World’s History, Heaven’s Silence, Theology’s Place

Inaugural Lecture, University of Leeds, 1996

I am a Leeds-grown professor. I have worked with three notable Professors, John Tinsley, David Jenkins and Adrian Hastings, who have taught me much, as have many other colleagues in the Department where I have been able to learn what theology and religious studies are in practice and also what they might be. I am indebted to students, specially because they enable me to carry on research through teaching. Each student learns at their own personal frontier of knowledge, on the line between what they know and what they do not know. It is my job as a teacher to persuade them to stay on that frontier, which is always moving. Even a first year student may stand at a frontier I have never visited; to answer their questions, I have to do some research. When we have time to teach by conversation, it is fun and hard work for the teacher because answers have to be found, or invented, to meet unforeseen but real questions at somebody’s frontier of knowledge.

Even if the question a student asks is not new to me, I respond to it from the present frontier of knowledge I am working at. I cannot answer an elementary question with the elementary knowledge I had years ago. What the teacher offers the student is not the answer to the question, not even the definitive method for solving it, but a report on what the question looks like from the frontier where the teacher is at present working. University learning happens as learners, which includes all of us, listen to the reports from other people’s frontier of knowledge and then ask how that information might be useful on their own frontier of knowledge. University learning is always inter-frontier studies, even when it does not appear as inter-disciplinary studies. 

Because of the pressure upon us now, this sort of teaching and learning by conversation is under threat of extinction. Practising research in and by teaching has meant so much to me, that I am trying in this inaugural, (but also retrospective,) lecture, to celebrate and even to exemplify it. 

Some years ago, teaching on the Christian understanding of salvation, I was moved to ask:

What is going on here,

that I am making a comfortable career

talking about the cruel death of a poor man

as being the clue to the salvation of the world

to students who aim to get transferable skills

and good degrees,

so that they have a chance of viable,

if not comfortable, careers?

This question is not calling for a personal religious answer, for in the University I am not a preacher or a spiritual director. It seeks rather a moral account of the university. It is thus a question for the students as well as teachers, because students are both agents and recipients of what is going on and they are responsible for their own learning.* (Note: members of a minority). Today, none of us, not even in theology and religious studies, can escape the unremitting pressure to justify the university in economic terms. The value of students as the future workforce is quantifiable and said to be fundamentally necessary; by contrast, their significance as persons who are ends in themselves or as pilgrims on the road to a transcendent end is nebulous, even unreal.

The question that came to me in my teaching and which I passed on, however improperly, to my students, is a hard one. It is hard – that makes it quite proper for a university – precisely because there is so much to be said for respecting economic material realities. Economic needs threaten to obliterate sayings like ‘Man shall not live by bread alone but by every word that proceeds out of the mouth of God’ or ‘What shall it profit a man if he gains the whole world and loses his own soul?’ We have a duty to be useful in this world, to earn our bread in some ordinary honest way or another – even to build careers. I am not proposing that we can jump ecstatically out of the practical realities of life into dreams of a purely spiritual or miraculous existence. The place of theology is in everyday life, with God on Monday, not merely in the varieties of heroic asceticism and mysticism.

I choose to put this question – difficult as it is – in this inaugural rather than to discuss one of the many other questions on which I could speak more easily and more competently – because the present crisis of the university in our culture makes it urgent. It is a question of concern to us all – not just those of us who work in the university but also friends from outside who as fellow citizens share responsibility for what is more than a matter of university self-interest.

The practice of theology helps me to see and feel the question as real and sharp. Theology is an acquired technical language – not a language which communicates widely and easily – a minority language – though the minority may be as large or larger in the twentieth century than in any earlier time. In this lecture I will speak theologically – but hope it will become apparent that the questions I put in theological terms belong to a class of worries shared in many other parts of the university and our society. I am not alone, I believe, in judging issues of this sort to be important, and yet finding it difficult both to articulate them persuasively and to find forums where they can be adequately discussed. Our inability to uncover and speak of the key fundamental issues in the present crisis in the university challenges my idea of a university – that it is a critically self-aware, comprehensive and open, intellectual community, taking responsibility for its own thinking and action in the world.

