Reflections on the concept of truth in post post-modernity – via the lenses of interfaith relations, science and religion, and climate change
Inaugural Professorial Lecture for the University of Roehampton
The Rt Revd Professor Richard Cheetham, Whitelands Professorial Fellow in Christian Theology and Contemporary Issues at the University of Roehampton
4 November 2015
I am very grateful to you all for coming to this lecture, and to the University of Roehampton for making it possible.
I want to explore a topic that has fascinated me throughout my life and which I believe to be of vital importance – the idea of truth, how we understand it, and how it shapes our lives. And I want to do this via three particular lenses which reflect areas I have been much involved with over the years:
- Science and Religion
- Inter faith Engagement
- The Environment and Climate Change
So, in some ways, this is a lecture in applied philosophical theology.
My reflections on the question of truth go back to my school days. Although I am now a Church of England bishop, I did not come from a particularly church-going family. I started attending a church youth group in my teenage years simply because it was the nearest one. One of the songs we used to sing about Jesus Christ was entitled, ‘Can it be true, the things they say of you?’ It seemed to me, aged 13 or 14, that was a rather important question when thinking about the claims of a religion. And I still think that. I do not think we can relegate religious belief to the ‘private opinion with no cognitive content’ bin. Certainly Christian belief purports to tell us true things about the way things really are.
At the same time I was studying science at school. I went on to do Maths and Physics A levels, and a first degree at Oxford in Physics and Philosophy in the mid – 1970s. It was obvious to me that Science provided a hugely important way of seeing, understanding and interpreting the world. It, too, told us much about the way things really are.
This was not that long after the novelist, C.P. Snow’s famous 1959 lecture on the ‘Two Cultures’ with its thesis that the whole of western intellectual life was split into the two, somewhat separate, cultures of the sciences and the humanities. Indeed my sixth form in the early 1970s was split into the Science Sixth and the Language Sixth, reflecting these two separate intellectual streams. Snow wrote,
A good many times I have been present at gatherings of people who, by the standards of the traditional culture, are thought highly educated and who have with considerable gusto been expressing their incredulity at the illiteracy of scientists. Once or twice I have been provoked and have asked the company how many of them could describe the Second Law of Thermodynamics. The response was cold: it was also negative. Yet I was asking something which is the scientific equivalent of: Have you read a work of Shakespeare’s?
I now believe that if I had asked an even simpler question — such as, What do you mean by mass, or acceleration, which is the scientific equivalent of saying, Can you read? — not more than one in ten of the highly educated would have felt that I was speaking the same language. So the great edifice of modern physics goes up, and the majority of the cleverest people in the western world have about as much insight into it as their neolithic ancestors would have had.
Snow certainly thought this was not a good division. And it seemed to me as a sixth former that it was very important to be able to relate my understanding of science not only to the humanities, but to my developing Christian faith. And central to this was the question of what we consider to be true and what we mean by that. I suspect trying to answer that was part of the reason I chose to study Physics and Philosophy as a first degree.
I then spent a few years as a Science teacher and a couple as an Investment Analyst, before training to become a Priest in the Church of England. I spent most of the 1990s as a Vicar in Luton, a very varied and multi-cultural town. Whilst there my interest in engaging much more deeply with other religious perspectives deepened substantially and I was much involved in developing these links. The world around me was changing very rapidly and the issue of how we understand the multiple, and often contradictory, perspectives which people hold was a central one. In the last few years I have been a Co-Chair of the national Christian Muslim Forum to continue my involvement with that basic and very important issue. In the last two years I have led a course in Jerusalem for Muslim and Christian leaders called, ‘Sharing Perspectives’.
Whilst in Luton, I undertook a PhD at King’s College London, looking at how religious belief, with particular reference to truth claims, was understood in contemporary Britain. The vehicle I chose for the research was collective worship in schools because this provided a context in which religious belief was being engaged with in public institutions. I thought the way in which this was being done in practice would tell us much about how we understood the nature of religious belief. It proved to be a fascinating study with the conclusion that, in the particular context of collective worship in a very diverse sample of Luton schools, religious belief was being regarded as, ‘An individually chosen, private, practical guide to living’. In other words, what really mattered was how a religious faith helped a person along in life and how it shaped their behaviour. They could choose to believe what they liked as long as their belief sustained them and they behaved reasonably well.
