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.


Anonymous dFish said...

I read imitation. Brings me back to the struggle i had last Palm Sunday in church. The church was crowded up to the yard, palm fronds all over the place. But i struggled with meaning - it seems devoid of meaning to me, a sort of empty performance of a religious past, very perfunctory. I didn't even have a frond after i left my house key and purse inside the house on the way to church. God - forgive me...

2:13 am, March 30, 2010  

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