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The first step towards truth is acknowledging how little we know

When it comes to the Catholic Church people think they know it all

By on Wednesday, 15 May 2013

The then Cardinal Bergoglio on the Buenos Aires subway (AP Photo/Pablo Leguizamon, File)

The then Cardinal Bergoglio on the Buenos Aires subway (AP Photo/Pablo Leguizamon, File)

By now perhaps many of you are deeply into the Pope’s book, which I discussed recently with Madeleine Teahan and Rabbi Sybil Sheridan, which you can hear here. There is, as you would expect, much to enjoy in this wide-ranging discussion between the then Cardinal Bergoglio and Rabbi Abraham Skorka, but one thing in particular struck me that is worth emphasising.

On page xiv, in the introduction, the Pope has this to say about dialogue:

[W]e succumb to attitudes that do not permit us to dialogue: domination, not knowing how to listen, annoyance in our speech, preconceived judgements and so many others.

He then goes on to mention “misinformation, gossip, prejudices, defamation, and slander” as enemies of dialogue.

On page 214, when discussing the Arab-Israeli conflict, Rabbi Skorka has this to say:

It infuriates me that [the media] argue about every topic as if it were a soccer match. Things are not so black and white – they are much more complicated – but they deal in fanaticism and make false and superficial arguments. The only thing they aspire to do is focus on the latest headlines and create sensations. On the other hand, the most thought-provoking books that deal with political or social issues are written using highly technical language or in philosophical terms that are over people’s heads.

Pope and Rabbi are on to something very important here, and that is the way that complex and nuanced arguments are constantly whittled down to lowest common denominator concepts or mere sloganising. And this is nowhere more apparent, it seems to me, than in the sphere of religion.

Religious concepts are complex, because religion deals with the transcendental. The word ‘God’ for example, stands for a concept that defies easy definition. Indeed the best definition of God is the famous phrase of St Anselm: ‘Deus est id quo maius cogitari not potest’. (In English, which does not quite capture the full flavour: God is that than which a greater cannot be thought.) But of course the point of St Anselm’s definition is that God cannot, in fact, be defined. If He were finite, definable, He would not be God. God is He who defies definition. Yet, despite this, many people aspire to talk about God as if he were an object of discussion like any other. As a result, all their talk about God is reductionist.

The correct attitude to discussion of God can be found in these verse from the prophet Isaiah:

Seek the LORD while he may be found, call him while he is near. Let the scoundrel forsake his way, and the wicked man his thoughts; Let him turn to the LORD for mercy; to our God, who is generous in forgiving. For my thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways my ways, says the LORD. As high as the heavens are above the earth, so high are my ways above your ways and my thoughts above your thoughts. (59:6-9)

As the Rabbi goes on to say: “Truth can only be attained through humility.” The first step to any investigation into truth is to acknowledge how little we know. Incidentally, this attitude was on air for all to see in Channel Four News last night. The analysis of the Oxford gang’s abuse of vulnerable girls did not jump to the conclusion that because the perpetrators were Muslim there was something in Islamic culture that made Muslim men abuse white non-Muslim girls. While the programme did raise this question, and while it was acknowledged that there were questions to answer, it also made it clear that the question why abuse takes place is a complex one. At no time, as far as I could see, were leaps of logic presented as somehow solid ‘facts’.

This responsible journalism contrasts strongly with the way some people have suspended their critical faculties in order to believe the very worst about the Catholic Church.

Take for example the elaborate scam called Kathy’s Story, which turned out to be just that – an untrue story. Amazingly, the book is still for sale, and not marked ‘fiction’.  While it is true that no sensible person should buy this disgraceful book which has done so much harm to innocent people, the truth remains that outrageous forgeries of this type have a track record of slipping into the mainstream and poisoning it. Look at the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, another forgery that is still for sale, even in this country.
We live in an age that professes to respect reason. But as Pope and Rabbi point out, reason is a fragile plant. One of the best guarantors of reason is in fact religious faith. But that is a subject for another time.