Silencing Speech, Speaking in Tongues: Bonhoeffer and the Beginning of Theology

“Teaching about Christ begins in silence.”  D. Bonhoeffer

Bonhoeffer begins his lectures–transcribed and formed into the book Christ the Center–with these words on the silent beginning of theology.  It’s a complicated opening.

The silence that precedes “teaching about Christ” cannot be discerned before this teaching actually commences.  Not all silences are this silent beginning:  the silent foreground of teaching “has nothing to do with the silence of the mystics, who in the their dumbness chatter away secretly in their soul by themselves” (27).  The only way to distinguish “proper silence” (27) from this silent “chatter” is to refer to what follows this silence (teaching about Christ or self-enclosed chatter).  It thus seems that theology has no beginning, for its proper beginning–silence–is constituted only after theology is already under way; and its commencement (teaching) can only begin properly, as real theology and not empty chatter, out of a proper silence (which is absent when it begins, or is its absent beginning).  “To speak of Christ means to keep silent; to keep silent about Christ means to speak.  When the Church speaks rightly out of a proper silence, then Christ is proclaimed” (27).  

For Bonhoeffer, the beginning of theology is not under our control.  Theology begins not with our own silence but in our being silenced.  Theology begins in an encounter whereby a word within our words claim to be the end of our words.  In the midst of our chatter, our impressive mystical silences, our vibrant declarations, and our most dedicated writing–as we busy ourselves with our study (logos)–comes a word, a logos “from outside study itself” (28).  This “transcendent” one in the flesh, before our eyes and under our hands (1 Jn 1), makes a startling claim:  it claims that our order, study, classification (logos) is “broken up, superseded and in its place a new world has already begun” (29).  What answer can we give?

We can attempt to absorb it, admit our limitations and weakness, and then maintain that we (and generally we alone) display this truly human humility.  This moment of self-negation is a subtle form of self-affirmation:  it is we who recognize the limitations of human knowledge.  It is we who produce the proper discourse (culture), a discourse whose limitations are inscribed in its very production, and therefore, a discourse (culture) towards which all others ought to strive.  Whether through direct assault, a reserved interrogation, or even an enthusiastic embrace, we move the same way, towards a “new world” that has not “already begun” but that will begin or has begun in, with and through us.

Theology begins with our exclusion.  It begins therefore, as we are on our sinful way–not with us or through us, but in spite of us.  Theology is not a discourse we can control.  “The proletarian does not say, ‘Jesus is God’.  But when he says, ‘Jesus is a good man’, he is saying more than the bourgeois says when he repeats, ‘Jesus is God'” (35).  Bonhoeffer acknowledges that the question of theology–who are you–“remains ambiguous” (35); we often cannot tell whether “who are you” means “how can I deal with you” or is the question of faith, of a dethroned and delimited reason.  We do not know what we say.

Pentecost by Alexander Sadoyan

Theology begins with this exclusion.  We cannot exclude ourselves, and so, theology begins with the confession of our inability to confess–we do not know what we are saying when we say, “Jesus is God” or when we hear others say, “Jesus was a good man.”  We do not know what we say–that is the beginning of theology.  Theology begins then with our silenced speech, or, what is the same thing, with our speaking in tongues.  The words of a language that I cannot learn pour forth from my lips, and the question that remains is not how do I speak thus but who is the one who calls (forth) this speech?  This question of “who” can “only be put legitimately when the person questioned has revealed himself and has eliminated the imminent logos” (31).  It is a question that we can ask only as those who have been set aside (judged) and yet upheld (forgiven).  Who knows whether we have spoken rightly?

Theology, for Bonhoeffer, begins as our speech is liberated from this need to speak rightly.  It begins with the gift of another(‘s) tongue in our mouth (Cixous), a silencing speech that comes before us and opens our lips:  O Lord, open my lips, and my mouth will declare your praise.

This entry was posted in bonhoeffer, possibility of theology, silence, speaking in tongues. Bookmark the permalink.

9 Responses to Silencing Speech, Speaking in Tongues: Bonhoeffer and the Beginning of Theology

  1. Brandy says:

    Great post, Tim. I think it is especially interesting that Bonhoeffer opens up Christ the Center with this, and then ends Ethics (well, the last thing he gets to…) talking about what it means to tell the truth. I'm not sure what this means, or if it is even relevant, but I was reminded of that manuscript when I read this…

  2. Brandy–thanks. I don't recall the discussion from Ethics so I'd certainly be interested to hear more about what you see going on in that final chapter.

