Most helpful critical review
7 of 10 people found the following review helpful
on 3 December 2013
Diarmaid MacCulloch's book is less a history of silence in Christianity as a politically correct guide to trimming one beliefs to the non-believing secular age. In MacCulloch's case his inability to reconcile his homosexuality with the Anglican Church's position on the question produces a guilt complex which expresses itself in an attempt to identify organised Christianity's response, or failure to respond, to secular matters which he regards as historically important. His argument is a house built on sand failing to identify what he means by 'Christians' and making references which would be better analysed in sociological rather than historical or theological terms. Had he remembered 'all have sinned and come short of the glory of God' he might have made the necessary disconnection between human nature and Christian practice. In respect of the latter he should have remembered the Apostle Paul's observation that, 'All things are lawful for me, but all things are not expedient: all things are lawful for me, but all things edify not.' There is little edification in MacCulloch's text.
It's not as though MacCulloch is unaware of the problem. He recognises that medieval Western Christendom was unique in its domination for a millennium by a single monotheistic religion and accompanying culture but does not understand that Christendom was a political system which used its own version of Christianity to suppress individual conscience. Such conscience was at the heart of the Protestant rebellion with its emphasis on 'justification by faith' and subjection of the role of the priesthood to the priesthood of all believers. The eventual outcome of the secularisation of the latter was the philosophy of Marxism which adopted the trappings of the medieval church to claim an authority which it lacked in doctrine by substituting its own. Nineteenth century polemics were the same as their sixteenth century predecessors. Only the names had changed.
MacCulloch suggests that varieties of silence 'must now take their place in a different narrative that cuts through layers of Christian history and takes us right back to its beginnings. In its course, it will lead us to some dark places'. Such dark places exist within MacCulloch's mind rather than in reality. What he is dealing with is not the history of Christianity but with social history which was overlaid with a religious elitism based on political and economic power. Great play is made of the 'blood libel' which purported to justify violence against the Jews in the name of Christianity but very little about the persecution of the early Christians by Jews. He criticises the Confessing Church, which resisted the Nazi's attempt to create a Reich Church, for its post-war Stuttgart Declaration of Guilt in which it did not mention Jews but confesses sins of omission rather than sins of commission. Of course within Nazi Germany itself 'Positive Christianity' merged theories of racial purity with a non-Jewish version of the New Testament. MacCulloch simply ignores the reality of living in an authoritarian state and the fickle nature of human beings.
MacCulloch overlooks the salient point that for many Christians, this reviewer's father for one, did not believe Christian practice permitted the killing of other human beings and regarded calls by all regimes for the preservation of Christian civilisation hypocritical. As Rousseau had pointed out the application of practical Christianity in accordance with the Scriptures would inevitably lead Christians into slavery. Similarly his failure to distinguish between the political and spiritual roles of the Vatican results in him attributing too much importance to the discredited theory of Pius X11 as 'Hitler's Pope'. Hitler knew differently and considered kidnapping him. There's a similar failure to understand slavery. The Southern States believed the negro race was inferior but so too did the agnostic T H Huxley. They were people of their time and their similar interpretation from sociological foundations should not be written off as a result of Christianity and negative theology but as a reflection of social values. Similarly with homosexuality and the role of women in the Church to which MacCulloch appears to attach too much value. Contraception appears to be overlooked while the relationship between Catholic celibacy and child abuse gets less coverage than the homo-eroticism of the Oxford Movement.
The implicit question this raises is the fallacy of 'No True Scotsman'. The history of Christianity is one of competing definitions of who or what is a Christian. MacCulloch appears to avoid this question by ignoring the role of the Roman Church and its later competitors in rejecting all who refused to accept their authority as 'heretics'. Such heresies were persecuted by groups who regarded themselves as Christians but whether their actions represented the teaching of Christ is moot. Even within the United Kingdom we still have political and social groups calling themselves Catholic and Protestant when their motives are Republican and Unionist. The inter-mix of politics and religion since the alleged conversion of Constantine and the latter's decision to convene a Council to decide on doctrine has never been eradicated within the larger versions of organised Christianity.
For those raised in the evangelical tradition which has dispensed with vestments, 'saints' and emphasised the priesthood of all believers the tradition which MacCulloch views as Christian is not one which is shared. Neither is the idea that fundamentalism is per se in any sense purer than its organised alternatives only that it is different. In that tradition silence reflects humility not exclusion or guilt. Authority is via the individual not an organisation although the latter meets for fellowship. George Whitefield and the Wesleys disagreed on doctrine but respected the other's right to hold a different opinion. That 'Christian' groups have not always acknowledged that right is not a condemnation of Christianity but of humanity. As the writer of Ecclesiastes put it, 'What has been will be again, what has been done will be done again; there is nothing new under the sun'. Human nature does not equate to perfection. Three stars.