My original question set the story of the death of Jesus over against the service of the university in enabling students’ career development. This question arises only if we attend to the subject matter which is theological and aim to respond to the story in an appropriate way. How is this to be done in a pluralist university open to people of all faiths and none? Thinking seriously about the death of Jesus does not require assent to a particular interpretation of the story. It is asked that we should attend to it truthfully, aiming to do justice to it, learning what doing justice to a story like this might ask of us, and being willing to enter into open discussion, in which the appropriateness of responses is tested and where people can help one another to respond more adequately.

Much twentieth century theology has focused on the death of Jesus with a new directness – as simply a human death. Theories about how this death is divine saving action have not been discarded but they have been made dependent in fresh ways on the actuality of this death and its resonance with common twentieth century experiences.

Thus we observe that here is one violent death, cruel and destructive of good, among so many deaths of a like kind. Here is a death that illustrates both human evil and human pain – and human incompetence to prevent evil. For this death to have meaning, it is not necessary that Jesus suffered more than anyone else, but that his death, like some others, has a representative significance – and, indeed, that the death of Jesus is not forgotten; it may stand for all the unnamed dead who have no memorial. Holding this death in respect, we are led to recover the memory of those who have been reduced to anonymity. Taking the death of Jesus in the context of this century’s millions of violent, unjustified deaths has renewed its meaning or at least sharpened the debate about its possible saving meaning. Seen in this context, the death of Jesus is freed from merely religious use, even from self-indulgent religious domestication. It does not follow that we can be complacent, as though we now do justice to the story, in a way never before achieved – it still remains a challenge to get on terms with it, even an invitation to conversion.

It is often said that recent European theology was addressed to modern people who asked critically for reasons to believe the Gospel; it was dominated by the concerns of intellectuals. Liberation Theology is held to have made a significant change since the late sixties, being addressed to those whose basic dignity and rights were denied them, so that they were non-persons. The task is not to make faith intelligible in thought, but effective in action for social justice and human well being. As history of theology this is questionable, for European theology throughout this century has been deeply affected by its context, where millions of people have been treated as non-persons. The defence of humanity and human rights was already shaping European theology before and during the second world war. The incarnation of God was seen to be the ultimate affirmation of human being and human dignity. Classical Christian theology, represented for example by Athanasius, made the point that: ‘God became human so that human beings might become divine’. Bonhoeffer rephrased the patristic slogan into – ‘God became human so that we might be human.’ 

When people are killed or made into non-persons, they are judged to be disposable. They find themselves caught in a moral culture which is death to the claims of their humanity. People find that there is no one who will lift up their voice for the dumb. They may then be instrumentalised politically, and used in operations which consume and degrade them, rather than affirm and fulfil them. Is it only when people are killed that they are made non-persons and are mis-used in ways which are inhuman? There are many other ways in which people may not be respected as they deserve. They may not be made non-persons physically, but what is done may be exploitative and demeaning, dehumanising. The question about how we use a story like that of Jesus in the classroom, implies that it is possible to do harm even there. And the harm may be significantly similar to other ways of making non-persons.

If I as a teacher instrumentalise the story of Jesus – use it as a text to help students learn to think generally – without taking the weight of the story in itself – am I not in some degree using a technique that makes for inhumanity? We know we have a duty to respect all parts of our expendable environment. Those who use animals in research face ethical questioning which recognises the dangers of instrumentalisation. Of course there are differences between their work and mine – animals have feelings, but it is possible to think that Jesus now is beyond feelings. Are we obliged to treat historical figures as though they were living and could feel hurt by what we think or say about them? 