  3. R.O. Flyer says:

    I agree. This is totally awesome.

  4. Rod says:

    Brilliant post!

  5. Thanks for the encouragement. I should add that I can't ever mention "speaking in tongues" in a theological context without thinking of Brian Bantum (, who was wrapping up his PhD at Duke when I was there for my MTS. Oh, and the H. Cixous quote I reference comes from her brilliant book, _Stigmata_: "Tongue in our mouths, we must change tongues, another tongue must come into our mouths, and into our bodies another body" (107). Thanks again.

  6. Brandy says:

    Well, I guess I was thinking about it because I was thinking about how the ways that Bonhoeffer’s claims at the beginning of Christ the Center, while (at least it seems so to me) offered as a sort of theological ethic and/or politic against some problematic theological (sometimes explicitly, sometimes not) discourse that undergirded what led to Nazi Germany–the ‘how’ question he articulates at the beginning as precisely that desire to assimilate and dominate. So instead, we have the who question, and are reminded that, as you so articulately explain it, theology begins with our exclusion. I guess what I worry about is not where theology begins (I thin Bonhoeffer is right on this) and not where it ends, but what do we do in the meantime… the ethical question. I worry that sometimes Bonhoeffer is read in such a way that leads to apathy/indifference. I do NOT think that is what you are saying, but I think a lot of people think this, and that there hasn’t been a lot of thinking through of the ethical implications of the claims Bonhoeffer makes in the beginning of Christ the Center (and I think a lot of people—myself especially, but I’ve heard other people voice it as well—get stuck here, just in the idea that claiming revelation already implies it is interpreted knowledge, so how do we even claim it, what do we do with that, etc…). Yes, theology begins with our silenced speech, but what does that mean ethically? That’s where my questions about “truth telling” come in, just cause it seems that Bonhoeffer, not moving from this point of silencing speech, begins to suggest we speak in a particular way in the midst of that silence, witnessing to that silence… I think Ethics as a whole gestures to this, especially with Bonhoeffer’s refusal to explicitly delineate between church and world, between sacred and profane, but also in suggesting that that manifests itself with ‘truth telling’… I know that didn’t answer your question, Tim, but just wanted to clarify what was behind my curiousness at the juxtaposition between the two. Also, Hauerwas did a conference paper on Bonhoeffer and truth telling… ( I don’t think he actually says all that much in it, but I think what he does say is pretty good, and, at the least, interesting.

  7. Brandy,I did have in mind the Ethics, not the last essay, but earlier, where he tries to place ethics beyond good and evil and speaks about having to act on the basis of forgiveness (it is not the fact that I am forgiven that drives our ethics but the presence of the one who forgives me). I think people often end up silent/indifferent out of a lingering desire to know that they act/speak rightly. And I think you are right to be concerned here: it isn't enough to produce an anti-imperialist theology or ethics (and it is a temptation for white guys like myself to think this is the aim, as if the point were to help clear a ground so that I know I'm acting rightly, meaning non-imperialistically, which is different than someone like Fanon–and how many more, especially for me, my brothers and sisters in the African-American church–who are fighting for the birth of a world that doesn't despise black love). I played with "silencing speech" as an attempt to capture the necessity of our speaking (it is speech), its insufficiency (it is not full speech, but a silent speech), and the presence of another voice (the silencing speech as the other who renders us silent). The silencing speech is both ours and not ours (hence the speaking in tongues) and is therefore neither silence nor speech (or both, as Bonhoeffer has it). To try to put it more simply: to speak "truly" is to speak towards the one who is the truth, who is the judge, not to declare the mastery of our own judgement. As Bonhoeffer will say later in the introduction to CTC, theology (and I think ethics too) is the attempt to try to be where Christ will be, where Christ will reveal Himself (39). And speaking "truth to power" as they say is therefore confessing that one cannot see this Crucified God here, or, that one sees this Crucified God at work here in a different way than they might imagine. I'm still working this out too, so any help would be appreciated.

  8. Pingback: No More Transgressions: immigration and Christ’s invasion | veeritions

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s