A theology of silence?

“God speaks through his attributes and yet also through his silence,” writes Zorodzai Dube.

While we know that God speaks, did we miss a theology of silence? One thing that has become apparent during the outbreak of the Covid-19 is the silence of God. But how can He be silent? As society we are used to singing and telling others about how powerful God is. Indeed, God is powerful. God is the creator of heaven and earth and from whom each one derives his or her divine purpose. This is why each Sunday service and during mid-week church gatherings, we meet to remind each other about these eternal attributes – God’s omnipotence and omnipresence.

However, something is amiss about God during the Covid-19 – God’s silence. Similar to Job of the Old Testament, we cannot correlate our knowledge about God with his silence. Indeed, we want Him to speak so that He is true to his attributes. How can God be silent? How are we going to tell our children and grandchildren? What shall we say to them? We love our church services – the music, the laughter that we share after the church service. Oh, how can we forget the procession by the clergy as they enter the church building? We all stand as we, impatiently, like children wait to unwrap God’s gift to us. These scenes remind us that, while outside the world is full of misery and stress, here in church, we are at home. We are at home with a God who comforts and loves us so dearly and this gives us the energy to come again the following week.

Now we have closed the church doors and the church bell cannot ring anymore. We have closed our hymnals and we cannot give back to God the sweet melodies that we think He deserves. How can He not like our offerings and tithes? Now we are hiding away in our homes. Each day on our TV screens, we watch with sorrow the news of thousands slaughtered by this virus. Where did it come from? When is it going to end? Will it end? How many will it kill before it disappears? What if it does not go away, then, is this the end of us as human beings?

These are difficult and irreconcilable questions to our confession. The most puzzling question is why is God silent? Ok, let’s suppose that after many deaths, He shall come to speak again. But has He not humiliated us enough such that even when we come out from our hideouts we will not be able to answer this one question, that is – why was He silent?

God is silent and yet He is talking. He was silent and yet talking for years when the Pharaoh of Egypt enslaved the Jews. He was silent and yet talking for years when people were waiting for the Messiah. He was silent and yet talking when Jesus was dying on the cross. Perhaps the Covid-19 is a reminder that as Christians, we are used to hearing God talk through his miracles and yet unable to listen to his silence. As a church, do we have a theology of God’s silence? Do we have ears and capacity to listen to his silence? Perhaps the Covid-19 is a call to a theology of silence – to listen to God’s silence when the curtains close, when the night comes, when darkness covers the earth, when voices fade into silent night.

Perhaps the theology of silence was what Peter and the other disciples failed to listen to or comprehend. To Peter who was a Zealot by background, God’s silence was his shame. ‘How, with all his power can He silently die on the cross?’ Peter asked. ‘I don’t know him, I don’t know this silent Jesus’, Peter protested. Equally, to John the son of Zebedee who had followed Jesus from the beginning, Jesus’ silence on the cross was his point of greatest shame. In response, he could not hold it together but to lurk in the darkness and not come close to the Jesus he loved. To the women at the crucifixion too, God’s silence caused grief and sorrow.

Perhaps as church, we are replicating this inability to comprehend the theology of God’s silence. Like the disciples, we are asking ourselves –‘why cannot He live up to his word?’ For some, similar to Peter, Covid-19 makes us to experience a point of regret and we are tempted to contemplate going back to our previous vocation. Maybe we are all whispering the question –‘How can I preach or confess the silent cross?’ After Covid-19 is over, how shall we go back to our church building and face the silent cross? Indeed, there are no easy answers. Nevertheless, one thing is certain – that God speaks through his attributes and yet also through his silence. We are used to his speaking while rebuking demons, healing the sick and silencing the storms. The Covid-19 could be a reminder to us all that God speaks also through his silence and, at this point as the church, we need to hear God during his silence and in our faculties of theology should develop a theology of God’s silence.

Dr Zorodzai Dube is professor of New Testament Studies at the University of Pretoria.