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Posted February 5, 2005

Book: Holiness, Speech and Silence: Reflections on the Question of God
Author: Nicholas Lash
Ashgate, Burlington, VT, pp. 98

An Excerpt from the Jacket:

The late Cornelius Ernst once said that Aquinas’ ‘Five Ways’ were ‘an attempt to show how we may go on speaking of God in the ordinary world.’

Nicholas Lash shows how the main contours of the Christian doctrine of God may be mapped onto principal features of our culture and its predicaments. After an introductory chapter on ‘The Question of God Today’, Nicholas Lash considers — in chapters entitled ‘Globalization and Holinness’, ‘Cacophony and Conversion’ and ‘Attending to Silence’ — three dimensions of our contemporary predicament: globalization, a crisis of language, and the pain and darkness of the world, in relation to the doctrine of God as Spirit, Word, and Father.

An Excerpt from the Book:

Why was Pascal Afraid?

Some years ago, I took part in a conference, hosted by the Vatican Observatory, of physicists, philosophers and theologians. A Jesuit astronomer asked me: “What is it that you learn, as a theologian, from the natural sciences?’ I found it a surprisingly difficult question to answer. At one level, of course, the answer might have been: ‘What any non-specialist learns of some subject from its specialists!’ But that might have seemed evasive so, with his own discipline in mind, I replied: ‘The sheer, unimaginable vastness of the world.’ And I meant just that: unimaginable. I can learn from the astronomer that there are 4.4 light years between the sun and its nearest neighbour in our galaxy (which come to 41.6 x 10`12 kilometers), or that 50 million light years (roughly 208 x 10`13 kilometres) separates our galaxy from galaxy M87 in the Virgo cluster, and so on. But, for the non-cosmologist like myself, great strings of zeros soon cease to be informative. Bearing them in mind, one does better, I suspect, by going out ‘into the wilderness’, leaving (so far as possible!) The city lights behind, on a clear night, with a good pair of binoculars.

Blaise Pascal was born in 1623, nineteen years before Isaac Newton. It was, therefore, in a Europe becoming rapidly aware, to an unprecedented degree, of the vastness of the universe, that Pascal wrote: ‘le silence eternel de ces espaces infinies m’effraie’: ‘the eternal silence of these infinite spaces terrifies me.’

Notice, however, that it was not the sheer size of ‘these infinite spaces’ which so unnerved the great mathematician, but their silence. The empty stillness of the sky speaks silently to human solitude. It is, I think, this sense of solitude that is unnerving. I have a suspicion (since the mathematics, on their own, point neither one way nor another) that one reason why some scientists seem so keen to suppose that somewhere, in some vastly distant region, there must be that which we could recognize as ‘living’, and as capable of communicating with us, is that — were these strange things friend or foe — meeting them would give us company, diminish our terrifying isolation. Other people, of course, will populate the distant skies with spirits, comfortable deities who may watch over us and protect us from the void.

If, however, we eschew all such purely speculative strategies of evasion, then we are left where Pascal stood: trembling before the terrifying silence of the world. The question that I want to ask, however, is this: is Pascal’s terror reasonable?

On a narrow, purely calculative account of the criteria for rational behavior, the answer, I suppose, is: No. He should have had a stiff drink, told himself to calm down and get on with measuring the distances. What there is is what there is, and that’s an end to it.

If one knows anything of the working habits of great scientists, however, that seems less than satisfactory. Mathematicians, notoriously, have a highly developed sense of the aesthetic: the beauty of a good equation matters a great deal to them. And the cosmologists I know approach their work with not fear, indeed, but certainly with wonder: with a kind of reverence.

I am not smuggling in an illegitimate exercise in what is now called ‘natural theology.’ I am only suggesting that, even if the scientist has no way, as a scientist, of answering the question, he or she is not abandoning the rationally proper to their enterprise in asking, with a kind of wonder: ‘How come? What is all this about?’ It does not surprise me that from the time of the Psalmist to the seventeenth century and even our own day, reflecting in wonder on the world has led human beings to formulate the kind of question which, in Jewish and in Christian discourse, is call the question of creation.

An End of Explanation

The world is what there is: from the most distant galaxy to the most minute convolutions of the human brain; from quarks and fractals to today’s exchange rate; from the American and British invasion of Iraq in 2003 to Beethoven’s late string quartets. The world is all the things there are.

What everybody calls ‘the world’, Jews and Christians also call ‘creation’, which confuses tings, because cosmologists also speak sometimes of ‘creation’ but, when they do, they are not referring to the world, but to the establishment of its initial conditions.

Here, for example, is the late Professor Carl Sagan, concluding his Introduction to Stephen Hawking’s Brief History of Time:

This is also a book about God . . .or perhaps about the absence of God. The word God fills these pages . . .And this makes all the more unexpected the conclusion of the effort, at least so far: a universe with not edge in space, no beginning or end in time, and nothing for a Creator to do.

Sagan, in other words, took it for granted that the concept of ‘creation’ functions, in Jewish and Christian thought, as an explanation of the establishment of the initial conditions of the world.

Table of Contents:

1. The Question of God Today
What does God look like?
Reason, imagination and the importance of theology
Changing the subject
The changing nature of God
The changing nature of belief in God

2. Globalization and Holiness
‘Only One Earth’
The recovery of grand narrative
‘Narrative is fiction’
‘Grand narratives are imperialist’
Renewing the Spirit
Renewing religion
Holiness and sacramentality

3. Cacophony and Conversation
Is conversation possible?
Can we put things into words?
‘Don’t speak until you’re spoken to’
Can disaster silence speech?
Learning to speak again

4. Attending to Silence
‘Silence belongs to the Father’
Why was Pascal afraid?
An end of explanation
Contingency as gift
Courtesy and reverence