Excavating my desk recently, I found the program notes from a Tallis Scholars concert my wife and I had attended a few months ago. The Tallis Scholars are a marvelous a capella ensemble, but most of their music that night was rather too minimalist for my tastes. In any event, the author of the program notes described Arvo Pärt’s I am the true vine, and its “qualities of stasis and timelessness,” as reminiscent of what “former Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams has described as ‘silently waiting on the truth, pure sitting and breathing in the presence of the question mark’.”
Which put me in mind of an old joke that used to circulate in the editorial offices of First Things. Harvard University’s crest, it seems, used to read Veritas Christo et Ecclesiae [Truth for Christ and the Church]. Christ and the Church were jettisoned over a hundred years ago; the crest now reads, simply, Veritas. The joke was that the crest’s next iteration would be Veritas? – thus honoring the post-modern canon that there is no “the truth,” only “your truth” and “my truth.”
During Lent, I’ve been rewatching the magnificent 1981 BBC production of Bridehead Revisited – the best television adaptation of a great novel ever made, in part because of the stunning cast but in larger part because Evelyn Waugh’s book is the screenplay. In the second segment, the protagonist, Charles Ryder, muses on what he had once been taught about Christianity in terms that took me back to that joke, and to Rowan Williams “sitting and breathing in the presence of the question mark” while “waiting on the truth:”
“I had no religion [Ryder recalled]…The view implicit in my education was that the basic narrative of Christianity had long been exposed as a myth, and that opinion was now divided as to whether its ethical teaching was of present value, a division in which the main weight went against it; religion was a hobby which some people professed and others did not; at the best it was slightly ornamental, at the worst it was the province of ‘complexes’ and ‘inhibitions’….and of the intolerance, hypocrisy, and sheer stupidity attributed to it for centuries. No one had ever suggested to me that these quaint observances expressed a coherent philosophical system and intransigent historical claims; nor, had they done, would I have been much interested.”
Large parts of the western world seem similarly uninterested today. And the notion that Christianity is mythical rubbish unfit for intelligent adults has been given a new lease on life by the media-driven success of the New Atheists, although their fifteen minutes of fame has just about expired (happy news for anyone familiar with elementary logic). So the real question today is not refuting the blustering Richard Dawkins. The real question is, is the Church “silently waiting on the truth” as in Dr. Williams’s image, shirking its evangelical responsibilities while basking (or freezing, as the case may be) “in the presence of the question mark”?
Lent and Eastertide ought to be occasions for the Church to examine its collective conscience on this point. The grittiness of Lent, and the “intransigent historical claims” without which Easter makes no sense at all, should remind us that Christianity does not rest on myths or “narratives,” but on radically changed human lives whose effect on their times are historical fact. Within two and a half centuries, what began as a ragtag gang of nobodies from the civilizational outback had so transformed the Mediterranean world that the most powerful man in that world, the Roman emperor Constantine, joined the winning side. How did that happen?
It didn’t happen because of better myth-making. It happened because those first Christians met a young rabbi who promised that, should they believe in him, each of them would become “ a spring of water welling up to eternal life” [John 4.14]. Then came what seemed complete catastrophe: his crucifixion. But they met that teacher again as the Risen Lord Jesus Christ, and were infused by his Spirit. And after that, they didn’t sit around in the “presence of the question mark; rather, they told the truth of what they had “seen and heard” [cf. 1 John 1.1].
And thereby changed the world.