What noisy Christianity needs is a conspiracy of silence

Diarmaid MacCulloch, professor of the history of the church at Oxford University, says that noisy Christianity has long resisted silence.

Mark Verson writes in the Guardian:

The legacy of this tradition is that, today, if you go to a mass or morning worship, there will be barely a moment's silence. Quakers aside, it is as if there is a de facto ban on silence in public worship. When people gather together, they should rehearse approved truths. The inner life, left alone, foments heresy and subversion.

Related is the widespread assumption that to be a Christian is to give your assent to truth statements: you go to church not because you are searching but because you believe.

The legacy seems to have shaped powerful secular traditions too, such as empiricism or behaviourism. They work on the principle that if manifest evidence cannot be produced in support of human experience, the experience is either extraneous or deluded.

The loss of silence is becoming what might be called a mission issue. Take the growing popularity of western Buddhism. It is, I suspect, partly a reaction. Buddhism encourages the individual to train in silent practices that take the inner life seriously. This appeals to contemporary individualism and, further, such Buddhism naturally adopts the insights of psychology and so befriends modern science, unlike Christianity that appears to be locked in fights over publicly agreed truths.

MacCulloch highlights the fate of Evagrius Ponticus. (Who? you might ask. Quite.) The fourth century monk was one of the first Christians systematically to chart the inner life, describing the difficult thoughts that the individual would face as they journeyed inwards – unruly passions including lust, anger, sloth and pride. The hope was that the individual might come to understand their feelings and so be freer of them.

If that sounds rather like mindfulness meditation, which eases the individual away from the snares of discursive thought and the depression and anxiety that can result, it is because the insight is essentially the same. The tragedy for the church is that Evagrius was branded a gnostic. His exploration of human inwardness was transformed into the seven deadly sins. Subtle inner guidance was brought under strict ecclesiastical control.

So, once again, MacCulloch's intervention is timely. Noisy Christianity is alive and kicking. For individuals who feel the allure of silence, it is off-putting and irrelevant. They might never know that there are profound, useful meditative traditions in Christianity too.

h/t Thinking Anglicans

Comments (1)

This piece and this subject need much more attention by the Church. I can't say I am surprised it hasn't drawn any comments so far, however. And now I suppose this piece has fallen so far down the list of stories it has little chance of being seen, let alone responded to.

"When people gather together, they should rehearse approved truths. The inner life, left alone, foments heresy and subversion.

"Related is the widespread assumption that to be a Christian is to give your assent to truth statements: you go to church not because you are searching but because you believe."

There are distinctions between religion and spiritual insight/exploration, and when the former only gives lip service to the latter, it becomes merely an institution for defining and reinforcing social identity and social control, and institution which may or may not use its influence to promote social justice.

Some Western Buddhists fail to take Buddhism seriously, discarding its deepest teachings to make it sound more appealing to the literal and secular minded. That is, the mystery and the deeper levels of new sight are traded for saying Buddhism is just about eliminating stress and studying the conventional Western notion of mind.

But because Buddhism in its various forms provides more flexibility for different approaches (devotional, contemplative, etc) without the emphasis on "us and them", the extreme bias towards the personification of the divine into a super-deity, and final judgements of other-worldly destinations after a single life-time, it can accommodate people of varying levels of spiritual insight and maturity who have philosophical and ethical problems with such teachings.

If you dig into Buddhism beyond what many in the West tend to emphasize, there is in fact a teaching that our individual parts (body, actions, thoughts) are not "us" and that this "self" is not eternal, yet there is a deeper, cosmic self which is unborn and therefore undying. It "remembers" our previous bodies, actions, and thoughts but it not bound by them. It may make some Western Buddhist uncomfortable because it sounds similar to some Abrahamic versions of the soul.

In other words, Buddhism at its heart has teachings which in some way resemble that of other sacred traditions, but because of how it is presented in the West and because of its mystery, it is an emotional blank slate compared to all of the baggage people are lugging around from Christianity.

Perhaps something that Christians, Buddhists, and others need to work on is emphasizing that all sacred stories, histories, and images are incomplete and biased attempts to reveal something more profound than language and discursive thought, i.e. left-brain consciousness, can capture or appreciate on its own. That the immediate emotional response to their literal interpretations, the intellectual "Aha!" of their symbolic interpretations, and the deeper insights which include both (a third level) and a realization that goes beyond all of these (another level) are all important and valid ways to seek.

This is something that those trained in the East in Buddhism, "Hinduism", etc still have as part of their living transmission from teachers to students. Maybe not all teachers, and certainly not all students, but it is still a real presence in those traditions. I hope that doesn't get lost in the ongoing transmission of Buddhism to the West, whose collective mindset seems so often to be hostile to such insight.

You can't just expect people to recite creeds and prayers and to read Biblical passages that are centuries or millenia removed by culture and history and expect people to be able to find their way through such levels of spiritual translation, penetration, and transformation on their own. And the theological and pastoral models that have long dominated Western religion are anathema to such instruction.

Thus, more and more people will look at the writings of the Old Testament and find the barbaric views of that age as nothing more than violent, emotionally stunted Bronze Age superstitions. The writings of the New Testament will suffer a similar fate. These texts and the other writings and institutional practices which have sprung up around them will seem more and more irrelevant ans archaic, except to those who are spiritually adept and to those who are satisfied with the limited perspective and practice that they have inherited (whether because it goes unexamined, or because that way of being Christian suits their desires).

To that end, Christians have a lot to learn and re-learn from the poets, from Desert Fathers and Mothers, and from the traditions of the East. But will there be a serious interest in doing so? Or will it just be more hand-wringing about trendy programs to get people in the door and assuming that if people just go to a congregation and participate in the liturgy and sacraments, they will magically "get it" be "be saved"?

Add your comments

(If you haven't left a comment here before, you may need to be approved by the site owner before your comment will appear. Until then, it won't appear on the entry. Thanks for waiting.)

Reminder: At Episcopal Café, we hope to establish an ethic of transparency by requiring all contributors and commentators to make submissions under their real names. For more details see our Feedback Policy.

Advertising Space