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Advocates of truth

03 January 2014

A TRADITIONAL Christmas may include the following: mince pies; a bottle of sherry; cards squeezed on narrow mantelpieces, and an absence of calm. It will certainly include advocates of truth: those who stand up and explain what it all means. But let the advocates be wary at the gateway of the year - there could be trouble ahead.

Advocates abound, but, whether religious or secular, C. S. Lewis or Richard Dawkins, they are a vulnerable breed - vulnerable to the success of their own constructions. How does it happen? Their supporters do not help. Egged on by devotees, these people feel pressured into more and more explanation. "You explain the truth like no other," their disciples say. "Please, tell us more in that clever way of yours!"

And so, what can the gifted advocate do but construct ever more brilliant explanations? And, in so doing - and here is the pinch - become almost the embodiment of their particular way, their own wonder? They are no longer held by a spacious mystery, but find the mystery to be the same size as themselves - a devastating discovery for anyone aware of their own fragility. Such explanation may even turn listeners away. As the author Phil Steer tweeted recently: "The more assuredly others speak of God, and what he is doing, and going to do, the less real he can seem to me."

Lewis was a brilliant advocate for Christianity, making belief real to many. But, as Francis Spufford has observed tellingly (Comment, 22 November), it was a dangerous advocacy for him personally. As Lewis told a group of priests in 1944: "No doctrine of the Faith seems to me so spectral, so unreal as one that I have just successfully defended in a public debate. For a moment, you see, it has seemed to rest on oneself: as a result, when you go away from that debate, it seems no stronger than that weak pillar."

For Lewis, the weak pillar that seemed to rest on him collapsed a few years later. The brittle bones of a belief too closely related to his imaginative, prose-rich self fractured terribly in his book A Grief Observed, in which his public faith was shot to smithereens by the untimely death of Joy, the woman he loved.

This was no severe mercy; this was merely severe, and the rage, so powerfully described, still leaps from the page today. But then that was one of his problems: he was a brilliant writer.

Advocates of a truth larger than themselves should never explain it, never presume this competence; for that is to become too friendly with the fire, and the flames may consume them for their presumption. We can point inexpertly towards the inferno, but the blaze is too wild, too wayward, to be pinned down in a book, like some dead butterfly. Better not to know than explain. 

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