The Scandal of Silence – By Sarah Coakley

Sarah Coakley on Diarmaid MacCulloch’s Silence

Diarmaid MacCulloch, Silence: A Christian History, Allen Lane/Penguin, 2013, 350pp., $27.95
Diarmaid MacCulloch, Silence: A Christian History, Allen Lane/Penguin, 2013, 350pp., $27.95

Silence is golden. Or is it? In this intriguing survey of the theme of silence in Christian tradition, originally given as Gifford Lectures at Edinburgh in 2012, Diarmaid MacCulloch attempts a characteristic tour de force: he aims to delineate a “pattern behind apparent chaos” in the multiple meanings of silence that the history of Christianity has delivered up over the centuries. The result is a fascinating narrative of events and developments, spiced with theoretic asides and woven together into a thematic tour of the whole spread of Christian tradition. Only someone who writes as stylishly and knowledgeably as MacCulloch could deliver such a tale in the alluring and highly readable way that he does. The book is beautifully constructed and delivered, a pleasure to read throughout.

Yet the underlying thesis about a unitary pattern in this account, already announced at the outset, emerges with a certain stealth and uncertainty throughout the narrative and is laid out explicitly only towards the end of a very complex story. Even then, there is some evasiveness about its precise force. The driving argument, or so it seems at the start of the book, is that the Church’s underlying instinct for silencing truth about sexual desire — or, more specifically, about outlawed homoeroticism — is somehow the underlying impetus for the other forms of (mandated) silence that the Bible and tradition have thrown up along the way. Since the success of the book as a whole hangs on the veracity of this core thesis, it is worth trying to tease out its implications.

Only someone who writes as stylishly and knowledgeably as MacCulloch could deliver such a tale in the alluring and highly readable way that he does.

MacCulloch uses his introduction to lift the curtain on this central argument by reminding the reader that the most revealing part of some detective stories is what is not said, or what does not occur: he cites the famous Conan Doyle story about a prize race-horse, “Silver Blaze,” in which the most revealing clue to the identity of the miscreant proved to be the “dog that did not bark” (for, of course, it was the criminal’s own guard-dog). MacCulloch goes on almost immediately to play his key autobiographical card: he learned very early, he reveals, especially in church contexts, that his own homosexuality had to be hidden from view. “My own first experience predisposed me to deal with silence in religion primarily as evasion and wilful avoidance of truth,” he admits; but he immediately adds that he later came to discover that “silence may be positive as well as negative”: “white lies” may be kinder than truths, for instance. And, for some, he hastens to acknowledge further, the silence of awe in response to God may be the very cornerstone of their religious experience.

So what exactly is the precise relationship between such “elected silence” (as profound, practised, religious response to an ultimately ineffable God) and other types of silence in the Christian tradition? It is here that the book’s argument hits its instability. Indeed, one wonders by the end whether the author himself has actually resolved the question he presses, despite all the engaging richness of the material covered.

To adjudicate on this matter involves a close analysis of the unfolding narrative of the lectures. Part One is devoted to the Bible and to underscoring the extent to which silence is a minority report in a set of texts devoted primarily to announcing God’s Word and revelatory actions. The “goodness of cultic noise,” writes MacCulloch, is a “prevailing theme” in the Old Testament, in which silence is often, in contrast, redolent of defect or death or divine abandonment. Not that there is not also an occasional witness to adoring silence (in the Temple), wordless or inchoate prayer (as in the case of Hannah in 1 Samuel 1.13), or the afflicted silence of Isaiah’s Suffering Servant; but even the idea of a cosmic, primeval silence which emerges later with 2 Esdras does not yet, claims MacCulloch, do anything to anticipate or mandate any interests in the practice of silence. On MacCulloch’s rendition, too, the New Testament is no less noisy, despite the striking silence of Jesus before Pilate and the cosmic “silence in heaven” in the book of Revelation. Oddly, he does not muse on the embracing of desert loneliness by various biblical figures (supremely Elijah, John the Baptist and Jesus himself), or on the commendation of judicious or awed silence to be found scattered at points through the psalms, the prophets or the wisdom literature. The result is that, though MacCuulloch does mention en passant a rather bewildering array of types of both human and divine silence found here and there in the pages of the Bible, his central thesis remains that something “radically different” from anything in the Bible is going to emerge in what he covers in Part Two of his book, “The Triumph of Monastic Silence.” So the reader is encouraged to conclude that any form of practiced silence or solitude is something essentially non-biblical, a later accretion from outside influences.

