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Theosony: towards a theology of listening

09 August, 2011

“Faith comes from hearing,” says St Paul in Romans 10:17, but Celtic spiritual singer and theologian Nóirín Ní Riain believes that this aural/oral experience by which we come to Christian faith has been neglected in Western theology in favour of a more visual perspective that emphasises “seeing God” (the eye). This led to a more intellectual, masculine way of communicating about God and a loss of warmer, more experiential aspects of our faith encounter. Nóirín sets herself the task of recovering a methodology of really listening to creation, to one another and to the mysterious voice of the Divine. This is a very engaging read and has enormous implications for communicating the Christian message, for celebrating the liturgy as well as for theology and spirituality.

Nóirín Ní Riain is a well-known Celtic spiritual singer and theologian who has produced numerous recording on her own, with her sons Eoin and Mícheál P, and with the Benedictine monks of Glenstal. See her website www.theosony.com. Her autobiography, Listen with the eye of the heart, was published by Veritas in 2009.


Foreword by Andrew Cyprian Love OSB


Two intentions and two premises
The Cinderella of the Senses
‘Reading between the lines’
‘Singing from the same hymn sheet’
Introducing and defining ‘Theosony’
‘Amazing grace, how sweet the sound …’
The critical, the obedient, the clairaudient ear and its audience


Biological and Acoustic Facts
The Human Ear: a miraculous little apparatus
Listening—’a psychological act’
Brain/Mind considerations
‘The grain of the voice’
Three theosonic conversion stories
Socrates: midwifery and the daimonion
Socrates and Christ: Men of the Word


The reader and the voices of the Pages
The oral/aural nature of scripture
Contingency and continuity
‘Off by heart’
Simone Weil on memorisation
Folklore, poetry, storytelling and literacy
To write is to hear —To read is to hear
Theosony —the metaphor
Theosonic Scriptural Events
‘In the beginning was the WORD …’
Hearing the Risen Christ
Naming and names
‘The wind/ spirit/breath …’


Towards a phenomenology of silence
Silence and Divine Discourse
Silence —’A virtue, have it if you can …’
Silence — The book-ends of Scripture


Theosonic Religious Experience
A threefold classification of Theosonic Religious Experience in Scripture
Ten aspects of Theosonic Alertness

250 pp. The Columba Press. To purchase this book online go to www.columba.ie



Dr Nóirín Ní Riain is acclaimed internationally as a singer in the traditional Irish style. More than a performer of music, however, she places her unique vocal art at the service of others’ spiritual awareness and inner healing. This naturally tends to make Dr Ní Riain a highly conscious artist, who is not merely creative in music, but also reflects in depth upon the meanings and message of music and sound. Further still, the present book performs a valuable service to the theological and artistic communities by broaching some wide-ranging issues which arise from examining the interconnection of Christian theology and sound. It is both an intellectually stimulating, and a deeply intuitive book. This is because it flows from rational reflection about sound, music and the Christian faith, yet is at the same time rooted in the subtle instincts and discernments of a practising musician and Christian believer.

The author argues that God communicates himself to humans primarily and primevally through the aural sense. God’s entire creation lives, moves and has its being in the fullness of the grace of sounds. It is the providential destiny of humans to experience this fact and to reflect upon it. This overall proposal is gathered up under a term the author has coined: theosony. Theosony is both a practice and a theory. As a practice, it is God’s revelation considered both from the standpoint of the sounds (and silences) in which he reveals himself to humanity, and the act of listening to God required by humans in order to receive this revelation. As a theory, it is the task of reflecting theoretically on these matters, so that they find definition consciously and rigorously in a new domain of theological discourse.

