February 25, 2009
Reverent silence as one antidote to Consumer Christianity.
The following is an excerpt from chapter two of Skye Jethani's new book The Divine Commodity: Discovering a Faith Beyond Consumer Christianity (Zondervan, 2009).
My brother and sister-in-law took me to a concert at the Hollywood Bowl while I was visiting Southern California recently. The renowned outdoor amphitheater is nestled into the hills of Hollywood creating a scenic environment for 18,000 people to enjoy an evening of music under the stars. As the sun was setting, the members of the orchestra began taking their seats in the white band shell. The sound of the musicians tuning their instruments was odd. Screeching strings echoed. Blasts came from the wind section. It was chaotic and unpleasant.
Finally, the conductor emerged from stage left. The audience erupted in applause as he took his position on the conductor's platform. He calmly raised his arms over his noisy orchestra. Silence. The time for tuning their instruments was over. After a few moments of quiet anticipation the conductor's arms moved and the soul-stirring music began.
Like an orchestra tuning their instruments, consumer Christianity is producing chaotic and unpleasant noise about God. The prevailing view of God as an alienated commodity has fueled endless pontificating about his ways and character. This noise reveals a failure of reverence toward the one who declared, "My thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways?for as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts."
Rather than adding to the noise perhaps it is time for us to finally be silent, be still, and wait in quit anticipation for God to begin a new work. Leopold Stokowski, the composer who founded the Hollywood Bowl Orchestra in 1945, once said, "A painter paints his pictures on canvas. But musicians paint their pictures on silence." Maybe God is waiting for us to be silent long enough so he may begin painting a new picture in our imaginations; to begin transforming our image of a manageable deity into one that can truly inspire.
To start reversing our malformed view of God, perhaps we need to cover our mouths with our hands and humbly confess our ignorance like Job, "I have uttered what I did not know." Strangely, our first step beyond consumer Christianity may be toward agnosticism. An agnostic is literally someone who says "I don't know." The word comes from the Greek a-gnostos meaning "not-knowing." It is commonly used to mean one who neither affirms nor denies the existence of God. Divine agnosticism, the sort I'm advocating, differs in that it affirms the existence of God but then acknowledges our human inability to fully grasp his infinite nature.
Does this mean we can know nothing about God apart from his existence? Of course not. But there is an important hierarchy to knowing; before we can know anything about God we must first humbly confess that we know nothing. Divine agnosticism simply recognizes what Kierkegaard called the "infinite qualitative difference" between God and man. Like Job, an honest relationship with God begins when we accept our finite condition as a creature and cease our futile attempts to contain God with our noisy words.
Job's humble silence before the grandeur of the Almighty was not an isolated event. The same human response has been recorded numerous times in both scripture and history. Thomas Aquinas was one of the greatest theologians of the Middle Ages. His Summa Theologia addresses ten thousand objections to the Christian faith. Some have called it one of the greatest intellectual achievements of western civilization. But on December 6, 1273 Aquinas abruptly announced to his secretary that he would write no more. While worshipping in the chapel of Saint Nicholas, Aquinas had an intense experience with God. "I can do no more," he said, "such things have been revealed to me that all I have written seems to me as so much straw."
More recently Karl Barth, arguably the 20th century's most celebrated and prolific theologian, also came to recognize the limits and inadequacy of his words about God. Barth envisioned entering heaven pushing a cart full of his books and hearing the angels laugh. He said, "In heaven we shall know all that is necessary, and we shall not have to write on paper or read more?.Indeed, I shall be able to dump even the Church Dogmatics, over the growth of which the angels have long been amazed, on some heavenly floor as a pile of waste paper."
Consumerism, with its never-ending noise about its consumable god, has led us to believe that our words and notions about God are of supreme importance. It has made the church into a noisy orchestra without harmony and fearful of silence. But humble silence offers us liberation from our digital cocoons to experience wonder once again. Silence allows us the space to contemplate the vastness of the heavens and the God beyond them. Silence can shatter the trivialized deity that has occupied our imaginations, and provide God the canvas to begin a new work in our souls.
You can read the full introduction to The Divine Commodity on Skye's blog.