Living in Truth

It is rare in Britain for the clergy to speak their minds; rarer still for them to have something courageous to say. It may be no bad thing that Archbishops of Canterbury, from St Alphege and St Thomas Becket to Cranmer and Laud, are no longer martyred or executed for their beliefs. But the readiness to pay a personal price for one’s protest is essential to integrity. Acting in good faith, in every sense of the word, requires us to follow Václav Havel by “living in truth” — a biblical phrase which he (not religious) and other dissidents (many of whom were) invested with new meaning. Living in truth requires spiritual leaders, in particular, to tell the temporal authorities not what they want to hear, but what may make both sides uncomfortable-or even cost those who bear witness their lives.

Speaking truth to power is one of the greatest of biblical bequests to Jews and Christians. The Hebrew Bible is in large part a narrative of patriarchs and prophets defying pharaohs and kings. One of the climactic scenes of the New Testament, too, is just such a confrontation. When Jesus was brought before Pontius Pilate for judgment, the Roman presumably expected the Nazarene to plead for his life. Instead, the dumbfounded governor heard this: “To this end was I born, and for this cause came I into the world, that I should bear witness unto the truth. Every one that is of the truth heareth my voice.” To which Pilate could only reply with the relativist’s question that has echoed down the ages: “What is truth?”

Last month an authentic living exemplar of this prophetic tradition came to London to be honoured with the Templeton Prize. Monsignor Professor Tomáš Halik, a Czech priest and philosopher, gave the audience gathered in St Martin-in-the-Fields a taste of the fiery homiletics that earned him the hostility of the Communist regime. (See the full text here.) Father Halik has dedicated the £1.1 million prize to the memory of his fellow priests who died in concentration camps, prisons and uranium mines-a fate he was fortunate to escape, having been ordained in secret. After speaking in defence of truth when he received his doctorate at Charles University in 1972, he was banned from an academic career. Instead, he become a progenitor of the “underground university” that preserved intellectual life for 20 years in the wilderness between the Prague Spring and the Velvet Revolution.

What impressed those of us who heard Father Halik, including such doughty defenders of freedom as Maurice Saatchi and Brian Griffiths, was that he spoke much more forcefully than any British cleric would dare to do on such a formal occasion. Not only did he denounce Vladimir Putin’s brand of imperialism, but he criticised the Russian Orthodox Church for its collaboration. At an ecumenical ceremony, this took courage. Father Halik was eloquent in responding to the New Atheists, too: he turned the tables by showing that their unbelief too was an offshoot of Christianity. Toleration, the great achievement of the Enlightenment, was his main subject. This secularisation of the biblical injunction to love thy neighbour had, he said, lost something in translation: to tolerate one’s neighbours implied that one might also ignore them. Replacing the idea of an integrated society with the ideology of multiculturalism has turned Europe into a “conglomeration of ghettos”. Toleration is not love; it is not even neighbourliness. A society that fails to invite immigrants to embrace its own values, but merely tolerates them as strangers in its midst, is barely a society at all.

Halik’s critique of multiculturalism is so striking because in his own life he has exemplified two great biblical commandments: to love thy neighbour and to bear witness to the truth. These two imperatives drove the dissident movement, which successfully brought down a system built on fear and lies. Our present discontents-though paltry enough compared to life under Communism-stem from a popular sense of betrayal-the betrayal of a country whose elites are in denial about their deliberate dismantling of its shared moral and spiritual values. It is no use claiming that “Britain is a Christian country” if we cannot agree about what is meant by “Britain”, “Christian” or even “country”.

The underlying cause of this failure to live in truth is what Pope-Emeritus Benedict called “the dictatorship of relativism”. Pope Francis, so often contrasted with his predecessor, is at one with him on this. As Francis puts it, “There can be no peace without truth! There can be no true peace if everyone is his own criterion, if everyone can always claim exclusively his own rights, without at the same time caring for the good of others . . .” This should be common ground between believers and critics of the Judaeo-Christian tradition. Indeed, some leading philosophers, such as Bernard Williams, have defended the value of truth and truthfulness against their fellow atheists. A liberal society must be honest with itself, above all by preserving a free press, whose duty it is to expose the havoc wrought by the cultural relativists in the name of toleration. We betray the vulnerable by excusing their ordeals and tolerating their tormentors.

Whether we are defending the rights of Muslim girls in Nigeria or in Birmingham, we should remember Father Halik’s warning: we may only turn the other cheek on our own behalf, not that of others. And in defence of the truth, we must never compromise.

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