There is not time here to discuss the ethics of instrumentalising the dead, on the assumption (which would be widely held) that they are still alive to God. For my present argument it is a more productive test to consider the issue on the assumption that the dead have altogether ceased to be persons; in that case is it not then permissible to use the dead as we please, without worrying about their dignity? Don’t the dead dissolve back into fragmented impersonal material which may be used and reused freely? Very commonly, I think, the long dead are regarded as culturally disposable, to be taken up as instruments for any intellectual or aesthetic or political purpose we choose. Indeed, part of the meaning of death may be that a person becomes finally and totally available for use by other agents; the person no longer can resist being used and feels no pain at being used.

Now even if this assumption is correct and the dead are simply unresistingly available for our use, I would argue that we need to beware lest we instrumentalise them; there is still a distinction to be made between using the dead well and using them badly. We, the living, are always constructing ourselves by using others, including the dead. If our use of others is not respectful we will make and develop ourselves without the habit of respect, and without generosity and humility of spirit. We rob and borrow from the past to make our cultures and our social order – if we use the material of the past with callous instrumentality we must not be surprised if we develop cultures in which the living are more exploited than respected. [Note: cf the now much discussed issue of cultural appropriation] 

Georg Grosz, Shut Up and Do Your Duty, or Christ with the Gas Mask, 1928

Unmasking the instrumentalising of people is difficult, because it is in practice so complex, for life involves everybody in using everybody else and being used in turn. Consider an example. George Grosz’ drawing brought him a conviction for blasphemy in Berlin in 1928 – the pious conservatives were enraged that an artist should use Christ like this. Grosz, on his side, enjoyed the fame and market success which a blasphemy case brought – in that way Christ was instrumentalised for his career. More seriously, he wanted to annoy and expose the pious conservatives, who had too often instrumentalised Christ when promoting the war effort – ‘Shut up and do your duty’ was the message of this Christ with the gas mask. That good people and open minded Christians can be hurt by this drawing is understandable. Grosz was at best a shaky, offensive prophet – but we should not miss the saving grace in him: he was appalled (albeit with perhaps too savage a self-righteousness) by the evil of instrumentalising Christ for national and military purposes, which actually meant instrumentalizing millions of people, subjecting them to dehumanization and death. (See German Quakers and the Trial of George Grosz).

Both sides in this argument were contending for something which should be respected beyond instrumentalisation; yet, both were involved in instrumentalising this story, making it the vehicle of their own purposes in struggles for power and influence.

Both sides need to be heard, not primarily to keep the peace between them, but to prosecute the widest search for the truth of Christ and the well being of humanity in the world. Both sides may have a case; it is vital that these cases are argued together well – and for that purpose the seminar room is better than the blasphemy trial. To say, each has a ‘a case’ is not to say that the conflict between them ends a stalemate. It is rather to say, Both must be heard and discussed in the quest for a shared recognition of the issues, even if a common assessment cannot be reached. Only so can wide workable agreement be reached and the unpersuasive victory of one side over the other, achieved by coercion without convincement, avoided. To take the way of the seminar room is not idly academic. It is socially foundational. 

I have been arguing that theology’s place is in world’s history. World’s history poses fundamental human and therefore theological questions, evident, for example, in the manifold reduction of human beings to non-persons. The loss of humanity is also manifest in, and suffered by, all those who are agents of the destruction and exploitation of their fellow creatures, humans and others, as well as by the ineffective and helpless bystanders.

How then do we cope educationally with world’s history? 

We make universities. All the world is present in the university, at least in principle– in the form of various disciplines of thought and practice. If theology is to be rightly placed in world’s history,it needs the university. But even with and in the university, even if we have all the resources we need there, can we cope?

World’s history is perhaps too much to grasp and manage. We are caught in various sorts of inarticulacy, in speechlessness about important issues; we may all be speaking, but the noise of our many voices becomes a blurred murmur rather than a socially effective humanism. It is in this context that my fancy has been taken by the text from which my title tonight is drawn – Revelation (8.1) ‘When the seventh seal was opened, there was silence in heaven for the space of about half an hour.’