‘In the beginning was the Word’ (John 1:1). The Second Person of the Trinity is here called the Word or, in Greek, the Logos. But what is a word? We sometimes forget that a word is a thing of sound as well as of rational content. In this famous gospel opening, John is therefore using an image of sound as well as of rationality to designate the Second Person of the Trinity, the Person who, according to theological tradition, additionally exercises a special role in the creation of our world. What is this if not an imagery of sound poised at the very heart of our understandings both of the Trinity and of the origin of created things? If our understandings of Trinity and of creation encompass imagery of the sonic in this way, who would dare to assert that sound has no significance for theology? Yet, before Nóirín proceeded with her work, the theological significance of sound remained, if not wholly, at least largely unexplored. The work of theology is a work of development. Christians believe that there is always more meaning waiting to break forth from God’s revelation, and the author has wagered, powerfully and plausibly, on a fuller theological meaning for sound, and believes its time has come.
As we read the writer’s compelling text, it gradually emerges how the idea of sound resounds behind all theology. Sound is seen to reverberate insurpressibly through the halls of theology and now, thanks to the author, sound is able to recast the existing lineaments of our orthodox Christian faith into new, theosonic configurations, theology different yet the same. As we read, we recognise things we have already deeply sensed about the salience of sound in Christian life and thought, but which we had never brought to conscious awareness. Paradoxically, this makes even what is new in Nóirín’s vision strangely familiar, so that the experience of reading this book is an experience of coming home to ourselves. If what this book says about the nature of Christian experience is true, then by definition what it says will be not merely understood, but recognised. And it is recognised. Such a recognisability of the role which the author proposes for sound suggests the authenticity of theosony, just as much as the intellectual cogency of her arguments suggests it. For the writer is making explicit what Christianity has always somehow known about sound with a subtle, informal kind of knowledge embedded in the heart of the tradition. Christian tradition has universally acknowledged a theosony of the heart. What Nóirín has done is to give her fortunate readers a theosony of the intellect.


The immediate person thinks and imagines that when he prays, the important thing, the thing he must concentrate upon, is that God should hear what HE is praying for. And yet in the true eternal sense it is just the reverse: the true relation in prayer is not when God hears what is prayed for, but when the person praying continues to pray until he is the one who hears, who hears what God wills. The immediate person, therefore, uses many words and, therefore, makes demands in his prayer; the true man of prayer only attends (1).

This book is an attempt to argue that, of all the existential sites where nature prepares for the event of revelation, the human ear is the most sensitive and theologically attuned. The foundation stone of this work is that the encounter with the incarnate Word of God through the Holy Spirit takes place primarily, although not excepting other media, through the human sense of hearing, listening and its associate silence. From Abraham to the incarnate Son of God, the connection between humanity and God was through the ear. God taught and continues to teach the universe to listen. Any listening, therefore, is, in itself, the voice of God in the transcendental ear of the listener. It is a dialogue between partners and friends.

Such acts of listening to the Spirit of God are undervalued, unexplored and unappreciated in Western Christianity. That sound preceded sight is a fact of the Christian narrative, yet the Christian tradition has made little effort to develop a methodology to explore such an aural concept of God’s self-disclosure. It is my intention to propose and sketch one possible methodology in order to begin to address this absence.

The event of listening for the sound of God is expressed in a new word: ‘theosony’. This neologism will be defined broadly, etymologically and linguistically. This word, ‘theosony’, brought into being here, has a twofold task in this book. It presents the current theological debate, scant as it is, on aural religious experience. The second point here concerns the eclectic scope of the research. The methodology of this work relies more on an initial presentation of diverse seedlings of possibility rather than on one reflection on a mature tree of life. Of its very nature, therefore, the analysis and evaluation of the word is elusive and shifting in its developing epistemology. ‘Theosony’ cannot be exhaustively defined in this study, as it is, by its nature, open-ended.

God provides both the faculty of hearing and the content of what is heard as prevenient, antecedent grace. Such aural grace is ubiquitous and indiscriminate; it precedes all human experience in and of the world. ‘Theo’ in theosony evokes this graced Christian experience.

At least four branches of learning – theology, biology, philosophy and phonetics – prompt questions with which this theological book on the theory of auditory Christian belief begins. It may appear that there is a lacuna here in the omission of musicology as a disciplinary partner. However I argue that much of the debate between musicology and theology is initiated by the musicologist. The thrust of the debate is more often on what musicology has to offer to theology, particularly through the phenomena of music timing and more importantly, improvisation. The first words rest in the area of theology itself.

Many insights from contemporary philosophy have been used to develop this aural existence. For the most part, this work could be described as an experience of hearing as the basis for human interconnectedness, including our relationship with God.
It describes the human ear as the heart of human being: the membrane which allows access to all that is beyond ourselves and, therefore, one of the most privileged inlets to God.

Secondly, this work must consider the biological reality of the sense of hearing, exploring the two interconnected areas of aural physiology and psychological listening, and asking what happens when a God-made earthly sound travels the birth canal from the ear lobe, through the inner ear and to the brain.

