life in the suture zone...

In the earthquake faults between tectonic plates, the suture zone is the in between place where they meet. I find in that a metaphor for the times in which we live... and invite your conversation in the suture zone.

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Location: Bakersfield, CA, United States

... a struggling, but mostly joyful, apprentice of Jesus.

Monday, February 20, 2006

silence 3...

silence 3…

My friend, Tim, teased me several weekends ago about this series on silence. He noted the irony of spending so many words in pursuit of the subject of silence. Seems kind of oxymoronic, right? Oh, well. It is in part the subject with which I am occupied at present. (Aren’t you proud of me for not ending my sentence with a preposition? I don’t talk this way normally [as you can see by my adverb placement].) ;-)

Here I continue from previous thoughts...

One thing that silence can mean is that there is nothing there. I want to get that out on the table first. That is a challenge I have struggled with and that I know a friend of mine is struggling with. What can we say about that? In the silence we can say that there is a possibility that this conclusion is true. It is possible that nothing is there. Those who are of faith don’t like to consider that possibility, but it is a possibility nonetheless. Lack of audible or other indication of divine presence can mean that nothing is there. Let me quickly add, though, that silence in no way is conclusive in the matter.

I think of the SETI project that constantly records the background noise of the universe, the echoes of the Big Bang, the radio sounds of pulsars and quasars, hoping to hear something other than random radio signals, some indication that there is other intelligent life out there in the universe. So far, nothing. But does that mean there is no other intelligent life? Possibly. Then again, possibly not.

Silence is inconclusive.

Back when I was at Mount Calvary I decided to take a trip down one of the hiking trails that led to Rattlesnake Canyon. It was a warm day, high 70s, low 80s. A perfect day for a January hike. I got to thinking, “You know, the rattlesnakes are normally hibernating this time of year, but it’s awfully warm today. Wonder if any of them might be out for a mid-winter sunbath?” Then I thought about the proliferation of California mountain lions. If you know anything about mountain lions, you’ll know that they can see – and stalk – you without your ever knowing they are there. That made me stop and think. “Lions and tigers and bears, oh my!” Besides, I was out of shape and I didn’t want to get myself in the position of not being able to get back up to the road. Halfway down the trail I turned around and started climbing again. It was surprising how quickly I made it back.

The point? Just because there is no audible or sensory evidence of any other presence does not mean there is no one or nothing there. Granted, one can make up their own completely imaginary world and believe it is there, act as if it is there and thus create it in their experience. But it is a wishful world, not one that is authentic. I think many of my post-modern friends are honestly trying to avoid that. Besides its irrelevancy to their lives, they see Christianity as “maybe fine for you, but I just don’t get it.” Above all, we don’t need a faith that is inauthentic.

I want to get back to silence in a moment, but let’s switch senses for a bit. What about the sense of sight? What about the nature of darkness in relationship to sight? Is darkness in and of itself a thing? Does the inability to see something mean it is not there? One of the main reasons that I was afraid of the dark when I was a child was that I couldn’t see what was out there. There could be something there that could harm me. As it turned out there never was. Almost.

Once, when I was a teenager, I stayed home to work while the rest of my family headed to a weekend church function. Sitting in my father’s recliner watching an intense movie, I suddenly heard someone step into the flowerbed just outside the window next to the chair. Internally, I freaked out. Action-wise, I quietly eased over the arm of the chair away from the window and belly-crawled to the front door where I switched on the porch light. A few seconds later, I heard a car door on the street close and the car drove away.

When my step-grandfather came up from the back house a few minutes later (I called him), we went out to the side of the house with flashlights and found the plants crushed in two places where that person had stood not three feet away from me, listening through an open window. Now, granted, I heard this person. But I didn’t see them. What if I had not heard nor seen them? Would that have made this an exercise in vivid imagination? Not at all.

So far, all that I’ve suggested in terms of example deals with sensory experience. Hearing, seeing, and, as you know, there are three more.

But we don’t discover all things with our senses. Some things we posit from reason. The existence of subatomic particles has largely been a theoretical pursuit. Those who study advanced physics work using complex math and predict what may or may not exist, as they attempt to describe subatomic “reality” and the relationships between forces and matter in our universe. They have a pretty good record. My friend, Marshall, is excited to live in such a time. It actually seems possible that in our lifetime these theoreticians may come up with a unified theory of matter and energy and whatever else there is, etc. I share Marshall’s excitement and hope.

