Bishop Richard Harries - 04/12/15
Thought for the Day
Good morning. Whatever side of the issue of air strikes they were on, everyone agreed that there were excellent debates on Wednesday in both the House of Commons and the Lords- at once deeply felt and serious and informed and rational. This kind of reasoned argument is at the core of our democracy and it was good this week that the whole country seemed to be taking part in the debate. It was noticeable too that people’s views were far less predictable than usual.
The assumption behind all such debates namely that by reasoned argument we can get at the right answer, or more widely, get at the truth of things, is not something to be taken for granted. We have received it from the past. It is deeply embedded in the whole Western tradition going back to the Greeks, and then taken on board by the Christian church, who saw this as an essential feature of what it is to be made in the image of God. I happen at the moment to be reading the letters of St Augustine, written in the 4th century at a time when the church in North Africa was bitterly divided over who had betrayed the faith during the earlier period of persecution. What has struck me time and again as Augustine tries to heal the rift, is his belief in the power of reasoned argument to lead people to the truth. He insists that discussion must be genuinely open and free of coercion from either soldiers or mobs. He wants the other side to set out their case as strongly as they can. He insists only that his own case be read out before the same audience. Then, the middle ages, so often dismissed as a time of superstition and ignorance were above all a period of passionate reasoning in the faith that this could get us to the truth.
It is not just the Western tradition that values this human capacity either. Amartya Sen, for example, has argued that in Indian civilisation, long before the enlightenment, the concept of public reasoning was fundamental.
Of course there is no such thing as a totally neutral argument. “The whole man moves, paper logic is but the record of it,” As Cardinal Newman put it. We argue as the person we are, with all our biases and prejudices as well as our deepest moral convictions. That is why the prayer used every day in parliament is so apt. Parliamentarians ask to be delivered from “all private interests, prejudices and partial affections”. None of us can entirely get rid of them of course but we can at least try to be aware of their effect on our thinking.
So for all the proper passion engendered this week we can I think celebrate our God-given capacity for rational argument, and the tradition we have inherited that public reasoning is the best method available for making difficult decisions together.