In the last couple of years I have been spending more time engaging directly with issues of our care of the environment and climate change, reconnecting with a concern I had whilst still a teenager, but in a substantially more dangerous and vulnerable situation. I am one of three bishops on the national Environment Working Group, and the lead bishop on these matters for the Diocese of Southwark. As I engaged with this area again the question of truth rapidly emerged. Former US Vice-President, Al Gore, produced a famous film entitled, ‘An Inconvenient Truth’, drawing attention to the fact that there were many conflicting claims out there about the impact of climate change, often obfuscated by powerful commercial and political bodies. The question of what is really happening, what is true about climate change, is a vital one.
So what I want to do for the next 30 minutes or so, is to examine the concept of truth via the three lenses of:
- Science and religion
- Inter faith engagement, and
- The environment and climate change
I will begin by looking at some of the difficulties in the concept of truth as we move from modernity, through post-modernity into what some call ‘post post-modernity’.
I will then reflect on why the post-modern scepticism about truth claims is an inadequate response in our global and inter-connected world. And why the question of truth is so important, using illustrations from each of the three areas mentioned.
I will then conclude that for the 21st century we need a much more holistic approach to the concept of truth, and of knowledge, which is not totally dissimilar to that which prevailed in pre-modern times.
Four well known problems with the concept of truth
There is a vast philosophical literature on the concept of truth and what it means, trying to answer the famous question of Pontius Pilate during the trial of Jesus Christ, ‘What is truth?’ There are so-called correspondence theories of truth – that a true statement corresponds with the way things really are in the world. There are coherence theories, which emphasise that what really matters is that any knowledge system is internally coherent. And there are pragmatic theories which focus on the practical outcome of true beliefs in the actions of our lives. You can then add semantic theories, deflationary theories, redundancy theories to name but a few.
Part of the philosophical problem stems from the Enlightenment and the rise of modern science. True knowledge, it is claimed by the thorough-going empiricist, comes from our senses and reason, not from any divinely revealed source such as the Bible or the Qur’an, for example. That, amongst other things, has led to a prevailing conflict model in the popular understanding of the relationship between science and religion.
So it does not take long to realise that the concept of truth, philosophically, is far from simple. The temptation then is to give up on it and have a few beers!
That temptation is compounded when we turn our attention to what I have called the political problems with truth claims. Some of the post modern philosophers have rightly focussed on the relationship between truth and power. By claiming that my view of the world is true, and yours is not, some have then imposed their view on others in a coercive way. The starkest historical example of this is the famous ‘Inquisition’, and a contemporary one might be the rise of the so-called ‘Islamic State’.
We have a long and terrible European history of warfare in which different understandings of Christian faith were deeply entwined in devastating conflicts which, crudely speaking, led governments and societies to want to relegate religious belief to the private domain. Any attempt to impose one religious view on others was to be eschewed. Each individual should be free to make up their own mind on these matters. The question of the truth of those beliefs was of no concern to the state. Little wonder, then, that many are fed up with all religions.
A third set of problems, which I have called ‘practical’, but embraces far more that that word implies, comes from our so-called ‘Information Age’. We are inundated with data. We have information overload. And it goes much further than being overwhelmed by quantity.
In his recent book entitled ‘The Fourth Revolution – How the Infosphere is reshaping human reality’, Prof Luciano Floridi of Oxford University argues that this informational world is changing the way we think of ourselves, and our relationships to each other and to the world, so fundamentally that we are in the midst of a revolution as potentially significant as those associated with Copernicus, Darwin and Freud. Our view of reality is being shaped by this ‘Fourth Revolution’ in a way which requires new concepts and analysis.
The final set of problems over the concept of truth I have labelled as poetic, partly out of homage to a Vice-Chancellor who knows quite a bit about poetry!
This points us in the direction of the limits of human language. You can say in poetry things that cannot be expressed nearly so well in prose. There is a memorial tablet, erected in 1851 to the poet, William Wordsworth, in St Oswald’s Church in Grasmere in the Lake District. It say, in typical Victorian language . . .
