Silence: A Christian History by Diarmaid MacCulloch

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 08 September, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 08 September, 2013, 5:47pm

Silence: A Christian History
by Diarmaid MacCulloch
Allen Lane
4 stars
Stuart Kelly

Christianity has a deeply ambivalent relationship with silence. While one hymn exhorts the believer "Tell out my soul", another warns "Let all mortal flesh keep silence". In Luke's Gospel, Jesus rebukes the Pharisees during the Palm Sunday entry into Jerusalem saying that were he to silence his disciples, the very stones would cry out - yet earlier he strictly admonishes the disciples to keep silent about his ministry.

Diarmaid MacCulloch, professor of the history of the church at Oxford University, charts this problematic and often contradictory relationship with aplomb in Silence: A Christian History. First, the broadcaster, writer and historian discusses the depiction of silence in the Bible - in the Tanakh, with its insistence on the dumbness of idols, and in the New Testament, culminating in the very odd reference in Revelation when, at the opening of the seventh seal, there is silence in heaven "for about half an hour".

The second chapter covers the rise of monasticism, making a bold claim for the continuing influence of the mystical writings.

There are two points worth raising here. First, that the idea of "negative theology" (describing God in terms of what may not be said about him) provides one of the book's unifying threads. And second, that the schism in the church after the Council of Chalcedon in AD451 was a major turning point in ecclesiastical history.

One of the disciplinary canons accepted by the Western church thereafter concerned limitations on the ability to accuse a bishop of wrongdoing, the spirit of which haunts the modern church.

The third section continues the story into the Reformation, where again the doubleness of sound and silence plays out; from the foundational "speaking out" of Luther to Zwingli's anxiety about music, from Quaker quietism to evangelical testifying.

The final section is the most provocative. MacCulloch turns to the less edifying uses of silence: the silence surrounding the Holocaust, slavery, clerical abuse; the silencing of non-heterosexual, non-male voices within the church.

There is an astonishing cadenza on "Nicodemism", the term theologian John Calvin derived from Nicodemus, who only dared visit the tomb under cover of darkness. While it has a clear historical sense in the use of dissembling under unpropitious political circumstances - Protestants under Mary, Catholic recusants under Elizabeth - MacCulloch extends the usage to analyse the Nicodemism of gay Anglo-Catholics.

Again it is worth noting that, taking one informed statistical guess, practising Nicodemites in the form of Christians in China and the Asian subcontinent, make up 6 per cent of the world's population - the fifth largest religion in their own right, as MacCulloch observes.

As MacCulloch is writing a "Christian history" of silence it, perhaps excuses not further investigating the role of negative theology across religions: how does Christian apophasis relate to the Jewish version exemplified by Moses Maimonides, or the Islamic Mu'tazila school, or even the Taoist: the Tao Te Ching opens: "The way that can be spoken of is not the constant way; the name that can be named is not the constant name."

Silence here functions as a metonym for the wider Christian paradox of engagement with and withdrawal from the world. Can these positions ever be reconciled?

It may be that in sitting quietly one can hear not only the clamour in its full glaring cacophony, but also the overlooked and whispered as well. Retreat might be the clarification necessary for an eventual making-heard and speaking out.

Guardian News & Media