Listening As Exchange: The Trouble with God Discerning Our Will

large meeting house If you ever get the chance to sit in on a silent Quaker meeting, take the opportunity. It’s not the kind of experience you’ll get just anywhere. Yes, it’s intense. Yes, it’s likely to be extremely difficult to “center down” and focus for an hour, but it’d still be a great exercise in listening. When I see conversations geared to listening, I automatically think of the Quaker tradition. What better group of people to turn to for advice about how to listen? When Quakers meet for worship they reserve a time during the service for complete silence; this silence is a commitment as a community to allowing God space in our worship. But it is rarely ever a “silent worship.” Rather, in worship Quakers listen for the Holy Spirit to move them to action. That is, if the Spirt of God moves you to share/preach/sing, then listening to God involves acting on what was heard. In this way, the practice of silence for Quakers only begins with listening, but true silence always leads to an action.

While at first glance this idea of a silent worship service may seem a bit overly simplistic, or even worse “boring,” but I challenge you to suggest to your church service planner to have 10 minutes of silence this week and see how it goes. And by silence, I mean absolute and complete silence, no soft piano playing in the background or guitar lazily strumming its strings, no worship leader talking about how we’re currently being silent before the Lord; no, I mean pure unadulterated quiet. Now I think this is still radical. It was radical 400 years ago, and it may be, in world where distraction is a necessary drug, even more radical today. Doesn’t just the idea of being quiet for so long kind of freak us out?!

Listening is no easy thing to do. In fact, I might suggest that in our world today, it’s the impossible. That is to say, listening is the kind of act (or event) that calls us to something beyond itself. It’s something we never fully accomplish. To truly connect with and understand the voice of an(other) and be moved to respond. “Jesus recognized the difficulty in listening when he said, ‘Let anyone with ears to hear, listen’” (Mark 4:9)! And this may be an impossible task, at least as far as we can never really sustain that kind of listening. We may have our moments where we truly hear, but I wouldn’t go so far as to say we are then true “hearers” of the (other’s) word all the time.

Think about the not-so-new cultural phenomena of blogging, which, when deconstructed, is simply a bunch of people all talking at once. A bunch of people all hoping someone else will listen. The way people listen in the blogosphere is by talking back through comments, but have you spent much time reading the comments of the more popular blogs? It really boils down to a bunch of people shouting about this and that. I’m not here to bash blogging–I’m one of those shouters myself–but I am trying to make a basic point. In our society we don’t have time to do the hard work involved in listening. Listening actually takes serious practice.

And there’s another aspect of listening that often goes unnoticed. Listening tends to be caught in a cycle of exchange (and often economic exchange at that). Going back to the blogging bit for a moment, think about it like this: I have a blog and I’d like others to “listen” to what I have to say (i.e. read my site), so I need to go and “listen” to other bloggers. But listening isn’t quite enough, I need to actually let them know I’m listening so they can return the favor when it’s my turn to talk/blog. You ever have a conversation with someone who says “uh-huh” every 5 seconds? “Uh-huh” in this cycle of exchange means, “Yes, I’m listening, please return the favor when it’s my turn.” And so you can see why we might think of listeing as the impossible.

But let’s push this even further than we really should: Isn’t all of Protestantism built around this “listening-as-exchange?” The sermon is the central focus of every protestant church (so far as I know). Yet, in this instance, I’d suggest our listening to sermons is more of an empty gesture, an act we participate in to keep up appearances. We listen to the sermon not so much to be changed or transformed (if that were the case then why don’t we join less homogeneous faith communities, and attend communities that say something radically ‘other’ than what we’re comfortable with?), but rather to invest in an exchange that takes place. We will never have any say in the community (that is we will never be heard by others) if we do not attend to the sermons. Here, then, we see how being able to reference the Sunday messages is a kind of currency (or exchange) within the community.

