Letter from Roger Tarbuck, February-March 2019

Cross Street Unitarian Chapel

My first Unitarian experience was in 1968, at Cross Street Chapel, Manchester. The preacher spoke about truth and asked, “What is the truth?” and I thought how marvellous that a preacher could question something so openly.

In a speech to the US Senate in 1917, Hiram Warren Johnson said, “The first casualty when war comes is truth.” I think that most of us have heard that quotation, but I would extend it to periods of peace. We are in a period of relative peace right now, but truth is a continuous casualty, what with “false news” and other euphemisms for downright lies. The Journalist Christina Odone wrote recently: “In the social media world of likes and followers…posing is believing and fake is as real as it gets…But the friend who speaks the unvarnished truth is the one you rely on for advice.” The ease with which someone can lie, perhaps with vicious spite, from their bedroom in the dead of night, is frightening. Some people tell lies because they unquestioningly believe what they are told. Some repeat lies because they want to believe them. But worst of all are those who tell lies deliberately in order to further their own selfish and sometimes diabolical ends. This extends from the con man or woman who swindles an elderly person of their savings to powerful tyrants who end up believing their own lies, causing unimaginable suffering to millions. With pickpockets to presidents, truth may be a major casualty at any time.

Some years ago, the Right Reverend David Jenkins, then Bishop of Durham, said the following (courtesy of Wikipedia): “To believe in a Christian Way, you don’t necessarily have to have a belief that Jesus was born from literally a virgin mother, or a precise belief that the risen Jesus had a literally physical body,” and when this was attacked, he responded with a phrase that would dog him: “[The Resurrection] is real. That’s the point. All I said was ‘literally physical’. I was very careful in the use of language. After all, a conjuring trick with bones proves only that somebody’s very clever at a conjuring trick with bones.”

This hit the headlines nationwide with the words: “Archbishop says the Resurrection was just a trick with a bag of bones.” Now, where does the lie – lie? It lies with every person who recorded it according to their prejudice, who perversely knew what he or she was doing, or other people who didn’t bother to check the reports. A few years later, I attended a lecture by David Jenkins in Newcastle, when he was challenged by a member of the audience: “You said that the Resurrection was just a trick with a bag of bones.” Jenkins responded: “I didn’t say that,” whereupon he explained what he did say, but were the papers alive the next day with the headline: “Jenkins explains!”? No. Nobody was concerned with the truth. It wasn’t good news: it was an anti-climax and not worth repeating. In war or peace, the truth is too often a casualty.

I don’t receive many cold calls, but one really gets me. A woman phones me and says in a foreign accent: “Hello, my name is Mary. I’m from BT and I have to advise that your internet will be disconnected in the next twelve hours.” That’s three lies already. I reply: “No, you’re not. BT say that you’re all thieves and this is a scam, so leave me alone!” Soon after, I was phoned by a man with a foreign accent with the same message, then by a woman with an posh voice, then a woman with an American accent, then – best of all – a man with a voice like that of Roger Moore playing Commander James Bond – at his best!

What is the truth, then? We usually think of it as being the better of true and false statements, but in religion, the truth, as perceived by members of different faiths, means their own particular dogma, the very solid roots of their required beliefs. In traditional Christianity, Jesus is the Way, the Truth and the Life, but in comparative religion, we can see a kaleidoscope of truths, and, as I mentioned last time, in eclecticism, we “cherry-pick”. Do we call what we cherry-pick “the truth”,  or is it something more subtle?

In Unitarianism we talk a lot about togetherness, which is good, but, because of our open faith, our individual experience of truth may be solitary – our freedom may isolate us from our friends – or we may share similar beliefs with a few others in our great union of souls. But our glory is that this is possible. The truth is revealed in each other’s faces and in the parts of their truth and our own that we can share. This is our joy, but behind it all there is the “The Unutterable Beauty”; the Still, Small Voice; the radiance of the glory of God, personal, private and perfect – The Truth. It’s impossible to describe, but in blessed moments we know it well.