top of page

The Language of Silence: A Philosophical Study with Applications to Theology

Holy Apostles College & Seminary

by Allison Ramirez

Dr. Marianne Siegmund PHS 607: Philosophy for Theologians

31 July 2022




Saint Mother Theresa once said, “God is the friend of silence. See how nature – trees, flowers, grass – grows in silence; see the stars, the moon, and the sun, how they move in silence...We need silence to be able to touch souls.” Unfortunately, silence is often overlooked in the loud, fast-paced American culture. Whether spoken, signed, written, read, or listened to, words in language are our primary way to express emotions, thoughts, and knowledge. We rely on language to instruct, persuade, argue, entertain, and move. Language undoubtedly has its necessary place in communication, both for the Philosopher’s attempt at studying the nature of knowledge, reality, and existence –as well as for the Theologian’s attempt at studying the nature of God and religious belief. However, language does not come without its limitations and disputes; thus, without silence, we are forfeiting a valuable means of gaining unique insight about our world and who we are as human beings.


Language and Silence in Philosophy

Peter Kreeft writes in his book, The Philosophy of Jesus, that “Philosophy means the love of wisdom.”[1] And in Thomas Aquinas’ Summa Theologiae, he quotes St. Augustine who writes, “Wisdom is the knowledge of divine things.” [2] Thus, Philosophy and Theology walk together along the path of core ideals. However, in his book, Abuse of Language: Abuse of Power, philosopher Josef Pieper “reflects on the way language has been abused so that, instead of being a means of communicating the truth and striving for acquisition of wisdom –[key principles both Philosophy and Theology share]— language is being used to control people and manipulate them to achieve practical ends.” [3] Pieper makes note that the early Philosophy Plato’s “lifelong battle [was] with the sophists, those highly paid and popularly applauded experts in the art of twisting words, who were able to sweet-talk something bad into something good and to turn white into black.” [4] The question clearly becomes: How can one authentically acquire wisdom or truth with all the noise—manipulation of words and meaning—taking precedence over a real desire to use words to convey truth? The aims both of Philosophy and Theology toward the advancement of truth and wisdom are increasingly stifled by what Pieper refers to as “the abuse of Language.”


This abuse of language is just as prevalent today as it was during Socrates time with the Sophists. Words are constantly being re-defined so that clear common ground and meaning is harder to come by. According to Holly Ordway in her book Apologetics and the Christian Imagination: An Integrated Approach to Defending the Faith,

To raise an issue for discussion and argument means at least tacitly accepting that you might not be able to convince the other side that you’re right . . . and having to live with that. The alternative to authentic discussion is to manipulate circumstances such that the debate never happens, and the position that you favor becomes entrenched—or to manipulate language so that the other point of view becomes unsayable and eventually unthinkable.[5]


The result, Ordway says, is that “Once language becomes routinely distorted, it becomes increasingly easy to justify and promote evil.” [6] Language has the potential to be less about acquiring truth and more about advancing one’s own agenda or desires. This can be done by “cancelling” those whose voices we don’t agree with or by bending terminology and phrases so as to distort the truth of the reality spoken of. Using some examples from modern day contexts, the terminology “Pro-Choice” instead of “Pro-Death” or “Death with Dignity” instead of “Assisted Killing or Suicide” are current ways the true reality of immoral acts is being distorted, by carefully choosing words that make the action in question appear more appealing.


Jeannine Suurmond in her article “Philosophy of Language and Discourse” writes that: “Beginning in the 20th century…Philosophy shifted paradigm: the dominant view that language simply expresses the world and its properties was overruled by a focus on language in itself: How is our world made from the meanings that language expresses?” [7]. In other words, the view of language as being able to articulate the reality of the world as it is was replaced by the view that language itself is what gives reality to the world. Nowadays, instead of language serving as a tool to understanding the truths of life, the world is the tool that language uses, twisting reality to be what suits its needs, or should I say, the needs of the one wielding the words.


