The Sound of Sheer Silence

There is a pre-modern view of religion as something existing outside time and place. According to this view religion, like the US Constitution originates in a timelessness free of the taint of culture and history.

All human experience is formed within the context of culture. Even prophets and Founding Fathers are products of their culture. For the last three weeks, we have been following the comings and goings in a period of the prophet Elijah’s life during which, he is hounded by Ahab, King of Israel, and his pathologically narcissistic wife, Jezebel. Last week I wrote about Jezebel and Ahab’s narcissism and you can see my detailed exposition here.

Elijah is very much a man of his culture. His contest with the prophets of Baal recorded in 1 Kings 18 gives us a view of a very acculturated religious conflict. There is much in this story that offends our sensibilities, especially our sense of God. The very images of God can only be articulated through the use of human imagination. Human imagination is to some extent limited by expectations. Expectations are very much shaped by culture.

As we have been following events in the life of Elijah in the first book of the Kings, so too, we have been following the Apostle Paul as he writes to the Christians in Anatolia in his Letter to the Galatians. Like Elijah, Paul is definitely a man of his times, formed and molded by his cultural location as a Pharisee Jew of the Hellenic-Roman, Jewish diaspora. Like Elijah, we have ambivalent and ambiguous responses to Paul. We find his fierce zealotry a little disconcerting. Yet we soar with his eloquence when he writes of faith, hope and love.

Traditional confusion over which of the thirteen letters ascribed to Paul are from his actual hand has created a disconcertingly contradictory impression of him. How does Paul view slavery, the role of women, the exercise of authority, relations between Jews and Gentiles? He takes a particular line in one letter. Then he espouses the very opposite, in another.

The thirteen Pauline letters span a period from the mid 1st to the mid 2nd centuries AD. Over this period of time culture and attitudes change in a more conservative and conventional direction as the early Christian communities become more established. Yet, each later letter, written beyond the span of Paul’s possible lifetime, claims the authority of his personal authorship. The later the writing, the more it appears Paul supports slavery, the subjection of women to male authority, and an increasingly ferocious attitude to the Jews as others.

Despite both Elijah and Paul being men of their time and culture, their stature as prophet and apostle rests on their startling encounters with God. These encounters take them completely beyond the cultural imaginary of their time and place. They are both mystics in whom a deep personal encounter with the divine stimulates a leap of imagination that propels them beyond the familiar, opening them and us to new vistas and new directions of travel for the human experience of God. To borrow Karl Popper’s scientific concept of threshold experience, God is revealed in a moment when the known gives way to the yet-to-become-known, changing all that we know in the process.


Hello darkness, my old friend
I’ve come to talk with you again
Because a vision softly creeping
Left its seeds while I was sleeping
And the vision that was planted in my brain
Still remains within the sound of silence

After his latest bruising encounter with Ahab in 1 Kings 21, Elijah flees from Jezebel’s threats. He journeys into the desert and he is on a knife edge between life and death. He shelters under a tree and waits for death to arrive through thirst and hunger. God sustains him with necessary food and water and Elijah sets out on the highly symbolic journey to Horeb, the mountain of God, the place of Moses’ encounter with God. He spends the night in a cave where he tells God of his sense of failure, loneliness, and isolation. God tells him to stand on the mountain and wait.

imagesWhat happens next is a threshold moment; Elijah’s startling leap of imagination to behold God, not in the dramatic events of nature: wind, earthquake and fire, but: in the sound of sheer silence. God speaking through the sheer silence is not a culturally conditioned expectation for Elijah and his time; a time when God was expected to grandly display his power employing as much noise and pyrotechnics as possible. So it’s a leap of imagination for Elijah to perceive God speaking through the sheer silence. This is a huge leap forward in the Hebrew imaginary of God.

Hello darkness, my old friend
I’ve come to talk with you again
Because a vision softly creeping
Left its seeds while I was sleeping
And the vision that was planted in my brain
Still remains within the sound of silence

God again asks him: what are you doing here? Poor Elijah simply repeats his mantra of woe and God tells him: Go, return on your way to the wilderness of Damascus.  And he goes. 


