Time to put truth back on the agenda March 14, 2022

Time to put truth back on the agenda

In the course of a recent conversation with an eminent scientist about the current state of the evangelical church, he described to me how the process of scientific peer review was underpinned by a healthy scepticism about our human capacity to delude ourselves. As human beings we may so desperately want to come to a particular outcome, that our scientific research can easily become skewed towards “finding” that outcome. Hence the need for peer review - other objective voices and perspectives are needed to check our work and keep us honest. Accurate footnoting and transparent citation in academia and publishing play a similar role. Being subject to these levels of scrutiny is gruelling, humbling and time consuming, but it is also essential.

 

This friend speculated that a healthy appreciation of Genesis 3 when it comes to self-examination seems more at home amongst the scientific community than the religious these days. It seems that evangelical Christians have lost hold of a healthy and biblical view of our own human capacity to sin, to self-deceive, and to promote our own interest above the pursuit of truth. This makes us susceptible to narcissistic leaders and bureaucratic cabals who take over churches, movements, communities, political parties or organisations in the name of success, power, greater efficiency or respectability – but lose the very heart of the gospel and lose any connection with truth itself.

 

No wonder so many are walking away from organised religion. Rather than the current fad of anti-intellectualism, I want to suggest that evangelicals today are desperately in need of a reformed and reinvigorated Christian mind. A curious, honest, reflective faith that will take the time to read, learn and discover. An intellectually honest and humble approach that welcomes questions and insights from tradition, culture, science, philosophy and of course scripture. This kind of faith has the potential to inspire and draws leaders and opinion formers to the person of Jesus. There are many commitments and actions that would be needed for a generation to commit to this kind of cultural and faith renewal. But certainly, one of them would be a commitment to truth whatever the cost. Dorothy L. Sayers explores this idea in her most popular novel Gaudy Night.

 

(Spoiler Alert) Gaudy Night is set in Shrewsbury College, a fictional Oxford College for women, not unlike Somerville where Sayers herself had studied. The novel explores the relationships between the women scholars of the senior common room and the disruption of the community by a number of obscene disturbances, which escalate towards an attempted murder. The plot turns on the fact that a young scholar Miss De Vine had in the past written an essay exposing a small act of scholarly deception on the part of a male academic, who had suppressed a source which countered his thesis. The consequence of his exposure had been the termination of his academic career with the devastating repercussions of his subsequent suicide being felt by his wife and children. His widow takes a job as a scout (a cleaner) at Shrewsbury College and is eventually unmasked as the perpetrator by the detective Lord Peter Wimsey.

 

Sayers later wrote:

By choosing a plot that should exhibit intellectual integrity as the one great permanent value in an emotionally unstable world I should be saying the thing that, in a confused way, I have been wanting to say all my life [1].

A commitment to unvarnished truth as a permanent value would protect a culture from corruption and other forces of power. When faced with the question in her own wider cultural context of what the point of a university education was, Sayers mused:

The integrity of mind that money cannot buy; the humility in face of the facts that self-esteem cannot corrupt: these are the fruits of scholarship, without which all statement is propaganda and all argument special pleading [2].

Cultural renewal within the church and wider society today will not be possible without this kind of honesty about truth. For Sayers, the highest possible value of truth, untarnished by self-interest, remained a real possibility in this imperfect world, since the Christian revelation could make it viable. She argued that the truth about God is accessible to those who pursue truth with integrity, because God entered human history in Christ. She believed that this embodied truth in history underpinned all other glimpses of truth in the wider world.

 

In Gaudy Night, Sayers aimed at relentlessly applying the principles of intellectual integrity to the wider pursuit of truth in real life. Sayers explained: “the plot and the theme being actually one thing, namely, that the same intellectual honesty that is essential to scholarship is essential also to the conduct of life.”[3] Sayers believed that there is a crucial prerequisite for discovering truth, namely the intellectual integrity of those pursuing truth. That is the achievement of Gaudy Night as a novel– to remind all seekers of truth about the vested interests and personal costs that so often prevent us from actually following the evidence.

 

I think this rigorous commitment to the integrity of truth is something that our generation of evangelicals needs to recapture as we navigate all kinds of power discourses within the church and out there in the wider culture. Truth matters. Humans are susceptible to self- deception, even in the cause of faith or something we consider to be the “greater good.” But the principles of intellectual integrity matter. Our very future as a faith community may hang on realising this.

 

_________

[1] Sayers, “Gaudy Night”, p.82. 321 ibid. p.90.

[2] Dorothy L. Sayers, “What is Right with Oxford?” Oxford 2:1 (1935): 36-7. 323 Dorothy L. Sayers, Gaudy Night (London: Folio Society, 1998), p.158.

[3] Dorothy L. Sayers, Creed or Chaos? (London: Methuen & Co. Ltd, 1947), p.32. 326 Sayers, “Gaudy Night”, p.87.

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