So now let’s take this to the breaking point: isn’t our listening to God, discerning God’s will, often just locked into this kind of exchange? We listen to God so that some day when we really need it God will listen to us. I think a better way to look at this problem of exchange is to ask the more honest question, “Is God having difficulties discerning my will?” We talk all the time about how difficult (or sometimes simple) it is to discern God’s will for our lives, but the more radical reading of the situation is to ask whether God is discerning our wills correctly. Is God really hearing us? Is God acting properly in this cycle of exchange?

It seems to me strange reversal is how we often approach God and our faith. We play by the rules and know all the right things to say, but we keep things safe by keeping up the appearance of listening when in fact we’re really just investing in currency. This may be why Quakers silence is still a very radical practice, when we listen in the silence, there is always the chance that the cycle will be broken, that some radically alterity will speak in a way that moves us to act – where really hearing means actually doing.

Would that God’s will (whatever it is) provokes us not just to listen (as exchange) but really listen (as action)!

This is an article I recently wrote which was published this past week in Fuller’s student paper called the Semi, you should be able to find the paper in .pdf form here.

9 responses to “Listening As Exchange: The Trouble with God Discerning Our Will”

  1. I really enjoyed this blog. It really made me think aobut how not only the “church” reacts to things but it became more personal. As of late, i’ve realized that the prime times that i have listened to God have been when i 1. needed something 2. needed direction. I don’t think that’s necesarily the way that it’s supposed to work. I think what you described here is very valid, and I don’t think i’ve neccesraily acknowledged it prior. Interesting thoughts…thanks for sharing.

  2. wess,

    i think there’s something profound in your comment about how we listen to god only so we can demand that god listen back. but i’m worried that you seem to equate all exchange with the manipulations of the market economy. i do believe we can talk about “just exchange” and reciprocity as non-manipulative forms of exchange. and we can talk about economies of gift in which part of what it means to receive a gift, is to give back freely; and thus part of the expectation of giving freely is to receive back freely. this economy of course requires a certain ethos or cultivation of virtue lacking in current models of exchange, but is nonetheless a worthy goal.

    i’m also really troubled that you dismiss all protestantism (!) as a “keeping up appearances.” i would guess that there are a significant amount of protestants who genuinely wish to be transformed by the sermon, not simply to be able to quote it to gain community prestige. listening to a sermon carefully can be just as challenging, though perhaps in a different way, as listening in silence. anyway, i would hope that you would not forget that quaker silence is itself a kind of protestant worship!


  3. @Kristen, thanks for the comment. I resonate with the two ways of approaching God as well and don’t think there’s anything wrong with that so long as we try and stretch out our understandings and approaches as well as you’ve suggested.

    @Jamie, thanks for the criticisms – and I agree that your two points are the weakest parts (as well as the main points) of the essay. In the essay I do put a lot of pressure on an idea of exchange to which I never really or fully explain, and so I can certainly see how it communicates this reductionistic-economic quality. I don’t finally accept that route, which is why I probably should have added “(and often [but not always] economic exchange at that).” Also, I completely agree with your point about the gift exchange, and this is essentially what I was trying to place Quaker silence into, but of course that’s left unstated.

    Your second criticism is of course the glaring ridiculousness of the article, no doubt. I’m actually surprised that they published it considering that I left that statement in there. I won’t retract the statement (yet), but I will explain my reasons for it:
    a) It’s meant to be overstated and playful, yet within that mode, I am trying to pull out something deeper. Sure, your point that this isn’t the way everyone works is true so far as we know and I’m willing to admit that, but the point of my statement is to get at something else that (I think) often gets overlooked.
    b) I acknowledge the ridiculousness of the statement, “But let’s push this even further than we really should” which is essentially my way of saying, “I really will regret even saying this, but alas, I’ll say it anyways!”
    c) It is truly a confession of my own faith and role within the church recently as it is any kind of theological critique.

    d) An ’empty gesture’ atleast in the way Zizek uses it isn’t a bad thing at all, it’s just the way it is, the way things hold together. Of course, it does have kind of a negative ring to it, but the point is that within the empty gesture, things still happen. In fact, this is the only way things happen, we can’t handle constant contact with the ‘real.’ So, I think that this empty gesture still allows for the space of real change, otherwise we wouldn’t be here discussing these points (we’ve both been changed and transformed by these modes) yet, within our churches, it can also lead to this other side that deadens our ears to hear.