This disjunction-thesis already seems under strain when MacCulloch gives some space to the theme of “the silence of bishops” in the first-century Ignatius of Antioch. Here the biblical themes of divine “silence in heaven” and Jesus’s silence before Pilate have seemingly already become entwined in such a way that a bishop, according to Ignatius, should rightly emulate such silence, especially under conditions of accusation or dispute. However, the story MacCulloch wishes to tell here is not a story of continuity with the Bible but a story of the infiltration of Gnostic and Greek pagan thought into the Christian thought-world such as to explain a new trajectory. (Are there remaining shades of Harnack’s “Hellenization” thesis here, suggesting a declension of the purity of the original “kernel” of the gospel once it is expressed in the thoughtforms of pagan philosophy?) “Negative theology was well established in the Hellenistic world,” MacCulloch writes, “before Christians gingerly came to consider whether it might help them in their perplexities.” Thus, the “divided loyalty” between Word and silence in the early Fathers from Clement on is represented as a straightforward “dual parentage in Judaism and Hellenism,” respectively (Judaism “noisy,” Hellenism increasingly “silent”). Yet, as MacCulloch gives us his speedy survey of early Eastern monasticism on up to its acme of development in the medieval West, the difficulties of this thesis becomes more, not less, apparent: at the end of this second part of the book, he himself cites Bernard of Clairvaux’s advice on intensified silence in Lent, in a letter peppered with biblical mandate from the Old Testament (e.g., Isaiah 32:17, Lamentations 3:26-28). And of course Bernard, as a first-generation Cisterician, is merely recalling his tradition to a more attentive rendition of Benedict, whose Rule (ch. 6 on “the spirit of silence”) is similarly hung on persistent biblical appeals (Psalm 39:1-2; Proverbs 10:19, 18:21). It seems strange that MacCulloch does not at this point re-consider the many strands in the Old Testament that muse on the ineffability of a God “who makes darkness his secret place” (Psalm 18:11); the late-antique and medieval authors he is citing certainly did so. Nor does he look back to earlier evidence from Qumran (roughly contemporary to Jesus) that witnesses to emerging forms of mystical sensibility and practice in a Jewish sectarian context. A more thorough investigation of early rabbinic thought, likewise, would have caused him to question any stark Jewish/Hellenistic/Christian disjunction on matters of attentive prayer, silence, or awe in worship: there is a burgeoning scholarly literature on the religious melting pot of the first four centuries CE that freshly queries any clear lines of demarcation between these categories of thought and strands of tradition.

A connected sub-thesis in this second part of the book also seems at least open to debate, namely, that attraction to silence and “apophaticism” was a primarily “Eastern” affair (Gnostic or Platonist in influence) and only later absorbed, less intensively, into Western monasticism. The centrality of some institutionalized silence to all early monastic traditions from the outset surely belies this broad theory. But certainly the modified form of this sub-thesis — “From the fifth to the ninth century, [the] contemplative tradition had little purchase among Western Latin-speaking Christians”; the West at this period “tended to discuss silence in moral and pastoral rather than mystical terms” — is more accurate. MacCulloch is rightly struck by the hinge importance (for the East first, and only somewhat later for the West) of the works of Dionysius “the Areopagite” on the theme of divine darkness, but he takes it for granted that Dionysius was a “Miaphysite” in Christology (i.e., downplaying the significance of Christ’s bodily nature) and more Platonist than Biblicist in toto. This, again, is a reading that has been importantly brought into question in recent scholarship, since the disjunction is one that Dionysius himself would have found wholly puzzling. In short, the broad brush-strokes in this earlier part of the book (necessary as they are to any grand narrative of a bold and attractive sort) seem to bleed more messily at the edges than the author acknowledges.