Thirdly, a definition of the truth of the divine/human conversation looks to phonetics – the science of speech, sounds and their production. Combined with semiology – the science of signs by which people communicate with one another – phonetics embraces the subjective amalgam where language and body interact. Indeed, the French literary critic and semiologist, Roland Barthel, holds that if contact with the music and phoneticism of one’s own language is lost, the relationship between language and the body is destroyed’ (2). On the other hand, literary historian Robin Flower holds that it is in the very act of sounding language that the music of the word is heard: ‘If the spoken Irish of today is … the liveliest, the most concise, and the most literary in its turns of all vernaculars of Europe, this is due in no small part to the passionate preoccupation of the poets … restlessly seeking the last perfection of phrase and idiom’ (3).

Before we embark on this theology of listening, there are some people that I must thank in deepest respect and admiration, le mórmheas agus cion. Go raibh míle maith agat – (literally, ‘may thousands of good things be showered upon you) – is our Irish way of saying ‘thank you’ from the deepest recesses of the heart and no better blessing can I can shower upon all of you out there, too numerous to mention, who have been and are so much part of my life, let alone this book.

First, mile maith agat to Dr Eamonn Conway for agreeing to supervise a doctoral thesis on Theosony and bringing it to completion in 2003 marking the first Doctorate in Theology to be awarded by his department of Theology at Mary Immaculate College, University of Limerick.

Mile buiochas to my lovely friend, Gregory Collins OSB, who has always been a wonderful inspiration, not just academically but, more importantly, personally and spiritually.
Another Benedictine genius, Andrew Cyprian Love OSB, often fine-tuned my ‘strae’ (Irish: ‘stray’) thoughts and writes a foreword to this book.

Céad mile maith agaibh to four Abbots, wonderful custodians of Glenstal Abbey who, through their individual visions, have created a lighthouse here that will shepherd the people of Ireland home: Augustine (RIP), Celestine, Christopher and Patrick. This abbatial quartet welcomed us into the Abbey over the years and I will always be grateful to them for granting me the honour of living here, praying, gently singing daily and working alongside the community in this very sacred space, all ‘for the glory and praise of the triune God.’

Céad mile, mile maith agaibh freisin to two fine sons, Moley and Eoin (including dear Andrea); to their artistic musician-father, Mícheál with whom I was blessed to spend so much of my life; to soul sisters, Carmel Sheridan, Anne Harris, Loretta Brennan-Glucksman, Fanny Howe, Marie Richardson and Sheila Grassick; to my siblings, Noel and Marion and all of their angelic families; to so many members of the Glenstal Benedictine community for their friendship and support over the years and looking forward to more of that in the future! You know who you are without me having to name you all here.

Finally, to you the reader, listener, may you be showered with every good blessing and may every word be a prayer as you read — aloud if you can!

Centenary of International Women’s Day
Shrove Tuesday, 8 March 2011






  1. Soren Kierkegaard, The Journals of Kierkagaard trs Alexander Dru, Harper & Row, 1959, p 97.
    I have taken a deliberate decision, after consulting the publisher and others, not to interfere with the flow of the quotations by inserting (sic) where overtly male terminology appears. Suffice it to say that these writings are from an era when ‘he’embraces ‘she’ and ‘man’ also refers to ‘woman’.
  2. Roland Barthel, The Grain of the Voice: Interviews 1962-1980, trs Linda Coverdale, London: Jonathan Cape, 1985, p 185.
  3. Robin Flower, The Irish Tradition, Oxford: OUP (1947),1979, p 106.



Two intentions and two premises
God’s self-disclosure can occur through a certain kind of listening. Such listening is an aural understanding that involves hearing, obedience and silence. The English term ‘obedience’ is derived from the Latin ‘ob-audire’; the Hebrew and Greek words meaning ‘to obey’ are also connected with the verb ‘to hear’. The first intention, therefore, is to present a taxonomy, i.e. a classification, of the human listening experience which can be taken up into a Christian sensibility.