‘To the memory of William Wordsworth
A true philosopher and poet,
Who by the special gift and calling of Almighty God,
Whether he discoursed on Man or Nature,
Failed not to lift up the heart to holy things,
Tired not of maintaining the cause of the poor and simple;
And so, in perilous times, was raised up to be a chief minister,
not only of noblest poesy, but of high and sacred truth.’
The novelist, Iris Murdoch, said, ‘Art… is the telling of truth, and is the only available method for the telling of certain truths’. We may want to say that there are deep and profound matters in which great music and art and literature point us in the direction of a truth deeper than any human language.
So, in the face of all these well-known and obvious difficulties with the very idea of truth, it can be all too tempting to throw the towel in and go for another beer! After all, the Renaissance humanist, Erasmus wrote in his book, ‘In Praise of Folly’ that, ‘Truth belongs to wine and children’. So, if you want to know the true meaning of life either have a few drinks, or ask a group of 5-year olds!
Why truth matters – three key examples
However, I do not think we can let ourselves off so lightly!
- St Augustine of Hippo described humanity as, ‘the community of truth’.
- Francis Bacon wrote that, ‘The enquiry of truth, which is the love-making or wooing of it; the knowledge of truth, which is the presence of it; and the belief in truth which is the enjoying of it – is the sovereign good of human nature’.
- The motto of Harvard University is ‘Veritas’ – truth.
- In the vision of the University of Roehampton is the statement that, ‘We are engaged in the pursuit of truth through reason, research, and debate, based on freedom of thought and expression’.
- Timothy Radcliffe, the former Master of the Dominican Order, has said that a humanity which gives up on the idea of truth begins to dis-integrate.
Let me now turn to the three key areas of:
- Science and religion
- Inter faith engagement, and
- The environment and climate change,
to illustrate why the question of truth matters so much, and thence to a more holistic and, I believe, more interesting and fruitful approach.
Science and Religion
In the autumn of 2012 I was privileged to have a three month sabbatical based at the Church Divinity School of the Pacific, in Berkeley California, and to study at the Center for Theology and the Natural Sciences. With a lifelong interest in science and religion issues stemming from both my Christian faith and my first degree from Oxford University in Physics and Philosophy, I had gone with the intention of getting a bit more up to date on the literature and issues. What I ended up with was a deep conviction that there is a major task in this area both of understanding and, crucially, of communication, facing every church leader. There is a huge apologetic challenge, especially in an age where God-talk has become increasingly irrelevant or non-sensical for many people. If we do not engage actively in this then the field is left wide open for either the New Atheist brigade or the Creationists (both of whom do take communication seriously) – with the result that many are put off any serious consideration of Christian faith.
The exponential growth of modern science since the 17th century has meant that it permeates the whole way we see our lives and our world, and what we consider to be ultimate and real. It shapes the way we see our epistemology (how we know things), our philosophy (how we understand reality), and our theology (how we speak of God). The conversation between science and religion is both challenging and fruitful – and absolutely essential for any thinking person today.
The popular image of science as providing reliable, useful and objective knowledge, whilst theology offers only speculative and subjective opinion is remarkably pervasive, persistent and deeply damaging to both science and theology. This remains so despite a large and growing body of academic literature which presents a much more nuanced view.
What’s the issue?
It is not difficult to find countless examples of distorted media images of both science and theology. Here are just three.
A tweet by the actor and writer, Ricky Gervais, who starred in and wrote the TV series, ‘The Office’, was doing the rounds of the twittersphere in late 2012. It referred to two stories then in the news. The first was a sky dive by the Austrian Felix Baumgauter, who jumped from a helium balloon in the stratosphere and descended safely over 128,000 feet to land in New Mexico. The second concerned the 14 year old Pakistani schoolgirl, Malala Yousufzai, who was shot in the head by the Taliban for campaigning for female education rights. The tweet went as follows, ‘Dear Religion, This week I safely dropped a human being from space while you shot a child in the head for wanting to go to school. Yours, Science’. Of course, this is breathtakingly simplistic, but it creates an impression which can stick.