Unsurprisingly, given his primary scholarly expertise, MacCulloch is on much surer ground in his coverage of the “noisy” Protestant Reformation, and Part Three is certainly the most original and interesting section of the book. Before he gets to the sixteenth century, however, MacCulloch recites his own particular theory that there are actually three, not just one, great Reformations of the church: the triumph in the ninth century of the Iconophiles at the end of the long-running intra-Eastern icon-controversy; the papal reforms of Western church institutions in the eleventh-twelfth centuries; and only then the various Protestant reforms and schisms. His attempt to show that the issue of silence is somehow endemic to the first two of these may, again, appear a little forced.

In the case of the icon controversy, he argues (drawing on Peter Brown’s important work) that the Iconophiles were fiercely defending a form of devotion that could be celebrated outside the liturgy as well as within it, and that this implicitly fostered silent devotion. But of course some of the Iconoclasts were seemingly ardent supporters of Dionysian “apophaticism” themselves; it was the wood and paint of the icons that were the problem for them. Doctrinally, then, it was the implications of the incarnation that were under dispute, not the significance of silence as such. (And surely it is odd to sum up the Liturgy of St John Chrysostom as a “monopoly” of “holy noise”?)

As for the Gregorian reforms of the West, MacCulloch’s theory is rather different: “The Western Church became increasingly centralized and compartmentalized; silence and contemplation were increasingly regarded as the business not of layfolk, but of the Orders founded to make such practices central to their lives.” In general this is certainly true, although with notable counter-examples of intense mystical piety — also discussed by MacCulloch a bit later — which were to spring up amongst the laity. But it is not clear what all this has to do with the new mandatory imposition of celibacy (which, unsurprisingly, MacCulloch regards as a fatal mistake). We are touching here once more on the contentious opening theme of the book, but the central plot about “sexuality” for the meantime still remains occluded.

In the meantime, MacCulloch writes on the Protestant, “radical” and later Western reformers with great insight and sophistication. Although he inevitably renders the new Lutheran and Calvinist emphasis on the Word, preaching and hymnody a return to “noise” (“one of the noisiest periods in Christian history,” in fact), he is keen also to stress the remarkable contrapuntal strands of silence in the wider Protestant Reformation itself, and not merely in the loss of (often suppressed) monasticism in Protestant territories. Thus he points to Zwingli’s penchant for silent prayer (and staunch resistance to music in public worship), Böhme’s mystical Lutheranism, Isaac Ambrose’s more surprising mystical Calvinism, Franck’s Spiritualism, and — most remarkably enduring of all — the abiding witness of the Quakers, who combined early enthusiasm with deepening silence and prophetic social comment. MacCulloch’s explanation of Quaker survival is gendered: only here, he avers, has an essentially women-led movement successfully resisted male clericalism, and the result is a felicitous combination of devotional attention and prophetic critique. However, these examples of attraction to silence in the broader Reformation period in the West are according to MacCulloch the exceptions that prove the rule: whereas the pre-Reformation papal “dominance of a single Western Church” had been “freakish” (his word), in the inevitable but “agonizing” division of Western Christendom that followed, devotional silence was overall “one of the greatest casualties.”

"Contemplation," by Ghassan Salman Faidi, 2009. Image via Wikimedia Commons.
“Contemplation,” by Ghassan Salman Faidi, 2009. Image via Wikimedia Commons.

