silence isn’t always golden

“Mr. Worldly-Wiseman is an alien, and Mr. Legality is a cheat; and for his son Civility, not withstanding his simpering looks, he is a hypocrite and can not help thee.” — Evangelist, from Pilgrim’s Progress.

Over at the Witherspoon Institute, Todd Hartch talks about the pride of silence. An associate professor of history at Eastern Kentucky University, Hartch is particularly concerned about professors at secular universities.

“We often stay quiet when we know we should speak, at least in part because we’re concerned about our images,” he writes, noting subjects like abortion and traditional marriage. He says he has literally seen faculty members whisper and close their doors to talk about such things.

He puts it this way:

Isn’t this an odd sort of situation? We conceal what we really believe so that people will think more highly of us than they would if we were honest. In other words, we want them to think well of us for reasons that, in our heart of hearts, we utterly reject. We want our colleagues to esteem us for being conservatives—it’s almost impossible to keep our basic orientation towards politics and morality hidden—who aren’t as “extreme” as the ones they look down upon.

This can happen to all of us, however. Because our friends don’t see us as extreme as Rush Limbaugh or Sarah Palin, we start to take a little pleasure in how much more nuanced we are. And then we are doubly proud—too proud to speak up in the first place and more proud as we justify our silence. We wouldn’t be comfortable with any Old Testament prophet, either, not because we don’t know the truth but because we don’t want anyone to think about us as, well, that extreme.

Elizabeth Noelle-Neumann called this a spiral of silence. She wondered why the Germans failed to speak out about policies that led to defeat, humiliation and ruin in the 1930s-1940s, and concluded people tend to remain silent when they feel that their views are in the minority. This results, she claimed, from an increasing fear of isolation.

And fear may be part of it. But pride is more likely. And more dangerous. We may not be afraid of what people think about our ideas as much as we care about whether they see us in a certain way. Civil, urbane, and sophisticated.

I’m not comparing Palin to the prophets, by the way. I’m just saying that ordinary conversations about sin and redemption are needed in politics, business, and education—and if we keep silent about things we earnestly believe, then we have deprived our communities of important conversations simply because our neighbors, coworkers or students might associate our ideas with someone else’s style.

When this happens we eventually come to the place where our association with Christ is also hid. His claims and demands are a bit extreme by current standards of tolerance. So we hesitate to give him honor in places where he is dishonored, or praise in places where he is blasphemed. And we hardly ever talk about what he requires.

But if his name is only on our lips at church, this too may be pride. And a deadly one. It’s important that we speak out because understanding sin is the key to understanding grace. Only in darkness do we seek the light.

And yet we often come to the place where we won’t talk about either.

It’s a sad place, to be sure.

7 thoughts on “silence isn’t always golden”

  1. Working on speaking up in a spirit of grace and trusting God to work in such a way that the conversation can continue. Thank you for this reminder.

  2. I have blogged occasionally — very occasionally — about church or faith, and could feel my readers squirming.

    The aggressive religiosity that has become a normal part of American civil discourse is extremely off-putting to many people, so that Christians now often tend to speak/blog/write/broasdcast to one another (yes, literally, preaching to the choir) and to no one else. It is (not saying this is you) too often assumed you’re “in” or out of being a faith-filled person, even with doubts and concerns, whether about the direction of your parish, preacher or denomination.

    My point — as a fellow journalist and author — is this: I think many more people might consider speaking out about their feelings related to Christian behavior if others did not suddenly feel the urge to eye-roll and tune them out, sure that an unwanted lecture and a self-righteous finger-waggle are sure to follow.

    I attend an Episcopal church, where “reason” (as you may know) is one of the faith’s three legs of the stool, in addition to faith and tradition. We ordain women and welcome homosexual members of our community.

    Being a Christian can mean imposing your very firm and fixed beliefs upon someone who is also a Christian, but in a different form…Few people are open to that, no matter what message you hope to later convey to them.


    1. I teach at a Christian college, and this tension is a constant source of conversation with my writing students. Faithful and relevant seems like such a challenge to many of them.

      Thanks for your comment.

  3. Thank you for writing this. While I have often identified with the fear of and coming from holding beliefs and opinions separate from the mainstream, this is the first time any perception of pride has ever entered my thinking, as to the choice to remain silent. Some major food for thought.

    “Better to remain silent and be thought a fool than to open your mouth and remove all doubt” has been my primary guiding principle since I first heard it so many years ago I can’t even say. Can’t say either how many times I’ve ignored that particular bit of brilliance and jumped in with both feet, only to learn I’d overlooked or never seen some bit of information that changed everything. Kinda like Roseanne Rosannadanna. “Never mind!”
    I find it astounding that there was ever a time I thought I “knew it all”. These days I consider it a major grace that I know my own name, everything else is stated as what I believe, what I think or what I have read or heard “somewhere”. Not as straight forward and strengthening as “knowing” used to be and yet, oddly enough, I find myself standing on firmer ground.
    The older I get, the more rhetorical questions I seem to ask. Perhaps I misuse the word rhetorical here. I ask questions because they come to mind, always with the disclaimer, you don’t have to answer, it’s none of my business. I believe the word rhetorical means no response is required because I already know the answer. I don’t. Every once in awhile someone responds with an answer to the question asked and a door opens. I look for those moments.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s