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If silence is golden, dialogue is silver

07 June 2013

David Brown ponders the bias in a dazzling and wide-ranging historical study

Silence: A Christian history
Diarmaid MacCulloch
Allen Lane £20
Church Times Bookshop £18 (Use code CT856  )

THIS book, the result of Gifford Lectures delivered in Edinburgh in 2012, is in many ways a quite brilliant work, full of insights into the complex history of the 3000 years which has helped produce what we now call Christianity.

Diarmaid MacCulloch's chosen topic of silence follows both positive and negative agendas, many of which might in part have been foreseen from his earlier works. On the negative side, he notes the various ways in which official histories have suppressed the insights of others - for example, in the non-Chalcedonian Churches, or in the contribution made by Platonism, or from further east, to monastic spirituality.

If, on moral issues, the way in which the part played by women in the Pauline communities was distorted is now largely acknowledged, the New Testament roots of anti-Semitism are still widely contested. The negative can sometimes move almost imperceptibly into the positive, as in the way in which he notes how a more sympathetic reading of a Gnostic heretic such as Valentinus can transform his complex mythologies into a way of preserving silence before the divine mystery.

Yet such positive value to silence was a long time in coming, inasmuch as the Hebrew scriptures were dominated by fear of divine silence as indicative of abandonment by God, and it was only largely thanks to Platonic emphasis on divine incomprehensibility that the silence of Jesus could be used to endorse a wider pursuit of silent contemplation as an appropriate model for engaging with God.

While agreeing with most of MacCulloch's specific judgements, I did find his overall conclusions less persuasive. While obviously not denying the need for words, he evinces an obvious sympathy for silence over what he consistently refers to as "noise" (why not the more neutral "sound"?). Yet, why is refraining from speaking of God preferable to exploration, provided, that is, that such exploration is not concerned to silence the other but to encourage mutual dialogue? Indeed, might that not be a more respectful way of proceeding than through the suppression of difference, voluntary or otherwise?

But equally, I suppose, I was a little irritated by the implicit supposition that historians are more likely to reveal truth than, in fact, be like the rest of us subject to the inevitable limitations of our age and context. As a budding classicist, I well remember being inducted into the way in which modern classical historians had used Greece or Rome to endorse features of their own society, and I am unconvinced that contemporary historians can successfully escape such problems, even if they are now more aware of them.

So, for example, I was unpersuaded that clerical abuse of children is largely the product of celibacy seeking consolations of power (most sexual abuse of children continues to be within families), while MacCulloch's entirely appropriate critique of anti-Semitism in scripture fails to be complemented by due note of the implicit racism that is also present there, and can be seen to be to blame in no small measure for the present appalling sufferings of Palestinians.

More fundamentally, his strong assertion of the right to an individual voice very much echoes the individualism of our own day, but might be seen very differently a century hence, if the stability of society is once more under threat.

But this is not to deny not only the wealth of insights in the book, but also the marvellous style in which it is written, beginning as it does with two detective dogs. I detected only one historical error (Catherine of Siena as wife and mother), which is amazing, given the extraordinary range covered.


The Revd Dr David Brown is Professor of Theology, Aesthetics and Culture at the University of St Andrews.



Nowt but birdsong at Birdsall? This photo of the ruins of St Mary's Church, on the front lawn of Birdsall House (it was replaced as parish church for the village of Birdsall in 1832, when a number of monuments were transferred), is among nearly 200 images (including sepia postcards) in Yorkshire Churches Through Time by Alan Whitworth (Amberley Publishing, £14.99(£13.50); 978-1-4456-0667-5)

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