Truth and the Church.
Delivered at Church House, Westminster, 5th October 2018
Love (agape), says St. Paul to the Corinthians, does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth (aletheia). We live in dangerous times during which the notion of truth in our society is profoundly threatened. Dispensing with truth and living in a so-called post-truth world in a way makes life much easier for you, because then you can say whatever is most convenient for the moment, and simply change it on a whim. Those who seek the truth resolutely may find themselves accused of engaging in a witch hunt. Fake news is easy. But holding to the truth, on the other hand, is hard and costly, as Christ himself, above all, shows us. The truth is rarely easy.
As it happens I am editing a collection of essays at the moment by members of the Scottish Episcopal Church on truth and post-truth. The further we go in this project the more we realize how very difficult it is, our discussions being between theologians, philosophers, scientists, clergy and lawyers. The truth is rarely simple. Certainly there is a positive deluge of books on the market at the moment, almost all rather journalistic in tone, on the death of truth in our time, and I have to say I find most of them pretty unhelpful – shrill, self-justifying, muddled and mostly somewhat obvious. Genuine difficulties, demanding careful and prolonged thought are almost always side-stepped. The complex history of truth in western culture is largely neglected and we do well to remember, as a preliminary exercise in carefulness that philosophers have suggested various ‘theories’ of truth – correspondence theory, coherence theory and so on – while one of the best serious and accessible discussions of truth in recent years is Simon Blackburn’s book from his Glasgow Gifford Lectures, significantly entitled Truth: A Guide for the Perplexed (2005).
Theologians and the church, however, have been strangely silent on the matter, even while that same church has been embroiled in massively public issues regarding behavior towards others in which the question of truth is essential. Indeed, while it is almost certainly the case that the glare of immediate, sound-bite publicity in an over-hasty society that appears to enjoy condemnation is not helpful, nevertheless careful thinking on the matter of truth has not been obviously a part of the church’s core activity in recent years – with some notable individual exceptions. But before we act, and most imperatively when our actions involve the lives and reputations of other people, we must ask the question, without jesting and in all seriousness, put by Pontius Pilate before the silent, condemned figure of Jesus, “What is truth?” And we cannot, like Pilate, then just wash our hands of the matter expecting that to be sufficient. (Another figure from literature here springs to mind, Lady Macbeth and her fruitless attempts at hand-washing after the deed has been done.)
One of the contributors to my book of essays, a distinguished mathematician, begins with the assertion that truth is fixed and eternal. If that is the case – and I do not wish to argue for or against this here – we are nevertheless bound to seek the truth, as we seek Christ, within the complex, nuanced and often highly ambivalent embroilments of daily life. I sat for many years on my university’s student complaints committee, and we were continually required to assess matters of truth in historical contexts going back years in which documentary evidence was patchy at best, and events and conversations were clouded and shaped, with or without malice, by hurt, anger, disappointment, jealousy, and a thousand other feelings, both good and bad, to which we are all prone: all of us. In every case it was a matter of seeking the truth in the midst of life in which we do the best we can, even with the purest of motivations, and often fall short.
This is, of course, to do no more than state the obvious. It is St. Paul who reminds us in his Letter to the Romans (7:15), that “I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing that I hate.” But we exist in this way in a world that seems to wish to see things in simple black and white: the guilty and the innocent, the good and the bad. It is not like that. Now, of course, I do not wish in any sense to deny that there is criminal behaviour that must take its consequences, nor the fact that we all need to ask God’s forgiveness for our waywardness every day of our lives, though this is not usually a matter for the law. But before making any accusation that has serious consequences is made, the truth demands that always, and without exception, no stone is left unturned before any even putative conclusion is reached. Setting aside matters of convenience, likes and dislikes, public pressure and even any understandable bias of sympathy for those whose lives may have been damaged, as Christians we have an absolute duty of love and care for all our fellow human beings until, and indeed even beyond, such time as guilt is proven beyond all reasonable doubt.
I am not a lawyer but a theologian but in my long university experience I have often engaged with colleagues in the faculties of law and medicine in the discussion of profound moral issues, often regarding matters of truth. From this experience I would say two things. First – that in the end in the pursuit of truth, certainly, all such disciplines must finally agree. But second, living as we do under God’s grace, the Christian theologian can never abandon the duty of love and care in that pursuit. Inasmuch as we are creatures who live under the necessary forgiveness of God, so forgiveness (which all of know from time to time can be well nigh impossible) must be part of our nature even when the truth of a matter is finally, painstakingly, revealed.
Please allow me to be more personal for a moment. Recently I was the recipient of a deeply hurtful and malicious letter from a former member of my university who suffered a disappointment that he held me, to a degree, responsible for. I have no doubt that the letter was deeply felt though it contained facts that were easily disproved. I mention this because my reaction to it was not simple but complex – a mixture of righteous anger and, more difficult but still oddly present, sympathy that such rage was eating into the being of the writer. Now, of course, this is a relatively trivial matter, in the larger scheme of things, and probably demands a pastoral rather than a judicial response. But still love demands that truth, in all its complexity, must be sustained or there can never be any resolution or healing.
Finally, the demands of truth will, sooner or later and for all of us, require us to admit that we have made mistakes in our attempts to fulfill the law of love and in our attempt to establish the truth. We all know that this can be painful and can very easily be misinterpreted or held against us. The pressures can be enormous and may come from many angles: a sense of humiliation or public disapproval or worse. We can all say, “If only I had not done or said this…..” – but the truth is absolute and must be faced squarely or there is never resolution.
I have never thought that Pontius Pilate was, in the gospel story at least, a particularly bad man. Weak, perhaps, or a pragmatist – his words of condemnation in St. John’s Gospel are self-contradictory and painfully unresolved: “Crucify him; I find no case against him.” One of my most treasured books is by the French writer Roger Caillois simply called Pontius Pilate: A Novel. It is about the cost of power. Pilate was a man who faced constraints in the exercise of Roman imperial power in the context of the zeal of a local population – public pressure with its simple solution, “crucify him.” Condemn. What choice had he in the interplay of politics and conscience, fundamentalism and pragmatism, and so on – such things as are still with us, just as toxic and implacable? At the end of the book we read these words:
“[Pilate] wanted to be at the outcome of his choice, to be able to say All is done, and to have to face only external problems: a riot, the treachery of Caiaphas, the reproaches of Rome. He was suffering from the freedom to take or not to take the final step. He thought he had seen clearly what his duty was, but he dreaded increasingly the hidden yet crushing mortgage….”
Now, of course, there is a deliberately hidden sub-text to all my words here. We all wish to be able to say “All is done” – but the truth and the deeper love to which it is bound, will never leave us in peace until its demands are met. And there is the mortgage to pay. We live in a world in which profound and mysterious wrongs are perpetrated on human being by other human beings, driven by dark forces within their natures that love and decency abhor. But if, in the process of seeking to right such wrongs, fingers are pointed too hastily, either deliberately or in error, no salve will heal the wounds on either side. And we cannot simply wash our hands of it or balance one wrong with another.
Every time the Eucharist according to the 1982 liturgy of the Scottish Episcopal Church is celebrated, priest and people together say aloud in a confession made to God our Father “that we have sinned in thought, word and deed, and in what we have failed to do.” Everyone, without exception, says these words. But they are prefaced and embraced by a statement made by the celebrant:
- God is love and we are his children.
- There is no room for fear in love.
- We love because he loved us first.
And so I end with the words of St. Paul with which I began: “love – does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth.” Such love is our burden and our privilege as Christians. And to seek the truth in all things is ever paramount.