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James P. CarseJames P. Carse taught at New York University for thirty years as the Professor of the History and Literature of Religion, and Director of the Religious Studies Program. He retired from the University in 1996. He is a writer and an artist, and lives in New York City and Massachusetts.

What follows are excerpts from Carse’s 1985 book, The Silence of God: Meditations on Prayer (pagination from the 1995 paperback edition).

No doubt many persons would argue that God has never ceased to speak, that the word of God as recorded in scripture is a Living Word….

Consider two questions in response to this objection: (1) If God is still speaking through scripture, how do we recognize that voice as the voice of God? (2) If it is the voice of God we are hearing in scripture, how do we respond to it?

(1) To begin at the most obvious and rudimentary level, we contend with the fact that the scriptures were written in a given time and place and in the vernacular of its authors…. None of them claims to have been directly or even indirectly inspired.

Even if we insist that these men were mere amanuenses of God, accurately transcribing the communicated messages, it is still the case that they wrote in a natural language, with all the terminological and conceptual limitations that means.

It is almost as though God is therefore limited to the vernacular idiosyncrasies of a few speakers of Hebrew or Greek or [Aramaic]. The question here is not whether God is capable of such self-limitation, but whether we can know when we are reading the words of God and when we are reading the words of Matthew and of Paul.

The simplest way out of this apparent dilemma is to say that everything contained in the Bible, as it stands on the page, is what God is saying…. Any attempt to alter the words of the Bible is an attempt to change God’s own words and distort the truth. This is certainly one way of resolving the question as to whether God is still speaking in the scriptures, but it is a way that raises a blizzard of questions.

What do we do, for example, with the discrepancies found among various texts? If we do not understand Greek, can we then not understand God? If we translate the Bible into other languages, which translations may we trust? Are some more inspired than others? How can we tell?

Perhaps the most serious question of all, concerning this simplistic approach to scripture, is whether it does not presuppose one or another catalogue of theological affirmations that have been assembled independently of any reading of the biblical text whatsoever.

I am certain that [those who take this approach] share a wide range of beliefs on topics as diverse as homosexuality, church polity, pacifism, [etc.]—all of which have fragmentary or inconsistent biblical support if they have any at all. It is difficult to suppress the thought that they built their theological tower with a single language so they would not have to be confused by the many voices of scripture. (11-13)

Tower of Babel, by Bruegel

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I do not mean these questions to be impious. On the contrary, I am only recalling an issue that rises repeatedly in the scripture itself. Consider, for example, how many persons are described as having heard the words of Jesus with their own ears—without hearing the voice of God in his voice. Indeed, not even Jesus’ own disciples seem to have heard it….

What advantage do we have over these disciples? We have the words of Jesus, from his native Aramaic first into Greek and now into English, on the written page. The disciples heard the words of Jesus from Jesus himself, in their own native tongue. But if they could not hear what God was saying through these words, how can we be sure of interpreting them correctly?

These questions do not seem to me to be a challenge to the claim that the Bible has a divine origin. I should rather argue that the impossibility of arriving at a definitive interpretation of scripture is precisely what makes it scripture. The best we can do is to come to sacred writings from within our own human limitations, our own vernacular and conceptual biases. When we quote them we give them a meaning that is our own—not God’s.

To know that god means is to know God. And in the words of a fifteenth-century rabbi, Joseph Albo, “If I knew Him I would be Him.” Albo was attacking the presumption that anyone has the final word on the meaning of the scripture. (14)

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(2) So far I have discussed the matter of God’s silence in what we can consider epistemological terms: How can we know that the speaker of these words is God?… There is another question that must be raised against the claim that God is still speaking in scriptures: If we have been persuaded that this is the speaking of God, what do we do about it?

It is obvious enough that any persons certain they have been addressed by God will respond to that address with the deepest possible seriousness. The may feel it necessary to change their lives to conform to the message of the Living Word; or they may feel it necessary to change the lives of others.

We can confidently expect that whoever receives a communication from God will regard that communication as true, and urgent, and uncompromising. In short, whoever has heard the speaking of God will thereby feel authorized to speak for God. What else could you do if you had heard God speak?…

The history of attempts to speak for God is notorious. One could reasonably argue that acting as though one had the authority of the divine is itself the very source of evil. We very seriously misunderstand the nature of evil if we think that persons act out of true malice. Virtually all evil is done in the interest of the good.

If I have the word of God, straight from God, I certainly know what is good for your life, regardless of any opinions you might have concerning your life. It may even be that according to the word of the Lord as I have it your life is to be decisively altered—or even ended altogether…. (15)

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There are other reasons that the recurrence of evil in history for insisting on the silence of God. If we were to gather in one place all those persons who claim to have received direct communications from God, we would be struck by the variety and the contradictory content of those various revelations.