John, the author of Revelation, entered upon his higher education when he was called by an angel to ‘come up here’ into heaven, to learn what must shortly come to pass. The heaven he was admitted to was not an escape from the world in which he was a persecuted Christian on the isle of Patmos, but a mode of attention to the world as it is in the presence, light and will of God.

Heaven is not a world apart from this world but a way of knowing this world. Fittingly, therefore, John sees a book, which all heaven is eager to read but cannot for, it is sealed with seven seals. Who may open them?

ALBRECHT DURER German 1471-1528 The Four Horsemen of image 0
Albrecht Durer, The Four Horsemen from “The Apocalypse”, 1498

When the Lamb who was slain and is worthy to open the book breaks the seals, it turns out, – if this is not too fanciful an interpretation – that the book represents, reveals and realises the terrible history of the world. The Four Horsemen ride out, the conqueror on the white horse, the red taking away peace from the earth, the black bringing scarcity and hunger; and the pale, mass death. At the fifth seal, we see the martyrs who have been killed for the sake of the word of God, crying out for the avenging of their innocent blood and being given no more comfort than a white robe and the hardly cheering advice to wait ‘a little longer’ until all the martyrs yet to come have been added to them. At the sixth seal, heaven is rolled up like a scroll and the great people of the earth cry out for the rocks to fall on them, to shield them from the unbearable wrath of the Lamb.

No responsible and sensible human being and certainly no theologian at the end of this terrible century should treat this succession of images as quaint entertainment or as the deranged visions arising from suffering, fanatical imagination and millennial hysteria. Few of us have the historical imagination to see why Durer’s woodcut changed the meaning of the word apocalypse, from simply ‘revelation’, to include impending doom – for his horses seem friendly and admirable creatures, fit pets for a Queen; they no longer frighten us as they did people of his time. But I do not need to list our civil and military machines and processes of destruction, capable of achieving Armageddon in excess of all ancient imagination.

No wonder, when the seventh seal was broken there was silence in heaven. Attention to the world’s history bewilders, saddens, angers, it cannot be contained in words; it blocks communication between people because they cannot bear to talk about the sorrow.

If this were a working lecture, I would ask you to be silent for a few minutes and then to discuss with your neighbour the nature and the function of silence.

We have to engage in such imaginative thinking, especially about something like silence, because silence does not have meaning in itself. Silence shows no face to us – it says no word – does not give anything of itself to us. Silence may or may not have a ‘self’ to give – it disconcerts us because we do not and cannot know whether anything is there.

In this text the silence is not explained – we are only told it lasts long enough, about half and an hour, to be noticed as silence.

If there is any meaning in silence, it has to come from outside. Silence creates a space into which meanings can flow. So silence teases the mind to work. But because meanings flow into silence, a silence that resists, which preserves itself against the onslaught of explanation, is remarkable and arresting, as was the Burning Bush which seized Moses’ attention in the desert.

Silence drives us to seek for meaning but we must still respect the silence. The words we find to explain it must somehow share its silence, not abolish it. Silence has meaning as the depth and power of encountered reality which eludes our words – we can be wordless for joy, amazement, fear, shame, fascination.

We are familiar with public corporate silence as a way of respecting someone who has died. It is a space where a group can attend to the once-person, but each in his own way; and so the dead one is more fully respected than if a few speakers define our feelings with words. Silence enables us to think difficult and strange thoughts, at the edge of our words. It is a frontier activity.

When silence occurs in any sequence of activity, it loosens the logical or purposeful connection we make between past, present and future. Those connections are the means by which we make sense of our being in time and even gain a feeling of being in control. Logical and purposeful thinking is essential to humanity – and to career-making; silence may be frightening as well as liberating. But since our purposes are composed of what we want and what we can do, of vision and technique, our purposes can be a threat to other being around us. Silence brakes, slows down the drive of our managerial domineering continuity and enables other being to be itself in ‘our’ time. Silence is where we listen and let be; it is a sign, at least, of being free from instrumentalising the sacred and whatever else should be respected.

