The Silence of God: The Robert Webber Wheaton Chapel Sermon of 1970

Microphone (2)Audio Content: Some call it famous, others infamous, but whatever you call it, the sermon that Robert Webber gave at Wheaton College’s November 5, 1970, chapel service was highly influential. Titled “The Silence of God,” the speech had a huge impact on the campus and affected students and faculty for days on end.

BobWebberSideComing at the time of great unrest and change in our nation, both politically and theologically, Webber spoke honestly, transparently, and passionately about the ways that modern evangelicalism was failing and falling short. He also spoke emotionally about his own struggles in the faith. Readers of Webber’s later works will hear the first echoes of important themes he held to and championed throughout his academic career.

You’ll also hear plenty that caused a stir at the time: “The answer is not the answer.” “God is dead and we are also dead.” “We should stop preaching the gospel.” Sound intriguing?

EvangelicalsOnTrailBob writes about the experience in his groundbreaking book Evangelicals on the Canterbury Trail: He had been asked to speak on the topic, “Where is evangelicalism going in the 1970s?” but as he prepared for the sermon, the more troubled he became. The “answers” were not satisfactory. He writes, “Then, in a moment of conviction, I stood to my feet, grabbed the answer part of my sermon in both hands, and vigorously crumpled the papers. Raising my right hand and arm high above my head, I tossed those answers with all my power into the wastebasket. I dropped back into my chair and sobbed for several hours. I had thrown away my answers. I had rid myself of a system in which God was comfortably contained.”

On the morning of the sermon, and after delivering the first part of his text, an evaluation of contemporary culture and the questions that Christianity had to address, he stopped cold: “Then I closed my notebook, looked at [the students] directly, and told them what had happened to me. I told them that the answers don’t work, that what we need is not answers about God but God himself. And I told them how God was more real to me in his silence than he had been in my textbook answers. My God was no longer the God you could put on the blackboard or the God that was contained in a textbook, but a maverick who breaks the boxes we build for him.”

Access to the audio file is presented here (below) for Contributing Members of the Ancient-Future Faith Network. Please also find a personal recollection and story from Bob’s widow, Joanne, and Bob’s official Wheaton faculty photo from 1968, two years before the chapel sermon. Click on the play button in the audio player below to hear this groundbreaking and historic sermon:

 

RobertWebber1968WheatonSmaller“The Silence of God.” Robert E. Webber. November 5, 1970. Chapel, Wheaton College. From the Wheaton College Archives and Special Collections. The Ancient-Future Faith Network does not claim copyright over this material. Access for this particular copy was given to the AFFN by Joanne Webber. It is presented here without edits or signal processing.

Of the event, Joanne, Bob’s wife, writes this: “I talked quite a while with my sister-in-law [about that day] since she was there.  She didn’t recall classes being cancelled or unattended but did go to Bob’s house [afterward], a few blocks from the campus, and so did many students and I recall Bob [talking about that]…. Bob did tell me that while he was speaking, another person on the platform walked up and put a note on the podium. It said ‘Sit down now!’ Of course, he didn’t. Not all [the] students or staff or faculty liked it and the students were divided, but it remains, I think, the most requested chapel talk of all time.”

One final item: In the sermon, Bob references Peggy Lee’s “Is that Ais-that-all-there-isll There Is?” Here’s a YouTube link of Peggy Lee speaking/singing the song in a 1969 performance (one year before the Wheaton sermon). The sheet music cover is pictured, right. Originally written by Jerry Lieber and Mike Stoller (and orchestrated by Randy Newman), the song was also sung at the time by Leslie Uggams and Tony Bennett, among others, and many other diverse artists since. The song was inspired by a Thomas Mann short story from 1896 titled “Disillusionment.”

5 Responses to The Silence of God: The Robert Webber Wheaton Chapel Sermon of 1970

  1. Bob Myers
    Bob Myers September 15, 2015 at 2:35 PM #

    Oh my…what a powerful, prophetic word! A word for me. A word for my church. A word for today. Thank you for posting this.

    • Chris Alford
      Chris Alford September 15, 2015 at 3:44 PM #

      Bless you, Bob Myers. Joanne Webber told me that it might not have the impact now that it did then, but I’m thinking I disagree. A prophetic word, indeed.

  2. Donald Bowes September 29, 2015 at 12:29 PM #

    I wish I could have heard this in 1970, nine years before I gave my heart to Christ. In spite of the tumult it must have caused in traditional evangelical circles, it would have been of great comfort to me in the struggles through which I was going at the time. How blessed you all were to have known Bob, not to mention to have studied with him. Thanks for retrieving this wonderful piece of history!

  3. Mark Jonah
    Mark Jonah October 10, 2015 at 7:49 AM #

    What a brave word to say in 1970! And I see it being as relevant today as it was 45 years ago.

  4. Jim Hart
    Jim Hart February 5, 2016 at 7:05 PM #

    Wow. Very heartfelt and authentic. Deconstruction is necessary at times, like penance. But it always lead to elevation (metanoia, Greek word for repentance means to elevate the mind) for those who are seeking for the One who has sought us. Or as Paul wrote in Phil. 3:12, “Not that I have already obtained it or have already become perfect, but I press on so that I may lay hold of that for which also I was laid hold of by Christ Jesus.”

    Does God seem silent at times? Absolutely. But as Barth said, his very essence is Deus Dixit: God speaks. So, how can God be speaking and yet be silent? I can only speculate, from my own experience even. It seems to be due to my own dullness of hearing. I am a sinner, and sins dulls my hearing. We are often strong on the gospel of grace, but it must lead us to the perfecting of love through repentance and mercy. We need to heed Bob’s call to repent and listen anew to Deus Dixit.

    This was a good listen as we approach Lent.

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