The second is to argue for the recovery of the aural/oral experience which itself was an integral component of the earliest Christian tradition and transmission. Bonding both aims is the fact that divine auditory perception has been neglected in Western theology; how and why this is the case is the left-motif of the work. In this text, ‘aural’ refers to what is heard and relates to the sense of hearing; ‘oral’ is what is spoken, uttered and also heard; ‘verbal’ specifically relates to the inherent meaning or feeling communicated through words. ‘Oral’ and ‘verbal’ do not carry the same meaning.

This listening theology, on the other-hand, begins from two premises: firstly, that the aural was and still remains crucial in the full realisation of God’s grace in humanity. This does not exclude those who lack or are deprived of the sense of hearing either totally or partially. The fundamental hypothesis in no way excludes the deaf person from the metaphorical, religious, aural, graced experience proposed here. For the Christian, Christ voices the ultimate word of God’s self-communication; he, through the human spoken word, is the supreme human spokesperson for divine revelation.

This book is biased in favour of the value and consequences of the actual heard sound of God, which is to be listened to in nonhuman, cosmic form, in linguistic concepts and in silence. Yet, as Karl Rahner points out, ‘Christianity … needs practice in learning to hear such words’ (1). The gospel according to John has been a particular yardstick in this research. The evangelist brings the reader to the recurring awareness that, as Paul also believes, ‘faith comes from what is heard (Rom. 10:17). But for John this is ‘that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that believing you may have life in the name’ (Jn 3:18).

The second premise is that this aural/oral aspect of religious experience, which embraces silence, is neglected in the practice and theology of contemporary Western Christianity. This neglect is apparent not only in religion. Throughout Western culture it is an all-pervasive trait to bypass the ear in favour of the eye. In every discipline throughout Western history, the ear has taken second place. ‘Ever since the age of Newton and Descartes we have existed in a culture that put excessive emphasis on the eye’ (2).

Such neglect of the aural must affect the spiritual climate also. According to Soren Kierkegaard, the ear ‘is the most spiritually determined of the senses’ (3). Favouring the visual and the visible in all areas of life has, in the words of Joachim Ernest Berendt, generally ‘despiritualised our existence’ (4). Hearing, he concurs with Kierkegaard, ‘is none the less the most spiritual of all our senses’ (5). Through learning and practising hearing, not only is one’s quality of life enhanced but God’s self-revelation is more readily and obediently received.

Western theology has investigated the nature of God primarily from a visual perspective, largely ignoring the transcendent possibilities of the sense of hearing. The ways in which such possibilities have been experienced in some eastern traditions will be discussed later here. The religion of the Hebrews valorised the ear in revelation. Hellenist and Greek culture favoured the eye over the ear. The Greek noun for an eye, ophthalmos, occurs over a hundred times in the New Testament; the aural equivalent, akoe, is used only thirty six times. The abundance of phrases such as, thus says the Lord’ and ‘the word of the Lord came’, in the Hebrew scriptures is a testimony of this point.

For its future survival, Christianity must address the function of the auditory sense, indeed all sensory functions, in revelation and religious experience. Western Christian theology can do this by showing both how the aural conveys the revelation of God to the human subject, and how the aural holds open the space wherein the world can awaken to the graced presence of God. This requires a new kind of listening to the word of scripture. The original meaning of the Hebrew dabar and the Greek logos embodied an understanding (‘theosony’ in the context of this book) and a reciprocated effectiveness (the effect of the sounding of a word on both the speaker and the listener). The divine Logos, in its

sounding and in its hearing, releases an understanding of oneself, of the universe and of God. Before a discussion on the neglect of attention to the auditory sense in theological scholarship, a word about the current heightened awareness of the significance of hearing and listening in contemporary thought is called for.

As early as 1985, Berendt highlighted an interdisciplinary obsession with hearing, although he excludes the discipline of theology. ‘Hearing and listening are suddenly “in” (6), he wrote. This interdisciplinary interest in the sense of hearing makes it exciting to research the theological implications. The term ‘theosony’ carries a multiplicity of meanings. All relate to the listening functions of the ear in the particular event of intimate prayer, scripture and divine revelation. It is not a clear-cut system of theology, nor is its uniqueness as yet obvious.



  1. Karl Rahner, Theological Investigations, Vol 4, London: DLT, 1966,p359. Italics mine.
  2. Joachim E. Berendt, The Third Ear: On Listening to the World, 1985, Dorset: Element Books, 1988, p 32.
  3. Soren Kierkegaard, Either/Or, Vol 1, trs David F. Swenson / Lilian Marvin Swenson, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1944, (1959), p 66.
  4. Berendt, The Third Ear, p 23.
  5. lbid, p 24.