When we look at world’s history, we will venture explanations, but their value might be that, in trying to explain, we talk ourselves to the point where we know silence is indispensable, at least for half an hour. We need a space free from the obvious explanations which are so confusing, so discouraging, so undermining: what can we say when we face the possibility that we are in a history of evil without grounds for hope? Silence may give us freedom from being finally broken by this history without falling into callous indifference to it; for silence is a form of respect for reality, it is a responsible reaction to it.

The book of Revelation writes history through shocking, discrete symbols, in bullet points, seven seals breaking. We write history differently – for we look for more continuity, for profound and complex patterns of interaction, and for detailed verification of the accounts, all features absent from Revelation.

Our history writing is a powerful truth-seeking discipline – but does it have ways of being silent in the silence of heaven? A history which eliminates the sadness and the terror, a history that never falls silent in dismay at its own discoveries is only half true.

We might investigate whether, in our modern history-writing, the silence is there – not as a moment in the story, but as the total spiritual space in which the story is told. The silence may be present in the basic but unspoken inspiration and motivation of some historians; it may thus be detectable within the language of the work. It is a silence which does not draw attention to itself: so can go unnoticed. Revelation’s silence in heaven draws attention to the place of silence in world’s history, and thus aids both writer and reader of history to share a silence which is not explicit as event in the stories we tell.

Silence is specially shocking in heaven because heaven, according to John, is forever resounding with the praise of God by all sorts of creatures. World’s history is capable of silencing these songs of everlasting joy.

In our time, the praise of God, like faith in God, has been silenced for many by the experience of world’s history. This loss of faith can be pictured and felt as the silencing of heaven against humanity. When heaven is silent for us, or against us – it is then felt to be indifferent to human concerns, or brazenly cruel, or harsh in enforcing a so-called higher justice, which conflicts with human justice at its most fair and compassionate.

If heaven does not respond to humanity when it cries for help – if it cloaks itself in silence, then, in the end, people lose faith, deciding that heaven is impotent, unreal, not worth thinking about.

Revelation’s ‘silence in heaven’ is quite different – for it is not the silence of heaven against the world, but silence brought about by a committed attention to the real world.

All the same, the silence in heaven cannot but attend to and respect the silence of heaven as sensed in the loss of faith. The martyrs, revealed at the opening of the fifth seal, are on the verge of feeling that heaven fails them in their need: and they are part of the history that brings heaven to silence at the seventh seal.

One of most famous sayings reverberating around late twentieth century theology comes from Elie Wiesel’s Night, the account of his time in Auschwitz as a boy: ‘Never shall I forget that nocturnal silence which deprived me, for all eternity, of the desire to live. Never shall I forget those moments which murdered my God and my soul and turned my dreams to dust. Never shall I forget these things, even if I am condemned to live as long as God himself. Never.’

We listen in silence to witness such as this – and yet should we not be careful about the scope we give to that ‘Never’? Does that ‘nocturnal silence’ have no end, in any sense? Does heaven by contrast show itself lacking in gravity, since its silence lasts ‘about half an hour’? On the other hand, it may be that half an hour in heaven holds that ‘never’ in true respect; this half an hour in heaven may fully live the ‘refusal of comfort’ which Ulrich Simon insists on in his Theology of Auschwitz.

What is it to be deprived of the desire to live, and yet to be able to imagine ‘living as long as God Himself’? And certainly to live without forgetting?

Does ‘living without desire’ mean living, but from some other source than desire and for some other goal than the fulfillment of the desire to live?

It is not only Auschwitz that brings people to say ‘Never’ in this way to any possible comfort. And yet, does not the evil and suffering impel us to say ‘Nevertheless’ in hope and ‘Never again’ in practical commitment? A silence in heaven of about half an hour has the capacity to symbolise all three.

