The less you speak, the better. God’s warning to teachers of His Word. But why this warning?
Last Monday, I described The Cloud of Unknowing. It’s what we experience when we approach the ineffable God. We see how in this life he is beyond adequate description. So it’s unwise to be wordy, to add layers and layers of words in an effort to be clear.
Older traditions recognize this. Most offer a short commentary, a homily, typically not more than 12 minutes, following a reading of scripture. Homilies heed God’s warning to preachers. “The less you speak, the better. Overtalk shows you up as a fool” (Eccl.5:1-3, The Message).
Recognizing overtalk requires contemplation, the way we enter The Cloud of Unknowing. Contemplation is passive, receptive, like a bride opening her body to receive her husband’s body in nuptial union. It’s “opening our eyes receptively to whatever offers itself to one’s vision, and the things seen enter into us, so to speak, without calling any effort or strain on our part.”
This is language associated with lovemaking, which is how God first depicts knowing (“Adam knew Eve, and she conceived” Gen.4:1). When making love, the less said, the better.
The same goes for preaching, which might be why Ernest Jünger called observation an “act of aggression.” Observing scripture is the opposite of contemplating it. How so? Einstein, a contemporary of Jünger, suggested that an observer affects the observed reality.
Physicists are proving him right. They’ve discovered how an observed particle behaves very differently from one that is unobserved. An observed particle passed through a screen will always go through one hole. An unobserved particle (only mechanically monitored) will pass through multiple holes at the same time. Something mysterious is going on here.
It’s a mystery few preachers recognize. I’ve given my fair share of sermons (which are lectures and longer than homilies), so I’m not throwing stones. I was trained in the western model—observation, interpretation, application. From this, you develop a 30- to 45-minute sermon.
But no one asks why 30 minutes? If we did, we’d see observation leads to additive thinking. It works this way. An observed text passes through a single meaning. It can be conveyed in a few minutes (example: Lincoln’s two-and-a-half minute Gettysburg Address). But when preachers feel they must fill a 30-minute block, they often end up larding it with additional language that rarely makes the sermon more meaning-full. It instead makes it sub-par.
This occurs everywhere, not just in church. A recent article in The Economist, Why people often forget that less is more, notes how additive thinking results in sub-par results. Yet it’s preferred in business, education, and so. The writers ask: Why is less is more in short supply today?
One answer is observation. Immanuel Kant felt knowledge requires intense activity, observation. He contemptuously remarked that contemplation is passive. Kant and other Enlightenment thinkers expected nothing from “intellectual contemplation” because it’s effortless.
But the effort of observation narrows our focus. Observers miss multiple things happening simultaneously (c.f. the Invisible Gorilla). Since the left hemisphere of the brain is narrowly focused, observing scripture is a left-brain approach that results in seeing just one meaning.
Take the cross, for example. In older traditions, the cross is atonement, which has multiple meanings at the same time. The English word originally meant at-one-ment, to be “at one.” At-one-ment simultaneously conveys betrothal to Jesus—marriage—and payment for sin.
But this simultaneous view has given way to a single meaning of the cross—a judicial meaning called substitutionary atonement. This was first proposed by Anselm in the 11th century. At the cross, Jesus’s death satisfied God’s demand for justice. Betrothal? It disappeared from view.
And with it went the mystery of where the gospel takes us. “The end will be the one Christ,” Augustine wrote, “loving himself.” He echoes Paul, who wrote how, in the end, “God will be all in all” (1 Cor. 15:28). That’s erotic language. It depicts all-consuming sexual consummation, the mystery of the gospel coming full circle in marital union that, on earth, is inexpressible.
An inexpressible mystery is inexhaustible. Yet older Christians (mostly intuitive types) report they rarely experience this in church. Alive to God, many say they’ve outgrown a narrowly focused unmysterious gospel. As they age, as they mature into embracing the mystery of the gospel, many “age-out” of church. They leave.
It doesn’t have be this way. I recently led a group in Lectio Divina, a contemplative way of reading the Bible dating from the 3rd century. As we talked less and opened our bodies, the group experienced Romans 11:33 passing through multiple meanings at the same time. They experienced a meaning-full gospel.
And that’s because they experienced less is more.
 Josef Pieper, Leisure: The Basis of Culture (Ignatius, 1952), 26.
 Augustine, homily on 1 John 5:1–3, in Augustine: Later Works, ed. and trans. John Burnaby (Westminster Press: 1955), 341.
 Michelle Van Loon, Becoming Sage: Cultivating Meaning, Purpose, and Spirituality in Midlife (Moody Press, 2020)