In restless dreams I walked alone
Narrow streets of cobblestone
‘Neath the halo of a street lamp
I turned my collar to the cold and damp

When my eyes were stabbed
By the flash of a neon light
That split the night
And touched the sound of silence

Paul displays a similar capacity to be open to a threshold experience in the Popper sense of meaning. Much of Paul’s letter to the Galatians rehearses complex arguments that zoom way above my pay grade. Paul does not hold back. At times in this letter, he gives way to words of fierce denunciation as he tries to map out what it means to be clothed in Christ. Paul has to find ways to write about this that are both culturally familiar enough to the Galatians to be heard and understood by them. Yet, at the same time he is also opening up a completely new direction of understanding for them. In his denunciations, we hear Paul the Pharisee, whose old cultural traits are being put to new use in his incarnation as a follower of Christ.

Paul’s conversion on the Damascus Road is a threshold experience, not only for him but also for the development and direction of the Christian message. Nothing is the same Conversion_Paulafter, yet, at many levels, Paul continues to be who he is, a Hellenic, Pharisee Jew, now a clothed in Christ. Yet, the consequences of his threshold experience suddenly make themselves known.

In the midst of his complex argument, Paul’s eyes are stabbed by the flash of a neon light. He writes: There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus. Here, we see a profound leap of imagination from what is known and familiar to the yet to-become-known of God, crashing into Paul’s imagination.

From somewhere deep inside Paul, from the place of sheer silence, he articulates a revolutionary vision of God. It’s revolutionary in that it focuses not on delineating difference – a common religious activity, but in asserting and affirming commonality. He is diffusing the key binary polarities that divide people in his world and at his time.

For us to truly appreciate the revolution in Paul’s cultural imaginary that takes him well beyond the boundaried imagination of his time and place we might translate these as follows:

  • no longer Jew or Greek – no longer us or them
  • no longer slave or free – no longer exploiter and exploited
  • no longer male and female – no longer divide by gender specifics but embracing the complementariness of masculine and feminine into a variety of combinations within the spectrum of what it means to be human

A curious aside

It’s worth noting that two of the binary polarities Paul separates with the conjunction or. In the last binary polarity – male/female he uses the conjunction and. Why? Jew or Greek, slave or free are polar alternatives. In contrast, male and female are complements. In Genesis, God does not say: let us make male or female, but let us make male and female.  You can’t have men without women or women without men. They are one entity; they both constitute what it means to be human. Translated into our developmental understanding of human nature, to be human is to comprise the principles of both the masculine and feminine.


As I write, my imagination signals a connection to the Simon and Garfunkel song The Sound of Silence. The words of this song could so easily be those of Elijah’s standing upon Horeb, the mountain of God, or Paul’s mind-meld with God the issues in his immemorial-timeless statement in Galatians 3.

And in the naked light I saw
Ten thousand people, maybe more
People talking without speaking
People hearing without listening

These two verses direct my attention to the sound of sheer silence out of which, the message of the prophets is written on subway walls and tenement halls, i.e. in unlooked for places.

In the paradox of the sound of sheer silence, we encounter God in the depth of the divine mystery. We too are shaped and bounded by our experience of culture, a culture within which the Simon and Garfunkel lyrics stimulate a leap in our contemporary imaginary.


And the people bowed and prayed
To the neon God they made
And the sign flashed out its warning
And the words that it was forming

And the sign said,
“The words of the prophets
Are written on the subway walls
And tenement halls.”
And whispered in the sound of silence

Contemporary culture invites us to seek God in the slick soundbites of our lives, where our commitment is circumscribed by the daunting prospect of an hour a week given to the worship of God. Where we long for an experience of community that we are too overscheduled to commit to building.

For many, God is believable only to the extent to which the divine can be explained or explained away. In our noisy and stridently over-stimulated world; a world in which competing voices clamor, shout, threaten, and cajole for our attention, I wonder what might await us if we were to enter into the God of mystery, here in the pregnant spaces of imagination that open uninitiated within us to behold God in the sound of sheer silence?

The Sound of Silence Simon and Garfunkel





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