The Cinderella of the Senses
It is important to chart a brief outline of the neglect of the aural in Western theology. The Encyclopedia of Religion, still a classic theological and anthropological resource and edited by Mircea Eliade in 1987, for example, has no entry under ‘hearing’, ‘listening’ or ‘the ear’, yet it includes articles on the ‘human body’, the ‘head’, the ‘heart’, the ‘eyes’, the ‘hair’, the ‘hands’, the ‘knees’, the ‘feet’ and the ‘phallus’. There is an entry on ‘silence’ by Elizabeth McCumsey and, in the course of this short article, she refers to the paucity of scholarship on silence.’

The second edition of the Roman Catholic equivalent, the New Catholic Encyclopedia has entries on ‘sensation, ‘sense knowledge’, ‘senses’ and ‘sensibles’. These are exact reprints of the 1967 edition of the Encyclopaedia. All four bibliographies to these articles remain unchanged in this 2003 edition except for one new text, which is added to the ‘sense knowledge’ bibliography.

There are three further points here: the 1967 edition’s entry on ‘sensation’ incorporates an article on ‘physico-chemical factors in sensation’ by R. A. Wunderlich. The auditory is considered only on the physical characteristics of the ear and its functions and, as is also the case with the other sensations biologically described here, makes no reference whatsoever to the theological implications of hearing. This article is omitted from the 2003 publication. Secondly, there is an entry for ‘sound’ in the 1967 edition which is again scantily scientific, ignoring the theological context. Furthermore, its bibliographies recommend only scientific, acoustic titles. There is no entry under ‘sound’ in the most recent second edition. Finally, there is an entry under ‘deaf’ in the first edition that deals only with the education and social rehabilitation of deaf people; there is no biblical or theological discussion. The 2003 edition has eliminated this article altogether. (A black-andwhite cartoon entitled ‘Humourous illustration of The Five Senses’ appears on the ‘senses’ article page of the 2003 edition which in ways highlights the frivolous manner in which the senses are regarded in this most recent New Catholic Encyclopaedia.)

The six-volume theological encyclopaedia, published simultaneously in six languages, Sacramentum Mundi, has no entry on hearing, listening or the ear. The Dictionary of Fundamental Theology, which includes an excellent article on silence, makes no specific reference to hearing, listening or the ear. The New International Dictionary of the New Testament, Vol 2, does provide an article entitled, ‘Hear, Obey’ by W. Mundle, referred to above. The equivalent visual entry is relevant because it makes an argument for the primacy of the eye and the ear in the reception of God’s revelation (2). This three-volume dictionary includes a short entry on deafness and dumbness, which in classical Greek andNew Testament usage are embraced by the one word, kophos. Eerdmans Dictionary of the Bible has two brief entries under ‘ear’ and ‘voice’ by William Domeris. In short, of the twenty-three major reference sources consulted, only three find the auditory sense worth mentioning regarding God’s self-revelation. One of these references is out of date.

Consultation of concordances to the Old and New Testaments for references to the sense of hearing makes interesting reading. One such index (3) has four full pages citing biblical references to hearing and two pages on voice. In contrast, there is about one page of citations on seeing. Specific references to the eye and ear are similar in number. Berendt finds hearing referred to no less than ninety-one times in the first five books of the Old Testament (4).

The Christian tradition has failed to penetrate the depths of mystery in a listening relationship with the triune God. One of the reasons for this is arguably that many theologians have been provided with a professional vocabulary which is as intricate as it is scientific. As Paul Newham, suggests: ‘The more scientifically orientated one is, the less one’s voice uses the affective undulation of music’ (5). Theology may have suffered from an equivalent desiccation. Rene Fisichella criticises theologians’ neglect of silence for similar reasons (6).

