Thinking Aloud About Truth

‘”What is truth?” said jesting Pilate, and would not stay for an answer.’ Those words of Francis Bacon have always made me uncomfortable. Truth is often challenged by those who don’t want to accept its demands. Ridicule, impatience, sarcasm — they are all ways of avoiding that which unsettles us. They provide us with the illusion of power and control, but it is an illusion. Truth has a way of undermining the egotistical edifices we try to build. We cannot hide from truth for very long. When Jesus assures his followers that he will send another Advocate to be with them for ever, the Spirit of Truth whom the world cannot receive, he knows very well what he is doing. He is sending the Holy Spirit, tongued with fire, to cleanse, illumine and transform us, so that henceforth we may live in the light as truthful beings, freed from the fear that makes us hide away in darkness and subterfuges. He is promising us Truth himself, but that is not a promise many of us are very comfortable with. We actually prefer lurking in the shadows to being exposed to the light.

To many people, however, this idea of divine truth — all-powerful, transcendent, compelling — is utter nonsense. Truth is not an absolute but something that may be manipulated/adapted for other ends. We embrace just enough of it to obtain some advantage or avoid some unpleasantness. We have, in effect, privatised the concept of truth. It is not uncommon to hear someone talking about ‘my truth’ or ‘being true to myself’ when what they really mean, I think, is ‘that which I am prepared to accept as true, a highly personal and individual, possibly even individualistic, interpretation’. Granted, it is impossible for a human being to be completely objective (we still need our own brains to think with, our own senses to receive information from the world about us, no matter how hard we try to lay aside our prejudices and predilections) so, inevitably, our apprehension of truth must always be partial; but the fact that our apprehension is partial does not mean that truth itself is changed thereby.

Some of the current debate about being spiritual versus being religious and the idea that one can do what one likes provided it doesn’t hurt (or appear to hurt) anyone else is based on, or at any rate highly influenced by, this privatised idea of truth. A private truth, if such a thing can be said to exist, can make no public demands, cannot have a social consequence except in a very limited and imperfect way. The Christian understanding of truth as a moral imperative as well as a philosophical concept is, by contrast, very public and very social. We are obliged to act in certain ways. To do otherwise would be to deny not just a private conviction but God himself. It is that difference in understanding that makes it increasingly difficult for those who have no religion to understand where the religious are coming from. Sometimes it makes it difficult for the religious, too.

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Epiphany 2014

Adoration of the Magi

Epiphany dawns cold and grey here in England. There is a ‘Constable sky’ overhead, entirely lacking stars or sunlight. It is a useful paradigm of our search for truth and meaning. We would like everything to be either as plain as day, illumined by dazzling sunshine, or enveloped in shimmering mystery into which we could plunge deeper and deeper without ever finding an end. Instead, we spend most of our lives plodding through the drabness of the cold grey dawn, often stumbling over Truth without realising it or battling against God rather than surrendering to him. I suspect that the Magi’s own journey was rather like that: dull, tiring, full of wrong turns, seemingly hopeless at times.

But we know that the Magi are eventually led to the Child they are seeking and lay their treasures before him. We too must bring our gifts — the gold of generosity, the frankincense of prayer, the myrrh of service — and lay them before our Lord and Saviour. However dull the day, however out of sorts we may be feeling, we know we are confronting a great mystery. Today the gentiles are admitted into the family of God, and the Church heightens our sense of this by commemorating three great miracles or signs: the Magi are led by a star, Christ is baptized in the Jordan and water is turned into wine at the wedding-feast of Cana. In other words, today salvation has come to us all. How can we be gloomy knowing that?

Note on the illustration:
Andrea Mantegna (Italian (Paduan), about 1431 – 1506)
Adoration of the Magi, about 1495 – 1505, Distemper on linen. 
Unframed: 48.6 x 65.6 cm (19 1/8 x 25 13/16 in.)
 Framed: 71.8 x 86.8 x 3.5 cm (28 1/4 x 34 3/16 x 1 3/8 in.) Stretcher: 54.6 x 69.2 cm (21 1/2 x 27 3/8 in.)
 The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles. Used by permission under the Open Content programme — with thanks.

Personal note:
I’m scheduled to have some surgery this week and will be taking time for convalescence afterwards, so blogging is likely to be irregular for a while. I’m sorry, but I can’t enter into any personal correspondence at this time so please don’t take it amiss if I don’t respond to emails or messages.

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Prudence or Truth: O Sapientia Reconsidered

Today’s O antiphon is

O Sapientia, quæ ex ore Altissimi prodiisti, attingens a fine usque ad finem, fortiter suaviterque disponens omnia: veni ad docendum nos viam prudentiæ.