Silence, on the other hand, while not a full replacement for the means of language as a vehicle to acquiring wisdom, allows for one to pause and reflect. In silence, we can consider the intent and purpose of words –ours and others—among many other varied purposes. Silence has its role in a variety of context, including in music, the literary arts, and religion, to name a few.

In this space, I do not intend to present an exhaustive definition of the philosophical nature of silence as there exists more than one definition –the views of which are often diverse with some views positing silence as an absence and others as a presence; others interpret silence as an existence while others as a lack of existence; I argue that the more relevant touchstone to where Philosophy and Theology intersect is less about what silence is or isn’t and more about how the experience of silence, both within and outside of oneself, informs our quest toward wisdom which is an aim that both Philosophy and Theology share.


I would, however, like to offer a brief philosophical evaluation of silence from Philosopher Bernard Dauenhauer in his book Silence: The Phenomenon and It’s Ontological Significance. In his work he writes, “Silence is not simply the correlative opposite of discourse [language]. Rather, it establishes and maintains a tension not only among the several levels and shapes of discourse but also between…other domains of experience.” [8] In other words, silence helps to hold language, as well as the plethora of other ways one experiences the world (i.e. thoughts, feelings, emotions) in balance. Drawing back to the opening quote from Mother Theresa, some living things maintain their whole existence in silence (trees, plants, flowers) for that is the primary way God created them. Human beings, on the other hand, have the unique gift of utilizing both silence and spoken word to grow in wisdom and truth along with our other faculties of the experiencing the world. This is an important reminder that silence is part of a tension of ways one relates to the world.


Dauenhauer also writes that: “Silence occurs and is encountered only as somehow linked to some active, as opposed to spontaneous, human performances” (3). In other words, silence is an active participation that we are invited into as opposed to something that happens unawares to us. Of course, we can let silence be silence and not make use of it in our assessment of truth, but we can also proactively participate with silence. The great philosopher Plato once said, “Your silence gives consent.” He was most likely referring to one’s silence giving consent to whatever was previously said or posited in one’s presence by another, but I argue that on a theological level, our silence has the ability to give consent to the presence of God in our midst. Silence does not just have to be the absence of noise but can also be the presence of another’s voice as we remain attentive and intentional to the natural rhythms of the world around us. Silence is a space for listening and learning. Silence can be both an absence (of noise and sound) as well as a presence (of God).


Language and Silence in Theology

Moving now to a theological view of language and silence, we will first examine the biblical appearance of the word silence in scripture, focusing heavily on the Psalms and Proverbs. These texts are full of lessons on the meaning and power of silence. I include a few instances here: “Death and life are in the power of the tongue”; [9] “Set a guard, O Lord, over my mouth; keep watch over the door of my lips”; [10] “Even a fool who keeps silent is considered wise; when he closes his lips, he is deemed intelligent”; [11] “Whoever belittles his neighbor lacks sense, but a man of understanding remains silent” ; [12] “The Lord will fight for you, you have only to be silent.” [13] Focusing particularly on Exodus 14:24, we see how at times the Lord can work the greatest miracles for us when we silently allow him to. While there is certainly a place for being proactive in one’s lives, sometimes God can only work in our silence –in our awareness of him as felt keenly through silence. He might be fighting for us in ways we would not otherwise notice if not for drawing ourselves away from the noise of discourse. The scriptures speak also of the wise man being the one who keeps silent, who ponders before he speaks, who considers the implications and the intent of his words, and desires that when he speaks, truth will be the outcome.


Another beautiful example of the place for both language and silence in scripture is at the nativity scene of Christ’s birth in Luke 2. As the angels are speaking the good news of Jesus’ birth to the shepherds, we are told that the shepherd’s response was to “make known what they had been told.” While the shepherd’s response involves the spoken word, Mary’s reaction to the angel’s words is one of silence. “But Mary treasured up all these things and pondered them in her heart.” [14] In other words, Mary was quiet, silently meditating and ruminating, letting these words of the angel take root and residence in her heart in place of immediately going out and speaking them aloud. There is clearly a place and need for both responses, one of bold words and the other of reflective silence.

