BAD news from Heathrow. If a third or even a fourth runway goes ahead, up to two million more people may expect to have their ears assaulted by the noise of planes landing and taking off. On your flight in, it all looks so peaceful down there, as you circle over London spotting the O2 dome and Buckingham Palace, until you realise that you're sitting in your seat amid a constant roar, and that the same roar is multiplied for those below for around 1,300 arrivals and departures daily.
How much more noise are we prepared to put up with as the price for a society based on an abundance of creature comforts and fast travel? That question has got steadily more urgent ever since the first crude and clanky steam engines started off the Industrial Revolution, back in the 18th century.
Before then, the loudest continuous noises that we Westerners could create were actually the property of the Christian Church: the sound of church bells, or of the pipeorgan inside the church building. Johann Sebastian Bach was the worst noise pollution you could expect to suffer. Now that Mammon has taken over from God in making loud noises, perhaps it's time for us to see what God may have to offer in the way of silence.
Judaism and Christianity have not always been very appreciative of silence. When the ancient Israelites started thinking about their One God, they generally met him amid lots of noise: he brought Creation into being with words, he repeatedly spoke to Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, and he often emphasised what he had to say with a good deal of thunder and lightning (especially when he was feeling cross).
True, one prophet, Elijah, heard him as a "still small voice", but even there, some spoilsport biblical critics have suggested that originally the text read a "thunderous or crushing and roaring sound", until a scribe copied down the Hebrew characters wrongly and gave us that famous phrase about stillness.
The Psalms often link silence to dumb idols, which are not a good thing, and most ancient folk were suspicious of silent prayer: after all, what have those who are silently praying got to hide? Similarly, the early Christians whom we meet in the letters of Paul of Tarsus were a noisy bunch, always crowding together to listen to sermons, or to shout out praises or songs -- or indeed, to have a good quarrel. There are modern Christians like that.
What is there on the other side? There is Jesus. He picked up what you might call a "minority report" in the Hebrew Scripture (the Old Testament), which saw silence as holy. He identified with the character in the book of Isaiah called the "Suffering Servant", who was dumb when he was led to the slaughter. So Jesus was silent at significant points in his trial before he was crucified; he didn't seize the chance to grandstand at this moment of crisis. Before that, he had retreated from the adoring crowds into the wilderness, to wrestle with the presence of evil. …