent Great Three Days Retreat at Bishop's Ranch April 1 to 4

You are invited to a Great Three Days retreat at Bishop's Ranch in the heart of the Sonoma wine country, a short drive north of San Francisco, just inland from the Pacific Ocean. Budbreak began this week, the slow-motion explosion of the vineyards, which for months have looked utterly dead, into new life.

We too will follow this trajectory in our mostly silent retreat, with attentive liturgy, two talks by Maggie Ross and bible study with Maggie and Chaplain Pat Moore. There will also be time for private conversations. There are miles of trails to walk, abundant wildlife, and spectacular views to contemplate from the patio by the Refectory, the Adirondack chairs by the chapel, and many more locations.

For further information or phone Shannon at 707-433-2440.

Monday, March 15, 2010

Jesus in the Balance: Interpretation in the Twenty-First Century II

For the first millennium of their history, western Christian institutions blew hot and cold both on the tradition of silence and the guardians of that tradition; for the kenotic work of silence is inherently subversive to hierarchies and claims. When Christianity became a tool of the state, many followers of the silence tradition fled to the desert. Imperial Christianity could not ignore them. It coped in part by spinning the desert fathers and mothers as white martyrs. The silence tradition continued to be preserved in the West by way of monasticism, while in the East, writers such as Isaac of Nineveh (7th c.) combined beauty of prose with an almost clinical description of its processes.

The eleventh century saw a dramatic and fatal shift away from the silence tradition toward imitation. Gregory VII's reforms sought to centralize Christianity in Rome and to extend the political power of the papacy. The renewed conflict is symbolized by the ironic coincidence of the dates 1084-1085, which mark the foundation of the Carthusians and the translation of Aristotle, respectively.

Over the next three centuries, tensions rose to the breaking point between a political camp that used words as weapons under the guise of dialectic and sought to freeze doctrine into formulas, and a "spiritual" camp that insisted that familiarity with the silence from which words spring and to which they refer must not be lost, that dialectic is to be used in service of silence. Aquinas and Bonaventure mark the end of scholastic theology that sought a balance between silence and speech. [5]

The efflorescence of contemplatives at the end of the thirteenth- and throughout the fourteenth centuries was in part a protest against institutional pursuit of analysis and definitions, and increasingly narrow interpretations in service of the institution's power. The hierarchy became threatened by any speech about silence that did not fit accepted formulas; the Inquisition appeared in 1233.

Marguerite Porete was burned at the stake in 1310 because she refused to conform her accurate psychological description of the work of silence to pious cliché. She refused to defend herself—how could someone who has never done the work of silence possibly know what she is talking about?—and in silence went to the flames.

At the beginning of the fifteenth century there is more irony: the author of the luminous, fecund, and arguably the greatest theological text to come out of the Middle Ages, Julian of Norwich, may still have been alive while the Council of Constance (1414-1418), was condemning the church to sterility.

The last great exponent of silence within the institution is Nicholas of Cusa (1401-1464) . It took only one generation—between Cusa's death in 1464 and Luther's birth in 1483—for silence finally to disappear from the institutional interpretive repertoire. It is significant that it is during this generation that Thomas à Kempis writes his Imitation of Christ, which abandons the primary Christian goal of union with God for ". . . an appeal made for a practical asceticism in the hope of a more submissive alignment of the initiate's own will with that of the Creator." [6] The destructive ramifications of this silencing of silence affect our lives to this day. Silence has become alien, even something to be feared.

[5] Chartres cathedral is an architectural example of this balance. See the excellent discussion in Philip Ball's Universe of Stone (New York: Harper, 2008).
[6] E.E.S. Lotz Secret Rooms: Private Spaces for Private Prayer in Late Medieval Burgundy and the Netherlands unpublished Oxford DPhil thesis 2005, p. 117. Lotz points out that at this time, even Carthusians were abandoning the goal of pure prayer, succumbing to devotional sentimentality, which is exactly what Carthusian life supposedly seeks to discourage, p. 201.

Monday, March 08, 2010

Jesus in the Balance: Interpretation in the Twenty-First Century

[This article was first published in the Spring 2009 issue of Word and World.]

Luther's real location is among the literate 'primitivist' Catholic reformers of the day, those who wished to see a wholesale cleansing of the Church and its schools which would restore to theology its proper character as a discipline of interpretation, engaging with Scripture and the early Fathers, not simply of analysis, the organization of conceptual structures of late scholastic speculation.[1]

Cognitively, religions have always offered a comprehensive interpretation of the world: they assign human beings their place in the universe of things. Only with the loss of their competence to provide a world view in modern times did a tendency develop to understand religion as 'feeling' or as a call for 'decision'. . . .[2]

While failure of a religious world view is certainly a major turning point in the history of Christianity, there is arguably a more fundamental paradigm shift that takes place a century and a half earlier: the loss of an interpretive tool that I shall call the work of silence. Two of the most important consequences of this shift are loss of the discerning balance between silence and speech—one way of reading the kenotic hymn (Philippians 2:5-11); and a concomitant and perhaps fatal turning from "putting on the mind of Christ" to imitation. Words without silence lead to distortion and irrelevance within institutions, while spirituality that does not pass through the refiner's fire of word and liturgy can result in the often absurd sentimental pursuits of today's spiritual marketplace.