There was “different narrative” of silence that was also learnt during this early-modern and modern period, according to MacCulloch, and here at last he turns to his long-awaited silence-as-repression thesis. This story, he says, represents silence brought about in “dark places,” and discussion of it duly takes up Part Four, the last in the lectures. At this point the theoretic dimensions of the book become more complicated, even murky. This is partly because, in fact, there are two rather different prongs to the argument in this final section of the work. One concerns those movements and persons that Calvin dubbed “Nicodemite” after the story of Nicodemus visiting Jesus by night (John 3) — in other words, groups required to be “clandestine” in their activities for a variety of political and ecclesiastical reasons down the centuries. This title of “clandestinity” (“Silence for Survival”) is applied, for instance, both to persecuted priests and Puritans in the confusing religious see-saw of the English Reformation, and, at a later period, to the undercover activities of Anglo-Catholic homosexual clergy spawned by the Oxford Movement — about whom MacCulloch waxes nostalgic, rightly pointing out that until recently this was a place in the Church of England where it could be both safe, and even “fun,” to be gay. On the other hand (“Things Not Remembered”), MacCulloch wants to draw into the light those shameful collusions in silence which even now are hard to own and acknowledge in the churches: child sex abuse (not a new problem, as he shows), the slave trade, and the Holocaust, par excellence. When matters such as these are shrouded in silence, we know that silence has become a deep-seated institutional problem, one founded in denial. The question is: what exactly does this problem of denial have to do with long-established ecclesial practices of silent devotion in Christianity?

In parts of the book, MacCulloch’s Silence has a strongly Foucauldian tinge.

MacCulloch turns to address this issue one last time in the closing sections of the book. Up to now there have seemed to have emerged (to the attentive reader) only two possible solutions. The first, as we saw, was at least suggested at the outset and had a strongly Foucauldian tinge: the suppression of truth about sexuality (especially homoerotic sexuality) has a certain power-in-denial strangely connected to an ostensibly purified practice of high religious devotion; indeed, the latter may occlude and shelter the former. Although MacCulloch never states this thesis explicitly, it seems to be at least one possible rendition of his fascinating section on Anglo-Catholic homoeroticism which mentions, à la Foucault, the safe containment of this paradox under the seal of the confessional. The other theoretic solution, therefore (hardly deserving of the name), would be to admit defeat in the search for any one pattern in the chaos, after all; what the book has delivered, on this perspective, is a set of Wittgensteinian family resemblances on a huge spectrum of types of silence, from the sublime to the horrendous. But the attempt to see them all as tokens of a type may be fundamentally mistaken.

MacCulloch rescues himself from this dilemma at the last moment with a third option. It is only lightly and elusively sketched but runs thus:

My message in this book might charitably be seen as standing alongside the classic negative theologies of silence devised in the early Church: that apophatic approach to divinity which portrays what God is not, rather than what he is. Another way of viewing my report on silence within Christian history is as a necessary penitential work of stripping the altars, or more cheerfully, the anticipatory clearance of the house before the party begins.

If I read this aright (in connecting the two messages encoded here), it would seem to say that practiced silence (the silence of developed apophatic consciousness), far from being a manifestation of sexual repression and cover-up, is actually the condition under which a purgative and positive transformation of such repression might occur — the “anticipatory clearance of the house.” Since the main bugbears to have emerged in MacCulloch’s story of silence are ecclesiastical authoritarianism, clerical celibacy and abuse, psychic denial, and political cover-up, there seems to be some potential in this suggestion. If so, it is really the inverse of the first, Foucauldian, alternative: religious practice has here become the potential answer to the problems of (homo)sexuality rather than the powerful means of its repression. But whether this really is MacCulloch’s own final response to the “trail of clues” announced at the beginning remains frustratingly unclear. He had said there that he would be “pleased if the reader treats this book as a detective story,” with Hercule Poirot appearing in the drawing room at the end “to look back on its tangles and draw out their meaning.” In fact, he ends the book with his own apophatic question mark, an elusive gesture towards a divine “presence in absence.”

Diarmaid MacCulloch Silence is a book of enormous erudition and arresting suggestiveness. But he has left at least one of his fans stumped by the detective story at the heart of it. It would have been easy to read it, as some already have, as an exposé of silent devotion, a critique of an abusive church which stifles sexual honesty by silencing those who speak the truth. An uncertain voice at the end suggests the opposite: silent devotion is precisely the condition under which an unspeakable God may disclose the secrets of the heart and give joyful voice to the politically voiceless and the sexually marginalized. So which is it, and how would we tell the difference? That is the spiritual and moral dilemma that this fascinating book most frustratingly never solves.