Silence: A Christian History, by Diarmaid MacCulloch

A remarkable study explores the many kinds of silence to be found in the history of Christianity

Thu, Oct 17, 2013, 12:38


Book Title:
Silence: A Christian History


Dairmaid MacCulloch

Allen Lane

Guideline Price:

Having written the acclaimed A History of Christianity: The First Three Thousand Years , and in 2009 presented the BBC television series based on it, Diarmaid MacCulloch has now turned his attention to the subject of silence, which lies as a substratum within that history. For someone like this reviewer, who comes from the tradition of the Protestant Reformation, described by Prof MacCulloch as one of relentless noise, much of this book is a journey into a foreign country.

In the introduction he writes that he has been keenly aware of the importance of silence in human affairs. From an early age he was conscious of being gay and was aware of what could and could not be said; of when to be silent and when to convey messages in other ways.

At the start, our attention is drawn to the plurality of books containing many voices that are found within the scriptures referred to by Christians as the Old Testament, which he refers to, using its Jewish name, as the Tanakh. Within its pages there is abundant evidence of God who speaks, makes his will known through law and prophets. But there is also the anguished perplexity of worshippers who complain that God “hid his face” and was silent when speech was required. Beneath all the words is the silence of the seventh day of creation and the nonverbal silent worship by God’s creation itself in the first part of Psalm 19.

The challenge that has traditionally confronted believers, both before and after Jesus, is that of inclusion and exclusion. Having closed the canon of both Tanakh and New Testament scriptures, other voices were excluded and silenced.

As theological issues were challenged and defined, more inclusions and exclusions occurred. Councils such as Chalcedon (AD 451) resulted in the church splitting into three on the question of the relationship between the divine and human natures of Christ. MacCulloch draws our attention to the two-thirds that moved into silence as far as the consciousness of the western church was concerned.

MacCulloch finds the confident definitions expressed in the Creeds of Nicea and Chalcedon unhelpful. There is a lengthy, sympathetic exploration of the theological and philosophical convictions of the diverse trends within alternative Gnostic Christianity and their impact on the development of the practices of meditation and contemplation and the distinction between them.

This development moved from and beyond public prayer to that divine reality beyond words and images, the contemplation of which found its way into the life of the church. He cites approvingly the writings of Evagrius of Pontus (AD 345-399), once condemned, now rehabilitated. The philosopher Damascius (AD 458-538) suggested that the ultimate divinity should be referred to as “that yonder”.

MacCulloch rightly identifies hostility to Gnosticism in the early church. The challenge to it lies in the pages of the New Testament epistles. The underlying issue addressed in the letter to the Colossians may well have been the growing influence of Gnosticism and the threat to the significance of Christology and its universal cosmic implications. The threat may additionally have been to the inclusiveness of the new community, if knowledge of God was restricted to the superior few who had knowledge of the hidden mysteries disclosed within Gnosticism.

Having described centuries of monastic and contemplative developments, MacCulloch comes to the noise of the Protestant Reformation in preaching and singing. Protestants should not be too offended, as he uses similar language about the churches of the New Testament. This was the era of words, relentlessly clarifying the Word of God as Lutheran and Reformed worship became pulpit centred and religious life and worship was concentrated on the parish, which, he writes, “can only be regarded as a diminution of the rich variety of religious experience within Western Christianity”. This noisy religion he sees as the least attentive to the silence of God in Christian history. He writes that Luther’s exposition of salvation as the “imputation” of righteousness by a gracious God was not hospitable to theological themes of mystical preoccupation with union with the Godhead, theosis. It seemed to Luther like an unhealthy descent into nothingness beyond prayer. The Quaker tradition is commended as being much more comfortable with silence, maintaining a balance between contemplation and social activism.

In the concluding sections of the book MacCulloch helpfully explores the many kinds of silences: the strategic silences of survival; the chosen silences of reflection, meditation and contemplation; the intentional silencing and exclusion of women, even though there is evidence of their leadership roles in the New Testament; the imposed silences of magisterial and confessional decrees; silences of fear; silences of obfuscation; silences of shame; silences of cowardice; and the courageous silence of Jesus before Pilate.

Historical and contemporary temptations to remain silent continue when something needs to be said. There is a temptation for the church (and preachers) to speak in general terms about various issues without it being clear what specifically is meant in the here and now of the statement being made. Interestingly, the otherwise admirable Barmen Declaration (1934) specifically failed to mention the plight of the Jews. He writes that while Pius XII cannot be described as “Hitler’s Pope”, in condemning racism his significant failure was a reluctance to actually mention the attempted extermination of the Jews.

The history of the violent silencing of dissidents, deemed to be heretical, does not enhance the credibility of the Christian church. It includes the Inquisition and, to the shame of the Reformation in Geneva, the burning of Servetus, who had tried to create a single religion of one God out of the three monotheisms of the Iberian peninsula.

Three areas for conscious acknowledgment of appropriate shame are the concealment of clerical child abuse in the Roman Catholic Church, the relationships of all western churches to the Nazi Holocaust of the Jews, and, until very recently, the worldwide Christian attitudes toward slavery, particularly as they have affected African-Americans.

MacCulloch discloses his personal conviction concerning an awareness of God found in the silence beyond words and definitions. This will resonate positively with readers who are unable to assent to the traditional formulations of the Christian faith. He celebrates a new Christian ecumenism that is not, in his opinion, making the mistake of diverting its energies into committees and doctrinal statements but is an ecumenism of Christian experience that peers across ancient divides exploring the truth that has been hidden by them. He sees this quest for silence and mystical union with God as moving beyond the formal bounds of Christian churches and, for the first time since the spiritual explorations of the Gnostics, even uniting adherents of different world faiths, and finds expression in the popularity of pilgrimages, silent retreats and many books about spirituality on the shelves of bookshops.

A challenge to this way of proceeding may be found in the writings of the late Lesslie Newbigin, distinguished missiologist and bishop of the Church of South India, whose life was largely spent in a Hindu environment. In his exposition of the Fourth Gospel he wrote: “God’s love is known to us because he has given his only Son so that whoever believes may have life. The uniqueness and the universality are counterparts of each other. To reject both in the interests of mutual tolerance among the world’s religions is to deny the message at its centre.”

MacCulloch seeks a religion of the spirit that will find itself privileged over the collection of words in the scriptures. However, he is reluctant to dispense with or be detached from the Christian Bible. “It would be like denying one’s parents. It is just there.” He refers to how Jesus silenced the chatter of the devil by the use of it. But he finds fault with his biblical parents where he believes they are just plain wrong; on homosexuality, anti-Semitism and slavery.

This book is remarkable in the breadth and detail of its concerns to let the voices of the silenced be heard.

Rev John Dunlop is a minister in the Presbyterian Church in Ireland. His voice is familiar in Northern Ireland as a preacher and contributor to religious and current affairs discussions.