"EARS THAT HEAR NOT"
June 5, 1956
Transcribed by Wayne Kempton
Archivist and Historiographer of the Diocese of New York, 2014
EARS THAT HEAR NOT
In the sea of life enisled,
With echoing straits between us thrown,
Dotting the shoreless watery wild,
We mortal millions live alone.
The islands feel the enclasping flow,
And then their endless bounds they know.
Thus Matthew Arnold, a hundred years ago, in a mood of disillusionment with modern visions of progress, called attention to a problem in human relations which even an achieved technological utopia would leave unsolved--the problem of creating community, of building bridges between islands of isolation, the haunting human burden of loneliness.
Have the generations since Matthew Arnold's era brought us nearer to a solution of this problem? Viewed superficially, the technological triumphs of the twentieth century do seem to have moved men out of prisons of isolation into intimate contact with one another. We can fly the air and pay a visit to a friend living in the antipodes within days or hours. The telephone and the radio bring a voice from the most distant continent or island or even ships on the high seas into our homes with time annihilated. If the spoken and heard word be the test of relationship, the question once asked of Jesus, "Who is my neighbor?", almost becomes absurd. Where are there ears that hear not today? The techniques of communication have made solitude or the blessed anodyne of silence a rare luxury. Our age is receiving many names. One of the newest slogans on the scene defines it as an age of publicity. It is the age of sound. The marvel of progress in the arts and techniques of communication could well halt for a time so far as a further need for media of external contact between man and man is concerned.
Yet, the moment we look beneath the spectacular surface of our mass communication era, a paradox meets the eye. Join to the word communication the preposition "of"--yielding the phrase "communication of"--and the opportunity of spreading an item of news or of appealing for a cause is almost limitless. Millions of ears may be prepared or even compelled to listen. But join to the word communication the preposition "between"--yielding the phrase "communication between"--and the concept of a meeting of man with [3/4] man--and a vacuum appears. Mass communication is revealed as essentially a monolog addressed to masses of listening ears. But this is not a real meeting of person with person. It is virtually the opposite of what has been called the sacrament of dialog. Each listener to the monolog listens for himself alone. Isolation and anonymity have not been conquered. Their pain may merely have received an anesthetic. The title of a recent popular book of social analysis describes vividly the paradox of our mass communication era. We are today members of a "lonely crowd". We are lonely atoms within an increasingly compacted mass.
Time Magazine a few years ago quoted a prominent radio artist's comment on this mass communication paradox. He harked back, in a moment of reflection, to an earlier period in his career when he still harbored the illusion that he was addressing a community of listeners. "In those days," he confessed, "we were all talking to the ladies and gentlemen of the radio audience. I decided that there wasn't any such audience. There was just one guy or one girl off somewhere by themselves. Hell, if they were together, they'd have something better to do than listen to the radio." They would, to paraphrase the radio artist's observation, enjoy communication "between".
I have brought to our attention thus far only one facet of the problem of communication. Many others could receive analysis. The problem is of importance in our common cultural life. The specialist in science seeks converse with his fellow scientist in an ivory tower next door equally isolated from communal discourse with those outside academic walls. The advertiser scours heaven and earth for symbols of communication designed to produce consumer capitulation. Nowhere, however, is the importance of the problem of communication more clearly underscored than in the life of the Church. Wherever the Church's task of mission and evangelism is today being studied under a recognition of the Church's minority status on our globe or as engaged in a confrontation with a world dedicating itself to secular idolatries or revivals of ancient pagan religions, the problem of communication leaps to the forefront of attention. On the ecumenical scene, probably no theme accepted for communal discussion across denominational borders is more frequently met than the topic: "How to communicate the Gospel?" Mass media of communication beckon. [4/5] Nor are they being ignored. Religious radio and television programs are frequently enough at the tip of a dial-turning finger. If all that were required to convert an indifferent world were a voice before a microphone and an electronic multiplication device, our age could be Christian overnight. The number of listeners to a Sunday sermon in the churches spread round our globe is itself still astoundingly large. If each hearer of the word were to go forth as a bearer of the full power of the Gospel, our era in history might see again what Christianity's earliest centuries witnessed--a world turned upside down. Clearly, the problem of communicating the Gospel becomes real on a deeper level than that of means of verbal publicity. Even within the churches the gospel is proclaimed to ears that hear not.
