Feb 06, 2020
There are many kinds of silence. There is a silence of intolerable absence and one of overwhelming presence, a silence of unspeakable remoteness and one of ineffable intimacy, a silence of total ignorance and one of perfect knowledge; and then there are silences of which we are blithely unaware and others of which we are all too keenly conscious. And it is in all these senses, and many others beside, that we may speak about the silence of God—but only so long as we proceed cautiously. All the great religious traditions, after all, as a matter of doctrine, assert that God is not silent, and that He speaks to His creatures in many and various ways. His voice is audible, we are told, in the thunderous deliverances of Sinai, in the eternal “Word” (Logos) of the person of Christ, in the eternal words of the Qur’an, in the ageless utterances of the Vedas and the dictates of the sanātana dharma, in the oracles of the Guru Granth Sahib, and so forth. It is audible also, so all these traditions teach, in the sting of conscience, even if only as an echo reaching us from somewhere we cannot identify. Moreover, all the traditions agree that we hear and see God’s universal self-declaration in His creation: all things are manifestations of the one who makes them, divine words that tell—by their very being, form, and splendor—of God’s omnipotence and glory. In one sense, then, God’s “silence” is only another name for the sheer infinity of the divine eloquence. For it would be a kind of idolatry to imagine that, amid the prodigious polyphony of creation, divine speech should as a rule be discernible as just one small, singular, finite locution among others. Everything all at once is God’s voice. At times, God may speak in articulate language out of the whirlwind, and we long to hear Him do so—revealing, vindicating, explaining, consoling. But, even when He does not, the whirlwind itself is already God speaking.
At the same time, it would be more idolatrous still to mistake God’s address to His creatures in creation and revelation for something like an exhaustive disclosure of the truth of who He is, one that we can formulate in words of our own. There is always that greater mystery that lies beyond all speech, that we can hear—or rather, listen for—only by learning to fall silent. The “apophatic” strictures on the language we use with regard to God, the “negating” predications on which all the great traditions insist, forbid us the presumption of thinking that our ideas or utterances could ever comprehend or express the divine nature in its transcendence. They remind us that even the entirety of creation falls infinitely short of the divine plenitude of being from which it comes. We learn to relinquish the images and symbols and simple notions upon which at first, and for a long time, we naturally rely when seeking to understand who God is, in order to reach the higher and fuller knowledge that awaits us on the far side of those images and symbols and notions. The ultimate and highest end possible for any soul—so say Maximus the Confessor, Ibn ¢Arabī, Ramanuja, and countless other contemplatives—is that “embrace” or “kiss” of union with God in love, in which words and concepts have no place at all because they have been entirely overwhelmed and vanquished by the immediacy of God’s infinite beauty. And even then God still infinitely exceeds all the soul can understand.
In all these senses, God’s “silence” is a kind of perfect and limitless divine harmony, one that cannot be reduced to the sort of language we are able to speak or the sort of songs we are capable of singing.
There is, however, another kind of silence, which is not a blessing (except, perhaps, providentially) but a curse. This is the state of Godforsakenness, the sense of being abandoned by God because one has abandoned Him. It is the failure to hear God speak in anything, in any register—neither in the vast majesty of creation nor in the secret places of the heart nor, for that matter, anywhere at all. This is the silence of despair, and it is induced by our own failure or refusal to hear, and by the universal alienation of the world we live in from God. Here we dwell outside the garden, or outside the gate of the enduring city, or outside the veil of maya. It is a world in which the forces that drive history onward are not, as a rule, divine justice, mercy, and love, but rather violence, cruelty, ambition, and deceit. In such a world, it is quite often the case that we can hear God’s voice only indirectly, precisely to the degree that we make our own words and actions vehicles of His truth. As often as not, what reveals God to us are our own attempts faithfully to express, by our lives and our confessions, the holiness of the divine. In part, so every sound tradition tells us, this means that something of God’s address to us becomes audible, to ourselves and others, when we observe the simple practice of always telling the truth. Simply by speaking of what is as it is—simply by making our words faithfully mirror what is objectively the case—we bear witness to God’s command that our hearts and tongues remain pure, so that we may love and confess Him without profaning His holiness. This seems obvious, and largely unproblematic.
For me, though, perhaps due to some perversity of temperament, this seemingly obvious rule is fraught with all kinds of painful ambiguities. What precisely does it mean always to tell the truth in a world that strives to resist the divine presence? Is it, in fact, clearly the case that fidelity to the truth consists in fidelity to facts, even when the facts that surround us—the facts of history, the facts of an evil situation—are in reality forms of what we might (for want of a more satisfactory term) call ontological falsehood? I am not trying to be precious or elliptical in phrasing the matter thus. In a very real sense, I am raising one of the oldest questions of moral reasoning. Is it possible that there are times when our words more faithfully reflect God’s truth because they do not conform or correspond to what happens to be the case? And by this, I do not mean those times when we merely speak hopefully of things that might be but that are not yet the case; I mean also those times when, out of a love of God’s truth, we might feel compelled to deceive.