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Silence: A Christian History

Diarmaid MacCulloch
Published by Viking in 2013

Reviewed by Gerald L. Sittser, Theology, Whitworth University

Academic historians rarely reach a wide audience. A few (Peter Brown comes to mind here) become widely known, but not many. Diarmaid MacCulloch belongs in that elite company. His previous books, such as Christianity: The First Three Thousand Years, have won major awards, and his popular BBC-TV series, A History of Christianity, has turned him into something of a celebrity. In 2012 he received the honor of knighthood for his scholarly contributions to the wider public.

MacCulloch’s popularity and influence are well deserved, for he demonstrates mastery of the literature and provides a fresh, if somewhat eccentric, perspective on history. He also writes in a fluid and accessible style. He wrote Silence after pondering what he observed was missing in Christian history but should have been there, which applies to various kinds of silences, including the silence of concealment and the silence of forgetfulness. If he has a passion, it is to expose as an academic “whistle-blower” the oppression and abuse associated with the wrong kind of silence and to rediscover the best kind of silence, mystical silence.

MacCulloch begins his exploration of silence by reviewing the various silences mentioned in the Bible. There is the silence of God in creation and revelation, the silence of the Suffering Servant, the silence of the end of time. He traces the influence of both Hebrew and Greek cultures in the Bible, which created a kind of ambiguous relationship between liturgy, festival, and story, on the one hand, and divine transcendence, namelessness, and silence, on the other. Jesus Christ was often silent, as Gethsemane, Golgotha, and the empty tomb illustrate. The early church, too, left behind a silence that remained until canonical texts, decades removed from the original events, began to tell and perhaps to distort the story. Early Christians were silent in the face of Roman power, choosing to pursue the way of peace. The silence of the Sabbath anticipates the silence that will sweep over the universe at the end of time.

MacCulloch views the early history of the church as a conflict over how to adapt the Hebraic roots of Christianity to Greek culture. It is the conflict between prophet and bishop, for example, or between liturgical meditation and mystical contemplation. He cites Gnosticism as offering a scheme of irony and silence before the utter mystery of God. Justin and Clement advocated apophatic – that is, negative – theology, saying that the most we can say about God is what he is not. Divine revelation in history marches side by side with Plato’s vision of the transcendent, worship with silent prayer, the sounds of pilgrimage and festival with the silence of martyrs and ascetics. MacCulloch does not see the “noisy” part of Christianity as wrong, only as incomplete. Thus he cites Augustine’s view of language as sign pointing to another, greater reality, Benedict’s use of chant as the means to deeper silence, Guido’s study and meditation as the pathway to liberation of the imagination. Dionysius outlines a scheme of progression and return, a movement that leads to pure, silent prayer. It is all a process. Silence is the end, the goal toward which we must strive, though it cannot be reached and experienced apart from means. Such means come through story, liturgy, and meditation. Hebrew and Greek at this point are not competitors but partners.

His lamentation of the failure of Chalcedon surfaces when addressing the division between Eastern and Western branches of the church. The East or Orthodox was more inclined toward emphasizing the movement from earth to heaven (hence the dominance of icons); the West or Roman the movement from heaven to earth, which expressed itself in a more realistic use of the arts. The tradition of Hesychasm, which MacCulloch links with Sufism and Buddhism, epitomizes the discipline of the Eastern Church, confession and purgatory the discipline of the Western Church. But there is ambiguity and tension in the Roman Church all the same. Monks separated from the laity, clerical insiders, provided religious services for lay outsiders. But outsiders still found a direct way to God. Women, for example, could appeal to mystical experience to experience God. It was, once again, the way of silence before a transcendent God. If anyone from the Western church captured the essence of true silence, it was Meister Eckhart’s ecumenical vision of and mystical approach to God.

