Unpacking silence: An informal exercise

April 13, 2008

Unpacking silence: An exercise for an online course, “The Uses of Silence,”

taught by Maggie Ross for the Church Divinity School of the Pacific’s CALL program.

By Allan Roy Andrews

Without a doubt, some ancient Greek philosopher first framed the question, but I learned it from reading Heidegger; it goes something like this: “Why is there something, rather than nothing?”

To add to my bewilderment, today my son and I read on a car waiting at a traffic light in front of us this bumper sticker: “The best of things is not a thing.”

And many of us have been moved by the Vietnam era anthem made popular by Paul Simon and Art Garfunkel—“The Sounds of Silence.” (Do I hear paradoxical intention in these words?)

I am objecting to the phrase that describes our course, “The Uses of Silence.” Silence is not an object.

My sense is that “use” is part of our commercial, materialistic, attainment society. To make myself more clear, you are going to have to indulge a bit of my professional rantings. Back in the 1990s, one of the slogans of the newspaper industry—as well as of the TV and radio business mavens—urged editors and reporters to give readers or listeners (called consumers in this mentality) “news they could use.” This became of course a slogan aimed at increasing revenue and marketing the daily news much as if it were a consumable commodity.

A little more than a decade ago I wrote a column criticizing the “news you can use” mentality. Let me offer a précis of my argument:

“Of what use to readers is news that enemy combatants are mercilessly killing each other? Of what use is it that a man with a gun in Utah went on a rampage and killed three people? Of what use to readers is the news that a father and son perished in an airplane crash in Wyoming last week?

“What these stories do is challenge our comfort zones and remind us of the frailty of human existence. Such stories should arouse compassion and move us to acts of charity and correction. We report the horrors of war in a faint hope that future wars can be averted.”

My complaint went on to defend the freedom of the press and to castigate the business school mentality that sees the sale of the news as the bottom line of journalism.

I hear echoes of that mentality in the phrase the “use of silence.” It’s as if this course is not going to have any value to those enrolled in it unless they can somehow devise a way to “use” silence in developing some programmatic spirituality.

Whatever silence is, it is not a marketable commodity; it is not something we can dress up with colors and images, not something we can package, sweeten and sell; it is not something we can promote or seek to turn into a profitable object; it is not another form of indulgences. In a word, it is not something we use!

I respond appreciatively to those who describe silence as a phenomenon in unity with language; the negative spaces of the painter; the spaces between the notes of the composer; the time of absorption at the close of a homily.

I prefer to think of silence as a revelation, or better perhaps, as a revealer. It is not something we discover or grow into or develop with varieties of practices. It is more of a gift; a gift we perhaps need to learn to accept or to open without cost or benefit.

The verse in the psalms that we all know usually translated: “Be still and know that I am God” (Psalm 46:10 KJV), is better translated as “Desist, and know I am God” or “Be at leisure, and know I am God.”

To me the psalmist appears to be implying that silence (or leisure) can reveal something to us.

As I told Maggie, I’m still unpacking this for myself. I have to stop here. This is thinking by writing–perfect fodder for a blogger.

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