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Silence: A Christian History

Diarmaid MacCulloch

One of the great set pieces in religious history is the story of the golden calf in the Book of Exodus. Moses has retreated up a mountain, leaving his followers angered by his absence and the elusiveness of the god he is pursuing. Knowing this is no way to run a religion, Moses’s lieutenant, Aaron, makes a golden calf to provide the Israelites with a god they can get their hands on and their minds round. Like a good movie trailer, this event highlights one of religion’s enduring frustrations: the silence of God in the face of human need for assurance that he’s looking out for us or that he’s there at all. Benedict XVI touched on it when he wondered in his final address as Pope whether God had been asleep on his watch — to the consternation of commentators unfamiliar with religious discourse, one of whom actually wondered if he had lost his faith.

Christianity has only itself to blame for the confusion, since it has responded to God’s silence with the noise of its own compensatory bragging. Yet beneath the uproar there has always existed a counter-culture of silence. It has been expressed in Christian spirituality by the practice of stillness and contemplation; and in Christian theology by the tradition that thinks all words about God are conceptual idols that should be shunned like the golden calf. God’s silence should be listened to, not filled with our own nervous babbling. The truest thing to say about God is nothing.

In the first part of his compelling new book, Diarmaid MacCulloch explores the use of silence in spiritual practice — and he is surely right in finding Christian Evangelicalism the noisiest religion ever invented — but it is in the second part of his book that he constructs his main challenge. Here he speaks not of the lovely silence of that which cannot be spoken, but of the ugly silence that cloaks evil. One evil he uncovers started its long career in the pages of the New Testament. He cites the famous blood libel passage in the Gospel of Matthew — “His blood be upon us and on our children” — as well as the subtler but equally devastating texts in John about the role of the Jews in the death of the Son of God, and follows their trail through his story to the gas chambers of the Final Solution. Quoting George Steiner, he sees no future for Christianity so long as it does not face up to its “seminal role in the millennial torments of Judaism and the Holocaust”. In the face of such an accusation a vow of 100 years’ silence from Christians seems the least we can offer.

Then there is the Church’s thunderous quietness on issues of sex and gender, where MacCulloch’s account is peppered with the kind of delicious asides that make him such a compulsively readable historian. The one I enjoyed most was his riff on the gay history of Anglo-Catholicism, which begins with the Blessed John Henry Newman and ends in the Ordinariate, the secure unit established by Pope Benedict XVI to protect Anglo-Catholics from the monstrous advances of women.

And this immediately brings us to the heavy silence of the Roman Catholic Church’s attitude to women. Here MacCulloch illustrates another of his themes, which is the way that in religious history the victors always write the vanquished out of the story. He says that this is what happened to women in positions of leadership in the early Church. He reminds us that in his list of greetings in the Letter to the Romans, Paul includes Junia, a female apostle, so described alongside another apostle with a male name. He concludes: “The obviously feminine ending ‘-a’ was considered such an appalling anomaly by later readers of Romans that in the recopying of manuscripts Junia’s name was frequently changed to a masculine form, or was simply regarded without any justification as a man’s name.” Thus, at a stroke, the truth about the equal status of women in Christianity was silenced for 2,000 years.

But with the election of Pope Francis hope flickers on the horizon. The mighty Catholic Church, roiling in the tumult created by its unresolved struggles with sex and gender, could heal its torment with another stroke of the pen. Doubly wounded by its refusal to ordain women and the strain compulsory celibacy imposes on its male priesthood, there is an immediate way out of the dilemma — but it’s not the abolition of clerical celibacy.

Permitting male priests to marry will remove one problem for the Church by creating another. Married clergy are expensive and they tend to evolve into middle-class professionals who want to live in the suburbs. Were this to happen, the Catholic priesthood would lose its culture of self-sacrifice and cease to be identified with the poor. The obvious solution is for the new Pope to ordain celibate women, recruited from the millions of nuns who are the Catholic Church’s greatest glory. Women are better at celibacy and are usually more emotionally intelligent than men, so they make good priests. Within a generation there could be women cardinals, and by the generation after that one of them would surely be pope. She could take the name Junia II, and one of the most shameful silences in Christian history would be at an end.

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