Alexander Cruden, that grimly indefatigable one-man biblical search-engine of the eighteenth century, … prefaced his collection of usages of the word ‘silence’ with the observation that among other things, it ‘does not only signify the ordinary silence, or refraining from speaking; but also in the stile of the Hebrews…an entire ruin or destruction, for a total subjection…for death and the grave.’
Silence: A Christian History, Diarmaid MacCulloch.
THROUGHOUT the Adelaide Festival Writers Week in early March, a host of book lovers descended on the quiet city. One popular speaker was Sir Diarmaid MacCulloch, professor of the history of the Christian Church at Oxford, recently knighted in 2012 for his work both in print and television. He was in town to promote his latest tome Silence: A Christian History. The crowd in the packed University of Adelaide’s Elder Hall was both active and appreciative throughout the talk.
In particular, a party of deaf attendees at the front became quite animated when the chair, Barney Zwartz, made a passing comment that most people in the audience would not know that a 16th century Spanish monk invented sign language. A single hand raised from the row was greeted by a smile from the sign language translator.
Over a wide-ranging discussion, MacCulloch elaborated on the themes of his book, from silence as a monastic act, to the silence of omission. The vanished thinkers and iconoclasts of Christian history, from Evagrius of Pontus to women mystics, such as “the extraordinarily eccentric Mrs Margery Kempe” whom we are only aware of thanks to a preserved copy of her manuscript The Book of Margery Kempe.
Women mystics were not educated in Latin and so resorted to common European languages. MacCulloch talked about this phenomenon at length. “It’s a difficult job being a medieval mystic, because you might get burned at the stake,” he joked. Also the tradition of Christian Nicodemites such as the Familist sect – who he notes “spread the word, but very quietly”.
Most fascinating though was MacCulloch’s discussion of the silence of the Godhead to the faithful. Following on from the merged traditions of the Jewish Old Testament to the influence of Hellenist philosophy, the historian quoted a late sixth century Greek thinker who defined the deity as ‘that Yonder’.
“I think that’s a fascinating way of characterising God”, MacCulloch explained.
“It means that you’re in a relationship to God. And God exists, if you want to use such a crude word. But God yonder, God over there – that implies a human metaphor, ‘seeing’ what’s over there. That may help us when we are puzzled by the dogmatism of Christianity, or the seeming ridiculousness of this concept.
“We talk about persons, about there being three persons in the Trinity. You’re a person, I’m a person. But it didn’t mean that when theologians applied it to God during the second century of the Christian era. A persona was a theatrical mask. What you see above theatres, the happy and sad faces. You put one on and you turn into a happy actor, or a sad actor. That’s what persona meant originally.”
As MacCulloch warmed to his theme, he discussed how different religions around the world continue to engage with Christianity in different ways, just as mainstream Christianity unveils new understanding of its religion by re-examining its history. Zwartz asked about the passages of Silence that examine the changing views of the Church with regard to slavery and anti-semitism.
This led to a discussion of Quakers and their breaking from the Biblical notion of slavery as an institution in the 17th century – “It’s automatic, we forget we’re contradicting the Bible” – as well as Matthew’s claim that the witnesses to the Crucifixion actually called the blood debt down on themselves. As a historian, and a ‘candid friend’, MacCulloch framed our relationship to the Bible as an ongoing discussion, not a dogmatic text.
“That book is us, for better or worse. I’ve often said that our relationship with the Bible is a bit like our relationship with our mum and dad. We may not agree with our mum and dad, but we can never un-mum or un-dad them. They’re just there. The Bible is objectively there in this relationship.”