You are here

Silence: A Christian History

The product of his 2006 Gifford Lectures, Diarmaid MacCulloch’s Silence takes a cross-section of Christian history, examining the theme of “silence” as a moral and spiritual act. Silence here stands in a dialectical relationship with “speech”, and acquires a wide range of different meanings and applications.

Two inter-related themes emerge throughout the work. First, MacCulloch explores the way in which Christian thinkers have employed the dialectic between silence and speech in framing orthodox Christian teaching about God. In this context, silence and speech refer to positive and negative forms of theological expression. MacCulloch particularly highlights the tradition of Christian apophaticism. As MacCulloch beautifully illustrates, this form of silence, far from being a passive frustration of Christian faith, represents a bold enactment of faith in the form of reverence and awe. Second, MacCulloch is especially interested in the moral implications of silence and speech. Traversing a wide range of concrete historical contexts, enables MacCulloch to explore the ethical implications of silence or speech within different life settings. Silence and speech are, in this sense, different forms of Christian action which are subject to moral judgment. In the quiet of a hospital room, silence may be compassionate and reverential; in the face of oppression and human misery, however, it amounts to nothing more than cowardice or cold indifference.

These two themes are woven throughout four discrete parts of the book. The first part examines the writings of the Tanakh and New Testament. MacCulloch argues that God depicted in the Tanakh is a God of speech who “expresses himself in noise, usually emphatic noise” (p. 16). Yet, MacCulloch argues that Plato’s more positive conception of silence, mediated by figures like Philo, steadily enriched this tradition in the course of its development and codification, particularly in the creation narrative of Genesis, where God rests from his creative speech. This positive conception of silence is taken up at various points throughout the New Testament, where the Apostle Paul describes the ambition of all Christian living as the pursuit of a “peaceful and quiet life” (1 Thess. 4:10-11). Parts two and three examine episodes of silence and speech from the early church to the Enlightenment. Among the monastic church fathers, silence was a contemplative practice which prized virtues like patience and humility. By contrast, MacCulloch argues that, as a result of institutional upheaval and the emphasis on the preached word, the Reformation effectively democratized contemplative silence, conceiving of Christian piety as the cultivation of an inner devotion. The fourth and final part of the book fixes a critical gaze on the silence of the church amid the most sobering moral issues of the last century, particularly in relation to sex scandals involving clergy, calling the church out of the silence of shame, and to the freedom of confession. Not only is it intellectually penetrating and also spiritually perceptive, but given the scope of the topic, MacCulloch’s writing is remarkably clear. By all accounts, Silence deserves a hearing.