Learning to be silent: theological and philosophical reflections on silence and transcendence
Wardley, Kenneth Jason
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‘Libère-moi de la trop longue parole.’ (Maurice Blanchot, Le pas au-delà, 1973) Michèle le Doeuff suggested that theology rests upon a prior silencing of philosophy; the work of Jean-Yves Lacoste is unconcerned with any strict distinction between the disciplines where theology is an unsystematic, fragmentary and, above all, ethical activity, reminiscent of Stoker’s account of Derrida and the fourth type of messianic transcendence. While suffering can reduce theology to silence this does not mean that it reduces it to nothingness: in being silenced theology finds itself reduced to its essentials: the theologia viatorum of man and not the theology of angels; a way of existing rather than simply a province of transcendent knowledge. Philosophy also has its own ‘moment silencieux’ in which its theorizing collapses and com-passion is perhaps the only response. This paper examines the philosophical and theological implications of “being silent”, and the relationship between silence and solitude, and the difficulty or even the necessity of keeping silent. It argues that keeping silent is an immanent activity conducted in the ‘mundane reality’ of this world; an activity of kenosis. Silence indicates the concealment of self and the individual’s withdrawal from society and yet, in a religious or liturgical setting, one often – paradoxically – keeps silence in company, an act which aims to reinforce human solidarity. Contemplation is, in economic terms, a “waste of time” that confounds models of work and industry and represents the interruption of the everyday and the delimitation of an alternative (ethical) space and time, one given over to contemplation of oneself and one another. For Blanchot silence provided “the space of literature”: language risked destroying the singularity of being, while preserving its being in general, which for Hegel revealed the “divine nature” of and the Cartesian contented understanding that all thought is language. And yet ‘silence exists; “it is not death and it is not speech”…something that is neither indifference nor discourse’, a ‘frozen analysis’ that can be suddenly ‘tempted by song’ reminiscent of the ‘Silent music, Sounding solitude, The supper that refreshes, and deepens love’ found in Christian spirituality. Silence has as many different possibilities as speech; although representative of Stoker’s radical second type, through his pseudonyms Kierkegaard explored particular forms of silence. Silence is the cessation of speech, not for the lack of anything to say, but deliberately and intentionally. Such muteness is not simply the negation of speech; it can be an occasion for a listening that respects the integrity (finitude) of matter, the individual, and the Other. Silence is rich and varied – and perhaps “being silent” speaks most of all about transcendence. Silence is also then an act of ascesis, a stripping away of attitudes, mental images and ideas that cuts across notions of radical immanence and transcendence, of a purely textual reality and into nonlinguistic forms of culture.
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