Below is an excerpt from Nóirín’s paper on Theosony.
Towards a Theology of Listening
Dr. Nóirín Ní Riain
This article intends to flesh out, through one aural human sense which most of us are blessed with, the wider, more personal picture of prayer. It is not necessarily about new facts but is concerned with new perspectives, thus creating a new culture, on an aural/oral communication with God. As we embark on this literary/aural/oral silent journey, let the metaphor say it in shorthand: ‘the ear loves God and God wants us to be all ears.’
All religions unite in their acknowledgement of the primacy of the word and sound vibrations in their varying concepts of the revelation of the Absolute Other, a Great Spirit, a God. The work of all religions is to reveal God; even when there is no conscious adherence to divine Revelation.
Religions are primarily transmitted aurally and orally. The source of all creation is sound and its associate silence. The human ear is the heart of human being; this membrane which allows access to all that is beyond ourselves is therefore one of the most privileged inlets to God. Christianity is a religion of the Word and a religion of mouth-to-ear. Christianity is so deeply rooted in the aural that a very listening and response is so powerful, moving and critically important in God’s self-disclosure to us. The reality 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. Theology and the senses in general are in sunder. In Western theological scholarship, there is no fundamental theology of the senses. A retrieval of the importance of the theological implications of the aural sense automatically paves the way towards a theology of all five senses.
Of all of the sites where human nature prepares for the event of Divine Encounter, the ear is the most sensitive and theologically attuned. From Abraham to the incarnate Son of God, the connection between humanity and God was through the ear. It still is. God taught and continues to teach the universe to listen. Any listening is, in itself, the voice of God in the transcendental ear of the listener. It is a dialogue between partners and friends.
In the exploration and research involved around this vast theme, it gradually emerged that it was necessary to invent a new word. Just at the word Vegetable’ refers to such diverse edible, herbaceous plants from a potato to cabbage, to yam to turnip, so too a word which would subsume the full tenor or course of meaning which runs through the aural sense and God’s self-revelation was vital. This word is ‘theosony’. In short, ‘theosony’ refers to any number of factors that are implicated in an aural relationship with God: for instance, listening, hearing, speaking, sonic language, memorization, reading aloud and silence. The ‘theo’ in theosony reflects the fact that all graced experiences (inclusive of the human listening experience) can be interpreted by a Christian sensibility. The ‘sony from the Latin ‘sonans (sounding) reflects the fact that simply the world, created by God, is full of ‘sounds’. In other words, ‘theosony’ is only the application to a classification of human listening of the traditional principle of grace building on nature.
The immediate question posed at this stage raises the question of biological deafness and dumbness. Is the person deprived of hearing also deprived of God? Of course, not. No human being is deaf to the sound of God. Many people with perfect hearing and perfect pitch choose not to listen.
Restored sacred hearing is to live in a different reality, to understand the new language of sound. God remains the same; sounds remain the same. What is different is the calling, the ‘evocation the perception of the sound; a new experience that I know and vouch for to be true for myself and therefore, a definite possibility for every human being. The reading of this article will hopefully be, as it is for the writer, more of an evocation. This word ‘evocation itself has sonic implications, meaning from the Latin e-vocare, ‘to call in, ‘to entice’, ‘to call out’ and it is the stem of the Latin ‘vox’ which means Voice’. We are called to be the evocators of God.
Keener awareness and ‘obedience’ (Latin ob audire=\.o listen keenly) to a certain kind of listening is crucial in the current Western crisis in Christian belief and understanding; a crisis which has much to do with the lack of presence of a feminine approach to doing theology. Yet it has been largely ignored. Such acts of listening to the Spirit of God are undervalued, unexplored and unappreciated in Western Christianity. For example, the classic, albeit dated encyclopedia in the field of religion and anthropology, The Encyclopedia of Religion, edited by Mircea Eliade in 1987 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 ‘knees’, the ‘feet’ and the ‘phallus’. The recently published, second edition of the Roman Catholic New Catholic Encyclopedia does not make any reference whatsoever to the theological possibilities of the aural sense. The six-volume Sacramentum Mundi and the excellent Dictionary of Fundamental Theology make no specific reference to hearing, listening or the ear. In short, of the twenty-three major reference sources consulted, only two find the auditory sense worth mentioning regarding God’s self-revelation. This lacuna in theological discourse results in the fact that all aspects of the aural, for example, listening, speaking, conversation, clairaudience and silence are undeveloped and unexplored.
Consultation of concordances to the Old and New Testaments for references to the sense of hearing makes interesting reading. Cruden’s Complete Concordance 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. Apparently, hearing is referred to no less than ninety-one times in the first five books of the Old Testament.
The Christian tradition has failed to penetrate the depths of mystery in a listening relationship with the triune God. Divine auditory perception has been neglected in the practice and theology of contemporary Western Christianity. On the one hand, the Christian is very aware that no one has ever seen God; the same theological emphasis is not as strong in the aural. Yet the fact is that from Christianity’s earliest sources, God has been heard. Abraham, patriarch of Jewish, Muslim and Christian religions, was to be the first listener to the divine voice. Christ did not see God; but he clearly heard God’s message of the kingdom. In short, the word of God will never be tacit or fossilized. In the words of von Balthasar, ‘[w]hat can escape being destroyed? Nothing — except for a Christian, the word of God as set down by him.’
Incidentally and as a synchronistically, 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. The great pioneer of the aural sense, Joachim Ernest Berendt has this to say: ‘Every since the age of Newton and Decartes we have existed in a culture that put excessive emphasis on the eye.’
One of the reasons for this in theology is that many theologians have been provided with a professional vocabulary, which is as intricate and esoteric as it is scientific. And that is justifiable too; theology has a right to be technical and complex. Yet in the process of doing a theology of this formal type, the aural sense is largely ignored. Musicologist Paul Newham suggest that the ‘more scientifically orientated one is, the less one’s voice uses the effective undulation of music.
Karl Rahner provides an alternative synopsis of the subject matter of this article which serves well to introduce ‘theosony’ — a theology of listening. ‘In every word, the gracious incarnation of God’s own abiding Word and so of God himself can take place, and all true hearers of the word are really listening to the inmost depths of every word, to know if it becomes suddenly the word of eternal love by the very fact that it expresses man and his world. If one is to grow ever more profoundly Christian, one must never cease to practise listening for this incarnational possibility in the human word.’
Yet the fact that the ear is attuned to God is the clear message of the nineteenth-century Danish religious philosopher Soren Kierkegaard. Hearing is ‘the most spiritual of all our senses.’ Furthermore Berendt claims that favouring the visual and the visible in all areas of life has ‘despiritualised our existence’. Instead of asking ‘what is heard?’ when God speaks to humanity, the important question is ‘who is heard?’ in the process of the graced human word which resounds in the hearing and listening of the graced Word of God. The grace is not just in the receiving but in access to the new relationship with God which is specifically aural. Through the human ear, the risen Christ surprisingly reveals himself to Mary Magdalen first, then to Thomas through the voice; the sense of touch for Thomas followed in sensual affirmation of faith. Without that divine/incarnate verbal invitation, Thomas would still be doubting.
For its future survival, therefore, 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 listening to the word of Scripture.
To summarize, Theosony describes the phenomenon of a listening theology. On the one hand, it attempts to define the fact, occurrences and circumstances in which theosonic moments emerge; on the other, it refers to the sacred aural event as it appears and is constructed by the human experience per se as distinguished from the noumenon, the objective listening itself.