In a very wide-ranging conversation Diarmaid MacCulloch talks with Peter Biggs about religious belief in the modern world. As well as authoring a number of award-winning books- including Reformation, which won the National Book Critics Circle Award in 2004 and 'A History of Christianity: The First Three Thousand Years' - Diarmaid MacCulloch has presented three BBC television series, is Professor of History of the Church at the University of Oxford, a Church of England deacon, a British Academy Fellow and, in 2012, was knighted for services to scholarship.
Despite troubled history, religion still valuable
Although religious historian Diarmaid MacCulloch is troubled by many aspects of religion’s impact on world history (such as its treatment of homosexuality, and its too-close relationship with power), he still describes himself as a candid friend of Christianity. He considers it has value because after 2000 years, it’s still in existence.
MacCulloch recalls a time when he was a young academic teaching at a Methodist Theological College, “telling one bit of the Church’s story – I can’t even remember what it was: they’re all equally depressing – some of the students were not great intellectuals, but they had a wonderful straightforward way of expressing themselves, and one of them despairingly asked at the end of the class, “Where is the Good News in all of this?” And I said to him “It’s all good news, the fact that the Church is still there after this discreditable story. That’s the good news. It has this quality of enduring.”
When considering the nature of belief, MacCulloch draws a distinction between facts and the truth. “There are different sorts of truths. There are the facts about biology, and one of my Oxford colleagues thinks that’s the only sort of facts there are. His name is [Richard] Dawkins and he has made a great thing out of saying if a fact isn’t like a fact in biology it doesn’t have any importance at all.”
The theologian considers that approach to be “really rather limited,” citing the play Hamlet in support of his position. Although Hamlet never happened except as performance, the theological scholar argues that it is much more important than the fact that an hour or so ago he drank a cup of coffee, “which is an undoubted historical fact. But it is a fact without significance. It is a fact without meaning, whereas Hamlet is stuffed full of meaning about us, about the way human beings are.”
Talking to Peter Biggs in a session recorded by Radio New Zealand at the 2014 NZ Festival Writers and Readers Week, Diarmaid MacCulloch also revealed some personal history. He considers that a solitary childhood prepared him for his eventual career. “I was an only child as well, and you know what only children are like. They’re very self-sufficient, they’re hopeless at negotiation, because they’ve never had to argue with anyone, and these qualities make historians. We’re good at pronouncing confidently. And we’re also good at being slightly distanced.”
That sense of reserve was also true of another aspect of his upbringing in a country rectory, with a father who was a country parson. He was gay, but couldn’t reveal this to his parents: “You didn’t talk about sexuality there, and I grew up with this thing I didn’t talk about, and noticing therefore that society is constructed on silences – the things you don’t say. And that fascinated me, far, far beyond the question of sexuality. It just seems that so much of our behaviour is predicated on things we don’t say.”
Considering the nature of divinity, MacCulloch approvingly recalls spending one evening in the company of a Dominican friend of his who was a great scholar of Thomas Aquinas. One night, after rather a lot of Irish whisky, Herbert McCabe said “I don’t believe God is the answer. I believe God is the question.”
The Russian Orthodox Church was crucified by the Bolshevik regime, but now it’s back. Now it has the ear of power, it is not using it well. It is drunk on power and is behaving like the lackey of the Putin regime which one hoped it would not [be]. And that is the problem with the Moscow Patriarchate. It is blessing a corrupt and kleptocratic regime.