What does it mean to defend the truth? I ask this question in the context of the continued march of Islamic fundamentalist nutjobs, who seem quite clearly convinced that they are in possession of the truth. One thing that I am convinced of is that I would never want to be so certain that I was in possession of the truth that I end up behaving in the way that they are behaving!
Yet there is something in that description ‘fundamentalist’ that needs teasing out. One of the mistakes that fundamentalism makes is to see belief as something that people can choose. This is a mistake that really took root with the rise of secularism, especially the thinking of the English philosopher John Locke, who argued that our religious beliefs are subject to ethical constraints. What this approach misses is that no matter how much a person may desire to believe – and that belief might be in Christianity or atheism or anything else – our fundamental patterns of thought lie deeper than our wills. We can only change our perceptions if, not only are we conscious of major problems with our existing world view, but there is a much better alternative available for us. Without that better alternative, all the arguments in the world will not advance the discussion one whit. This is why Professor Dawkins has become such a caricature – he is himself a fundamentalist and lacks the necessary subtlety of understanding in this area.
The philosopher Schopenhauer once wrote “The truth can wait. For it lives a long time.” There is something important here, in that coming to an awareness of the truth is not usually a sudden moment of clarity, along the lines of Archimedes in his bath, or St Paul on the road to Damascus. Normally – as my favourite philosopher once wrote – ‘light dawns gradually over the whole’. The truth is independent of our own certainties; indeed, our own certainties can often get in the way of our perception of the truth. As the Buddhist teaching has it, if your tea cup is already full then there is no more room to pour fresh tea in.
In other words, one of the most essential elements needed in any genuine search for truth is to begin with the frank confession ‘Of course, I could be wrong’ and to empty our tea cups. This intellectual humility is the ground for any healthy intellectual pursuit not least that of science, when it is done properly. The scientific method, rightly understood, is a way of systematically addressing and then removing all the personal preferences and biases that get in the way of attention to how things actually are. As such it has clear origins in the Christian spiritual tradition which applies the same method to the whole arena of human life; and this is, of course, why science cannot be carried on apart from such a spiritual tradition. All the attacks from supposedly ‘scientific’ atheists are ultimately forms of intellectual suicide, for they are sawing off the branch upon which they sit.
One way of describing this intellectual humility is to say that the full truth is always beyond our comprehension. We will never be in a situation where we have a full knowledge and understanding; we are, to refer to one of the classic English spiritual texts, ultimately in a ‘cloud of unknowing’. As the circle of our knowledge expands, the circumference of our ignorance increases all the more quickly. This is why it is essential to hold on to a sense of mystery, and it is this sense of mystery that fundamentalism systematically eradicates. There are so many mysteries, and they are what make the world so fascinating and exciting, from the immensity of the heavens to the astonishing worlds that the microscope reveals, yet possibly the deepest mysteries involve our fellow human beings – that each person is themselves a storehouse of wonder and amazement, if only we have the eyes to see.
Which is – to repeat the point once more – another inheritance from our Christian tradition. For Christians the ultimate truth is a person: “I am the way, the truth and the life” says Jesus, and Jesus is never under our control. We can never seize hold of Jesus and wave him around like a blunt instrument, he resists our vain schemes. What the Christian tradition also says is that every human being bears the image of Christ within them, which means that any defacing of a human being, up to and including execution by beheading or burning, is not simply an injustice but also a blasphemy. It is the Christian equivalent of ripping out pages from the Koran and burning them.
In our tradition there is a profound awareness that the full truth is elusive and mysterious; that, however far our understanding develops, it will always fall short of the ultimate truth; and that we therefore need to cultivate a sense of profound humility and respect for the individual human being, and their views, however strange or bizarre they may seem.
When I think of an image to sum up this tradition, my thoughts keep coming back to the tradition of the holy fool. The holy fool was a member of a Royal Court who had license to speak nonsense to the king. Of course, what was really going on was that the fool was the one person who could speak the truth unto power because he was immune to the consequences. All the courtiers were currying favour, and only the fool can ignore the social manipulation and power struggles in order to serve the truth – which is, of course, serving the realm. The role of the fool in Shakespeare’s King Lear is a good example of this. So too, I believe, was Charlie Hebdo.
Which is what I think we need to keep in mind as we contend with the nutjobs who wish to destroy our civilisation. We need to remember our sense of humour and foolishness, for these are the things that stop us taking our own opinions so seriously that we might end up – as we have in past centuries – doing horrible things to people in order to defend our views. Perhaps, rather than sending bombs and bullets, we need to send slapstick and foolishness to ISIS, to cultivate laughter and a recognition of how absurd they are. Of course, we could only do that if we stopped being fundamentalist ourselves, and reminded ourselves of our own spiritual tradition. That might take some time.