The second example comes from the blockbuster novels of Dan Brown. In ‘Angels and Demons’ his hero, Professor Robert Langdon says, ‘Since the beginning of history a deep rift has existed between science and religion’, and then later on, ‘Outspoken scientists like Copernicus were murdered by the Church for revealing scientific truths’. And in ‘The Da Vinci Code’ Langdon says, ‘Unbiased science could not possibly be performed by a person who possessed faith in God’. Now if you are reading the likes of the Da Vinci code the likelihood is that you are not reading critically in a university library, but rather relaxing on holiday by a swimming pool with your critical faculties on sleep mode. So if you are not careful this kind of stuff can seep into you unawares.
The third example comes from a film. My guess is that if I were to ask you to name some famous interactions between science and religion, most of them would be along conflict lines: Galileo and the Inquisition in the early 17th century over heliocentricity, Darwin/Huxley and the Bishop of Oxford in the mid 19th century over the ‘Origin of Species’, the Scopes Monkey Trial in the early 20th century over the teaching of evolution in public schools in Tennessee, and currently Richard Dawkins and the New Atheists’ opposition to virtually all religion – and so on. Conflicts make good stories and film subjects. The 1960 film, ‘Inherit the Wind’ gave an influential take on the Scopes Monkey trial. It portrays science as enlightened, open and forward thinking, whilst religion is bigoted, and closed to new ideas. That artistic interpretation typifies many of the popular media accounts of the so-called conflict between science and religion.
In the very useful and comprehensive book, ‘God, Humanity and the Cosmos’, Paul Murray summarizes the caricature of science and theology as follows,
- ‘Science is a truly modern form of knowing, while theology represents a pre-modern throwback;
- Science is useful, whereas theology promotes a disengagement from reality;
- Science is value-free, whereas theology is compromised by personal commitment;
- Science is open to falsification and renewal, whereas theology is dogmatically entrenched;
- Science is based upon empirical data, whereas theology is a matter of pure speculation;
- In short, science seeks after objective truth, whereas theology deals only in subjective meaning.’
A second part of the problem with the science and religion debate stems from school curricula and the attitudes of young people. This mainly relates to the woeful lack of teaching about the history and philosophy of science which leads to a shallow understanding of the nature and scope of the scientific enterprise. In the US it seems that the headlines are taken by the controversy over whether or not the so called ‘Intelligent Design’ ideas should be taught as an alternative scientific theory to evolution. In their 2006 book entitled, Can you believe in God and Evolution?, Ted Peters and Martinez Hewlett said – about the US context,
‘…we are concerned about what the war over evolution might be doing to our young people in our schools and in our churches. Our fear is that they might begin to identify their Christian faith with anti-Darwinism and, worse, anti-science.’
There are echoes of that controversy in the UK, especially in some of the new academies and free schools which can be publicly funded, but run with a large degree of autonomy by a variety of organisations, some of which are religiously conservative. In addition, many standard text books widely used in mainstream schools describe the reception of Darwin’s theory in simplistic conflict terms in relation to religion. This is extremely unfortunate because it simply reinforces the caricature which many people, not least young people, hold, of the incompatibility of science and religion. There is more need than ever for good education which teaches not only the content of scientific theories, but a deeper understanding of the nature of the scientific enterprise, and for religious education which explores the nature of religion in all its guises.
The importance of the interaction between science and theology is also vital within the Church. There are many obvious examples of where it is vital to take into account a scientific perspective to inform a theological one.
- How often does a sermon on prayer really explore our understanding of divine action in the world? We can be left with a God who arbitrarily intervenes if we ask persistently enough.
- How is our understanding of humanity as made ‘in the image of God’ affected by theories of evolution and our genetic similarities to other species?
- What happens to our view of Resurrection and Eschatology in the light of cosmological theories about the future of the universe?
- How do we see the doctrine of the Fall in the light of evolutionary history?
And so on. If we fail to address these very real questions, we can be left with a deep uncertainty about the credibility and truth of Christian Faith in today’s world.
So all these examples suggest that there are pervasive and extensive caricatures of both science and religion in the media, in education, and in the Church, which distort the debate. In short – science has a PR problem, and so does theology! There is a tremendous need to improve the public understanding of both science and religion.
