Cloud and Silence
by Paul Hooker
[A sermon preached at Shelton Chapel, Austin Presbyterian Theological Seminary, 23 October 2018]
Exodus 20:18-21; Revelation 8:1
According to Exodus, a thick cloud enshrouded Mt Sinai, and when God spoke, it was with all manner of thunder and lightning and the blast of the celestial trumpet, Gabriel blowing his eternal horn. It was enough to make the whole holy host of them tremble like aspen leaves in a mountain breeze. So the people of Israel hunkered down in their tents and from behind their tightly drawn tent-flaps cried out to Moses: “You speak to us, and we will listen; but let God not speak to us, lest we die.” Then from a safe distance they watched while Moses climbed the mountain into the dense darkness where God was hiding while the echoes of divine thunder faded in their ears.
This semester, as you are doubtless by now aware, the faculty has accepted the assignment to preach on the theme: Hodie—God’s Today. We are challenged to answer the question: where and in what ways do we see God at work in the world of the present?
And here is my answer: I haven’t got a clue. I wish I did. Honestly, I’m a bit embarrassed. I have listened to my colleagues talk about their senses of God’s presence in the world, and I have been moved by their passion, eloquence, and truthfulness. All of which makes it harder to admit that I just don’t know. But these days, things that once looked to me like God seem now more like shabby idols of my own manufacture, and things that once sounded like the voice of God now seem little more than the tinkling wind chimes of my own wants and will. I am left to wonder if God has absconded into the cloud atop the metaphorical mountain and left me clutching at my tent flaps as the divine thunder dissolves into the silence of the world.
Annie Dillard—you’ve heard me speak of her before—once mused about the silence of the world in an essay entitled, “Teaching a Stone to Talk.” Here is a part of what she said:
Nature’s silence is its one remark, and every flake of the world is a chip off that old mute and immutable block. The Chinese say that we live in the world of the ten thousand things. Each of the ten thousand things cries out to us precisely nothing.
God used to rage at the Israelites for frequenting sacred groves. I wish I could find one. Martin Buber says, ‘The crisis of primitive mankind comes with the discovery of that which is fundamentally not-holy, the a-sacramental, which withstands the methods and which has no “hour,” a province that steadily enlarges itself.’
There it is, my friends: the mailing address of the modern world. We live at the intersection of silence and the a-sacramental, in a house that has no room for the holy.
I read an essay recently by Rachel Mennies, a Chicago-based poet and teacher, in which she advocates for a “poetics of bewilderment.” She yearns to teach her students “how not to understand a poem, and to embrace that not everything in a poem can ever be understood, even by its author.” A poetics of bewilderment acknowledges that “bewilder-ment is at the core of every great poem, and in order to be bewildered, you have to be able to wonder.” I suspect Mennies is pointing to the same idea the English Romantic poet John Keats two hundred years ago called “negative capability”: the capacity of “being in uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason.” By whatever name you call it, such a poetic begins with the acknowledgment that in poetry, at least, it is more important to wonder than to understand.
I want to develop a hermeneutic of bewilderment. Its central principle would be a willingness to wonder without any of Keats’s “irritable reaching after fact or reason,” a posture of awe before the truth that not everything is available to be understood. A hermeneutic of bewilderment emerges from its tent and stands staring into the cloud at the foot of the mountain, straining to hear the last dying rumbles of divine thunder in the ever-increasing silence.
Bewilderment, whether poetic or hermeneutic, is a hard thing, not native to us. We like to understand. We moderns are, as a species, largely terrified of the holy, the not-understood, anything we cannot manipulate to our own ends. We want to control our environment. And when confronted with anything we can’t control, we duck behind our tent-flaps and put our fingers in our ears. La-la-la. Let God not speak to us, we cry, lest we discover we are, in fact, not in charge here.
It’s hard to desecrate a sacred grove and change your mind. The very holy mountains are keeping mum. We doused the burning bush and cannot rekindle it; we are lighting matches in vain under every green tree. Did the wind used to cry, and the hills shout forth praise? Now speech has perished from among the lifeless things of the earth, and living things say very little to very few. Birds may crank out sweet gibberish and monkeys howl; horses neigh and pigs say, as you will recall, oink oink. But so do cobbles rumble when a wave recedes, and thunders break the air in lightning storms. I call these noises silence….
The silence is all there is. We are here to witness.
I have been reading apophatic theology lately. That’s the line of thought that runs from Clement of Alexandria and Augustine through a 5th c. pseudonymous author we call Dionysius the Areopagite to a 14th c. anonymous English mystic whose sole known book is that classic of medieval spirituality, The Cloud of Unknowing. The common thread in apophatic thought is that we have to be cautious about, even suspicious of, human language and thought about God.
