I WAS sad to read of the death this month of the literary polymath George Steiner. His book Real Presences made a great impact on me during the time when I was leaving the BBC and preparing for ordination. After, I went to hear Steiner debate with Rowan Williams in the Cambridge Divinity Faculty. The event was packed. I still have my notes of the conversation.
The starting-point of the discussion was the claim in Steiner’s book that academic and creative life was being corrupted by a culture of suspicion. This, he said, had led to a cultural unravelling of the notion of truth, which had come to be seen as no more than a bid for power.
Rowan spoke of a breaking of the covenant between truth and reality. He still hoped that genuine truth-seeking was possible, and that even suspicion could serve truth. Steiner was more pessimistic. For him, the very possibility of meaning, particularly in aesthetics, rested ultimately on the notion of God. Without God, meaning has nothing to stick to; it floats in a world of endless interpretation and counter interpretation. He quoted the post-modern philosopher Jacques Derrida: “The semantic marker [i.e. words] can have a meaning only if it is turned towards the face of God. There is no such face.”
Steiner feared that this scepticism was corrupting civilisation, as, in the absence of meaning, we became more and more susceptible to what he described as “the howl of money”. Rowan was a little more positive: he suggested that the ache, the despair about language that they shared, made sense only if there was something ultimately there, something to long for, even if it seemed absent.
All that was more than 20 years ago, before Twitter and Trump and Brexit. Yet Steiner’s Real Presences is one of the few books on my overstuffed shelves which I always know where to find. He reminds me that all preaching, all prayer, all prophecy depends, in the end, on the belief that there is something, someone, there who underwrites our attempts at speech. But this requires us to listen before we speak, not least to other truth-seekers, artists, poets, musicians, children, and — perhaps especially — to those who suffer.
All, in different ways, bear witness to the transcendent “other”, whom our culture is busy forgetting. Even our rage at injustice and our misery at death rests on an implicit belief that things could, should, be otherwise. Steiner raged against much modern teaching as a form of “organised amnesia” that takes away our capacity for remembering. When we forget the transcendent, we lose our humanity.
We can easily forget this in the Church, in our concern to assert our relevance. Our only function is to remind the world of God.