There's religious truth - and then there's politically opportune religious 'truth'

by - 11th April 2012

It is typical of the Archbishop of Canterbury to use a moment when the media floodlight is full on him to say something awkward.

Typically brave, controversial, and timely, that is.

Contrary to the myth surrounding his incumbency, he has managed to go on communicating presciently and meaningfully into the public square, whatever the obstacles he faces (and an amateurish media department has not been the least of them).

Far from being an incoherent geek always putting his foot in it, Rowan Williams understands the times and what will resonate.

And the fact that the BBC this week did not downplay his Easter sermon on the Resurrection is a sign that his intuition is right.

‘The tide may be turning in how serious and liberal-minded commentators think about faith’ he said.

In the full glare of his post-resignation publicity, he grasped this new moment of openness to go further and speak of Christianity’s principal truth, the Resurrection of Jesus Christ.

And he did so in a way so winsome and culturally appropriate that only the most bone-headed atheist could fail to be struck by it.

‘[N]o longer seen as a brainless and oppressive enemy, [religious faith] is recognized as a potential ally in challenging a model of human activity and social existence that increasingly feels insane, a model in which unlimited material growth and individual acquisition still seem to trump every other argument about social coherence, international justice and realism in the face of limited resources.’

Then, more significantly, he went on: ’Easter raises an extra question, uncomfortable and unavoidable: perhaps 'religion' is more useful than the passing generation of gurus thought; but is it true?

‘Easter makes a claim not just about a potentially illuminating set of human activities but about an event in history and its relation to the action of God.

‘Very simply . . . we are told that “God raised Jesus to life”.'

This charity, set up to promote religious literacy in public life, believes that all the signs are that the thinking public are better able to hear the Christian message; to nuance the differences between faiths, and start to appreciate anew what each faith says of itself.

As our News Focus this week demonstrates, the watching world is beginning to be able to judge for itself what human beings do with the divine words they purport to espouse. 

When Muslims as credible as al-Azhar’s Abdel Muti al-Bayyoumi accuses the chief spokesman of the Muslim Brotherhood Mahmoud Ghozlan himself of using religion for political gain in a breathtaking reversal of a promise, Pontius Pilate’s great question ‘What is truth?’ challenges the world family once more.

The very word ‘truth’ has had no cultural salience for a generation.  Truth itself has been ‘what’s true for you’ as the great theologian Lesslie Newbigin used to say.  But that won’t do any more.

‘How do we know that [the Resurrection] is true?’ asked Dr Williams.

‘Not by some final knock-down would-be scientific proof, but by the way it works in us through the long story of a whole life and the longer story of the life of the community that believes it.’

For once the BBC seemed to be listening. 

Their online report said: ‘[H]e said the ultimate test of Christianity was not whether it was beneficial to the human race, but whether the resurrection of Jesus Christ actually happened.

‘He said that for Christians a vision of reconciled love between people "is there only because God raised Jesus" and that the answer was not in scientific proof, but by the way believers lived with and in their faith.

Christianity is a vision of reconciled love, made possible by what God did, not by what the apostles invented, or what believers wish.

In the face of greedy bankers, European economic meltdown, political and journalistic corruption and Islamist war-mongering, the world, it seems, now is just perhaps beginning to rethink its need of this truer story. 

Suddenly just maybe, we can hear it: that when we are at the end of our own resources, there is another power there and active for us.