A warning: this next bit is tricky. All language about God is metaphorical, if only for the reason that finite human words cannot contain the infinite reality of God. And all metaphors operate in the tension between similarity and dissimilarity. So everything we say of God—every theological metaphor—must carry within it both similarity and dissimilarity to God. If I borrow the Psalmist’s metaphor, “God is the rock of my salvation,” I affirm that something about a rock—perhaps its steadfast-ness and immovability—is similar to God. But God is also dissimilar to a rock: God is not unchanging or immovable. Indeed, God transcends such human categories as change or motion. So God neither changes nor remains the same, because God holds all possibilities at all times. God is neither moving nor not-moving, because God holds all places at all times. Thus, God both is and is not “rock.” If I affirm the metaphor of God as “rock,” I must also acknowledge that it stands in tension with the not-rock-ness of God. This tension, applied to all our theological metaphors, ultimately collapses all human language about God: all our metaphors break, all our words fall apart. Better, say the apophatics, to forget what you think you know about God, to recognize that, like Moses and the Israelites, there is between us and God a dense, dark cloud before which we can only stand mute in wonder and awe. The author of The Cloud of Unknowing says it this way:
So set yourself to rest in this darkness as long as you can, always crying out after him whom you love. For if you are to experience him or to see him at all, insofar as it is possible here, it must always be in this cloud and in this darkness.
I find that language strangely satisfying. Amid all the certitudes ringing through our rhetoric and echoing in the ether—certitudes about God and God’s will for America, for the church, for justice, for moral righteousness—I find myself yearning for the darkness and silence of unknowing. I find myself open to, even eager for, bewilderment. I no longer think I am here to understand. I am here to witness.
In the middle of John’s apocalypse, at the culmination of the vision of the seven seals that bind the Lamb’s Book of Life, there is an extraordinary moment. In the passage just prior, after the opening of the sixth seal, all the angels of heaven and all the elders of the Church triumphant have sung the great chorus celebrating the honor and power and wisdom of God. And then we turn the page, and there is this:
When the Lamb opened the seventh seal, there was silence in heaven for about half an hour (Rev. 8:1).
Silence for about half an hour. What a striking image! Amid all the theatrics of the apocalypse—trumpets trumpeting and choruses chorusing—abruptly the action grinds to a halt for half an hour. Before the apocalyptic drama climaxes and God’s victory is unveiled and the curtain falls on Satan and his minions—for thirty minutes all the actors freeze in place and the heavenly stage falls thunderously silent. And I begin to think: what if silence and darkness and the bewilderment of unknowing are at the heart of what God is up to in the world? What if the most faithful act is not always to act, but to wait on that darkened stage, to be still while heaven is silent, and to wonder at all we do not know?
Here is a poem about darkness and silence and not-knowing:
The night’s as silent as the shrouded dead.
We mime our parts in plays we did not write.
Stars applaud the empty stage instead.
The curtain falls. We bid you all goodnight.
We mime our parts in plays we did not write.
The cast bows low and utters not a sound
as the curtain falls. We bid you all goodnight;
ushers, pass the offering plates around.
The cast bows low. They utter not a sound
in praise or parody of their feeble play
while the ushers pass the offering plates. Around
You are the words; no one will say
if praise or parody. Our feeble interplay
is all the rage in fashionable conversation.
But You are the words. How can one say
what’s written on the day before creation?
And so we rage in fashionable conversation.
But still no match for chaos, storm, and spark.
What’s written? On the day before creation
we meet no gods awaiting in the dark.
We’re no match for the chaos, storm, or spark
the stars applaud. On the empty stage, instead,
we meet no gods. But, waiting in the dark,
the nights are silent as the shrouded dead.
I do not mean to equate bewilderment with deliberate ignorance, nor silence with callous indifference. I do not mean that the faithful soul may ever give up its brave quest to live out the prophet Micah’s call to do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with God. I do mean however, taking my cue from Micah, to encourage a healthy dose of humility in that walk, and a bewilderment occasioned by the inadequacy and inevitable collapse of our knowledge of God. I do mean to emphasize the provisionality of every conclusion we draw about God’s nature and intent. I do mean to suggest that, while full-throated soliloquies about God’s presence here or God’s justice may be the last words of the scene, they are followed by silence as the curtain falls.
There will be those who say that humility and bewilderment make a poor foundation for ethics, a weak response to the cries for justice from those to whom justice has been too long denied. In such a time as ours, they claim, the need for faithful defense of the defenseless is acute. I do not disagree. Bewilderment and humility must not degenerate into accommodation with evil. There will be those who say that silence is not God’s last word, that God speaks another Word—one with a capital “W.” I do so confess. Still, it is no small source of wonder to me that this Word was born in the starlit stillness of Christmas, died amid the thunder and darkness of Good Friday, and rose in the eternal silence of Easter morning. Perhaps the wonder is that, no matter how God speaks, the message always seems to come wrapped in cloud and silence.
And that is why, in answer to the question, where do I see God at work, I offer not a where but a how, not a place but a posture. I offer a holy bewilderment and a cautious humility, and I place them respect-fully alongside the passionate certainties of our day as a reminder that not all things are available to be understood. There are moments in the life of faith when the most faithful way to live may be to live in wordless wonder, resting in the cloud of unknowing, and listening to the silence in heaven. Who knows? Perhaps this is one of them.
Annie Dillard, one last time:
The silence is all there is. It is the alpha and the omega. It is the face of God brooding over the waters; it is the blended note of the ten thousand things…. You take a step in the right direction to pray to this silence, even to address the prayer to ‘World.’ Distinctions blur. Quit your tents. Pray without ceasing.
[Annie Dillard quotes are from “Teaching a Stone to Talk,” in Teaching a Stone to Talk: Expeditions and Encounters,San Francisco: Harper and Row, 1982, pp. 85-95.]
[Rachel Mennies quote is from “Less Than Certain,” http://www.poetryfoundation.org, 3 September 2018.]
[Poem, “Worship,” is an unpublished poem by Paul Hooker.]