“He who restrains his words has knowledge, and he who has a cool spirit is a man of understanding. Even a fool who keeps silent is considered wise; when he closes his lips, he is deemed intelligent.” (Proverbs 17:27-28)
“Therefore he who is prudent will keep silent in such a time; for it is an evil time. Seek good, and not evil, that you may live; and so the LORD, the God of hosts, will be with you, as you have said.” (Amos 5:13-14)
I first head of Bishop Synesius (5th Century) in a hagiography course. He was pointed out as a person who held some personal beliefs not in consonance with official church doctrine. Yet, the local Christian flock held him in such honor that they demanded he accept election as their congregational bishop. He resisted their demand, pointing out that some of his ideas were not in agreement with the church. The flock persisted as they believed him a man of integrity despite his sometimes errant theological opinions. He was a learned man and had a great reputation for thoughtful honesty. As the flock continued to demand that he accept the office of bishop he told the flock that he would never teach them anything that he did not personally believe. However, because there were some things the church held with which he disagreed, he told them he simply would not speak on these issues. He would not teach them anything false, but he would not address some issues on which the Church had established doctrinal positions because he did not personally believe these teachings. He was educated in Neoplatonists ideas and felt that on some issues the Neoplatonic ideas were more reasonable or stronger than church teachings and logic. He became their bishop and because of his stated position was seen as a true witness to Christ – always and only speaking about what he believed to be true. The people could rely on him to speak with conviction, and were not bothered by the fact that there were some beliefs of the Church which he simply didn’t teach. He didn’t speak against them, he passed over them in silence. Recently I noticed that Fr. Lawrence Farley mentions Synesius in one of his books. Fr. Lawrence is not making the point I am making, but here is what he wrote:
An example of such a bishop is Synesius, bishop of Ptolemais. He was born around 370 in North Africa to a wealthy landowning family. He had a successful secular career and a proven track record in the civil service, was married, and was perhaps as much Neoplatonist as Christian. It is significant that when the people wanted to elect him for their bishop in 411, he consented, after great hesitation, on two conditions. He would cease his hobbies of hunting, sport, and time for private study, but two things he would not give up. One was his wife. He demanded that he be allowed to keep her openly and not be forced to hide her away in secret. “On the contrary,” he said, “I want many, well-bred children”—and this in a time when celibacy was increasingly encouraged. The second condition was that he not be forced to renounce his Neoplatonic philosophy. He agreed to “speak mythologically” while in public, as his episcopal duties required, but he would not say anything with which he sincerely disagreed. (The Empty Throne: Reflections on the History and Future of the Orthodox Episcopacy, Kindle Location 952-959)
It is not just in the modern age that Christians have had to deal with complex ideas which are not easy to reconcile. Synesius in the early 5th Century was committed to certain philosophical ideas, some of which he could not reconcile with his Christian faith. He believed the philosophy had, on some issues, stronger logic than what the Church offered on their teachings. Today, it can be philosophical ideas that trouble us but more likely it will be ideas related to science and the scientific relationship to atheistic materialism which will continue to challenge our thinking. And certainly the ideas of post-modernism remain at odds with traditional Christian ideas on morality. And it may be that some modern Christian leaders will have to follow the lead of Synesius and simply not teach anything on some issues. Better that our leaders speak with complete integrity and sincerity on any topic they address while remaining silent on issues with which they have no informed opinion or with which they are not convinced or even disagree with a known Church teaching. The silence may be wisdom and preferable to them simply giving lip service to teachings with which they disagree or even feel uncomfortable with.
Ideologues often want church leaders to agree with their strong convictions and like to force leaders to have to take a stand, but that does little for the unity of the Church and may never be true Wisdom. Better to remain silent as a form of wisdom than to speak on issues which are beyond one’s education or ability to reason and reveal one’s folly.
We can think about the Prophecy of Job and how he had to deal with long winded men who felt they rightfully spoke for God.
The Prophet Job cried out: “Oh that you would keep silent, and it would be your wisdom! Hear now my reasoning, and listen to the pleadings of my lips. Will you speak falsely for God, and speak deceitfully for him? Will you show partiality toward him, will you plead the case for God? Will it be well with you when he searches you out? Or can you deceive him, as one deceives a man? He will surely rebuke you if in secret you show partiality. Will not his majesty terrify you, and the dread of him fall upon you? Your maxims are proverbs of ashes, your defenses are defenses of clay.” (Job 13:5-12)
God Himself rebuked the three verbose men who tried to force ideas on Job as to what God’s justice and righteousness mean.
After the LORD had spoken these words to Job, the LORD said to Eliphaz the Temanite: “My wrath is kindled against you and against your two friends; for you have not spoken of me what is right, as my servant Job has. Now therefore take seven bulls and seven rams, and go to my servant Job, and offer up for yourselves a burnt offering; and my servant Job shall pray for you, for I will accept his prayer not to deal with you according to your folly; for you have not spoken of me what is right, as my servant Job has.” So Eliphaz the Temanite and Bildad the Shuhite and Zophar the Naamathite went and did what the LORD had told them; and the LORD accepted Job’s prayer. And the LORD restored the fortunes of Job, when he had prayed for his friends… (Job 42:7-10)
There are endless issues over which debates rage in the modern world. The Internet allows instant polarization on issues at the total expense of wisdom, knowledge or reason. While we can be drawn immediately into every raging controversy on the Internet, we might remember words which St. Augustine said warning the Christians of his day not to rush into every controversy with science and philosophy: “In matters that are so obscure and far beyond our vision, we find in Holy Scripture passages which can be interpreted in very different ways without prejudice to the faith we have received. In such cases, we should not rush in headlong and so firmly take our stand on one side that, if further progress in the search for truth justly undermines that position, we too fall with it.”