Monday, March 21, 2016

Review of "Silence: A User's Guide" by Louis Weil

Anglican Theological Review pp. 215-216, Vol. 98, No. 1, Winter 2016

Silence: A User’s Guide. Volume I: Process. By Maggie Ross. Eugene, Ore.: Cascade Books, 2014. xiii + 233 pp. [NB Published in the UK by Darton,Longman, Todd]

Rowan Williams’s foreword to this book refers to it as “the work of one of the most independent and ruthlessly realistic religious writers of our time.” Williams writes of “the current vocabulary of contemplative practice which can lure us into thinking that we are undertaking a set of tactics that will deliver commodities called spiritual experience” (p. ix). This book confronts much of what we have come to think of as Christian spirituality.

Regrettably, in recent years I have noted that even in theological bookstores the texts on spirituality generally embody an approach to spirituality which is rather like tending a hot-house plant, and of little value in shaping an authentic Christian spirituality grounded in the Incarnation. Maggie Ross’s new book is a radical response to such self-obsessed nonsense.

The sheer scope of Ross’s work gives the reviewer a challenging task: to adequately explore its riches would require another book. I must be content to point to its extraordinary significance. The book’s chapters range widely over the fundamental dimensions of Christian faith and practice through an intense focus on the recovery of an authentic spirituality in the context of the disintegrating world in which we live. The destructive bypath into which the human race has moved is leading us to annihilation; as the author writes, “The human race is sleepwalking into extinction” (p. 9).

The abrasive character of this phrase characterizes much of what Maggie Ross places before her readers, but it is intentionally abrasive in order to awaken us to the destructive aspects which she documents as the shaping forces in our world. From that, she calls us to the transformative power of “deep silence” as the ground of an authentic spirituality.

It is important to note that this is the first volume of what will be a two-volume work. The author writes: “To make this work affordable, we have split it into two volumes” (p. 8). But reader, beware! This one volume has more substance than most books twice its size, and its substance is profoundly challenging. I regret its lack of an index—at the very least an index of authors. It includes, however, a valuable bibliography, often of books that one does not generally find in publications on spirituality. The text develops around numerous and substantial quotations that contribute significantly to the development of the author’s purpose. At the heart of this complex book is the author’s central goal: “If we are to recover our balance—and our humanity—we need to unblock the flow of communication between the limited world of our self-consciousness that is linear, finite, two-dimensional, static, and dead, and our core silence—our deep mind—that is global, infinite, dynamic, and multi-dimensional” (pp. 13-14).

After a discussion in chapter 1 of how “deep silence” has been lost through developments in the church’s life, in the second chapter Ross [216] presents an analysis of what is, precisely, this “work of silence.” This is complemented later in the fourth chapter as the author speaks of the “two ways of knowing”: the linear way identified with the philosopher René Descartes, which she sees as having come to dominate Western society, and the way of knowing which is the work of “the deep mind.” Ross writes convincingly of the danger of overwhelming reliance upon only the Cartesian way of knowing. “The work of silence restores free exchange and mutual interdependence between the two ways of knowing, between the self-conscious mind and the deep mind” (p. 101). Silence offers access to the non-linear, deep mind and is thus a corrective to the “one-eyed view” that Ross believes “has a distorted theology, religion, and so-called spirituality, and worst of all, has given us the meaningless and voyeuristic word, mysticism” (p. 104).

The third chapter—“Language about Silence”—merits particular attention. It could well be published as a separate document on the vocabulary of spirituality. It offers a corrective to what Ross demonstrates as a consistently misleading use of terms in writings about the spiritual life. This chapter looks “at some of the words in circulation that are currently used and misused to discuss the texts frequently cited in the contemporary fashion for the study of so-called spirituality, for in the light of the two-ways-of-knowing model, these words take on very different nuances” (p. 67).

The final three chapters discuss how Western culture, and specifically Western Christianity, came to be trapped in the linear mind. These chapters round off the author’s challenging re-visioning of Christian spirituality, and lead readers to the threshold of her further exploration of the work of silence in the primary documents of the Christian tradition, which will be the content of the second volume.