I have translated this, rather ploddingly, as

O Wisdom, who come forth from the mouth of the Most High,  filling the universe from end to end and holding all things together in a strong yet gentle manner: come to teach us the way of truth.

Why ‘truth’, not the more literal ‘prudence’? Partly, I think, because I’m a slightly crazed word-fiend. Prudence is connected with foreseeing, taking care for the future; and once Christ has come, the future is already here — our hope is fulfilled. Partly, I confess, because ‘prudence’ had rather a bad reputation under Gordon Brown. It is now associated with failed economic policies and a rather dour, mid-Victorian kind of dutifulness that has little to do with God. On the other hand, I recall that in my first class in moral theology the instructor became almost lyrical in her description of prudence, ‘the mother of all the virtues’ as St Benedict would say. Yet I still hesitate to use the word here because I think the English ‘prudence’ does not convey the force of the Latin ‘prudentia’.

If we look at some of the scriptural passages behind this antiphon, e.g. Isaiah 11.2–3 and Isaiah 28.29, I hope my choice of ‘truth’ becomes more understandable. The Saviour for whom we long is Truth himself, the one in whom we hope, who will free us from all the shabby lies and half-truths that have divided mankind from the beginning. He is the pure and unsullied Wisdom that comes from above. He will teach us to be what those who follow the Lamb must be, ‘in whose mouths no lie is found’. He holds all things in unity; and in that unity there can be no shadow of falsity or untruth.

Eccentric? Perverse? Possibly. But we pray the antiphons here in Latin, which means we can avoid  disputes over translation. If you would like to hear the antiphon being sung, go here (scroll to the bottom of the page, Flash required). For reflections on this antiphon in previous years, I suggest you use the search box in the sidebar. There are also entries in our discontinued blog, Colophon.

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Twitter Arguments

From time to time, someone on Twitter will decide to take another person to task about an opinion they hold, or are thought to hold (not at all the same thing), or will tag their name onto a tweet in the hope of getting their views into the other’s data stream and thereby reaching all their followers. It happens to me occasionally. Sometimes I’m not online to notice; sometimes I’ll engage in friendly discussion or disagreement. Sometimes, however, things take an uglier turn and I prefer to dissociate myself entirely from the other’s agenda by blocking them. Inevitably, that leads to howls of rage from the blocked, but, really, why should one meekly accept insults and accusations, usually expressed in screaming capitals, when one has not initiated the argument oneself and has no desire to press any particular point?

In the past few days, I’ve had two ‘interesting’ experiences of a Twitter argument into which others tried to draw me. My overwhelming feeling in each case was ‘this is a waste of time, no one is listening to anyone else, and hurling insults around makes it unlikely that anyone is going to want to listen to anyone else’. I preferred to withdraw (and was, of course, attacked for doing so) but I think if one genuinely believes in freedom of speech, one must allow others the right to silence. That is often forgotten on Twitter, where individuals sometimes assume the right to compel others to respond. It is, in effect, another form of bullying.

However, I accept that many people do want to use Twitter for arguing but don’t want to be bullies, so here are my five little tips for Twitter arguments. Before you begin, ask yourself

1. Is Twitter the best place to argue your  case?

2. Can you make a valid statement in 140 characters?

3. Can you argue your case without attacking/accusing/insulting another? (Courtesy does matter; so does checking one’s facts and getting them right.)

4. Are you prepared to admit you are wrong?

5. Will you recognize that not everyone is as happy to argue as you are yourself?

I have to admit that my tips come more as a plea to the disputacious than the fruits of experience as I’ve never initiated an argument on Twitter and don’t think I’ve ever ‘won’ any in which I may have engaged. Twitter arguments often generate more heat than light, and people and reputations are sometimes badly harmed in the process. The most important advice I would give to anyone wanting to argue on Twitter, therefore, would be Mr Punch’s advice to those about to marry — don’t. Or, if you cannot manage that, at least think before you tweet.

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A Little Grumble About Stereotypes

I have a grumble, only a little one. It stems more from puzzlement than anything else. Several times during the past week I have come up against our failure as individuals and as a community to meet the expectations others have of us, yet the matters in which we have ‘failed’ have been so trivial as to be baffling. I think our experience begs the larger question of stereotyping and the injustice — I hope that is not too solemn a word — not only of trying to make others conform to our ideas about how they should live their lives but also of making assumptions about them. When challenged about the stereotypes applied to ourselves, we react in different ways. If skin colour is involved, we cry ‘racism’; if sex is involved, we cry ‘sexism’; if religion, we have a much more complex reaction. For Christians, in particular, there can be a feeling that we ought not to defend ourselves. We must try to be forgiving, even to the point where we cease to be human.