Fortunately there has been an explosion in the amount of academic study of science and religion issues during the last 30 or 40 years. There are mountains of books and scholarly articles available – and of a very high quality. A number of Science and Theology centres now exist around the world, such as the Center for Theology and the Natural Sciences in Berkeley. They have achieved a great deal in advancing the scholarly understanding of the issues. However, this academic debate is still largely a minority sport for enthusiasts. There have been some excellent attempts at communicating this material more widely, but they are fairly limited. I think it would be fair to say that the emphasis to date has been on the academic side, not on the communication side. The academic work is the vital foundation. Without this there would be nothing to communicate. But I consider that we now need a much bigger push on the communication of this material – into schools, colleges, churches, the media and elsewhere. I am now co-leading with Profs David Wilkinson and Tom McLeish from Durham University a major three year project called, ‘Equipping Christian Leadership in an Age of Science’.
The reason all this matters so much is to do with the question of ‘truth claims’
It is obvious that today we live in a pluriform, interconnected world in which many different and sometimes conflicting world-views co-exist. We live cheek-by-jowl with Secularists, Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, Christians, and so on. The questions in all this multiplicity are to know what to believe, and how to live ourselves, and what attitudes we should take to all the variety.
This issue becomes particularly sharp when we look at it via the lens of ‘truth claims’. Most scientists would see themselves as describing and explaining something about the way things really are – i.e. they are critical realists – there really is something out there to which our scientific theories point. Most followers of religions also, I suggest, see their religion, not just as a way of living, an emotional support and moral guide, but also as depicting the deepest realities. Both science and religion make truth claims.
It is tempting to downplay the role of truth claims in religion given the history. Too much blood has been spilt over differences in doctrine. We are instinctively suspicious in today’s post-modern environment of overarching meta-narratives which claim to explain all – and especially if this is at the expense of saying everyone else is wrong. We distrust religious absolutists.
One consequence of this in modernity has been the constant attempt to replace the absolutism of religion with the absolutism of science as the only proper way of knowing. And if something cannot be put in the language of modern science then it belongs firmly in the domain of opinion, or subjective attitude, not of proper knowledge. But this expansion of the domain and reach of science so it becomes what is known as ‘scientism’ is as damaging and limiting as the religious absolutist approach.
Equally we can be tempted to go to the other end of the spectrum and become lazy relativists. There simply is no way of discerning between all these competing world-views. So just find one that suits you and helps you along in life and leave it at that. It becomes ‘truth for me’ and nothing more than that. What is needed is a route that takes truth claims seriously without succumbing either to what Pope Benedict has called the ‘dictatorship of relativism’, or to the tyranny of absolutism. Fr Timothy Radcliffe, the former head of the Dominicans, has written, ‘A society which loses confidence in the very possibility of truth ultimately disintegrates. St Augustine called humanity “the community of truth”. It is the only basis upon which we may belong to each other.’
We need an approach to truth claims which is philosophically, theologically and scientifically sound – i.e. a more holistic approach to reality which breaks down some of the more artificial divisions between science and theology.
For people of religious faith it is vital to engage with these issues, and the challenges which science brings to faith. Consider the question of how we believe God acts in a world governed by natural laws. Do people believe, for example, that Hurricane Katrina was a result of direct divine action? Many people were more interested in listening to what the meteorologists had to say. Or what do we believe about the ultimate end of our lives and the universe? Resurrection and eschatology speak of a new Creation. Big Bang cosmology suggests that in the end the Universe will either freeze or fry – either way is hardly a good end. If we don’t engage directly with these kind of issues then religious faith can be slowly, but surely, undermined. Science is so much part of our understanding of reality that we have to work out how it is linked to our theological language.
The conversation between science and religion is vital to enable a much richer conversation and understanding of the mysterious universe we inhabit – in short, to help us all in our pursuit of truth – and that is why it matters.
