Why write a lot of words about silence? It may seem a paradox to talk of the presence of silence, but it is no more paradoxical than talking of the presence of God in this world of things and objects and propositions and chatter.
I was made aware of this while filming my large-scale history of Christianity for the BBC, whenever we came to record a "wild-track". The wild-track belies its restless name, because in fact it is the recording of silence. It forms a welcome and relaxing finale to what is normally a much longer, more boring and exhausting process than interviewees might have expected.
The wild-track provides an aural patching for any unwelcome noises that need to be cut, and is an accompaniment to the panning shots which television adores. The track I particularly remember came after interviews with one of the brethren of the Benedictine Abbey of Saint-Wandrille-de-Fontenelle in Normandy.
At the end of our interview, our sound-man as usual asked for us to stand in complete silence for three minutes while he captured his wild-track. I relished observing our monastic interviewee's fascination with Roger's custodianship of the microphone as we stood in the medieval cloister: 21st-century technology demanding its own version of what Benedictine monks had decreed long before.
Father Christophe, our monk, would have enjoyed the ironies involved, and appreciated the deeper lessons to be drawn. The point of the wild-track is that every silence is different and distinctive. Each is charged with the murmurs of the landscape around it, with the personalities of those who have entered it and remain present, together with the memories of conversations which have come and gone. Another wise priest-monk, Father Martin Laird, has said "silence has no opposite and is the ground of both sound and the absence of sound".
Christian history has dark silences as well as the monastery's profound calm: silences of shame. Churches are perfectly capable of collectively knowing that they have done wrong, even by standards of their own time, in circumstances which no amount of historical relativism can condone. Their acts of forgetting, their silences, can be the result of quite justified shame. Take three examples: concealing clerical child abuse, the relationship of all Western churches to the Nazi Holocaust of the Jews, and worldwide Christian attitudes toward slavery.
All these involve shame – but it's worth noting differences between them. No one in Christian history has ever said child abuse is acceptable. There is a certain amount of evasive talk around today along the lines of "Well, we only recently came to understand this", or: "It's all the fault of the permissive society in the 1960s".
Not so in either case. Monastic regulations recognised and sought to deal with child abuse as soon as there were children in monasteries. In 17th-century Italy, there was a classic child abuse scandal, complete with cover-ups and perpetrators promoted out of the way. It led to the Pope closing down an entire teaching Order, the Piarists, for several decades.
Slavery and anti-Semitism are different, because they are cases where Christianity has radically changed its teaching on the subject. So the shame is ours, but was not there in the past. Up to the late 17th century, no Christians challenged the existence of slavery as an institution.
If I'd taken a straw poll among Christians in 1650, and asked whether slavery was inherently evil, hardly a single Christian hand would have gone up to say yes. That is because the Bible accepts slavery as part of the God-given fabric of the world. Now I'd bet that not a single Christian alive now would defend slavery, and so all of us are in disagreement with the Bible.
The same with anti-Semitism. It is built into the New Testament that Jews are Christ-killers: the Evangelist Matthew (ch. 27 v. 25) quite unhistorically shifts the blame for Jesus's death from the Roman authorities to the Jewish crowds, who in his narrative roar out to a disgusted Pontius Pilate: "His blood be on us, and on our children!"
So in the modern Church, shame frequently takes the form of remaining silent about these inescapable facts, rather than facing them, and asking what they say about the nature of sacred scripture. Christians, people of the book, cannot now escape this uncomfortable question. Thank goodness for the noise of whistleblowing.
It is easy for Christians to sneer at the bulging shelves on "spirituality" in bookshops throughout the Western world. They would do better to be grateful for the countless searches for seriousness and silence that these represent. Structured religion, not just Christianity, has a formidable armoury of approaches to silence to aid societies which have been getting intolerably noisy after the first spread of steam power in the Industrial Revolution. A secular campaign for silence has been growing ever since, although its targets change with changes in technology. A major concern of the first public campaigners for noise abatement around 1900 was beating domestic rugs in public.
Silence now unites all of diverse faiths and none, with the growth of public remembrance of the dead in silence. This has little precedent in previous periods, but it is the mark of an irretrievably pluralist society in which any specific religious statement is bound to exclude someone. We have all experienced the small silences of meetings in which deceased friends or colleagues are recalled. There are also larger public silences, which began in Canada in 1912 to commemorate those dead on the Titanic, and coalesced after 1919 in remembering the unprecedented numbers of dead in a war whose moral justification seemed increasingly difficult to talk about.
Silence is allied to wordlessness; wordlessness is allied to music. Music is one of the great sustainers of spiritual exploration in modern, Western society, as well as a great ambassador for Christianity to the wider world. There is a completeness about a musical composition, well captured in a passing remark of a great Anglican theologian, Bishop Charles Gore. Emerging from a concert performance of one of Bach's Brandenburg Concertos, Gore was heard gruffly to observe, "If that is true, everything must be all right" – which seems to me rather an improvement on the anchorite Mother Julian's "All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well."
Music has a uniquely ambassadorial role between silence and words, because it stretches between and melts into either polarity. Michael Pisaro is a contemporary composer who has creatively experimented with silence in music, in the wake of the better-known experiments in musical silence by John Cage. Pisaro says something intriguing: "Music traces the border between sound and silence. It erases and redraws the boundary with a fine line, or, erects a wall which is soon knocked down." Christians should find that thought familiar, because they live in similar tense border-zone between "this here" and "that yonder", between word and spirit.
So there is much noise to make about the absence of noise. My new book started life as the Gifford Lectures in Edinburgh University, and I began by telling the audience that I had been tempted just to stand there for six hours staring at them, and then go home, having pocketed my fee and travel expenses. But that would have been frustrating for me as well as (I think) for them. I have enjoyed exploring the great spectrum of silences, both the admirable and the shameful.
After looking at some very dark stories, I feel optimistic about the future of religious expression. A great New Testament scholar, Canon John Fenton, once remarked to Oxford students: "The most obvious characteristic of God is his silence. He does not cough or mutter or shuffle his feet to reassure us that he is there." Many words from the Christian past simply don't work anymore: dogmas, stridency, anathemas, the shoutily confident din of religious fundamentalism. Strip them away, and what might you find? Maybe you might hear the divine wild-track: the voice of God.
Diarmaid MacCulloch is Fellow of St Cross College and Professor of the History of the Church at Oxford University. His new book is 'Silence: a Christian History' (Allen Lane)Reuse content