Moralists merely wail, but science gives us answers [1]

[ Wed. Aug. 31. 2005 ]

‘Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent,” as the philosopher Wittgenstein famously said. That was my response to the tsunami in Asia and its terrible aftermath.

To me it was and is a meaningless horror about which there is almost nothing one can say except, perhaps, to ask what can be done.

That has not stopped thousands of people, particularly media commentators and public pontificators generally, from holding forth about it at length, trying to extract morals and meaning.

I am not complaining about all the reporters and scientists who have been trying to discover useful information about how the tsunami might have been anticipated, its effects mitigated, what can be done now or how relief work is being co-ordinated.

What has depressed me has been the excessive moral and theological posturing. Media atheists have been unfeelingly triumphalist, as if this disaster proved them — yet again — right in their disbelief.

And media men and women of the cloth have, not surprisingly, been reduced to incoherence about their enduring belief. The Archbishop of Canterbury became, and not for the first time in his episcopate, almost incomprehensible.

“The extraordinary fact,” he wrote, “is that belief has survived such tests again and again — not because it comforts or explains but because believers cannot deny what has been shown or given to them. They have learnt to see the world and life in the world as a freely given gift.

“They have learnt to be open to a calling or invitation from outside their own resources, a calling to accept God’s mercy for themselves and make it real for others and they have learnt that there is some reality to which they can only relate in amazement and silence.

“These convictions are terribly assaulted by all those other facts of human experience that seem to point to a completely arbitrary world, but people still feel bound to them, not for comfort or ease but because they have imposed themselves on the shape of a life and the habits of a heart.”

If that contorted prose means anything at all, it would take a very great leap of faith, of a most mystical sort, to believe so.

It is sad that the Church of England, which produced the strong-minded, eloquent lucidity of Cranmer’s liturgy, which is undoubtedly one of the greatest achievements of the English language, should now be reduced to impenetrable waffle.

However, in my case it would have made no difference if the archbishop had spoken with the tongues of men and of angels; I am an unbeliever. Yet the constant images of the disaster in Asia, like the less constant images of broken people and broken lives in Iraq, do naggingly demand some sort of answer to the question of what, if anything, one does believe in.

Confronted with senseless violence, viciousness, corruption high and low, and human weakness generally, it is hard to have faith in anything much, especially if one is not religious. But even so I do believe in the importance of faith — not of religious faith but of faith in a different sense, such as keeping faith or living in good faith.