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Review Essays of Academic, Professional & Technical Books in the Humanities & Sciences


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Review Essays of Academic, Professional & Technical Books in the Humanities & Sciences


Keeping God's Silence: Towards A Theological Ethics of Communication by Rachel Muers (Challenges in Contemporary Theology: Blackwell Publishers) (Paperback) This ground-breaking hook provides a new perspective on Christian practices of silence.

Rachel Muers, a significant Quaker theologian, develops a theological understanding of communication to which a "responsible silence" is central. In doing so, she engages with the key issues raised for Christian theology by feminist thought, and develops an original reading of significant aspects of the theology and ethics of Dietrich Bonhoeffer. She also presents a challenge, from the perspective of Christian theology and practice, to a communicative environment dominated by wars of words. The central theological claim explored in the book is that God listens, and that God's listening is integral to who God is.

Excerpt: The first chapter concentrates on listening to feminist thinkers — includ­ing feminist theologians — as they put forward analyses and critiques of the many ways in which women have been silenced in theology and in other areas of discourse; and to an analysis and critique from within Christian theology of the many ways in which God has been silenced in the modern world. Both of these accounts of silencing, as I read them, tend to make the assumption that agency in communication rests wholly or mainly with the speaker — in other words, that silence cannot be rightly or usefully thought of as communicative activity. In feminist thought, however, this assumption is problematized, with the recognition of women's complicity in their own "silencing," and of the acts of silencing of which feminist discourse has itself been guilty. There is a recognition

that, if this kind of oppressive silencing is to end, the communicative sit­uation must be fundamentally transformed; and some attempts to imagine that transformation involve the rethinking of what silence means.

The feminist theologian Nelle Morton is well known for her concept of "hearing into speech," which she develops theologically with the counter-intuitive claim that the "first cause is hearing," and the questions that pervade her writing: "Who hears? Who is heard?". In the second chapter, I look at Morton's thought alongside the philosophy of Gemma Corradi Fiumara, whose approach to the ethics of communication gives priority to listening, and analyze the questions "Who hears? Who is heard?" as they denote two forms of silence — the silence of the listener, and the "silence of unknowability" signifying the freedom of the one who is listened to. Questions then arise about the theological development of such readings of silence. How can God be affirmed as the source and aim of a changed ethics of communication, without re-imposing powerful divine speech in a way that negates the aims of feminist thought?

Reading Morton's questions as theological — as questions about God as the one "who hears" and "who is heard" — the third chapter outlines the basic framework of my response to these problems, through a discussion of Bonhoeffer's theology of the resurrection. The key categories of Bonhoeffer's thought on which my reading is based are set out: the resur­rection as that which determines the asking and answering of the "Who?" question in relation to Christ; closely linked with this, the resurrection as the "place to stand," the hidden basis for action and reflection from which a response to the world is possible; and the interpretation of ethical life in terms of the "relation between reality and realization." I argue that this set of categories enables us to speak about God's silence of unknowability — the resurrection as a "hidden" reality — and God's silence as a listener's silence — the resurrection as reality being "realized," as God hears God's own Word and thereby hears the world into new possibilities.

In each of the subsequent chapters, further reflection on the naming of God as one who hears — and hence on the "reality" of the resurrec­tion for God and for the world in relation to God — is closely bound up with the analysis of particular practices of communication, thinking through an ethics of communication alongside the development of the theology. In the fourth chapter, I begin my consideration of what it would mean for a communicative situation to be transformed in the light of the resurrection as God's hearing of God's own Word. The resurrection does not mean that the powerful Word of God reduces all other words to silence, but rather that the whole situation of speaking, silence, and lis­tening must be reconfigured Christologically.

Feminist critiques of Christian theology's acts of "silencing" have focused on the characterization of humanity as silent or passive vis-à-vis the powerful Word of God. The fifth chapter suggests how a theology of divine hearing — of the world together with the divine Word — can respond to this critique, and can shift the focus of an ethic of communi­cation toward an emphasis on the capacity for listening. Analyzing spe­cific texts of Bonhoeffer's theology, I argue that his work points to a deep concern for a contemporary communicative situation in which there is "too much talk" and not enough silence, in which the capacity for lis­tening and discernment has been lost, and in which the recognition of the resurrection as "place to stand" and as divine act of hearing provides the possible basis for a recovery of that capacity.