Theology’s failure to understand the ‘most spiritual’ (7) of all senses is a major lacuna, leading to Western theology’s failure to understand the power and the virtuosity of the aural. Such failure has important implications. The reliance upon language as a trustworthy and self-contained vehicle leads to the adoption of a particular language style. Much theological scholarship, and indeed much preaching, still revolves around stilted, technical, Greco-Roman vocabulary, far removed from everyday prayer and conversational language. Donald Cozzins summarises the listening experience well: ‘They [priests] may preach the gospel, but the assembly senses that they have yet to live it’ (8). This is not to acknowledge and respect theological language as a particular ‘language system’ in itself. The failure to recognise the transmission of mystery in the space between the words has resulted in a fetishistic obsession with precision and perfection in the words themselves. Whether from the pulpit or between doctrinal book covers, God’s grace has sometimes been smothered in verbose abstractions and dogmatic tracts. The intimations, the whispering breath of the Spirit, have been eliminated. The fundamental elements of the music – the melody, the rhythm and the harmony of the triune God – have been lost. Much theological speculation has been dominated by highly technical, formal language, closely allied to seminary training and a particular sacerdotal culture. This genre of linguistic expression emanates from a left-brain, rational source and largely ignores the personal, emotional, experiential, listening, religious experience. Such speech, it could be argued, is primarily a stylistic, literary genre, to be read and not heard. One-sided as this stance might seem, it is important to state that the language system of most Western theology does not intend to be either musical or poetic and is most definitely intended to be read rather than spoken or heard. The traditional language game of Western Christian theology is a stiffly formal mode of the eye and not of the ear. Words should be heard and listened to; spoken aloud and responded to. This is particularly true in the transmission of scripture in antiquity and the oral and aural historical aspect of this will be presented and developed in Chapter Three: Theosony and Scripture.

Hearing, and silence, have been devalued by patriarchy in Western Christianity and in other disciplines. What is being argued here is the need for liberation of sense perception from stereotypical categorisation. Humanity needs to hear, humanity needs to see and it is only through both, and indeed all sensory perception, that one achieves one’s full potential. In the words of Anthony Storr, sensory expression ‘eschews the personal, the particular, the emotional, the subjective’ (9). Andrew L. Love agrees that ‘the conceptual tradition of Western ontology … because of its cognitive emphasis on clear and objective rationality and “fetishisation of detachment” harbours a bias in favour of masculine models of knowing’ (10).

The omission of auditory religious experience in the primarily male preserve of Western theology has certain resonances. It is the claims of Joachim-Ernest Berendt that are briefly presented here. He suggests that an eye/male, ear/female tendency pervades Western culture generally and that the fortunes of hearing and listening are in tandem with the rise and fall of patriarchy. He holds that the ‘eye is the most expansionist and aggressive, the harshest and most piercing, the most masculine, egocentric, and hungry for power’ (11). For Berendt, earliest history was matri-centred. Women were linguistically and vocally superior to men. Berendt maintains that women make better hearers. Their keener responsiveness to ambient sounds was because women ‘were more concerned with processing the information heard and converting it into directives’ (12). To be obeyed, that is listened to keenly, women listened harder, more carefully and precisely, and searched meticulously for the words and the timbre to reflect and convey the fruits of their listening. To the poet, the ear of flesh of every creature in communing with the ‘Uncreated’ is feminine:

One song they sang, and it was audible,
Most audible, then when the fleshly ear,
O’ercome by humblest prelude of that strain,
Forgot her functions, and slept undisturbed (13).

This claim could be trenchantly contested; the eye, for example, has the marvellous capacity to unearth and uncover treasures of gentleness and receptivity in its work of creation and perception. Beauty is in the eye and the ear of the beholder/listener. However, the argument that this work holds is that the auditory religious experience, for whatever and regardless of reason, is a cardinal one in Christianity and has not matured in scholarship or practice. The ear permits human thought about God to sing. In the listening ‘ear of the heart’, the real thought of God’s Word is heard.

Highlighting this omission of the aural sense and its feminine implications in Western theology is not to paint a helpless predicament. It must be acknowledged that theology is now embracing the feminine linguistic expression and voice. Indeed, it could well be argued that feminist hermeneutics, the theory, art and practice of interpretation from a woman’s perspective, is contributing to changing the course of theological reflection (14). This text does not attempt a critique of gender interpretations and practices but it does argue for the reinstatement of one human, sensory medium to its rightful place in theological speculation.

In short, then, this book is not arguing for any exclusive gender bias around the essentially aural revelation of the triune God. Male or female concepts of God, and of hearing, simply reinforce oppression, if not idolatry. God is present for everyone who has ears to hear.