So Jonathan Sacks says: ‘to whom could one speak of these things so much larger than man, if not to God? … If God existed, how was Auschwitz possible? But if God did not exist, how was humanity after Auschwitz credible?’ (Crisis and Covenant, p26)

Whether morally permissible or not, in Revelation as in world’s history, there is a future to come. The silence in heaven receives meaning from what comes after it, as well as what leads up to it. The silence is a space for hope – but is not itself hope; for the silence in itself is empty, and hope is a choice of a meaning for the silence, against the (equally) plausible way of despair. So we may ask – what comes after the silence to evoke and support hope, combating despair?

Revelation itself encourages us to look forward in hope. I am no expert on the complex numerical patterns of Revelation, but it is interesting to note how its hope gains in detail as the sequence of sevens follow each other through the text. Silence in heaven occurs as the breaking of the seventh seal: one verse, no explanation and we pass on (8.1). There is more than silence in chapter 11 when the seventh trumpet is sounded, heaven bursts into song: ‘And he shall reign for ever and ever’. When the seventh angel pours out the seventh plague in chapter 16, there is a proclamation: It is done! And there follows immediately the End described in detail in the remaining five chapters.

Revelation has famously inspired (and misled) many, not least by the seductive concreteness of its visions of how all things will end, in the complete collapse of the great Babylon, symbolising the economic and political system of the present world, in the final war with evil, and in a new heaven and new earth, where there will be perfect justice, peace, security and joy to all who are entitled to enter the new Jerusalem and to live in the unobscured light of God. We thus have much to hope for. But such detailed eschatologies are altogether beyond what we can know or even rationally guess. Revelation does not give information about the future of the kind the University can work with; and the sober sides of the Churches have also generally been wary of this book 

So, despite all my advocacy of fancy, I am the cautious proper academic after all: I do not think we can find theology’s place in the later chapters of Revelation. It should stay in the silence of chapter 8.1. Scholarship respects silence when it formulates questions, entertains ignorance, practises tentativeness in its arguments and hypotheses, and builds in the acknowledgement of the limits of knowledge. Theology is a perennial irritant to some kinds of religious faith because it will not eliminate scepticism, and hesitates to make simple affirmations. But it may also thereby be an invitation and a help to faith, wherever religious faith finds itself in the silence of heaven.

I have taken this silence in heaven to symbolise the place for theology and religious studies and indeed for the university as a whole. To operate in this silence means thinking of the world truthfully with respect and compassion. In this silence we are not abstracting from the historical worlds of evil and suffering. We are allowing our thought to be invited and perplexed by the world we do not totally control. Since this symbolic silence is for about half an hour, it has an end which signifies the promise of future. Thinking in the university is an act of hope; this is obvious in some disciplines which are closely related to professions and enterprises directed to working for a better future. Theology and religious studies have tended to seclude themselves in the university from any close relation with the most obvious practical and vocational involvements in society; it has been necessary for them to struggle for freedom from church control, and they have succeeded largely by pursuing truth and scholarship for their own sake in the Faculty of Arts. I do not believe that there can be any purely academic place; the independence of theology from the church has to be used, not to retreat into the academy at its most academic, but to attend to world’s history and to do our thinking within the responsive and hopeful space symbolised by the silence of heaven.

So far, in this speculative exegesis, I have taken the text as though it is directly telling us something about heaven. To understand it, we merely need to find out what its words mean. But you will have noticed that I can only suggest meanings for this text by inviting you to join me imaginatively, to play with possible meanings, drawing upon our experiences of, and our concerns about, the world. Now, if we find meaning by offering what we have within ourselves as possible vehicles and signs of the meaning of the text, we should also enquire about what John, the writer of Revelation, brought or gave to the text. He tells us, he wrote what he was told to write – which was what he saw, and what he saw was, we may guess, what he had eyes to see. The only way to know anything about what John had eyes for is to read the text he has given us – we have nothing else from him.