The sixth chapter examines practices of communication — to which silence is fundamental — in which this "reconfiguration" might be seen. I consider Bonhoeffer's lectures on "spiritual care," in which the media­tion of communication in Christ — the resurrection as common "place to stand" — is a central idea. This Christological mediation of communica­tion establishes, first, the "unknowability" of the other — the impossibil­ity either of exercising control over her or of subjecting oneself entirely to her words. Practices of silence, described in the lectures on spiritual care, signify and enact this unknowability.

Responsible silence as Christians practice it — in relationships of "spir­itual care" and elsewhere — does not, however, merely signify and enact unknowability. More importantly, people can learn to "hear with God's ears," and hence to be drawn into God's act of hearing with love. The keeping of silence can make any given practice of communication open to transformations, which are not anticipated in advance but which can reflect the innerworldly realization of divine reality. Two aspects of such transformation in and through practices of communication are the learn­ing of ethical discernment and the emergence of friendship. Taking these seriously in the context of thinking about "hearing with God's ears," I suggest, both relies on and enriches an understanding of the resurrection as reality for God — God's self-determination as love.

Both the idea of the "unknowability" of the other and the question of what it means to "hear with God's ears" are developed further in the seventh chapter. Here, I use the idea of "knowing by hearing" as part of a response to contemporary debates on the question of privacy. The aspect of personal "unknowability" — which prevents the person from being "silenced" by reduction to a fully comprehensible object of knowledge — is a point of contact with the modern concern for privacy. However, the terms in which the concern for privacy is couched — which require

knowledge to be understood as controllable and defensible property, and which even affect some recent accounts of divine omniscience — are called into question by the Christological understanding of God's "hearing knowledge" developed in this thesis. "Hearing knowledge" is inseparable from relationships of responsibility and love, and from the formation of persons over time in relation to others. I am not rejecting the importance of privacy and reserve for the ethics of communication; in fact, the concern for privacy is linked ultimately to the concern, voiced repeatedly throughout my discussion, to say something about the reality of God in Godself.

The concluding chapter suggests further possible implications of this account of "God's responsible silence." Some of these relate to theology's own ethics of communication — for responses to acts of silencing, for bib­lical interpretation and for the reading of theological texts. Beyond this, however, I attempt to open up consideration of the wider consequences of an ethics of communication that takes "responsible silence" seriously.

Openings are, not accidentally, a theme of the conclusion. One of my key claims about practices of communication is that both writers and readers, speakers and hearers, should seek to hold utterances and texts open for further acts of hearing — an openness that does not preclude, but rather relies on, present commitment to specific claims and contexts, in the universal but also specific context of God's act of hearing. I have sought to do justice to, and to maintain, the openness of the texts I read. For the future openness of my own text, I am dependent on others.

Quaker Presence in America: Let Us Then Try What Love Will Do edited by Barbara Heavilin and James D. Stewart Edwin Mellen Press) This anthology selects works by Quaker historians and theologians about the history and meaning of Quaker experience in America. It includes some classic statememts by Eloton Trueblood and Rufus Jones as well as other lesser known writers.

What about this Quaker vision today? Is it still a viable way of life? Does it still offer a balm sufficient to alleviate the sufferings brought about by a nation's greed and excess on the one hand and deprivation and hunger on the other? Does it offer a meaning sufficient to meet what Viktor Frankl, the noted psychiatrist who survived imprisonment during the Holocaust, calls "the existential vacuum," the spiritual emptiness of a materialistic and self­-absorbed society? What do Quakers have to say today? What balm do they offer for this disease of the spirit?

