GEORGE HERBERT’s advice to preachers about our words’ needing to be “heart-deep”, and about the poetic vocation of “redress” in self and society, seem more than important at the moment. We are in the wake of an American election, a national Covid-driven lockdown, the ferment of Brexit, and a changing global, polarised political, climate.
We are living with a sense of dismantling in the air — from liberal democracy to the environment itself; from life as we knew it and lived it to basic human encounter and relationship. At such a time, we need rich, awakened, and trustworthy language to connect for the common good, a compass to navigate us through the land of loss and fear. And yet language itself appears now, in the hands of some, to be equally dismantled — by a grave and dangerous abuse.
There is what Richard Baxter called “Truth Decay” (Poetical Fragments, 1681), and the haunting question whether, as a society, we are losing interest in the truth of words; whether the idea that there is objective truth is now less important to us than opinions, crisis chatter, or infotainment.
Is to be interesting more important than being right? Is there a declining value of accuracy, as society’s reserve currency? Is what matters not veracity but impact? Is dishonesty, therefore, not held to account as it once was? Is lying just a laugh that amuses by messing up our systems of value?
If this is our situation, it is tempting to blame some political and state leaders. Some of them tend to campaign in graffiti and then govern in tweets. Some seem to think that what is truthful is merely what reinforces the mood of the crowd and their preference for alternative facts.
History, thankfully, is peppered with those who warn us about such political manipulation. Alexander Hamilton, for instance, one of America’s Founding Fathers, argued for a system of constitutional checks and balances to guard against the possibility — and I now quote him — “of a man unprincipled in private life” and “bold in his temper” who could one day arise, and who might “mount the hobby horse of popularity” and “flatter and fall in with all the non sense of the zealots of the day” to embarrass the government and “throw things into confusion that he may ride the storm and direct the whirlwind”.
Wow. Imagine that ever happening! Perhaps that’s why it was always important to believe that the first President, George Washington, had said “I cannot tell a lie.”
Those such as George Orwell and Hannah Arendt warned from experience that abusive power ultimately takes hold by slow injections of falsity that people begin to repeat. And so, for all practical purposes, Orwell concludes, the lie will have become truth. It spreads, and leads to a general distrust of experts — the belief that, say, science, if inconvenient somehow, is a conspiracy, and historical studies that don’t back up your arguments can be revised.
Journalism begins to reflect a selfie-stick culture, seemingly holding things at an objective distance, but actually only reflecting yourself and tribe. Religion, too, can hide its darker abuses with pious jargon and dead clichés repeated by some authority to pay deference to. We turn to social media and find that Facebook is where we lie to our friends, and Twitter where we tell secrets to strangers.
IF THERE is anything to what I say, this is a dangerous place to find ourselves — not least because power belongs to the loudest controller of the chaos, and leaves us in a state where, if you are not at their table, you are probably on their menu.
Pilate asks Jesus “What is truth?”, but he doesn’t hang around to find out the answer. After all, the crowd is putting on the pressure outside. One of the reasons that I’m proud to be part of this university is that it is here to ask the same question — “What is truth?” — but then, quite the opposite: to stick around, together, in a “fellowship” even, to pursue the answers.
A college is one of the antidotes to any fashion of falsity: a group of people committed to the pursuit of truth, in dialogue and co-operation, each ready to be corrected when necessary; eager for accuracy, but warning against quick clarity and the seduction of easy answers; fearless in seeing past and present, and researching into the as yet unknown.
Although very proud of our past, this tradition of truth-search which we inherit makes us ultimately a place that seeks to be loyal to the future. A good education generates information, but also enables formation; it helps the CV virtues of achievement, breakthrough, and contribution, but knows that we should also focus on the eulogy virtues — what we want said at our funeral. Were we kind, generous, a good parent or friend? Did we ask Job’s question in life: where shall wisdom be found? What language will we need to begin to recognise an answer?
I AM proud, too, to be part of the Christian community, for all our faults, because we also celebrate the fact that, along with others, truth has other forms than facts; that, sometimes, truth is far too important to be literalistic about. The truth that is expressed artistically, musically (Herbert’s great love), truth in narrative and myth, is the truth that is always part of the human inner life — the sense of that fragile life placed in your care, the un-ignorable intrusions of mystery when love or loss enter it, the intuition that somehow we need saving from ourselves by a love both beyond and within.
I believe that, when we walk into any place of worship, we walk into a poem. As Herbert made his long way to evensong in Salisbury Cathedral, he knew that the Church’s liturgy is a poetry in motion, and that we fail to understand its beauty if we miss the sensitive state of consciousness that its poetry can prompt.
We are not spectators in worship. We pursue the truths that are able to translate into living, alert to the dangers of being coloured by the world’s insanity, cruelty, and so-called “common” (but often crazed) sense. The poetry of liturgy and faith is a redress and a vehicle of potential for connected life, making us citizens and not just consumers. How we live the truth of our words was Herbert’s quest because, as his contemporary Joseph Hall said, “God loveth adverbs.”
Herbert embodied a Christian faith that is both “a loving search and a searching love”: an adventure into truth and mystery and intuition, and a charity that is not content with surface relationship, but seeks to read between the lines, discern hurt and need, and work for a peace built on justice. He would, I think, be shocked today at how we have lost reverence for language — the sense of the sacramentality, even, of words, able, as they are, to open up fresher worlds before us and in us, voicing the deeper currents of our longings and loves. It is time for that to be redressed.
This is an edited version of the University Sermon delivered on 1 November 2020 by Canon Mark Oakley, Dean of St John’s College, Cambridge.