Monday, April 12, 2010

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


This wellspring becomes the source of all we do, affecting any part of our life or mind we desire to commit to it. We can intend that any part of our mind that is not actively in use should rest there; we can learn to listen with the active part of our mind for what arises from it to inform our speech and actions. Growth into God is never a matter of either/or: we need a balance of words and silence, so that our words are logophatic, that is, that they arise from and are refined by the energy of engagement in the deepest silence where the truth of the self unfolds. [21]

The work of silence exposes the danger of words, of doctrines and dogmas written in stone. It generates a kenotic ethics, a self-emptying in our relationships that create a welcoming, safe and neutral, non-manipulative non-judgmental space where the self-outpouring truth of the other may be free to emerge and engage ours. A community is only as healthy as the solitudes that make it up, and those solitudes are healthy only insofar as they do the work of silence. Any "ministry" (a word that should be eliminated from our vocabularies along with "formation" and, above all "spiritual director") that does not have its source in the work of silence is dysfunctional, patronizing and exploitive.

All of the usual vices—pride, anger, avarice, greed, narcissism, condemnation, scorn, must be let go if we are to enter silence. It is not that we do not have opinions, but rather that silence teaches us how inadequate and provisional our interpretation of others, of life situations, is and always will be. [22]

Far from trying to wrench our wills this way and that, or forcing our selves to believe seven impossible things before breakfast, we come to the work of silence leaving behind all of our ordinary religious baggage and language. Only in this way can we begin to understand where religious language comes from, how provisional it is, and how essential is its continual reference to silence.


The work of silence is an effective tool of interpretation for Old and New Testaments, for religious writing, for discerning appropriate liturgy. For example, the story of Adam, Eve and the snake can be interpreted as a story of distraction. [23] Before the first conversation with the snake, their beholding is seamless. After it, they are completely disoriented. Everything that follows in the story is an account of their hallucination, just as our ordinary waking lives are more or less hallucinatory. Their new preoccupation with language and self means that what was once familiar, qualities of life they had taken for granted, are now strange, alien and painful. Their fear of God walking in the Garden, the angel with the flaming sword, the curses—these are images that grow in minds that are clutching at straws, even if those straws are terrifying. Poor old practical God never stops loving them but heaves a great sigh and makes them some clothes.

In a tragic sense we are luckier than Adam and Eve because we have got used to our ongoing hallucination and disorientation even though there is something in the back of our minds that beckons us to find our way home to the silence of the heart we share with God. It is far easier for us to remain in the prison of our projections and distorted interpretations, with all their devastating consequences, than to do the work of silence, which would enable us to have a life with God that is even better than the primordial one. We have the choice to remain in the heedless prison of our ongoing hallucination, which is acted out in the very real suffering of the material world, or to do the kenotic work of silence, which halts our heedlessness and reconnects us.

Through the transfiguring love we encounter in this silence, we are once more related to God by a restored innocence more profound than Adam and Eve's, for we have chosen and worked for it—the paradoxical work of letting go. As we become rooted in silence, the hallucination starts to fade, we forget about our selves, and we begin to engage the creation with something greater than original reverence. Jesus, the second Adam, is our model in this; we might think of him as the Undistracted, for his gaze never leaves the face of God. Even as he grows and matures, he is the paradigm and parable of silence. [24]

Jesus is the charismatic teacher who wishes his disciples to share in his messianic mission to manifest the kingdom of God—which is within us. [25] By his life and death he shows us the way to the en-Christing the kenotic hymn describes. Christ is a process, and since the work of silence is common to all human beings no matter how they may express it, we can understand in this way why a saying such as "Christ is the only way" might be appropriate even in a multi-cultural world.

The work of silence is also a tool of discernment. Liturgy, for example, should point us always beyond itself: however simple or splendid, the rule of thumb every true sacred sign effaces itself should be brought to bear. [26] Religion is not about the glorification of an institution, or those in its hierarchy.

I have referred to Rowan Williams several times in this article, not only because of his scholarship, but also because he shows how leadership can be kenotic. The sad fact is that the work of silence and the theology of kenosis have become so marginalized that most people fail to recognize such leadership for what it is. [27]

But if institutional Christianity is to survive it must return to kenotic theology and its work of silence. This ancient foundational process gives us twenty-first century tools to revivify our language, sift our doctrines, and enable us, however modestly, to become the bearers of the kingdom into which we are baptized.



[21] Martin Laird, Gregory of Nyssa and the Grasp of Faith (Oxford: OUP, 2004). Notions of "true self" and "false self" are highly destructive. The spiritual life is not a procrustean bed. All is grist for the mill of silence; nothing is wasted.
[22] See posts on "Ethics Issuing from Silence," at, August 11,17,25, and September 8, 2008.
[23] Irenaeus (c. 130-200) understands "the Fall" (a non-scriptural term) as distraction.
[24] Using the work of silence as a tool of interpretation also casts new light on familiar and sometimes puzzling texts, such as the beatitudes and the parables.
[25] See, for example, Gerd Theissen and Annette Mertz, The Historical Jesus, trans. John Bowden (London: SCM, 1998).
[26] See my "Liturgy in Truth" Weavings, vol. 21 #3, May/June, 2006, 31-40.
[27] His position is alluded to by Sally Vickers' review (in the September 19, 2008 Times) of his new book on Dostoevski. "There are no “right” beliefs or ideologies: there is always another way of looking or being. The only right is the exercise of freedom, freedom from the use of violence to control others or suppress their other ways."


OpenID cloakedmonk said...

I am an MDIV student and stumbled across your article "Jesus in the Balance" when researching Phil. 2:5-11.

What would you say about the comparison of silence to the Buddhist idea of non attachment?


2:39 am, June 03, 2010  
Blogger Maggie Ross said...

Do you mean the doctrine of non-attachment or the practice of non-attachment? Certainly there are convergences, but I'm not enough of a Buddhist scholar to be able to undertake an in-depth analysis. Sorry! What do YOU think?

4:03 am, June 03, 2010  
Blogger Maggie Ross said...

PS to Cloaked Monk: if you want to correspond privately send me your email and I promise not to post it—I moderate all comments.

4:07 am, June 03, 2010  

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