Sir Diarmaid MacCulloch has written a noisy book about silence. The Professor of the History of the Church at Oxford, whose earlier books Reformation and A History of Christianity (later a BBC television series) generated their fair share of controversy, likes nothing better than to provoke his audience. At a recent Oxford colloquium, for example, his obiter dicta included the claim that the nation state was a very recent phenomenon, “only 150 years old”, and a rather unsuccessful one at that. (The professor later conceded that the English nation state, now well over a thousand years old, might be an exception.)
Silence: A Christian History (Allen Lane, £20) began as the 2006 Gifford Lectures. Professor MacCulloch pays tribute to William James, one of many distinguished former Gifford lecturers; James’s 1901-02 series, published as The Varieties of Religious Experience: A Study in Human Nature became “one of the foundational attempts to describe the nature of mysticism”— and much else besides. We may be fairly sure that the pioneer of experimental psychology, founder of pragmatism and brother of Henry James did not, however, envisage a Gifford lecturer turning his own sexual experiences to advantage in the study of religion. Yet this is just what Professor MacCulloch proceeds to do.
“All through my historical career,” he writes, “I have been keenly aware of the importance of silence in human affairs, for a good biographical reason: from an early age, I was conscious of being gay, and that proved to be a great blessing for a young historian.” Growing up in the 1960s, young Diarmaid “was lucky to be able to face up to this challenge”, became “attuned to listening to silence and to finding within it the keys to understanding many situations, far beyond anything to do with sexuality”. Moreover, “as a gay child and teenager, I also effortlessly developed the historian’s other essential quality, a sense of distance: an observer status in the rituals constructed for a heterosexual society in a world which in reality was not quite like that.”
Apart from casting the author in a heroic role, this paean to “gay sociability” has a larger purpose: to indict “conservative religion” for its silence on sexuality, specifically on homosexuality. The silence of the hierarchy is mere “evasion and wilful avoidance of truths”. Perhaps mindful, however, of his own exalted position at Oxford University, one of the oldest Christian foundations in Europe, Professor MacCulloch promises to take “seriously the Christian assertion of divinity” (though he evidently does not share it) and to treat its history “with appropriate sympathy”.
The reader must judge whether the author lives up to this promise. In his final chapter, Professor MacCulloch sums up his thesis thus: “Many modern Western-based Churches would dearly love not to speak about homosexuality at all, but they end up talking about little else.” That, certainly, is the view of the media elite, exemplified by the BBC’s John Humphrys, who in a pre-conclave interview brusquely informed his octogenarian interlocutor, Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O’Connor, that the words “paedophile” and “priest” had become “virtually synonymous”. Professor MacCulloch lends academic respectability to such simplifications when he caricatures conservative popes such as John Paul II and Benedict XVI as “defending a sandcastle against the tide”.
Finally, he speculates that we are witnessing a “new ‘Axial Age’ in the understanding of religion and religious authority”. The reference here is to the philosophy of Karl Jaspers, who saw the period from 800 BC to 200 BC as decisive for the emergence of the great world religions. The collapse of clerical authority in the wake of scandal prompts him to suggest that what he calls “the divine wild-track” is much to be preferred to the “mood music” of the New Testament, which is “just plain wrong: on homosexuality, anti-Semitism and slavery”.
Professor MacCulloch is, in other words, not merely putting Jaspers straight — the old boy was out by nearly three millennia — but calling for a new morality, a new Scripture and a new religion. Is this, he wonders aloud, “professional hubris”? Well, with an Oxford chair, a knighthood and television contracts to his name, it is hardly professional nemesis. Sir Diarmaid the confessor may not quite qualify as one of the “whistleblowers” he holds up for admiration, but he knows how to blow his own trumpet. His many fans will hail Silence as vintage MacCulloch, giving grand inquisitors a taste of their own medicine. The uncharitable may wish to echo Attlee’s message to Harold Laski, another academic who exceeded his authority: “A period of silence on your part would be welcome.”