I suspect some readers will respond with indignation, ‘Of course we must forgive always, no matter how hard it is!’ I don’t disagree, what I’m saying is that in our forgiveness we mustn’t run beyond grace, we should not become doormats. To forgive is a process, not a once-for-all act (unless you’re very unusual), and really to forgive, rather than just put others on probation, requires courage as well as generosity. It means allowing Christ to forgive in us, and sometimes we get in the way of that. We forget that fake holiness is no holiness. ‘Assume a virtue if you have it not’ requires rather more than pretence, no matter how well-intentioned. It asks for a change of heart, and that’s not done just by wishing.

Perhaps spending a few moments today thinking about how non-Christians perceive Christians could be fruitful. It would alert us to the ways in which our responses may be (mis)understood — and anything that makes for better understanding among people generally is surely a Good Thing. It may also help us to see that sometimes we conform to other people’s stereotypes because that is the image we have (or want to have) of ourselves. That is a Bad Thing, because it means we are not living truthfully; and whatever else anyone may say, Truth matters.

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From Justin Martyr to Emily Davison

Today, while we are celebrating Justin Martyr, the great Christian apologist, many will be thinking of Emily Davison, the suffragist, who, a hundred years ago, threw herself under the king’s horse at the Derby in the hope of advancing the cause of votes for women. Justin was beheaded for refusing to renounce his Christian faith, which neatly solved the problems some had found with his theology. Martyrdom, like love, covers not only a multitude of sins but also acts as the ultimate guarantee of orthodoxy. The ‘secular martyrdom’ of Emily Davison is more problematic. There are grounds for thinking that her death was an unintended consequence of her action rather than planned from the beginning, and in the short term it achieved very little other than opprobrium for herself. The First World War did more to achieve votes for women, although it is undeniable that Emily Davison’s death drew attention and made some, at least, think about the injustice of refusing the franchise to women. It seems to me, however, that, brave as she was,  to talk of her as a martyr is to misunderstand the nature of martyrdom.

A martyr bears witness through his or her death to the truth of the Church’s faith in Christ. Death is not sought; it is accepted as the necessary consequence of belief, and it is important to note that it is the Church’s belief, rather than the individual’s, which is affirmed through the sacrifice of life. That is why so many graces flow from martyrdom. The Church has her martyrs in every age, but those we remember from the first centuries often have a peculiar sweetness and charm frequently at odds with the horrific tortures to which they were subjected. Justin himself is an attractive figure. A chance conversation with an old man transformed him from a Stoic into a Christian philosopher: ‘A fire was suddenly kindled in my soul. I fell in love with the prophets and these men who had loved Christ; I reflected on all their words and found that this philosophy alone was true and profitable. That is how and why I became a philosopher. And I wish that everyone felt the same way that I do.’

Truth, joy, sacrifice: they are surely a form of witness we can all strive to emulate.

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Our Need of Wisdom

Tonight we begin singing the special sequence of Advent invocations known as the O Antiphons. (If you would like to know more about them and hear them sung, go to our main website here.) I love the fact that we begin with O Sapientia, asking for the Wisdom that comes from on high. A couple of years ago, I contrasted the way in which exposure to God’s wisdom tends to show up our own half-truths and shabby accommodations, our inability to live with real integrity (see this post). Today I would like to single out another aspect of Wisdom: the way in which the Wisdom of God fills the whole universe and holds all things in being.

There are times when, as individuals, we can feel completely helpless. Disasters, natural or man-made, remind us how vulnerable we are; economic forces beyond our control have consequences that touch the lives of us all; illness, bereavement, even a family row can destroy our sense of well-being. We can’t dodge these things, they are part of what it means to be human. Would you be very shocked if I were to say they are also part of what it means to be divine? They are not just points where the divine interacts with humanity. God is there all the time, in all of them.

Some people have a very strange idea of God. God is to be always what they desire. They get hold of some important attribute of God, for example that he is infinitely loving, and then decide that if God doesn’t ‘love’ in the way they think God should, then God either doesn’t exist or is somehow wrong (which is a bit awkward, if you think about it). The fact is that God transcends our ideas about what he is or should be. The language we use about God is itself inadequate (neither ‘he’ nor ‘she’ can convey more than a part of what God is — try interchanging them as Professor Denys Turner often does, and you’ll see what I mean). We are left baffled and bemused, yet all the time the Wisdom of God is there, in every corner of the universe, involved in every  moment of our lives, holding everything in existence, not a God afar off but a God close at hand, one with us in all things.