While it is true that some theologians and commentators have acknowledged the importance of listening to and hearing the voice of God, it is argued here that they have failed to explore this dimension to the full. Most articulation of an aural religious experience, scriptural, liturgical or personal, has been lip service. Religious experience, both oral and aural, has for the most part given way to the visual. Like Thomas, we believe because we have seen. This book supports the greater blessedness of those who have not seen. It asks questions such as what each person’s particular experience of hearing the divinity says to that individual; what kind of God is heard in prayer; and what, precisely, is ‘the good will’ (15) of the hearer and how can it be nurtured?

There is a reluctance in theology to enter into the vulnerable arena that is experiential and subjective. Rene Fisichella links the neglect of silence by theologians with a preoccupation with science. Theologians, he remarks, yearn to become scientists and so risk distraction from the work at hand (16). One wonders whether the scientific theologian regards silence, and indeed all aspects of listening, as trivial when compared with the sense data of empirical science. Concurring with Fisichella’s observation on the impingement of scientific methodology on theologians, Winston L. King finds that the attempt to define religion ‘is a natural consequence of the Western speculative, intellectualistic, and scientific disposition’ (17). He further attributes this to ‘the Judeo-Christian climate or, more accurately, the theistic inheritance from Judaism, Christianity, and Islam’ (18).

Although it is a contestable claim, perhaps doing theology to date has been more concerned with map-making a route to God than with actually experiencing the contours of that road. Maps are important and helpful in charting directions through the territory. Yet they hardly communicate the lived experience of the terrain; the sensual knowledge which accrues from touching, smelling, tasting, seeing and hearing the reality. This is the reverse of the poetics of experience suggested in The Dry Salvages by T. S. Eliot as having the experience but falling short of the meaning: ‘We had the experience but missed the meaning’ (19). In short, a diagram of features, although an important initial guide, is experientially unrepresentative of the reality. Reading is in the realm of the cartographer; hearing is the soft, sound-soil of feeling and sensitivity.


The Cinderella of the senses

  1.  See Elizabeth McCumsey, ‘Silence’ in The Encyclopedia of Religion, Vol 13, pp 321-324.
  2. See K. Dann, ‘See, Vision, Eye’ in lbid, Vol 3, pp 511-518.
  3. Cruden’s Complete Concordance to the Old and New Testaments, Revised Edition, Guildford / London: Lutterworth Press, (1930),1982. ‘Hear’ citations, pp 286-290; ‘voice’ pp 724-725; ‘see’ part of 576, 577, 578.
  4. Berendt, The Third Ear, p 24.
  5. Paul Newham, The Singing Cure: An Introduction to Voice Movement Therapy, Boston: Shambala Publications, 1993, p 221.
  6. René Fisichella, ‘Silence’ in The Dictionary of Fundamental Theology, p 1001.
  7. Ernst Berendt, The Third Ear, p 24.
  8. Donald B. Cozzens, The Challenging Face of the Priesthood, Collegeville MN: The Liturgical Press, 2000, p 16.
  9. Anthony Storr, Music and the Mind, NY: The Free Press, 1992, p 38
  10. Andrew L. Love, Musical Improvisations as the Place where Being Speaks: Heidegger, Language and Sources of Christian Hope, PhD thesis submitted to the University of Hull, 2000, p 148. The quote within this quotation is taken from Susan Bordo, The Filght to Objectivity: Essays on Cartesianism and Culture, Albany: New York State University Press, 1987, p 7.
  11. Berendt, The Third Ear, p 4.
  12. Ibid, p 150.
  13. William Wordsworth, ‘The Prelude, Book Second, 415-418’, in William Wordsworth, The Prelude: A Parallel Text, ed J. C. Maxwell, Middlesex: Penguin Books, 1971, p 95 / 97.
  14. See the works of Sandra M. Schneiders, Mary Grey, Marina Warner, Elizabeth Schussler Fiorenza etc.
  15. Karl Rahner, Foundations, p 26.
  16. See article on ‘silence’ by Rene Fisichella in The Dictionary of Fundamental Theology, p 1001.
  17. Winston L. King,’ Religion’ in The Encyclopaedia of Religion, Vol 12, ed Mircea Eliade, p 282.
  18. Ibid, p 282.
  19. The Complete Poems and Plays of T. S. Eliot, London: Faber and Faber, 1969, p 184.





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