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SILENCE: A CHRISTIAN HISTORY – DIARMAID MACCULLOCH

 

Our understanding of Christian faith is dependent on words, and much of our prayer, both as individuals and in congregations, is also word-based. In broad sweeps with support from details gained from a huge array of sources (the extensive end notes in the form of ‘further reading’ testified to this). MacCulloch identifies spaces between the words, and in one particular chapter, silence in music.

‘Silence’ is often explored antithetically, such as under the headings, ‘A God who speaks’, and ‘Paul’s noisy Christians’. He comments, the theme of silence did not preoccupy Augustine! Initiatives in the religious life, especially as they pertained to the renewal of silence in the monastic life or to the reduction of silence in more active orders, recurs throughout out the book, which is written in a broadly chronological sequence. Eastern as well as Western Christianity is covered. Recurring threads in the story of silence include the ‘mystical theology’, of an anonymous Syrian monk who came to be known as Pseudo-Dionysius. A long chapter discusses ‘Nicodemites’, those who have had to cloak their faith in darkness, such as Jews and Muslims in Spain from the late fourteenth century, who were forced to convert to Christianity but secretly maintained the faith of their families within their households.

Another strand of silence that is explored from more recent centuries is to do with ethical behaviour: the quiet reflections of Quakers led to the beginnings of the abolition of the slave trade, a campaign that was taken up by William Wilberforce and other Anglicans who saw it to a conclusion; friendships of gay males (clergy and lay) in the Oxford Movement of the 1830s that were maintained within the boundaries of celibacy. The demise of this subculture since the 1970s, he says, ‘has left a great deal of confused noise in its wake’. MacCulloch identifies other silences over sexual abuse (he names some eminent theologians) and racism, especially anti-Semitism: the silence of a nation as the holocaust of World War II began to be revealed.

I enjoyed this book. It is well researched and scholarly, but not written in academic jargon. It is challenging in its encouragement to facilitate the silence that listens to God while speaking out against the silence which reduces the well-being of people.

Maureen CSF