Cynthia Trainque in her article, “On the Importance of Silence in the Liturgy,” quotes Cardinal Sarah who speaks of the Holy Family’s use of silence:

The Gospels say that the Savior himself prayed in silence, particularly at night (Lk 6:12), or while withdrawing to deserted places (Lk 5:16; Mk 1:35). Silence is typical of the meditation by the Word of God; we find it again particularly in Mary’s attitude toward the mystery of her Son (Lk 2:19, 51). The most silent person in the Gospels is of course Saint Joseph; not a single word of his does the New Testament record for us. [15]


While the Holy Family models for us a favoring of silence, I’d like to offer a few concrete ways that silence can be incorporated into the life of faith of Christians today. Specifically, Theology embraces silence through several means, one of those means being meditation. By meditating, one is called to focus the mind on a particular object, thought, person, and activity or to train attention and awareness toward something tangible, such as a scripture passage or religious text. This focused view of meditation is not the same as mindfulness or transcendental meditation as practiced in Hindu or Buddhist religions. In these religions, the point of meditation is to completely empty one’s mind of all thought, felling, or emotion –in other words, to detach oneself from the world. In contrast, true Christian meditation is the complete opposite, inviting us into a more intimate experience of the world with Christ at the forefront. Through the aid of intentional, silent reflection, one can call their mind to meditate on the things of Christ, thus turning a space of silence toward an encounter with God, especially in his Word.


Another way Theologians exercise the use of silence is through the experience of contemplation which, while like meditation, often takes a more intimate focus on cultivating an awareness of the divine which transcends the intellect, often as a result of deep prayer or meditation. Many of the mystics have spoken of the experience of contemplation in the spiritual life of silence. In the words of Boethius as quoted by Pieper, “The human soul, in essence, enjoys its highest freedom when it remains in the contemplation of God’s mind.” [16] The Catholic Catechism also includes a word on contemplation stating, “Contemplative prayer is silence, the symbol of the world to come, silent love.” [17]


The monastic tradition of Lectio Divina is a wonderful way to utilize silence in one’s prayer life and one of the ways to enter a state of contemplation. Through this prayer, one can walk through the steps of lectio (reading), meditatio (meditation), oratio (prayer), and contemplatio (contemplation). One is invited first to read a passage of scripture or other religious text silently, considering the words themselves. Second, one meditates in silence on the meaning of those words both in their context and as relevant to one’s life. Third, one brings their thoughts and feelings to the Lord in vocal prayer. Fourth, one returns to silence and sits in a space of complete openness, allowing God to love them by inviting him into their heart and mind—this is where the opportunity for contemplation occurs; note that in the theological view, contemplation is not something we achieve on our own but is a gift from God of an overwhelming feeling of God’s presence and consolation in our midst.


The Church’s liturgical calendar also naturally fluctuates between times for speech and times for silence. Dr. Holly Ordway writes in her article, “Trading Noise for Silence and How to Use It,” that: “Silence is a kind of well, a deep water that we need to dip into frequently for refreshment, and I daresay, most of us are thirstier than we realize.” [18] The Church, in her wisdom, recognizes this inherent human thirst for silence and so invites us to consider in our liturgy (such as in the quiet moments after receiving communion) that God is present. As well, our liturgical seasons of patient, silent awaiting in Advent and Lent are in preparation for the joyful, acclamation of verbal celebration that happens at Christmas and Easter.


All in all, the aim of the philosopher and theologian should always be the revelation of truth through the acquisition of wisdom. We must avoid “language-policing” at all costs, of which Ordway describes “as a move to avoid discussion or exploration of the truth or falsity of words that a group or individual doesn’t like.” [19] We must not be afraid of words – afraid of what they will call us to account for or afraid of what they will lead us to consider or change. We must never use language for our own ends but always for the sake of the good and the true.