How to communicate the Gospel? We are victims of naive illusions if we think there is an easy answer. The Apostles' Creed, one of our most familiar summaries of the Christian faith, can be recited in forty seconds. No dictionary is needed by the average listener to apprehend its verbal meaning. Yet it would be foolish to trust it to win converts by itself. We may, on occasion, register surprise as we read the Acts of the Apostles to note how promptly the earliest sermons produced a harvest of believers. Though probably a bit longer than our miniature pulpit homilies, they surely were not encyclopedic presentations of Christian doctrine. But the age in which they were preached had an advantage over our own. It was prepared for the good news by centuries of religious disciplines. We of the twentieth century could envy those early witnesses. Theirs was the world of "the fulness of time." Even a proclamation addressed to the Gentiles could take for granted an understanding of most of the language of the New Testament. No one had to explain the meaning of an altar, or of atoning sacrifice, or of the symbols of an eschatological backdrop to human existence. For a Roman citizen, to cite one example, Virgil's Aeneid, especially its awesome picturization of judgment after death in the matchless Sixth Book, could be a preparation for the Gospel. A modern missionary in a Buddhist environment, or many a preacher today in secularized suburbia, might envy St. Paul as he preached to the Greek intelligentsia on Mars Hill. An unknown God was, after all, still acknowledged as a God. I am reminded of a preacher, wise for our era, who paraphrased the first of the Ten Commandments [5/6] to read: "Thou shalt have at least one God."
In a word, we are today trying to communicate the Gospel, both inside and outside the borders of what once was Christendom, to a world in which the very language of the Bible--the "language of Canaan", as it has been called--has become increasingly strange, if not unknown. To cite again a concrete example, which may have to carry the burden of a longer argument, our contemporary poet W. H. Auden recently called attention to the fact that a biblical symbol for Christ like "Lamb of God" in a culture mainly urban "is likely to evoke ridiculous images." In its Latin version, Agnus Dei, it "has the attraction at least of a magical and musical spell." The whole mythological imagery of the Bible, at home in a three-story universe, so Rudolf Bultmann somewhat violently reminds us, has vanished into a forgotten world of thought. We must demythologize, or, as less radical critics might say, at least re-mythologize or reinterpret many a biblical symbol. The language of the Bible, too, meets today frequently ears that hear not.
Fortunately, to a degree at least, our present theological era has come to the rescue of the ministry of the word. Communication of the Christian faith was once thought to consist in the presentation of a doctrinal system of Confession, weighted with propositions and truths, each of which requiring buttresses by way of biblical proof-texts. We now are offered the insight that the primary revelation given us in the Bible is one not in the form of a dogmatic system, but in act and deed, in other words, in the form of a story or a drama. The Bible is the record of what a Collect of the Book of Common Prayer calls "God's mighty acts." We can, consequently, accept the fact that the divine disclosure in history comes to us in earthen and fully human vessels. Communal memory, in a pre-scientific age, might be expected to weave into its recollection of the past legends and even myths. But these can be themselves tributes to the profound meaning of the events thus recalled. Revelation remains revelation. Only the medium or form in which it has been transmitted has been historically understood.
This insight can, clearly, be of help in solving the problem of communication. All of us, old and young, love to listen to a story. Every human being lives by a story--some plot or design of action which gives meaning to his existence. The existential philosophy [6/7] current everywhere today has popularized this simple yet profound truth. Even the atheist knows that he must make decisions according to some design for his life even if he has to become his own god and write the plot himself. I am reminded of a remark of Phillips Brooks. A parishioner asked him why there were so many good citizens of Boston who never worshipped in a church. "They have to be good," replied Phillips Brooks, "since, if they were not good, they would have no one to forgive them."