Crises in religion, however else they are viewed, ultimately seem to manifest the age-old conflict between silence and speech, between receptivity and tyranny, between kenosis and self-aggrandizement. This tension is not confined to Judaism or Christianity; it seems endemic to the way humans function. But it erupts with particular force in Jesus' ministry and escalates in the early days of the communities gathered in his name.


In Jesus the Jew, Geza Vermes has shown how deeply Jesus was rooted in the Jewish tradition of prophet and holy man.[3] Although silence is not a featured topic in Vermes' discussion, he repeatedly notes its importance in their lives, signaled especially by the Abba sayings, which were not exclusive to Jesus. Contemporary with Jesus is Philo, who explores the work of silence blending a Hellenistic perspective with his Semitic inheritance. But the mingling of Semitic and Hellenistic thought is not always so smooth. In the wake of Jesus, Semitic attitudes merge also with Persian, pagan, and other mythologies to produce sometimes bizarre cosmologies and world views.

As patrologists keep reminding us, there has never been any agreement about what Christianity is, what the death of Jesus means, or resurrection. From the beginning there is conflict between those wishing to accrue institutional power to themselves, and those gathering for mutual support and thanksgiving for the transfiguration that occurs in the kenotic process of silence through meeting the Word who is silence. In the second century, those advocating more interior interpretations of the Gospel were anathematized as heretics by institutionally minded bishops, who urged their followers instead toward imitation and martyrdom.[4]


[1] Rowan Williams, The Wound of Knowledge, London: Darton, Longman and Todd) 145.
[2] Gerd Theissen, A Theory of Primitive Christian Religion, trans. John Bowden (London: SCM, 1999) 7.
[3] Geza Vermes, Jesus the Jew (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1973).
[4] See, for example, Elaine Pagels and Karen L. King, Reading Judas: The Gospel of Judas and the Shaping of Christianity (New York: Viking, 2007). For a similar point of view coming from a completely different starting point, see See also Rita Nakashima Brock and Rebecca Ann Parker, Saving Paradise (Boston: Beacon, 2008).

Monday, March 01, 2010

More New and Contrite Words

The collects that follow are drafts and not final versions, and they are written for a specific group of people in a specific place, at a specific time of change and vision, so they may not appeal to everyone; but your comments are always welcome. With thanks to Dr Mark Williams for his contributions to St David and George Herbert. [NB blogger won't let me print half line poetry (St David) so the breaks are indicated by m-dashes.]


Lord Jesus Christ, we remember today your martyr Polycarp, who, like you, was condemned to death for by a lynch mob. Help us to follow his example of steadfastness in refusing to bow to idols, and to oppose injustice in every circumstance; for your love's sake. Amen.


God of hiddenness, you chose Matthias to be numbered among the Twelve. Grant us the grace of humble service, with a gaze so fixed on you that our left hand knows not what our hand has done. We ask this through Jesus Christ, our Lord. Amen.

George Herbert

[Canticle for Morning Prayer is his poem "Prayer is the Church's Banquet"]

Teach us, our God and King, as you taught George Herbert, that when our hearts cry out to you, it is your voice crying in us. Visit us with the fire of your love that we may perceive the world as an altar fragrant with the incense of your humility; and bring us to your table where your Son, Jesus Christ, waits always upon us. Amen

David of Wales

Lord of Peace, your servant David walked the edge of the world, conscious of its dangers and deceits. May we, like him turn from possessions and preferment to the humble service of your life-giving Word. Grant us thirst for the water of life and hunger for the bread of angels; salt us with the sting and savor of eternal truth, and bring us to the courts of joy, for your Love's sake. Amen.

A Canticle for St David of Wales

[read horizontally]

Wild was the storm — the day of his birth,
Narrow the strait — a perilous place
the wrack of the world — and the song of the sea.
Simplicity his coracle, — his rudder, humility;
wings of angels — fanned his sails.

"Small acts" — he said
"swing the compass — towards peace."
His purified heart — now sings forever;
eternity's haven — his radiant home.

St Chad

Help us, O God, to receive the wisdom of St Chad, who recognized that the struggle for power is never worth the price of one's soul; through your Son, Jesus Christ, who emptied himself that we might live. Amen.

John and Charles Wesley

Lord of warmth and light, you inspired John and Charles Wesley to set hearts on fire and to sing your praise; so kindle the flame of your large love on the altar of our small hearts, that we may know only you in all we think or speak or do, and so run our course with joy; for your Name's sake. Amen.