Silence: A Christian History by Diarmaid MacCulloch

Ursula King on the use and meaning of the absence of noise in religious beliefs and practices

Silence has become a fashionable topic in our ceaselessly noisy world. At the last count, a search of the World Wide Web turned up an astounding 293 million or so references about silence ranging from quotations, images, novels and films, to its importance in nanotechnology labs and elsewhere. There even exists an EU research project named Silence aimed at developing a methodology for controlling surface transport noise. This seems far removed from the practice of silence in religion, but noise and silence are the opposites of each other, and that is true in religion, too, where both are found in many rituals, observances and teachings.

Yet silence is much more than the absence of noise or the concealment of truth. It can reveal itself as a luminous centre that energises human lives, but it can also have its sombre side, from the silence of death to the silences that hide sin, guilt and evil - secret stories suppressed by the powerful or swept away by the tides of history.

The eminent Reformation historian Diarmaid MacCulloch has set himself the task of unravelling the many negative and positive silences that run through Christian history. Based on his 2011-12 Gifford lectures at the University of Edinburgh, his latest work offers a masterly account full of surprises, a series of extraordinary tales, to be read like a detective story. MacCulloch is a superb raconteur, full of imagination, wit, irony and fun, who entertains, challenges, enlightens and occasionally enrages his readers. But beyond mere storytelling and the skilful display of his depth of learning, he also takes a strong ethical stance in telling the truth and revealing some of the darker sides of Christian history.

Beyond mere storytelling and the skilful display of his depth of learning, he takes a strong ethical stance in telling the truth and revealing some of the darker sides of Christian history

The story begins with the Hebrew Bible or Tanakh, followed by the Christian New Testament. Both silence and noise were part of temple worship. Yahweh is a God who speaks and frequently appears amid a great deal of cosmic noise, accompanied by thunder and fire. There is the silence before Creation, the silence of the Sabbath, and the silence at the end of time. In the New Testament, Jesus is the word of God and his voice can still be heard through the Gospel text handed down to us. MacCulloch sees Christian loyalty as divided between words and silence, owing to Christianity’s dual heritage in Judaism and Hellenism.

The Christian story gains powerful momentum with the triumph of monastic silence. The lives of monastic orders were patterned by extensive rules of obligatory silence, associated with humility and obedience, but also with the development of negative theology and apophatic mysticism, much influenced by eastern Christianity as well as Islam, Hinduism and Buddhism. But it was never absolute tranquillity, for this monastic regime of silence was complemented by a highly developed sign language for kitchen, library and liturgy. Remarkably, this practice later inspired the creation of a sign system for deaf children.

We follow the silences that run from Iconoclasm and the Gregorian Reform to the Protestant Reformation, one of the noisiest periods in Christian history, when the sounds of sermons, music, hymns and choirs predominated. Silence was found there, too, but among the radical Protestants, especially the Quakers, whereas the so-called Counter-Reformation produced another aspect of silence - universal censorship. The varieties of modern silences include those needed for survival, but also those of oblivion, shame and fear - and things not remembered, such as past female leadership in Christianity. At present, the three greatest silences of concealment concern clerical child abuse, Western Christianity’s attitude to slavery and its silence over the Holocaust. All three call for strong moral responses.

MacCulloch’s authoritative account uncovers a multitude of silences, many of which are generally unknown. He challenges widely established assumptions while bringing the whole of Christianity into view, from its origins in the Mediterranean world to its spread towards the East, West and North, with occasional nods to the southern hemisphere and Christianity’s global expansion.

Christian history specialists may know of other silences omitted here. A closer look at eastern Orthodoxy, at the phenomenal rise of world Christianity and at recent reassessments of Christian history from post- colonial and gender perspectives would disclose further perspectives on silence. In spite of its admirable inclusiveness, this fascinating book remains thoroughly grounded in a Western Protestant perspective that leaves much of global Christian history out of the picture. Much that is still hidden needs to be brought from silence into words.

Silence: A Christian History

By Diarmaid MacCulloch
Allen Lane, 352pp, £20.00 and £11.99
ISBN 9781846144264 and 9780141967653 (e-book)
Published 4 April 2013

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