But if a fresh understanding of the nature of revelation recorded in the Bible has freed the communication of the Gospel from the impossible burden of demanding capitulation of the intellect before a literalist Bible, this liberation has merely unveiled the fact that the real problem of communication is found on a deeper level than that of rational persuasion. Verbal proclamation of a story or a drama, is surely, not an impossible task in any age. But the Gospel drama is a peculiar drama. God is the Actor in it and not man. In the central act of the drama, a human person is declared to be that very God in the flesh. He must be recognized as deity in human incarnation or the action ceases to be the revelation of the God worshipped by Christians. A demand is placed upon the hearer to recognize Jesus as Lord and God, and this proves to be costly. A God who has entered into human history in person cannot be ignored. He is no longer a mere Prime Mover or philosophic First Cause in a distant heaven. Recognition will mean encounter with a living God. It will mean dialog with the Judge of all men. It will mean acceptance or rejection of a call to repentance, a surrender of pride and a kind of suicide. Communication of the Gospel must persuade the hearer of the message that he is himself on this drama's stage. It must transform him from spectator to participating actor. Such communication is no longer communication "of" a story which can be listened to and then forgotten. This is communication of a meeting "between" man and his Creator and Judge--one which has consequences reaching into eternity. The demands of the Gospel thus communicated may meet ears which outwardly hear well enough, yet which nevertheless refuse to listen. We ourselves may be resisting the real hearing of this Gospel even while we are proclaiming it in eloquent sermons to our neighbors.
Communication of the Gospel, accordingly, must [7/8] be one of act and deed on the part of those who proclaim it as well as one of verbal witness. We cannot ask our neighbor to assume his role in the action unless we are already actors ourselves. The Gospel is news of a covenant between God and sinful man. Can a covenant be communicated except as a relationship visible in action? News about grace is, alas, not yet effective grace. The New-Covenant-Life of the people of God must itself become the proclamation of the Gospel.
Realization of this demand brings us, clearly, to a confrontation with the ultimate problem of communication--the proclamation of the Gospel in action by the community called by God to be Christ's continuing life on earth. Is the Church as you and I know it performing this evangelising task? Verbalized versions of the good news of the drama of redemption recorded in the Bible are for most of us familiar enough--the story of divine love embracing us as prodigal sons. Here is the message of unearned grace, of One who puts no price tags on His freely outpoured love. We are the called of that same God to communicate, under the compulsion of gratitude, this same outgoing love to the world. God "maketh his sun to rise on the evil and on the good, and sendeth rain on the just and on the unjust." He attaches no condition to His gifts. We are to do likewise.
In the Church today--are you and I--communicating the Gospel under this compulsion--offering free grace to the world in act and deed with no price tags attached, not even that of expected gratitude? Not even, dare I say it, of Church membership? You who are going out as ministers of the Word are to preach the message of the Incarnation and the Cross in the pulpit. You will not dare to take this vocation lightly. It will be, to refer to an earlier phrasing, communication "of". But such verbal proclamation will be one of empty words if the Gospel does not reveal its power in the fellowship of life of your hearers--in other words--in communication "between". The Gospel is fully good news only as it is carried beyond Church walls--into the market place, into the home, into conversation at a dinner table, into the look of the eye as you meet a stranger.
I venture to illustrate this ultimate test of communication by a story. I met it recently in a book by a remarkable observer of the tensions between peoples of different racial and cultural backgrounds of our [8/9] time, Laurens van der Post. In his recent volume THE DARK EYE IN AFRICA, he relates how he was present in Java when Indonesian independence was born. The retiring Governor-General turned to him and said:
"I cannot understand it. Look what we have done for them. Look at the schools and the hospitals we have given them. A hundred years ago the population was only a few million, today it is nearly sixty millions. We have done away with malaria, plague and dysentery and given them a prosperous, balanced economy. Everyone has enough to eat. We have given them an honest and efficient administration and abolished civil war and piracy. Look at the roads, the railways, the industries--and yet they want us to go. Can you tell me why they want us to go?