The emergence of Protestant Christianity during the Reformation added noise to an already noisy religious landscape in Europe. The noise of pulpit and public prayer drowned out the silence of music and private prayer. Protestants lost the discipline of meditation, to say nothing of contemplation, and thus became utterly dependent on the pulpit. The Radicals created noise, too, though not entirely. Quakers practiced silence in worship, and Casper Schwenckfeld preferred silence to controversy and rational certainty. Catholics made their own noise, especially at Trent, by censoring anyone who disagreed with Catholic doctrine and practice. Unlike many Protestants, the Jesuits maintained the discipline of meditation, but largely for the purpose of training the mind and combating Protestants. The notable exception was the Spanish mystics, Teresa of Avila and John of the Cross. They reclaimed the mystical silence of Dionysius and Plato. French Quietism did the same, carrying on the mystical legacy of the Spaniards into the next century. It all ended quite badly. The fate of Madame Guyon and her followers tells a cautionary tale of what often happens to people who dare challenge the noisy orthodoxy of the dominant church.

MacCulloch’s last section of the book explores two kinds of tragic silences, the silence of survival and the silence of forgetfulness. In the case of the former he uses Calvin’s criticism of “Nicodemites” – clandestine Christians who refuse to confess faith in broad daylight – to argue how Christian noise (including Calvin’s) can intimidate people into silence as a strategy for survival. Thus in Spain “converso Jews” became Christian to survive, though they secretly remained Jews. In England it seems almost everyone at one time or another became a Nicodemite to endure what seemed an endless tug-of-war between Protestants of one stripe or another and Catholics. Gay Anglo-Catholics hid behind liturgy, confessional, and celibacy to protect themselves from sexual intolerance. Those in power rewrote history to conceal the truth, allowing only one interpretation. Alternative perspectives were forced into silence.

In the case of the latter MacCulloch exposes various forms of institutional forgetfulness, which leads to historical amnesia. We forget the central role women played in the church, for example, which even the Bible makes abundantly clear. We forget the failures of intellectual giants like Paul Tillich and Rudolf Kittel. We forget the clerical abuse that ruined the lives of so many. We forget the cowardice and corruption of Christians who failed to oppose slavery and the Holocaust, and even found justification in the Bible to support those horrors. It is the responsibility of all of us to bring these silences to an end.

MacCulloch argues that silence is contextual; some expressions of it good, some evil. European culture has often gotten it wrong, he admits. Religious certainty is dangerous because it gives someone the right to make noise, intimidating others into silence. Religious abuse, most often of the “orthodox” kind, is so heinous to him that he prefers a mystical religion of the spirit. His relationship with historic or orthodox Christianity is thus decidedly ambiguous; he laments the “triumph” of Chalcedon, for example, and writes about the Reformation with a great deal of ambivalence, even outright criticism. Yet he does not give the impression he has outgrown or rejected Christianity. If anything, he wants to reclaim it, but only under certain conditions. One condition is openness to ideas and behaviors that in the past have been thought errant or wrong. As he states in the introduction, his experience of being gay, about which he was silent for so long, informs his approach to silence. That experience has made him cautious and critical of the “noise” of dominance and certainty, and it has also awakened him to the more open-ended and open-minded silence of the mystics.

The Bible can actually help, if understood critically. He cites the Quakers as an example of a religious group that found in Scripture the inspiration to oppose slavery. Perhaps Augustine had it right. Christians rightly turn to the Bible; but they should do so in a spirit of prayer. There is an “unbearable ambiguity” here, according to Donald MacKinnon. Such ambiguity is the kind of silence into which MacCulloch is willing to enter.

Silence is an intriguing, provocative, often insightful book. Most historians, including myself, know only too well how often Christians have abused power. Abuse in the name of God is the worst kind of abuse. Still, I was left wondering why MacCulloch excluded so many other stories of “orthodox” Christians who have not abused power or who have remained faithful to God when outside power. William Wilberforce and Dietrich Bonhoeffer fit the former category, and thousands of unknown Christians living today under persecution in the majority world fit the latter. It seems almost too obvious to state how often Christians have gotten it wrong. Modern historians have turned it into a sport and indeed make a great deal of “noise” about it, including MacCulloch. Ironically, MacCulloch is very certain about his own kind of orthodoxy, the silence of mysticism. It sounds appealing in an age of doubt, uncertainty, and ambiguity. But is it true? And if so, how do we know? However confident and sure of such mystical silence, MacCulloch does not tell us why.

Cite this article
Gerald L. Sittser, “Silence: A Christian History”, Christian Scholar’s Review, 44:4 , 415-417

Gerald L. Sittser

Whitworth University
Gerald L. Sittser is Professor of Theology at Whitworth University.