Louder Than Words
Silence: A Christian History
By Diarmaid MacCulloch (Allen Lane/The Penguin Press 357pp £20)
In the tenth century BC, the priests of India devised the Brahmodya competition, which would become a model of authentic theological discourse. The object was to find a verbal formula to define the Brahman, the ultimate and inexpressible reality beyond human understanding. The idea was to push language as far as it would go, until participants became aware of the ineffable. The challenger, drawing on his immense erudition, began the process by asking an enigmatic question and his opponents had to reply in a way that was apt but equally inscrutable. The winner was the contestant who reduced the others to silence. In that moment of silence, the Brahman was present - not in the ingenious verbal declarations but in the stunning realisation of the impotence of speech. Nearly all religious traditions have devised their own versions of this exercise. It was not a frustrating experience; the finale can, perhaps, be compared to the moment at the end of the symphony, when there is a full and pregnant beat of silence in the concert hall before the applause begins. The aim of good theology is to help the audience to live for a while in that silence.
This means that at some point theology must remind us of what God is not. Apophatic or 'speechless' theology is often called 'negative', because it helps us to realise that when we encounter transcendence we have reached the end of what words can do. It is a habit of mind that we have lost sight of in our talkative age of information, and this has made what we call 'God' incredible to many. Diarmaid MacCulloch, Professor of the History of the Church at Oxford University, has adapted his Gifford Lectures to explain the role of silence in Christian history. With his customary verve, elegance and erudition, he starts with Elijah's revelation of a voiced silence on Mount Horeb, the silent patience of Isaiah's Suffering Servant, and the dread Israel felt when their God did not speak. We then progress from Jesus's enigmatic silences to the half-hour silent interlude in the Book of Revelation, to gnostic, monastic and Platonic silence, and to the apophatic theology of the sixth-century Syrian theologian who wrote under the name of St Paul's Athenian convert Dionysius the Areopagite.
Yet the discussion of silence takes up a curiously small part of this book. MacCulloch tells us where and when it occurs but not why human animals, who have the unique gift of speech, sometimes prefer not to use it. Instead, as soon as he has mentioned the silence of a saint or sect, he tends to abandon it and, with an almost audible sigh of relief, launches into a more fulsome discussion of the voluble aspects of Christianity - its love of language, music and what he calls 'noise'. As a result, the book remains strangely superficial, skimming the surface of the silence phenomenon without plumbing its depths.
It is understandable that somebody with MacCulloch's grace and felicity of expression may not feel at home with the apophatic. Negative theology does not mean the suppression of speech; rather, it takes us through speech to another dimension of reality. The apophatic moment can only occur - as in the Brahmodya competition, or in a symphony - after a veritable feast of 'noise'. When discussing Dionysius's method, however, MacCulluch simply mentions his systematic negation of God's attributes - God is not goodness, not soul, not intellect. He does not mention that this is only the second step: Dionysius always began with a vigorous affirmation of God's qualities, and this was an essential part of the process. Furthermore, Dionysius was not preaching to a clique of withdrawn anchorites but to an ordinary congregation in the midst of the exuberant 'noise' of the Orthodox liturgy. His apophatic message was its necessary counterpart.
Dionysius and other similarly inclined pre-modern theologians were trying to remind us that when we speak - as we must - of God's goodness or intelligence we have no idea what we are talking about, because God, as Aquinas, Maimonides and the 11th-century Persian philosopher Ibn Sina all insisted, is not another being but Being itself - and we only have experience of beings, with limited and temporary modes of existence. The apophatic method teaches us to listen to our words, hear their inadequacy and allow them to fade away. If we fail to do this, it is all too easy to turn what we call 'God' into a being like ourselves, writ large, with likes and dislikes similar to our own. We thus use him - ridiculous pronoun - to give our prejudices a seal of absolute approval.
MacCulloch does not explore the 'silence' that was carefully built into such doctrines as revelation, trinity and incarnation. He discusses Bonaventure's fascination with Dionysius's hierarchy of beings, but not Bonaventure's insistence that the suffering and death of Christ, the Word, incarnates the brokenness and failure of our language about God, so that instead of making everything clearer, this supreme revelation plunges us into an obscurity that is a kind of death. There is silence too at the end of Aquinas's five 'proofs' for God's existence, when he reminds us that we do not understand what it is that we have proved - all we have demonstrated is the existence of something beyond our comprehension. A dialogue with Socrates, founder of the Western rational tradition, usually ended with a similar silence, since the participants had been brought to the vibrant realisation of how little they knew.
The apophatic could be a useful counterpart to the strident dogmatism and misplaced omniscience of much modern discourse. MacCulloch, however, seems to associate silence chiefly with secrecy and concealment. I could not agree more with his eloquent condemnation of the disgraceful 'silences' in Christian history, the lamentable failure to speak out against such atrocities as slavery, the Holocaust and child abuse. But I cannot agree with his conclusion that a 'theology of silence' is incapable of fighting evil in human society. The meaning of theologia is, precisely, 'discourse about God', not about the works of man. Indeed, if some of the clerics who inveigh with such omniscience against the ordination of women or gay bishops were a little more reticent about God's will, realising that it may not be identical to their own, they might address these issues with more compassion and respect. A little negative theology might do them the world of good.
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Karen Armstrong is the author of The Case for God: What Religion Really Means.