Understanding silent history of Christianity

SILENT SHAME:  Christine Buckley with the 2009 Commission to Inquire into Child Abuse Report. Picture: James Horan/Photocall Ireland
SILENT SHAME: Christine Buckley with the 2009 Commission to Inquire into Child Abuse Report. Picture: James Horan/Photocall Ireland

Diarmaid MacCulloch has written a book about silence — contemplative or evasive — in Christianity. Mark Patrick Hederman considers the evidence

Silence: A Christian History
Diarmaid MacCulloch
Allen Lane, €28.60

THE dust cover of this handsome book shows a fresco of Mary Magdalene from the school of Giotto.

Around her head is a golden halo. In the earlier art form of the icon, gold was the divine colour symbolising the heavenly world. Here, around 1320, Western art is moving towards the Renaissance and a more realistic depiction of the world around us. In this stunning image the gold seeps into the clothes which the Magdalene is wearing and embroiders the hem of her dress and the neck of her cloak.

Diarmuid MacCulloch is Professor of the History of the Church and a Fellow of St Cross College, Oxford. His A History of Christianity: The First Three Thousand Years accompanied by the BBC television series in 2009 won him the world’s largest history prize in 2010. This later book is the published version of the Gifford Lectures he was invited to deliver in 2006 and develops the negative of the positive which his History of Christianity so brilliantly portrayed.

Silence, we are told, is golden and so there are many ways of using gold to depict it. “But, gentlemen of the jury, there are many kinds of silence, Cromwell suggests in Robert Bolt’s A Man for All Seasons: Consider first the silence of a man who is dead. Let us suppose we go into the room where he is laid out, and we listen: what do we hear? Silence. What does it betoken, this silence? Nothing; this is silence pure and simple. But let us take another case. Suppose I were to take a dagger from my sleeve and make to kill the prisoner with it; and my lordships there, instead of crying out for me to stop, maintained their silence. That would betoken! It would betoken a willingness that I should do it, and under the law, they will be guilty with me. So silence can, according to the circumstances, speak!”

MacCulloch’s book is concerned with the circumstances of the silence of Christianity which betokened a willingness to condone some of the most heinous crimes of humanity. His book shouts aloud the many and varied silences which have skirted official Christian history to its infamy and discredit. Crusades, inquisition, torture, abuse, slavery, persecution, corruption thrive only in the conspiracy of silence which envelops them. “It is hardly surprising, then, that Christianity’s most lasting and powerful monarchy, the papacy, has gathered to itself more silences of shame and distortion of the truth than other sources of authority in the Christian tradition.”

In this unclassifiable book, “one of the best historians writing in English today” (Sunday Telegraph) attempts this more daring task of presenting and interpreting the silences which hang around the actual noise of history, in this case, the history of Christianity.

If history is written by the winners, what happens to the losers and how do the rest of us accommodate ourselves? MacCulloch tries to salvage the silence of some of the drowned losers. “We have had to strain very hard to listen to some of the voices of the powerless throughout the Christian story.” He identifies the place, the origin, the significance of silence in the history of Christianity, why it was valued, who were its perpetrators, what contours did it assume during the 2,000-year history of its unfolding. He shows how tendentious silence can be as a manifestation of religion; how noise can often be a much more popular and meaningful representation of the genre. He establishes influences from outside Christianity itself which made silence the established and fashionable currency.

In his chapter on monastic silence he shows how monasteries could easily have become cacophonous hubs of Jesus shriekers rather than the remote other-worldly centres of contemplation with which they have become more readily identified. Silence was not necessarily the idiom of either the God of Abraham or the followers of Jesus; it took cultural promptings from other civilisations to edge it into its later prominence.

MacCulloch dwells also on the darker themes of silence, those who failed to speak up while children were abused, while slavery was condoned, while the holocaust was in preparation. And here the evidence mounts and the silence becomes deafening. There is no doubt that Christianity has left a trail of silent martyrs in its wake. The danger is to presume that we are, or ever can be, without any such prejudices. MacCulloch is scientific and painstaking in his articulate presentation. He adds to this list of silences the persecution of homosexuality and presents himself as a champion of this cause.

What John Calvin contemptuously called ‘Nicodemites’ in the 16th century, after the disciple of Jesus who would only visit his master by night, become major players in “the silences for survival” to whom MacCulloch devotes a whole chapter. These receive less sympathetic treatment throughout history than Nicodemus himself receives in the Gospel of St John. “Tell the truth/ but tell it slant” has not yet been heard as a possibility. Hypocrisy is seen as one of the lowest forms of silence.

Where I find MacCulloch, perhaps, unfair to at least one tradition of Christianity is when he describes a century and a half of Anglo-Catholicism as “a Nicodemite homosexual subculture” and almost defines their Christianity in those terms. What if they were all gay, gin-swilling, gadabouts? The profile of the first dirty dozen to be chosen as disciples for Christianity was hardly less promising. It is by their fruits you shall know them. What they became after their ‘Christianity’ determines the validity of their vocation, and this individually rather than collectively.

One of the strengths of Iris Murdoch, as a novelist in Oxford, is that she makes the Christian struggle towards goodness of precisely one such Anglo-Catholic priest, part of one of her best novels.

MacCulloch begins and ends this work by quoting Margaret Atwood: “the living bird is not its labelled bones” and “what isn’t there has a presence, like the absence of light”. And here is the problem, or rather the mystery. Christianity is not the bones left behind of those who have tried to embody it. History deals with what is there, what remains for us to examine after the passage of time; silence provides no remaining evidence and must be conjured by creativity and conjecture.

Ignatius of Antioch, writing at about the same time as John wrote his Gospel, tells the Magnesians (8:2): “It is not the content of the Revelation but the light that reveals it; it is not the word but the living breath which makes the words heard at the same time as the silence from which it came.”

Christ came on earth, if you believe in Christianity, to reveal the mystery of that life which is lived eternally by the three persons of the Trinity. Tradition for Christianity is the process whereby this mystery is transmitted, ultimately from an oral preaching now unavailable to anyone. Tradition is silence and every word of revelation has a margin of silence. Certain nuggets hewn from this great silence have come down to us in both the Scriptures and Liturgical tradition but as Ignatius of Antioch again says (Ephesians 15:2): “The person who possesses in truth the word of Jesus can hear also its silence.”

If all the great silence of tradition had become scripture, St John tells us, “then the world itself would not be able to contain the books that would have to be written” (John 21:25). The very word “tradition” comes from the Latin for handing on, or handing over. In Greek the word “paradosis” is used both for the way in which Judas “handed over” Jesus as betrayal in the garden (Mark 14:10; 1 Cor, 11:23) and for the way Christians “handed down” their beliefs (1 Cor, 15:3; 2 Thess, 2:15). Tradition itself is essentially silence and is free of every determination. It cannot be contained in any formula, locality, or cultural manifestation; any historical embodiment limits it. This makes it a very slippery subject for the historian. Silence, a Christian history, must ultimately be a work of the Holy Spirit.

- Mark Patrick Hederman is Abbot of Glenstal Abbey.

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