Given at St Lawrence Jewry Church on 5 March 2015.
I thank the Lord Mayor for the invitation to preach this year’s Spital Sermon on the theme, ‘The Spread of Truth’. The reading from St. John’s gospel (John 16:4-15) presents Jesus promising to send the Spirit of Truth who guides us into all truth and indeed, inspires us to spread the Truth, for there is in the human heart a deep impulse to seek what is good, true and beautiful.
This sermon argues that we will fail to discover the truth, still less spread the truth, unless we give adequate space to the search for religious truth and bring this into a dialogue with all other areas of knowledge.
My own yearning for the pursuit of truth led me from mathematics to theology, both sciences in their own ways seeking to touch infinity. This spirit led me from a brief sojourn in management consultancy to the Church and a ministry to spread the joyful truth received in the encounter with God and to guide others in their pursuit of truth. The same Spirit that inflames our desire for God ignites that pursuit of truth which stimulates men and women to dedicate themselves to knowledge of the sciences, the arts, the human person and the world in which we live.
Consider the theory of motion; we are humbled as we become more aware of our limited understandings. From ancient forms of geo-centrism to the understanding that the planets circle the sun, now we need Einstein’s complex theory of relativity to understand motion as it approaches the speed of light. We know that the natural sciences and the Church clashed on these issues and only in time, with humility, came to understand the difference, yet complementarity, between scientific and religious truths. Mgr. Georges Lemaitre stands out as a priest and scientist who pursued both scientific and religious truth and can be considered the first proponent of the ‘Big Bang’ theory of the universe. Dialogue with religious truths is required to answer the deeper philosophical and theological questions about creation. To quote Rabbi Sacks, “Science takes things apart to see how they work. Religion puts things together to see what they mean.”
The recent debate in the Houses of Parliament about mitochondrial transfer testifies to the need of the philosophical and religious voice in public debate. Not only were concerns about safety raised but more fundamental questions were debated about the nature of the human embryo and the role of a third parent in providing mitochondria for the new child. Whilst the vote was passed to allow the HFEA to provide regulations to ameliorate the suffering of children, I believe the religious voice needs to be further heard to speak important truths about the God given dignity of human life from the first moment of its existence; and indeed, the manner in which life comes into being, as well as importance of knowing one’s genetic identity and the relationship of the child with his or her parents.
Speaking in Westminster Hall in 2010, Pope Benedict highlighted the importance of religion: “to help purify and shed light upon the application of reason to the discovery of objective moral principles. This “corrective” role of religion vis-à-vis reason is not always welcomed, though, partly because distorted forms of religion, such as sectarianism and fundamentalism, can be seen to create serious social problems themselves. And in their turn, these distortions of religion arise when insufficient attention is given to the purifying and structuring role of reason within religion. It is a two-way process. Without the corrective supplied by religion, though, reason too can fall prey to distortions, as when it is manipulated by ideology, or applied in a partial way that fails to take full account of the dignity of the human person.” Religious voices can contribute to a more comprehensive view of the human person and so assist the spread of truth.
The need to dialogue is just as true for Christians as for people of other religions and none. Christians believe that Jesus Christ is the fullness of Revelation; hence that Christianity has a unique place amongst other religions. This claim to truth also places on Christians a serious duty to engage with others in order to understand and see the way in which God’s grace is at work beyond their own community. Dialogue is firstly a task amongst Christians! I am privileged to be a member of the International Catholic-Methodist Dialogue. Our dialogue seeks to understand our historical differences, to recognise the gifts that the other tradition brings, and so grow in understanding and towards the truth of who we are. We pray that in time we may see a visible unity so that the Gospel truth may be more effectively spread. It is also important to see the guiding presence of the Spirit of truth in other religions and recognise what we share with our brothers and sisters with common Abrahamic roots. Through dialogue we can learn from one another so as to give common witness to the importance of the religious voice in society.
Those who hold religious truths want to be heard because they wish to contribute to important debates affecting the whole society in which they live. But of course, they must respect others of a different voice in a spirit of genuine and serious dialogue. This is no easy task yet it is necessary if we seek the common truth at the heart of every person and the truth on which a just society for all is built. Dialogue needs compassionate love to appreciate the “Other” and to hear their voice.
As people bear witness to the truth with integrity and authenticity, sometimes to the point of giving their life for others, I think of the twenty one Coptic martyrs who died in Libya. We are impelled to continue to help others recognise the dignity of each and every human person and spread this truth.
To conclude, intellectual endeavour seeks to pursue the truth within different disciplines; whilst each is autonomous; together they form a unity and cannot contradict each other. Religion and science, the book of Revelation and the book of nature, are the sources for faith seeking understanding. By rigorous searching and through dialogue, we desire the spread of truth which leads people to know the beautiful truth of God who loves them, and calls them into his life through his Son, in order to serve others.