Several of the articles in this book were originally presented as the yearly Quaker Lecture at Indiana or Western Yearly Meeting of Friends. The origin and tradition of these lectures themselves give a necessary backdrop to the articles. First, there is strong purpose behind calling them "lectures" rather than "sermons." A sermon is usually presented by a clergyman, sharing religious insight; a lecture, by an expert on a topic, sharing specialized knowledge. True, there may be an overlap between sermon and lecture, but differing connotations and contexts establish different expectations, with the sermon's having a more religious, spiritual appeal and the lecture a more secular, intellectual appeal. The Quaker Lecture, however, typically maintains both a vital spiritual and a strong intellectual focus--blurring any perceived difference between the two. Further, the Quaker Lecture itself demonstrates a synthesis of both genres.

D. Elton Trueblood's "The Quaker Explosion," a chapter from The People Called Quakers, returns to Quaker roots in examining this question, beginning with George Fox's dramatic, life-altering conversion, the light from which made "Quakerism,... for a while, the fastest growing movement of the Western world." Spread by preaching, books, pamphlets, and testimony, their dynamic message led to the persecution of thousands of Quakers, who were cruelly imprisoned, whipped, beaten, and persecuted for their faith. In Boston four were even hanged. Still, their message spread. The faith of these Quakers was dynamic--even explosive, as Trueblood describes it--nothing like the pleasantly dull, passive caricature on the Quaker Oats box.

Charles W. Heavilin's "Christ and Universalism" takes up where Trueblood leaves off, addressing "a tension in the minds of some Friends between the universal claims of truth and the particularity of Christianity, . . . a powerful temptation to separate Quakerism from its historic Christian roots and to endeavor to affiliate it with a more universal perspective." Heavilin points out that the vague concept of "universalism," however, shifts focus away from God to human understanding. Such a shift places the human being in the center, measuring all things outward from the self. This "I" perspective leads only to confusion. A more tenable position is to recognize that a fallible human being has limited access to truth. Since truth itself is universal, therefore, "it is not surprising that each religious writing occasionally glistens with divinity." Universalism takes these glimpses of the divine as an opportunity to espouse the equality of all religious perspectives and to level all religions to equal status despite basic differences in terminology and ethics.

The emphases on the "Inner Light," is of primary significance--revealing a God who is at once personal and powerful, who is dynamic rather than passive, who listens and leads, and One who is the ultimate test of what is Truth. The second emphasis on "positive Christianity" places emphasis on human potentiality rather than on human depravity. Here Marshall cites George Fox's vision of coming "up to the state of Adam which he was in before he fell" in which Fox focuses on "original righteousness" rather than on "original sin," on "potential and possibility" and on "'that of God in each person.'" Here, Marshall explains, Fox's statement was not intended to express a belief in the innate goodness of humanity, but was instead a belief about the possibility--the potentiality--that God's Truth could be recognized and responded to by anyone.... For Fox "that of God in each person" was about the seed or voice of God that is both personal and within, yet transcendent and beyond us. If we are to be a person of faith, we must first answer to that of God within us.

From such faith the Quaker testimonies evolved. The intervening articles between the print of Emily's peace quilt and Wilmer's "clarion call to integrity" address the question of the responsibility to put the testimonies into practice in daily life. With an underlying tone of urgency and awareness of a suffering world in need of solace, the peace quilt and the articles define Quakerism, focus on its faith, and demonstrate its continuing influence. In so doingl they also address a hard question: How may Quakers let their lives speak today?

A few years back a young Quaker in a position of responsible leadership stated--it seemed with a degree of satisfaction bordering on pride--that "the Lord is paring us down to a remnant"--grievous words, offering neither encouragement nor challenge. Such disheartening navel gazing is not a characteristic of the writers for this volume. Rather, all of them look squarely outward to a world in need and reverently upward to an enabling, all-powerful God. With passionate intensity, they inform, challenge, goad, inspire, and prod readers to do likewise. With the intensity of a surgeon, they probe into Quaker roots, sometimes examine a troublesome malaise, and always encourage towards spiritual health and wholeness a body of people who have had a pervading and continuous influence for good despite its small numbers. D. Elton Trueblood, in particular, saw himself as an encourager of the people and looked forward to the future of Quakers with unquenchable faith and hope, pointing out that early Quakers "were not trying to establish a little sect as a mere remnant," not satisfied with smallness in spirit or in numbers.

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