“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our hands (1 Jn 1), makes a startling claim: it claims that our order, study, classification (logos) is “broken up, superseded and in its place a new world has already begun” (29).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.