Sometimes the math is right. Sometimes it is wrong. Mostly it seems to get closer and closer to describing reality. We’ll see if they succeed. They have, however, gotten to the point of frustration when it comes to some aspects of physics. They cannot predict, for instance, any potential reality outside of our observable universe. Well, they can predict it, but they have no hope of experiment that will verify their predictions, or for that matter, the math capable of exploring those questions. For instance, where does all that matter and energy go that is sucked into a black hole? They don’t know and they have no way of finding out.

Does that mean there is nothing outside our universe? On the contrary. Many of these same scientists are frustrated because they are convinced that there is indeed some kind of physical reality beyond what we can observe. But they can’t know. And the math frustrates them. Perhaps, some day they will figure it out. That is certainly possible. To posit that we are near the extent of what is knowable, or even observable, is foolish indeed. The truth is, the more we know, the more questions we have about what we don’t know. While explanations of physical existence as we currently know it (and may know it in the future) may be elegant, they are not simple. What we find more often than not is that we are simple creatures with simple minds that can easily be awed.

So what does all of this have to do with silence?

Good question. I would just point out that just because we don’t have observable, verifiable “evidence” of the existence of a deity, is no comment on whether that deity exists. In fact, if we posit that deity has had something to do with establishing what we observe, it is not at all surprising that evidence for that deity would be different than and not verifiable in the same way as other things “created” by that deity. Silence might be the norm. Or, communication might be accomplished, if it happens at all, through other means. And perhaps it requires listening on my part? Perhaps it requires silence in the Presence on my part?

I could write a lot more, but I’m already almost three pages into this post. I will continue to post on silence, though, because there are other questions to be asked.

But these last questions about silence, first..... In what way would God have to speak in order for us to know it was God? And how often? If the doubt that comes with distance and time makes us question those moments that happened in the past, is that later doubtful reflection more relevant or real than what we knew when we first experienced the communication from him?

Perhaps my complaint is not one of total silence from God, but the infrequency of experiencing that communication from God. I have, after all, had some experience with what I have claimed (and still claim) to be his direction. (Either that, or I am a paranoid schizophrenic and am hearing voices.....) The last time I saw The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe, I was struck and disturbed by the penultimate scene of the movie, where the high kings and queens of Narnia were crowned at Cair Paravel. Lucy, watching Aslan walking away from the castle along the beach, is distressed that Aslan is leaving and begins to cry. Tumnus the fawn observes that Aslan is not a tame lion, and that he comes and goes as he pleases. I’m wondering if that is not a better, even more biblical, description of our experience of God’s voice and direction than what I have come to crave or expect. The verse in John’s gospel about how blessed we are who have not seen and still believe comes back to me here.

I don’t know.

Anyway, for now....

Grace and peace,



Blogger Tones said...

My wife, who has taught grammar at the college level, says that the whole preposition rule is changing and it's a stupid rule anyway. (;

As for silence, I think that eventually faith has to come into the discussion somewhere. Maybe that's what "blessed are those who don't see yet believe" is about. And I wish it were that simple.


9:52 AM  
Anonymous Marshall said...

Hi, Owen,

As always with your posts, I read this one with great interest.

I have been spending lots of time in silence myself recently, practicing mindfulness, sitting quietly, breathing, perceiving, trying to still the "monkey mind." And I think I have, for myself at least, begun to make some sense of the silence of God.

A good friend of mine named Glen asked me recently, with a troubled expression, "Are you becoming an atheist?" After reflection, I said, "No... But I no longer expect God to violate the laws of physics. I have come to believe in the God of the natural."

What I mean by that phrase, "the God of the natural," is that I think God operates within the physical laws he established. We might say that existence as is is God's expression. Have you noticed that those people who practice sitting in mindful contemplation of things as they are generally conclude, as did Christ, that we should be loving, benevolent folks?

I find that help comes in response to prayer, but I find that it comes in its own natural time. I have no problem now asking God for help, then quietly going my way, knowing that it will work itself out. I even believe that faith can move mountains; I just don't think it moves them very quickly. :)

As a result of the above, I can accept large portions of the Bible now only as metaphor. I realize that may not be a tenable position for others. But I do still believe that God is there, and I do still believe that he responds to human concerns. But I am in a place where, even if my belief is invalid, my role remains much the same: be kind to people (self included) because we're all having a rough time.

1:43 PM  
Blogger Shane Coffman said...

The COC has constantly argued that silence is conclusive evidence against certain things.

It seems that if you take that belief to its logical conclusion, it would suggest that the answer to your thoughts regarding silence is that nothing is there.

I agree - silence is inconclusive. In all cases, not just this one.

7:57 PM  
Blogger Shane Coffman said...

For years, the COC has maintained that silence is proof against something.

If apply that line of reasoning to this situation, then it would argue that God's silence means He is not there.

We like to pick and choose our hermaneutic, don't we?

6:35 PM  

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