5 JANUARY 1974, Page 11


The ring of truth

Martin Sullivan

It has been frequently asserted that the greatest change which has come upon religious thought in our time has been the shifting of the centre of gravity from authority to experience. No one who accepts this assertion would wish to ignore the fact that we all have acquired the greater part of our information at second hand and never tested it personally. But this does not imply that individual judgment has been surrendered. The will of God is never and nowhere revealed to us in such a way as to release us from the responsibility of forming judgments.

The world is constantly shaken by crises and all the ancient foundations are undermined. The demand for clear instructions and definite plans to make rebuilding possible is understandable, but these solutions do not suddenly emerge from some external source. To search for them in this direction is to follow a path which leads finally to dictatorship. If we refuse to go on wrestling with the problems of individual judgment we shall find ourselves taken over by those who elect to do our thinking for us. Infallibility is a category which men cannot use whether it comes from the church or from any secular organisation.

The Bible is not a spiritual Das Kapital or a compendium of laws made by God and imposed upon man. The preacher who is always asserting 'The Bible says' and the disciple who accepts unquestioningly the text he reads, are both engaged in cutting knots. Such authority is the negation of private judgment. As we test the truth in our personal experience so we are guided step by step and slowly, into it. God does not flash His full glory at once into our dazzled eyes.

Those who have not been prepared to hand over their consciences to the keeping of the church or to believe that the obiter dicta of the Bible furnish them with all they need, find their infallible authority in the Inner Light, the direct guidance of the Holy Spirit under whom all men and all institutions and all writings stand. Such a doctrine, in its extreme form is also a religion of authority and open to the very objections we have been considering.

Where then do we look for and hope to find the source we are seeking? Perhaps a truer form of the doctrine of the Inner Light may lead us to ,it. The Holy Spirit does not speak only to one man, or to one group of men. 'That was the true light that lighteth every man that cometh into the world'. Inner and outer authority, neither claiming infallibility, help each other, correct and limit each other. 'As we weigh up what the church leaches, what the Bible says and what our inner voice whispers, we must remember that all three are activities of the one and the selfsame spirit. The ring of truth is always heard by the ear sensitively attuned to recognise it. This surely is the business of prayer, offering all to the judgment of God and patiently and humbly and receptively awaiting the outcome.

If all the protagonists in our present unhappy disputes were prepared to sit together and to sit in silence for a season, exposing all their convictions and their prejudices to an external arbitrament, however understood or conceived they could emerge with a very clear and authoritative message.