Tonight, when we ask the Wisdom of God to delay no longer but come and show us the way of truth or prudence (via prudentiae), we are asking God to transform our way of seeing so that it is the same as his. It is a dangerous prayer because if answered — and it will be, one way or another — it will turn our world upside down. It will knock us off our pedestal and ground us in God instead. To acknowledge our need of Wisdom is the first step towards attaining it.

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Is it Ever Right to Hate?

Not so much a blog post, more a quick question for Monday morning: is it ever right to hate? I spent a little time yesterday catching up with some of my favourite (and not-so-favourite) blogs. Many were Christian, not a few were Catholic. One or two surprised me, perhaps troubled me might be a better word, with their vehemence about people or things they objected to. I don’t doubt the conviction or sincerity of the writers, but even when I agreed with their opinions, I sometimes felt very uncomfortable about the way in which they were expressing themselves. It is a challenge for every blogger. No one wants to read  dull or bland prose, but being passionate about something isn’t necessarily the measure of truth or persuasiveness. Do we need to be more careful how we express ourselves, or is it all right to hate? What do you think?

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The Right Thing to Do

It is almost impossible to talk about ‘the right thing to do’ without sounding like a politician. The phrase has been used and abused so often that it has become virtually meaningless. That is a pity, because there is nothing else that conveys the idea behind it so simply and beautifully.

The concept of ‘the right thing to do’ may be beautiful in its simplicity, but it can be devilish hard to work out. I have no doubt that SS John Fisher and Thomas More, whose feast we keep today, were men of great holiness of life but I don’t subscribe to the cult of mindless adulation they are often surrounded by. They are held up as champions of conscience, marriage, papal authority and the like. In an important sense that is true, but historically it is also less than the truth because the questions they considered were complex, susceptible of different answers, and have only gained the precision we give them today because time has allowed us to consider them more fully. If you look at More’s correspondence, you can see him gradually working towards the answer which led him to the scaffold, but it was by no means a foregone conclusion. He ducts and weaves, not in a bad sense, but in the way that a lawyer ducts and weaves through law and precedent, searching for . . . the right thing to do. Fisher, too, though he was of a different temper from More (and slightly nicer to his enemies) came to the conclusion he did after much deliberation.

I honour them both for their courage in accepting the consequences of their deliberations, and hope I might be as brave were I to find myself in a similar situation. I am still left wondering whether we forget too easily the process by which they came to their decision, however: the prayer, the reading, the discussion, the hours of silent pondering. Sometimes people rush in with an answer before a question is fully formulated. We have seen something of that in recent discussion of marriage in this country. If we peep over the ecumenical fence, we can see our Anglican brethren tearing themselves in different directions over questions some of us find too perplexing for an answer yet.

Today is a good day to pray for all who have difficult decisions to make, who are keen to do the right thing because it is the right thing and nothing less will do. May SS John and Thomas pray for us all.

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Good Friday: the Moment of Truth

Yesterday’s events are still uppermost in our minds. We are weary with watching through the night. The morning brings no relief, only the prospect of a long trudge through hot and dusty streets, then out to Golgotha and the final act of this tragedy.

Today is a day of emptiness, when we are numbed by the experience of suffering and loss. We long for it all to be over, and yet we don’t. Every nerve is stretched to breaking-point, but we do not want it to end, because we know it must end in death. Yet the death we await is not the death of Jesus only, it is the death of all our false ideas of him, our shabby equivocations, our casual accommodations to ‘the spirit of the age’, our self-made religion. The Crucifixion of Christ is a moment of truth for all of us.

The Cross shows us, better than anything else, that God’s ways are not our ways. Our idea of him is too little, too monochrome. We try to edit out the bits we find uncongenial, reducing God to a kind of wishy-washy compassion that cannot encompass the reality of the compassion displayed on the Cross. Jesus on the Cross challenges us to rethink all our ideas, not just those we label ‘religious’. Painful though that is, it is not negative for we have his assurance that ‘the truth shall make you free’. Although we cling to our illusions, deep down we do desire that truth, that freedom, we just lack the courage to be free.

We shall never find the courage we need within ourselves. Only grace can work the miracle. Today, as we look into the eyes of the dying Christ we know ourselves for what we are: grubby, smudged with sin, yes, but loved infinitely, tenderly, more than life itself. Without us, he will not; without him, we cannot; with him everything is possible.

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