"And I felt compelled to say:
"Yes, I think I can: I am afraid it is because you've never had the right look in the eye when you spoke to them."
The author adds the following comment on this conversation:
"It may sound inadequate but just think, for one moment, of the light that is in the eye of a human being when he looks at another human being he loves and respects as an equal. Then remember the look in the eye of the average European when he is in contact with 'a lesser breed without the law', and you will understand what I mean. The difference between the two, I believe, is the explosive that has blown the Europeans out of one country after another during our time."
One could linger long over that story. It could be recommended reading for the statesmen and legislators of our beleaguered western world. The look of contempt in the eye of the white man is here declared to be an explosive more devastating than our dread atom bombs. We sometimes wonder how the Christian Gospel can be made relevant to the great historic movements of our time, seemingly out of reach of the puny strength of scattered Christian flocks. Seen aright, the Christian Gospel is the only power that can bridge the chasms of separation between man and man. Only God can "put down the mighty from their seat" and "exalt the humble and meek." Only He can transform the look of contempt in the eye of the proud into a look of true brotherly love. [9/10] Only He can bring in the day announced by the prophet Isaiah when "the lofty looks of man shall be humbled, and the haughtiness of man shall be bowed down, and the Lord shall be exalted in that day."
We who are ministers of the Word, proclaimers of the Gospel, are tempted to bewail the fact that we are addressing ears that hear not. And there is truth in our lament. Those who will not listen stand ultimately in danger of the Judgment. But may not the incident just related, though it alludes to sight rather than hearing as a medium of communication, point to an equally important truth which reverses the role of speaker and listener? Are we, too, in danger of having ears that hear not? Listening is a manifestation of love. Emil Brunner goes so far as to say that a Christian can be defined as a man who can listen. To listen to a fellow human being, with the right look in the eye, can be a communication of the Gospel as powerful in its effect as the most eloquent of sermons. It is outgoing grace with no price tag attached. It is imitation of God--One who listens in the silences of eternity and waits with long-suffering patience until we come to ourselves and seek the Father's home.
Ears that hear not. You who are going forth to communicate the Gospel will find them in your pews and even more in the highways and byways of the world outside your rectory and church walls. To communicate the Gospel to the faithful in your flock will be your main concern. But if this communication stops at the church door it will not be the Gospel of the living Christ. It must go forth into the world, the layman its evangelist even more than pastor or preacher or priest. And no form of evangelism can be a more effective carrier of the outgoing love of God than the ministry of listening--hearing the cry of the lonely for fellowship, of the bereaved for comfort, of the rebellious for an understanding heart. We of the clergy are normally not good listeners. Monolog, not dialog, is our favorite form of speech. We enjoyed as a recent visitor at the College of Preachers in Washington Canon Ernest Southcott of Leeds, England. He is noted today for the founding of the House Church Movement in Great Britain. He shared with us an account of his first visit as a young curate to a home for Baptismal instruction. "I spoke for a whole hour," he said, "and then, for fear that there might be embarrassing dialog, I said, 'Let us pray'." [10/11] His experience with carrying the Church, including a daily celebration of the Eucharist, into the homes of his people, has, he now is happy to testify, taught him the art of listening. The "sacrament of dialog", to use Martin Buber's happy phrase, has been discovered as a means of grace without compare for communicating the Gospel.
Ears that hear not. Woe unto us of the ministry of reconciliation, if we discover that our ears are closed even more than those of our people. "How to communicate the Gospel?" is the question uppermost in the literature of evangelism of our time. One answer, clearly, can consist in exercising the humbling ministry of listening and the often more humbling ministry of long-suffering dialog. Either may be a form of obeying the precept of the Sermon on the Mount, that of walking the second mile alongside a neighbor on the way, demanding no reward, not even that of gratitude for our silence. They also serve who only stand and listen and wait--witnesses to the infinite patience of God.