Thought for the day

Another truth
BBC Radio 4

The night before I was first interviewed on this programme I didn't sleep a wink. I arrived here with hours to kill and wasted time nervously drinking coffee with the tramps in Shepherd's Bush. I could almost feel my heart pumping through my rib-cage.

Why was I so terrified? I guess it was the fear of sounding stupid in front of so many people, the fear of that absolutely unanswerable question when the brain goes blank, the mouth dry and complete nonsense issues forth from the lips. Perhaps even deeper, it was a fear of being reduced to silence, of having nothing whatsoever to say.

It's no surprise, therefore, that some people who come on programmes like this learn strategies to answer questions. The important thing is to sound fluent. Polished... but not too polished: for that, apparently, is what the truth is supposed to sound like. Those who pause too much or stutter too often sound evasive, as if they have something to hide. The tragedy is that little by little, truth can get reduced to presentation.

Earlier this week the Archbishop of Canterbury awarded the Michael Ramsey Prize for the best book of theology published over the last few years. I was at the prizegiving rooting for a friend of mine who's written one of the most media-unfriendly books it's possible to imagine. And it's a book about truth. For truth, according to the theologian Andrew Shanks, can never be smooth or slick. Smoothness and slickness are qualities of the surface, necessarily superficial. Truth, on the other hand, exists at the depths where things are murky, unclear and almost impossible to fathom. That's why in Andrew's view there can be no such thing as media friendly theology.

The winner of the £15,000 prize was Timothy Radcliffe, a Dominican friar based in Oxford. He too reflected on the way truth is apprehended in contemporary culture. His line is that we all too commonly work with a very limited conception of truth as correctness. The people most fluent in this sort of truth are those who are good with graphs and numbers and league tables.

But what about something we might call poetic truth. What about the sort of truth that's less about accuracy and more about the call to imagine more, to feel more, to think more, to love more. Faith, for me at least, is so much more about this order of truth, than the question of whether my opinions are merely correct. Which is why I think the best theology is always pausing and stuttering, always not quite able to express itself, always mounting unsuccessful raids on the unspeakable.

And there, perhaps, is the difficulty of doing theology in a medium such as this. For on the radio, being reduced to silence is a bad thing, humiliating even. In theology, being reduced to silence is a good thing - and utterly inevitable.

© 2007 BBC Radio 4

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