Let me now move to my second lens,
Inter faith engagement
We live at an extraordinarily interesting time. Living cheek-by-jowl, we have far more perspectives and world-views than ever. How we live well together in the 21st century in all our plurality is one of the biggest issues of our time. It has political, social, theological and philosophical implications for us all. If we get it right the results can be very interesting and fruitful at all those levels. If we get it wrong the consequences are literally deadly. In the complex post 9/11 context there has been the growth of two separate trends – Fear, and Friendship, which is the title of a recent book on Christian Muslim relations. There is a visceral fear of being overwhelmed by those who are different from us in many ways. We live in an age of terrorism in which fear is deliberately fostered, often in horrific ways. There is a very deliberate and focused effort being made by the Government to counter extremist views at every level. At a less violent level, there are constant debates about, for example, whether crosses can be worn in work situations, or the headscarf for Muslim women.
Alongside this there has also been a tremendous growth in friendship and engagement across different faiths. There are more inter faith groups than ever in this country. Since 2006 there has been a national Christian Muslim Forum. About 3 years ago many Islamic Scholars published a major document called, ‘A common word’ addressing Christian leaders worldwide.
It can be tempting to focus entirely on common action between faiths to try to ameliorate the worst troubles of our age – poverty, refugees etc. However, sooner or later we need to get to the stage of examining the beliefs that lead to the behaviour. Most religious believers think there is some truth content in their faith and belief. It is not simply an arbitrary opinion, or a way of seeing life that helps you get on. It tells you something about, or at least points to, the deepest realities. Of course, we need to be careful with religious language to consider its nature. We must not be too literal when, for example, we describe God as Father. God is not simply a male figure, but beyond gender. An approach of critical realism helps in theology as it does in science. Our theological ideas point to the truth about God, but God is not defined by them.
There are many very significant areas of disagreement between religions about the nature of God. The Christian view of Jesus is very different from the Islamic view. They cannot both be correct. We have conflicting truth claims. Whatever your approach it is vital today to reflect on your understanding of religious pluralism and the conflicting truth claims involved.
One of the approaches which I believe is most constructive is what I call ‘relational theology’. That involves making a serious effort to get to know the other person or point of view. And not just posting blogs on the internet. There is a great deal of engagement which can be characterised as either myopic (only my view is right), megaphonic (if I shout, tweet, blog, bomb loudly enough then the other will capitulate), or Machiavellian (I need to out-manoeuvre those who disagree by whatever method is most effective). What is needed is what I call Moccasin theology where a genuine attempt is made to understand the other before engaging – to try walk in their shoes.
This Moccasin, or relational, theology needs under-pinning by a theological belief that there is one Reality to which we point using the word God. The point of our engagement is to discover more deeply the truth about that Reality.
In his book, ‘A public faith’ the theologian, Miroslav Volf, argues that we need to find a way of engaging with religion in public life which is neither secular exclusion which treats all religion as a private matter, nor totalitarian saturation which treats one religion as definitive for all. It is vital that we develop a more mature way of being a plural society and part of that is finding honest and moral ways of engaging with the deep truth claims of religion.
One of the key things needed will be the infrastructure through which this type of engagement can happen. Most inter faith organisations struggle for funds, especially when compared with the amount that goes into the security agenda. Just a tiny amount would go a very long way, especially if focussed on grass roots engagement projects. I believe they are an absolutely vital part of the fabric of a modern, plural society and can help us not only to form better relationships and to engage in vital common action, but also can point the way to deeper understandings of God.
Let me now turn to the final lens . . .
So what is the truth about climate change? After much debate it seems that the overwhelming scientific opinion is that real changes are occurring and they are due to the effect of humankind. However, there are two massive influences which prevent us from taking that in.
The first is political. Much of the climate change denying lobby is funded via major economic interests. And a small amount of sowing the seeds of doubt can go a long way, especially when well publicised. Naomi Klein’s 2014 book, ‘This Changes Everything’ describes that situation.
The second is psychological. It seems that our brains are hard-wired to respond to four triggers – personal ones (immediate nearby people or agents of danger); abrupt ones (sudden rather than long-term, slow changes); immoral ones (things we find repulsive or indecent); and immediate ones (rather than what appears to be far in the future). Climate change fits none of these triggers so we must find ways of engaging with our emotional brains and triggers if we are to generate real action. We are much more likely to adjust our view of reality to remove the sense of unease that the issue of climate change causes us, and so continue to ignore it.