“What is truth?” Pilate famously asked this question in response to Jesus’ words, “I came into the world to testify to the truth. Everyone on the side of truth listens to my voice.” [20] What is the voice of Christ that we must follow in order to obtain this truth? Is it not sometimes the loud roaring of the lion and at other times the soft cry of the lamb? Is the voice of truth not gleaned both through dialogue and debate in accompaniment with silent reflections and moments of simply being in the presence of stillness? The true language of silence is one where we find growth in wisdom through the absence of words – in the numbing of noise— in the stepping aside within our minds to make space for the presence of the divine amid our reality.


Bibliography

Bernard Dauenhauer, Silence: The Phenomenon and Its Ontological Significance (Bloomington, State: Indiana University Press, 1980).

Catechism of the Catholic Church. 2nd ed. Washington, DC: United States Catholic Conference, 2000.

Cynthia Trainque, “On the Importance of Silence in the Liturgy” (Catholic Exchange, 2016) On The Importance of Silence in the Liturgy (catholicexchange.com).

Holly Ordway, Apologetics and the Christian Imagination: An Integrated Approach to Defending the Faith (City, State: Emmaus Road Publishing, 2017).

Holly Ordway, “Trading Noise for Silence, and How To Use It,” (WOF: , 2021). Trading Noise for Silence, and How to Use It - Word on Fire

Jeannine M. Surrmond, “Philosophy of Language and Discourse,” (Clingendael Institute, 2005).

John A. Hardon, “Modern Catholic Dictionary,” Dictionary of Terms - A (therealpresence.org), 1999. CATHOLIC ENCYCLOPEDIA: Silence (newadvent.org)

Josef Pieper, Abuse of Language: Abuse of Power Ignatius, (Ignatius: San Francisco, 1988).

Peter Kreeft, The Philosophy of Jesus, (St. Augustine’s Press: Indiana, 2007).

Stephen Walters, “The Power of Silence in Prayer,” (CERC, 2008), The Power of Silence in Prayer (catholiceducation.org)

The Holy Bible: Revised Standard Version. New York: Collins, 1971.

Thomas Aquinas, Summa theologiae, q. 29, a. 1, at New Advent, www.newadvent.org. [1] Peter Kreeft, The Philosophy of Jesus, (St. Augustine’s Press: Indiana, 2007), 6. [2] Thomas Aquinas, Summa theologiae, q. 29, a. 1, at New Advent, www.newadvent.org [3] Josef Pieper, Abuse of Language: Abuse of Power Ignatius, (Ignatius: San Francisco, 1988), 2. [4] Josef Pieper, 9. [5] Holly Ordway, Apologetics and the Christian Imagination: An Integrated Approach to Defending the Faith (City, State: Emmaus Road Publishing, 2017), 37. [6] Holly Ordway, 52. [7] Jeannine Suurmond, “Philosophy of Language and Discourse” (Clingendael Institute, 2005) 4. [8] Bernard Dauenhauer, Silence: The Phenomenon and Its Ontological Significance (Bloomington, State: Indiana University Press, 1980), 140. [9] Proverbs 18:21 [10] Psalm 141:3 [11] Proverbs 17:28 [12] Proverbs 11: 12 [13] Exodus 14:24 [14] Luke 2: 19 [15] Cynthia Trainque, “On the Importance of Silence in the Liturgy” [15] (Catholic Exchange, 2016) On The Importance of Silence in the Liturgy (catholicexchange.com). [16] Joseph Pieper, 54. [17] Catechism of the Catholic Church, 2nd ed. (Wa, DC: United States Conference, 2000), 652. [18] Holly Ordway, “Trading Noise for Silence, and How To Use It,” (Word on Fire, 2021) Trading Noise for Silence, and How to Use It - Word on Fire [19] Holly Ordway, 77. [20] John 18:38

13 views0 comments
bottom of page