We can easily imagine the difficulty, nay, the impossibility, of getting such recipients of God’s revealed word as Muhammed, Swedenborg, Joseph Smith, and Father Divine to set down a text acceptable to each. (16)

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I [cannot] help wondering why it is that those who seek after the Truth find themselves in essential harmony, even unity, with other seekers; but those who have the Truth seem to have a bottomless enmity for those who do not have it, or have another truth. Why is it that our acknowledged ignorance unites us, and the acknowledged possession of the Truth divides us?…

I [wonder] also whether there is a principle here that has a larger purchase. Can it be that it is what we lack, and not what we possess, that constitutes the basis for community?

It seems to me that I am closer to those with whom I share an unfulfilled dream than I am to those with whom I share a realized dream. I have much more in common with persons I stand together with at the beginning of a journey than with those with whom I stand at its conclusion… Even if we share a rich past, what holds our communal bonds in place is the unfulfilled future for which that past is prelude. (18-19)

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What I am suggesting is that the silence of God does not necessarily mean that God is absent; what it does mean is that we cannot present ourselves to each other as God. Whatever other mode our speaking may take with each other, it may not take the mode of absolute truth, of divine authority.

If I speak to you with the authority of God, I violate the limitations of our humanity in two ways: I regard myself as something considerably more than human, and I regard you as something considerably less than human. I see myself as above error—and you helplessly caught in it. Because of God’s silence I can speak to you only as the person I am, and therefore can in no way determine how you are to respond, meaning that you will answer only as the person you are.

Significantly, scripture itself returns us repeatedly to the limits of our humanity. Jesus’ only direct statements about truth are directed not at his teaching, but at his person: I am the truth.

Christ before Pilate, At Jesus’ trial, Pilate pauses during the proceedings to ask his prisoner a direct, perhaps even personal question: “What is truth?” [John 18: 38] Here was a remarkable opportunity. If ever there was a moment for standing before the world, and pointing out the path history would take, this was it. Here was God getting the ear of Caesar.

But how did Jesus respond to this opportunity? Incredibly, he said nothing at all. Instead, he turned away in silence and went directly to his death. He followed his heart. He did not arrange the world for us; he died for us.

He did not assume that he had taken our journey for us and concluded it in a way that made it forever unnecessary for us to take it on our own. He did not therefore give us a truth by which we might accordingly organize the world; he asked only that we follow him and die his death.

The point is clear and compelling. If Jesus did not arrange the world according to the truth as he knew it—and if there is any truth at all one should think that it would be fully known to the Son of God—why should we? There is a deep and tragic human tendency to think that one does not dies for the truth; one kills for the truth.

I do not know the man I quoted above as saying that we should adapt the world to the Bible and not the Bible to the world, but there was an anger and an arrogance in his voice that seemed ready to declare a holy war against those who place the world before the Bible. This was a man who wants the ear of Caesar, even wants to be Caesar, maybe more.

The question here is really one of intention. What is it we mean to accomplish by quoting scripture as truth, or by proclaiming truth in some other form?… We may intend simply to represent God’s intentions. But we do not know God’s intentions. To know God is to be God.

I suggested earlier that it is the Bible’s character as a provocatively varied and most human collection of writings that elevates it to the status of scripture. It begs for interpretation but defies any final, definitive interpretation. Analogous to the eternal Tao that cannot be spoken, this is the word of God that cannot be spoken as the Word of God.

The Bible is the work of persons as real and as flawed as we are—fully human but only human. Therefore, when we repeat their words we do so as the real and flawed persons we are, fully human but only human.

They wrote these words on the assumption that it was they and not God speaking. When we repeat them we can do so only on the assumption that it is we and not God speaking. In sum, to quote scripture is to declare the silence of God. (21-23)


Note: This post has also been published on Quaker Universalist Conversations.

Image sources:

James P. Carse —from Carse’s website

The Tower of Babel, by Pieter Bruegel the Elder (Vienna), 1563 —from PainterLog.com – Themed Paintings: The Tower of Babel

Christ before Pilate – Tintoretto. Artist: Tintoretto. Start Date: 1566. Completion Date:1567. Style: Mannerism (Late Renaissance) —from WikiPaintings Visual Art Encyclopedia

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Stephen Jay Gould

Our mind works largely by metaphor and comparison, not always (or even often) by relentless logic. When we are caught in conceptual traps, the best exit is often a change in metaphor—not because the new guideline will be truer to nature...but because we need a shift to more fruitful perspectives, and metaphor is often the best agent for conceptual transition. (264)

Bully for Brontosaurus: Reflections in Natural History

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