It is vital to engage with the ‘inconvenient truth’ of climate change despite the political and psychological barriers to doing so. At present there is considerable momentum from the ‘Paris Summit’ effect which means that lots of people, not least politicians and church leaders are trying to prove their green credentials, but come next year the situation may be very different once the Paris conference is over. We need to find ways of keeping the ‘inconvenient truth’ at the front of our minds, so that we build sustainable ways of living.
An approach to truth in post post-modernity
So how are to we understand and use the concept of truth in our time? And what insights have we learned from the way it is dealt with in the three areas we have looked at of: science and religion, inter faith engagement, and climate change.
My main conclusion is that the concept of truth needs to be much more central in our thinking. We should avoid the temptation to side-line it as a result of the problems raised in the areas of philosophy, psychology or politics. Our inter-connected, plural and global context requires a more holistic approach. It just won’t do to live in our own little worlds, each with our own ‘truths’. One of the paradoxes of Google searches is that on the one hand we have more access to information than ever, but on the other hand we can be led into self-reinforcing google bubbles which reflect our own interests and prejudices.
We need a more holistic approach which properly enables different types of discourse to engage with one another. For example, if I want to understand what it means to be human, the truth of my existence, I need insights from physics and chemistry, from biology, sociology and psychology, and other branches of science. But it does not stop there. I also need great music, art and literature; and also, I would argue good philosophy and theology.
This more holistic approach to truth reflects in some ways the thinking of earlier eras in which the divisions between sacred and secular, religion and science, were not so deeply embedded in the templates in which we think. Professor Peter Harrison, in his book, ‘The Territories of Science and Religion’, published this year, argues that our current concepts of science and religion have only emerged in the last three hundred years, and that these very concepts act as constraints on our present day understanding of how the formal study of nature relates to the religious life. He points out that, in the thought of Aquinas, Religio and Scientia were essentially virtues, mental habits which both assisted in the pursuit of truth rather than objectivised intellectual systems.
My argument is that the more holistic view is not retrogressive, but essential in our inter-connected, plural global context of the 21st century. Sceptical, post modern views of truth were only a step on the journey which was essentially pointing out some of the dangers of an over-arching, imperialistic view of truth. A post post-modern view of truth requires deep engagement with one another without the power games.
That means it also needs to be put within an ethical and moral framework. One of the main emphases in theology has been that it is not simply an intellectual exercise of the head and reason (which imposes limitations). It is to be done within a context of prayer. Knowledge, virtue, and relationship all have to combine if we are to delve deeply into the mystery of our being. St Augustine of Hippo once said, ‘We come to God not by navigation, but by love’. We can learn truth via love in a way that analytical philosophy does not quite achieve! In a more existential fashion, a Simon and Garfunkel song about a relationship of love ends with the words, ‘The only truth I know is you’.
This more holistic, virtue based, relational view of truth is potentially much more interesting and fruitful in each of the three areas I have looked at.
In Theology and Science, Prof Bob Russell of the Center for Theology and the Natural Sciences has argued extensively for a relationship of ‘creative, mutual interaction’.
The neuroscientist, Ian McGilchrist, in his recent book, ‘The Master and his Emissary’ has suggested that western culture over the last few hundred years has become very ‘left brain’ dominated with a consequently restricted view of reality which emphasises only reason, observation and empiricism. What is needed he suggests is a more balanced conversation between left and right brain which will produce a more holistic understanding of reality.
In Inter faith engagement the issue of how we understand God and our existence in a world of multiple major and ancient religions is central and projects such as the ‘scriptural reasoning’ approach developed by Prof David Ford at Cambridge are proving very fruitful.
On the matter of climate change we have much to learn from understandings of the relationship of humankind to our planet which are embedded in ancient traditions and religions as well as from the climate change science.
The golden thread that holds all this together is the concept of truth. We need to release it from the scepticism of post-modernity without returning to the imperialism of either modernity or pre-modern eras.
Rather, our inter-connected, plural, global context needs a holistic, relational, virtuous understanding of the pursuit of truth from which we can all explore more deeply and more fruitfully the extraordinary mystery of our existence in this vast and complex universe.