Sense and silence
‘‘That which we cannot speak of is the one thing about whom and to whom we must never stop speaking” – Peter Rollins
‘ … Jesus took with him Peter and John and James, and went up on the mountain to pray. 29 And while he was praying, the appearance of his face changed, and his clothes became dazzling white… a cloud came and overshadowed them; and they were terrified as they entered the cloud…35 And they kept silent and in those days told no one any of the things they had seen.’ – (Luke 9)
This is how Luke recounts the story of Jesus transfiguration – a story of wonder and awe that ends in silence. In reflecting on this story I was reminded of the differences between perceptions I have about what goes on around me and what my great-great-grandfather might have perceived growing up in a village in Ukraine in the mid 1800’s. The way we understand what we experience is by our brains taking what we see or hear and comparing it to what we have seen or heard in the past. The experiences I have had and the images that I have seen help me to make sense of new or different or unique situations because these are filtered through what is already known. We hear people being interviewed after a tragic event or great upheaval – the attacks on 9/11, a tsunami or a hurricane – and the response often is that ‘it was just like a movie’. At first I thought this was such a mundane, trivializing remark but on further reflection, what they are saying is that the only images they have that come close to helping them understand the event they have just experienced is images they have from movies. These are the closest thing their brains can find to make sense of what has happened and so this is what the situation gets compared to.
The images and experiences I have in my mind are substantially different than the ones my great-great-grandfather had at his disposal and so when he would be explaining something or describing an event that was completely foreign or new or overwhelming he would have had different images or understandings to help him make sense of what was going on. And to take it further, first century fishermen, homemakers and village dwellers would have a different set of images and understandings to draw from. So when we read stories like the transfiguration, what we are hearing is their best attempts at explaining something that was/is beyond explanation. This doesn’t necessarily take away anything from the idea that our scriptures are ‘inspired’ but it does open up the conversation about how we read them and understand them.
I have been helped in this thinking by the writings of John Polkinghorne. He is an Anglican priest who for the first 25 years of his adult life was a theoretical physicist. Polkinghorne is someone who has been immersed in both of these worlds – as a physicist who played a role in the discover of the quark and as a Christian theologian who comes to this work with an understanding of a whole other way of seeing reality. He knows that if you open the box Schrödinger’s cat is in, you can never be certain if it is alive or dead – you just don’t know which one. He understands the challenges of trying to explain things that are counter intuitive to our rational, normal understandings about how things are, and how things appear to be in time and space. He understands that there are some things going on that you see the result of but can’t actually see what is causing the results. He believes in things that have never been seen like dark matter and quarks because of the effects that have been witnessed. And, as a scientist, he hypothesises and experiments and comes to a conclusion and then does it again to in order hopefully to come to a fuller understanding of what the evidence is pointing to.
I’d suggest that this is what we are doing when we speak of God. It is through the experience and language and imagery at our disposal that we make sense of what happens to us and what we encounter in our own experiences of bumping into the presence of God. It is what those who came before us have done as they have tried to make sense of what they have witnessed and experienced – transcendent events like the transfiguration or Moses going up to the mountain to meet God or other events that were completely beyond what was expected or understood. And often the best, or the most, we are left with is silence – silence in the mystery of this transcendent God that we have seen traces of. When we come to stories like the one Luke tells us, we can let the event just be there and allow it its full reality, recognizing, however, that it is in another realm that the best words and images we have are not enough to get at the deep place that it offers us a glimpse of.
What we have in this story of the transfiguration is a challenge to our normal understandings. In this story God is completely other: God is mystery, a cloud that hovers over reality and hides it. The Christian mystics speak of God as a darkness that is impenetrable, the unknown and the unknowable. At other times God is spoken of as dwelling in inaccessible light. God is the great mystery that we cannot fathom, utterly other and as soon as we think we understand and begin to explain God, it is no longer God that we have understood. Peter Rollins quotes the 6th Century Christian mystic Pseudo Dionysius, “even if one has progressed far in divine things one is never nearer the truth than when one understands that those things still remain to be discovered. He who believes he has attained the goal, far from finding what he seeks, falls by the wayside”. Rollins then adds, ‘God is greater than we can conceive God to be and we can conceive of something beyond our thoughts but we cannot think of something beyond that.’ (28, 30)
And yet as Christians we are also ones who subscribe to the belief that all the fullness of God was made known to us through Jesus who is “the image of the invisible God” (Colossians 1: 15, John 14: 10). It is this wonderful paradox that we live in. For we become engaged in a further mystery in which we are invited to consider that God is also accessible and open, invitational and relational. God longs for us to be in intimate relationship and invites friendship, desires to know and be known. The God we know has a human face. It is this relationship that we can speak of and the early church and those lovers of God through history have expressed through words and prayers, music and paintings.
And so on the one hand we are silent before the awesome, overwhelming thought of God, and on the other hand God is one we are encouraged to speak about. Therefore we are left with this reality: “that which we cannot speak of is the one thing about whom and to whom we must never stop speaking.’ (Rollins: 14)
We find ourselves in this place of longing for the presence of God and the desire to know the unknowable, seeking and being sought, finding and being met by mystery, given understanding about what it means to love God and live faithfully and yet being overwhelmed by the silence. For truly the God we worship is a holy, awesome, God who both reveals and conceals.