    e) I am certainly within the narrative structure of Quakerism to make these kinds of dismissals! 😉

    Finally, your point about Protestantism is at best a hotly contested point among Quaker scholars. Obviously, the question revolves, at least in part, around how we define Protestantism, and secondly, how we trace its origins. I know you don’t define Protestantism as anything ‘not-Catholic’ but if not, things do get more complicated. Some Quaker scholars, like Pink Dandelion, see Quakerism as the fulfillment of the Reformation. In other words, he sees it as following the argument it out to its most complete conclusion. Others, see it as a ‘third way’ between Eucharist and Biblical Exposition, is a movement based on the Spirit. Others see it as a radical wing of Puritanism. And Others, like me argue for it to be understood as a wing within the Radical Reformation.

    Anyways, all that to say, I think that Quaker silence is a reversal of Protestant worship, it is outside the space of Catholicism but not within the space of Protestantism, at least I don’t think it’s in the way that my critique is pointed. But, I do think there are plenty of criticisms to be said about this reversal, and this kind of worship as well, but that’s for another article!

  4. My Meeting second hour group (Adult RE)
    is reading the book Holy Silence by J Brent Bill.
    His thesis is, communion with the Spirit
    in silent worship it the core of the Quaker experience.
    He says about Quaker Worship and Holy Silence, “.
    The only thing I can compare it to is the Catholic belief that in the “celebration of Mass. . .Christ is really pres- ent through Holy Communion to the assembly gathered in his name.??? It is the same way with silence for Quakers. Friends believe that Christ is actually present — except we Friends have no host to elevate or priest to preside. Rather, we believe that when our hearts, minds, and souls are still, and we wait expectantly in holy silence, that the presence of Christ comes among us.‘’
    Friend Bill speaks my mind!
    I also love this because it puts Quakers in relationship
    with other sacramental Christians.
    The Mass and Quaker Meeting for Worship are very passive. Something is done to or for us, by God’s grace, through the Holy Spirt There is something marvelous about this passibity,
    for we can do nothing to earn God’s grace.
    It comes to us whether we even ask for it or not.
    Christ says to us, “You have not chosen me, I have chosen you.”
    I have revised this prayer from the Catholic liturgy
    In the silence you feed your people and strengthen them in holiness, so that the family of humankind may come to walk in the light of one faith, in one communion of love.
    We come then to the silence to be fed at your table and
    grow into the likeness of your Spirit.

  5. @Paul – Hi, thanks for your wonderful comment! I love your prayer at the end (and will be using it!) and the tie in with Catholicism. There has been a number of people, along with Bill, who have made these connections and I think they are very helpful!

  6. […] “While at first glance this idea of a silent worship service may seem a bit overly simplistic, or even worse “boring,??? but I challenge you to suggest to your church service planner to have 10 minutes of silence this week and see how it goes. And by silence, I mean absolute and complete silence, no soft piano playing in the background or guitar lazily strumming its strings, no worship leader talking about how we’re currently being silent before the Lord; no, I mean pure unadulterated quiet. Now I think this is still radical. It was radical 400 years ago, and it may be, in world where distraction is a necessary drug, even more radical today. Doesn’t just the idea of being quiet for so long kind of freak us out?!” fromvia […]

  7. wess,
    Just few more thoughts on silence.
    Being a Christian a.k.a. Quaker for me is all about following
    the example of Jesus love and service to others.
    God’s Word through the holy silence empower me to live out
    these precepts.
    Silence gives us a new outlook on everything.
    We need silence to be able to touch souls. The essential thing is not what we say but what God says to us and through us.
    Jesus is always waiting for us in silence. In that silence,
    He will listen to us; there He will speak to our soul, and there we
    will hear His voice.
    Mother Teresa