The confusion of silence
Silence in Christian History Diarmaid MacCulloch Allen Lane, hb, £20.00 This is a fascinating but also at times confusing book. The fascination arises from the MacCulloch’s ability to explore aspects of the past that have received little attention and to make connections that have escaped other historians; the confusion arises from the way different types of silence are all discussed under the same general heading. As the book progresses, the confusion decreases but the reader is left wondering whether a thematic rather than a narrative approach might have worked better.
In support of his approach, MacCulloch argues that silence is always contextual. It gradually seeped into the consciousness of the Israelites through the Temple liturgy, a sense of the silence of the cosmos, and the ministry of Second Isaiah. Jews also began to pick up Plato’s fascination with the silence of the divine but even so an interest in silence is not a strong feature of their writings.
Jesus followed the ‘minority report’ of the Tanakh as can be seen in his retreat into the wilderness and his lack of words at crucial moments in his ministry but this feature of Jesus’ life was not taken up by his immediate followers. MacCulloch argues that built into the Christian understanding of the New Testament is that it exists to put an end to a great silence.
Influence of Greek thought on Christianity led to a view of God who was beyond words or description or any human concept, even beyond being. According to MacCulloch, the Church struggled to relate this understanding to the more passionate picture of a God involved in human affairs it had inherited from Judaism. Gradually the ascetic tradition found a home in the Church, beginning in Syria and slowly spreading elsewhere. “Its sources were more likely to come from outside the biblical faith than from within,” MacCulloch claims in a judgement some will no doubt challenge.
Evagrius of Pontus was the first to really stress progression from public prayer to meditation and then contemplation. His influence was later eclipsed by the anonymous writer who called himself Dionysius the Aeropagite. Neoplatonism and Eastern religions were big influences.
Although MacCulloch admits that he is no fan of the Church of Rome, he is no great admirer of Protestantism either. He describes the Reformation as the inauguration of ‘one of the noisiest periods in Christian history’ and argues that far from promoting an individualist style of Christianity, Protestantism was too communal with an emphasis on corporate worship that left people with little time to be alone with God. Change came from the radicals, especially the Quakers.
But as well as silence in prayer and mediation, MacCulloch discuses many other forms of silence: the silence of the confessional, historical amnesia about the role of women in the early church, censorship by the Catholic Church, clandestine belief accompanying outward conformity, and silence about the role played by gays in the ministry.
In places this is a very personal book as MacCulloch alludes to his own background as a gay man. Rather touchingly in the acknowledgements he refers to the role Robert Runcie played in his life when his own feelings towards institutional Christianity were not very positive and writes of the former Archbishop that ‘his friendship was one of the most important, enjoyable and enlightening that I have known’.
Because of his position on the margins of the Church, MacCulloch is always alert to the way outside influences have shaped Christian faith and practice and to the fact that doctrine has not always been as fixed and stable as orthodox theologians like to claim. His hostility to the institutional Church of Rome does not stop him recognising the value of individual Catholic thinkers. He refers to this book as a ‘necessary penitential stripping of altars’ that seeks to expose cover-ups, denials and forgetfulness but he also aims to show the positive role silence has played in the history of the Church. One of his best quotes comes from WH Vanstone. He once described the Church as ‘like a swimming pool in which all the noise comes from the shallow end’.
This book is based on the Gifford Lectures delivered in Edinburgh in 2006. It deserves a wide audience for its revisionist but sympathetic account of the role played by different forms of silence in the history of the Church. Paul Richardson