Once we do that, another way of thinking about the silence in heaven may open up. Suppose! at the breaking of the seventh seal – perhaps! – a great deal happened and it may have been a productive half an hour in heaven, but John did not have eyes to see what was going on – then, all he had to report was – silence.

We lose something when the text no longer compels us to think about the mystery of silence in heaven, and instead invites us to reflect on the epistemological limitations of John. And in my willfulness, I only go this road in order to be able in the end to say more about what might be hidden in the silence of heaven. 

John writes in the dualist, often punitive and determinist idiom of apocalyptic literature. Humanity is divided into good and wicked, God’s and the Devil’s and, at the end, everyone stays in their fixed character: ‘he who is filthy, let him be made filthy still… he who us holy, let him be made holy yet more’ (22.11). There is salvation for the martyrs, those who are unswervingly on the right side in the struggle and persist to the end. The possibility that the wicked might repent and change their ways, that there might be a powerful redemptive forgiveness at work to change people and their destinies, does not appear in this way of picturing moral and spiritual conflicts.

I have spent a lot of my life learning, a good deal of it arguing, that the only honest and constructive way by which human beings can ever move from our imperfect and rotten pasts towards better futures is by processes and actions for which ‘forgiveness’ is a useful general label. The text, Revelation, cannot speak in such terms; it has other things to say and it gives us a silence, a space for what it cannot say. Of course, if something like forgiveness is hidden in the silence, its appearance would upset the morality and vision of Revelation as a whole. In reading Revelation, I need silence in the text to entertain possibilities the idiom of the book blocks.

In this lecture I have been testing conventional boundaries and relationships between scholarship, career and the sacred; between thought and action; between the university and the world; between information, intention and imagination. The independence of the university is not to be undermined by dissolving university into the world, in the name of making it responsible; the university nevertheless must relate to the world, with the kind of responsive freedom which is symbolised by locating the university, and with it the kind of theology and religious studies I am privileged with my colleagues to pursue, within the silence of heaven.

Let me pick a final argument with Ian Buruma’s excellent book Wages of Guilt. In discussing how Germans and Japanese have dealt with the memory of war crimes and crimes against humanity, he asks: ‘Can a history museum be combined with a memorial place, or a Mahnmal, without distorting its purpose? A memorial is a religious or quasi-religious monument where remembrance of the past is a collective ritual. People pray at monuments, they light torches, they lay wreaths. But a museum is a secular institution, which ought, in a liberal society, to strive for independent scholarship. In a dictatorship, where everything – politics, scholarship, memorialising – is reduced to public ritual, there is no contradiction; in a liberal democracy there is.’

The distinction between museum and memorial is not unlike that commonly drawn between university and worshipping community. The common wisdom is that they should be kept apart lest the university’s thinking be warped by religious concern, blunted by credulity. How are we to evaluate this characterisation of museum and memorial, university and religion, in the light of what I have argued about silence in heaven as the place for theology?

Certainly there are differences between museum and memorial, but I am not sure that liberal democracy depends on turning them into a sharp principled separation. A liberal democracy might rather be a society which knows how to take the risk of freedom and variety and therefore allows museums and memorial to come in many different forms, often overlapping each other. If museums are instruments of science, they should not be restricted to enabling everything to be learnt except anything which brings tears to the eyes, trembling to the conscience, cries for justice to the public place, experiments for different futures. Against unlearned emotion it is proper to struggle; it is part of the inner discipline of scholars to do so; but to prevent honest thinking about the world from bringing us to a silence which is religious or quasi-religious is a truncation of scholarship. The university teacher has as much to do in stimulating responsible but visionary imagination in students as in correcting wayward logic or spelling. Of course we need both imagination and accuracy – but while our spelling can be checked now by computer, we have to do our own imagining together.

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