Dairmad MacCulloch, writer of the impressive history Christianity: The First Three Thousand Years, has also written a summary of the concept of silence throughout the Christian tradition. MacCulloch’s writing is dense and informative but also snarky in a way that keeps even the driest material interesting.
Silence is a collection of lectures he gave for the Gifford Lecture Series in 2006 that he has since turned into a written work. The book starts with a discussion of Hebrew Scriptures and the New Testament, showing how the concept of silence changed over the course of the scriptures. The earliest writings hold silence to be a negative thing. For example, Psalm 31:17-18:
“Let me not be put to shame, Lord,
for I have cried out to you;
but let the wicked be put to shame
and be silent in the realm of the dead.
Let their lying lips be silenced,
for with pride and contempt
they speak arrogantly against the righteous.”
Even over the course of Hebrew Scripture, though, that sense changes, as we get to Elijah’s experience with the “still, small voice” of God in 1 Kings 19:12.
Jesus & Silence
From the Christian point of view, the birth of Jesus ends a long period of silence by God, ushering in a time when the Divine talks to us directly. Even so, as Jesus broke Divine silence, he also practiced silence. Jesus experienced an intense silence during his journey into the wilderness and regularly retreated to pray in silence. Jesus also asked others not to speak about what they had seen him do, attempting, unsuccessfully, to maintain a low profile during his early ministry.
When the Bible Is Silent
Perhaps the most important New Testament silence, though, is the absolute silence the texts have on one of the most central parts of the Christian faith: the Resurrection. On this particular event, the biblical texts are completely silent. We see the aftermath, but we don’t see the Ressurection itself in any of the gospel accounts. As MacCulloch says, “the New Testament is thus a literature with a blank at its centre, whereof it cannot speak; yet this blank is also its obsessive focus.” Or as the apostle Paul puts it:
“If [Christ] the Anointed has not been raised from the dead, then your faith is worth less than yesterday’s garbage, you are all doomed in your sins, and all the dearly departed who trusted in His liberation are left decaying in the ground. If what we have hoped for in the Anointed doesn’t take us beyond this life, then we are world-class fools, deserving everyone’s pity.” 1 Cor. 15:17-19
Another kind of biblical silence derives from the fact that roughly 85% of documents we know about from the first 150 years of the church have been lost, and that, of course, doesn’t include the texts we don’t know existed. There is much silence to accompany the roughly 15% of works around which we base our faith. What might our church mothers and fathers have said in that 85% that would shine a great light on contemporary matters?
When the Church Is Silent
MacCulloch explores the differences between apophatic and cataphatic traditions in the church. The cataphatic, or positive theology, traditions tell use we can speak what God is: love, light, just, holy, or any other description of the Divine. Apophatic, or negative theology, traditions tell us that we can not speak directly about the Divine, we can only say what the Divine is not. God is love, but God is not merely love. God is just, but God is not reducible to simply the idea of justice. For those of apophatic traditions, there are things about God we simply can’t speak, leaving us to experience the Spirit within ourselves.
There are some darker sides to Christian silence over the years as well. Women have been — and continue to be — silenced by Christians who focus on certain pieces of biblical text (while ignoring others). Similarly, too many Christians were—and continue to be—silent for far too long during the long centuries of the slave trade to and slavery in the Americas, the Holocaust in Europe, and countless other human evils.
Donald MacKinnon, Scottish Episcopalian, is recorded as having said, there is “no justifiable future for Christianity so long as Christian theology and practice had not faced up to, had not internalized lucidly, its seminal role in the millennial torments of Judaism and in the Holocaust.” Christians have, at best, been far too silent on the mistreatment of Jews. And, based on the global rise of anti-semitism, we still may not have ‘internalized lucidly’ our role in these events.
Silence & Power
Perhaps the most poignant realization I came to after reading Silence revolves around the important, but difficult, tension between the political power of silence and the oppression involved in being silenced.
As the church entwined itself with political power in the Roman Empire, people who didn’t adhere to a strict Chalcedonian view of the Trinity were often violently silenced. Some chose, however, to reject the Imperial world and move out into the desert—they chose silence as a form of protest.
Women, increasingly silenced by the church, lead this move to the desert where they engaged in silent protest. Over the history of the church, silence has been a more important concept when the church is enmeshed with power. The more political power the church has, the more the institutional church seeks to oppressively silence those whom the church fears and/or wishes to control. This in turn causes greater number of Christians to seek refuge from various forms of silence: in monastic communities or as Quakers, for example.
Silence has been a tool of the mystics, a power of the Divine, a sense of God’s absence, an act of violence imposed upon the marginalized — whether an active violence perpetrated by the politically powerful church, or a passive violence committed by majority-group Christians who fail to “defend the cause of the weak and fatherless; uphold the rights of the afflicted and oppressed” (Psalm 82:3; cf. Isaiah 1:17).
MacCulloch covers all of that and more, with wit and charm. The Gifford lectures upon which the book are based are also available on the Gifford lectures site, for those who want a noisier version of Silence.