Updated 25th March 2021
Pastoral Letter by Mark Venn
I did not watch “The Interview” (I refer of course to Harry, Megan and Oprah Winfrey). Though a convinced royalist, I am also aware that our Royal family, like any family, has its ups and downs, internal tensions and members that can cause embarrassment. While I would be interested in watching a balanced documentary on royalty (and there have been some recently), I was not prepared to sit through what appeared to be more of a sensational, “dish the dirt” celebrity-fest, particularly when only one “truth” was going to be presented.
Often these days, especially on social media, reasoned discussion (particularly with contrasting standpoints) is decidedly lacking. Views are stated, frequently in inflammatory or emotional terms, and contrary opinions, if listened to at all, are denigrated or abused with their holders likely to be “cancelled”. As David Aaronovitch wrote ironically in The Times, “the important thing is not whether you’ve got it right, but how much noise you make”.
One of my university friends* has recently started a new website, prompted in part by a general question posed by his brother: “Why can’t one have a reasoned discussion anymore? Even with friends and family with whom you happen to disagree on something?” The aim of the website is to provide a forum where current issues can be written about and discussed; contrary views are warmly welcomed, provided they are based on evidence and presented in a reasoned way. Understanding an opposing viewpoint is valuable since it can broaden one’s own perspective, perhaps even prompting the modification of an opinion.
I was delighted with my friend’s initiative since it resonated with thoughts I have been having for some considerable time. We need to listen widely, and especially to contrary viewpoints; the late Jonathan Sachs’ book Morality, quotes a Hebrew motto: “always listen to the other side”. To understand fully another man’s opinion, Atticus Finch in To Kill a Mockingbird advised “climb into his skin and walk around in it”. One can not only then appreciate what the view is but perhaps more importantly, why it is held. An excellent example of this was seen in the official negotiations between the African National Congress and the (white) South African government. Rather than presenting a set of demands or listing tribal grievances, Nelson Mandela began the process by asking about the history of the Afrikaners in order to understand their issues and fears.
In one particular aspect, the church has difficulty fully comprehending other viewpoints. While Christians can (and should) understand the people they encounter by “getting into their skin”, comprehending God is at a completely different level and generally not possible. A God who is eternal and all-knowing is beyond the understanding of finite minds. Yes, it may be possible to see a part of His picture, but it will be necessarily limited. A recent church Lectionary reading concerned the “wisdom of God” and how far it exceeded the wisdom of man. The Christian belief is that God in His wisdom is in control, has a long-term design and will bring it to fruition. Our wisdom struggles to grasp its fullness, especially when we see suffering, hardship and actions of inhumanity. However, one only needs to consider the events of Good Friday and Easter Day to realise that God has a completely different perspective.
We therefore need to take assurance that events (Covid, Brexit, or whatever) don’t “just happen” but form small parts of God’s long game or big picture and trust His wisdom. This is not to suggest that God actively brings about suffering, but rather that the consequences of human actions are allowed to happen. We need to remind ourselves too that good can come out of evil, even if it can take time. So, in this difficult time let us keep trusting in the wisdom of our God, even though we lack a view of His big picture. In our daily dealings with our fellow humans though, let us try and follow the advice of Atticus Finch.
* My thanks to Richard Pooley for his article
“Why don’t we do what Atticus Finch advises?” (www.only-connect.co.uk)