John Humphrys, the BBC broadcaster, is in search of the elusive laurels of ultra-gravitas that descended on David Frost, the greatest media figure from the British isles (along with Malcolm Muggeridge and maybe Alistair Cooke). Last week he broadcast his morning radio reports from Iraq (the safer British zone) and this week his BBC recordings include in-depth discussion with religious leaders from various faiths, on the question of God.
I am always glad to hear intelligent debate on the issue of faith, especially as the UK is a startlingly atheistic (and perhaps not coincidentally often very selfish and materialist) society. However, Humphrys, who entered into dialogue with the Archbishop of Canterbury this morning, is the pouting answer to his own question.
Rowan Williams, the Anglican who speaks with the media man, is tentative, light of touch, profound, agile, and above all, immensely patient. Humphrys wades in like a ten-ton baby grand crashing down some spiral staircase into a hotel lobby. The approach is the answer to the question: is there a God?
But Humphrys is too thick to see it. Thick not with a lack of intelligence - but thick with himself. The media is such a cruel mistress - it gives so many layers of armour and so many luscious coats of honour to the self, that, despite its thin skin and surface delights, it often makes it difficult for a media personality to go truly naked.
So it is with Humphrys. Citing the usual examples of horror in the world (a child with cancer, Beslan, the Holocaust) he then ultimately asks: why can't I have faith like yours? A more sustained contemplation of the dialogue, one that could step out of the commonplace rituals of doubt, would no doubt note the egoism in the very asking of that question. Nothing wrong with a sincere hunger for faith - but Humphrys trots out tropes that every high school debater confronts (religion brings war, freedom is incompatible with God's power, etc). He is a ghost in the rhetoric.
I have noted a truth about God, one which those who cannot sense Her miss: God is where we least expect, when we least expect, and that is Her proof and value. In the last six months I have lost a grand-father, an uncle, and my father. This year alone, also, a young friend was struck down by a hit and run driver, and another is dying of cancer. My faith in God has not been (entirely) lost by these grim times.
Instead, life has deepened, considerably darkened, but its underlying seriousness and beauty, has, if anything, come into stark relief. To use a metaphor which may sound familiar, a November light has come in the window - at once more faint, at once more pure - and it is this note of faint but still-sustained beauty that is God in the world.
God is the despite, is the still, is the just about, is the almost - may even be simply the perhaps, or it could be. God is the barest sliver of hope, when all hope is gone. As such, it is a via negativa, and one's faith can only be fully sounded when the instrument one plays is beyond need, is denuded of the self - when one mourns not for one's own self, but for a greater love of another.
John Humphrys seems a good, capable, serious man who works in the British media. However, he should respect the sacred nature of the answers he seeks, enough to know, that one cannot find the truth in a shallow vessel, in a loud and brassy instrument. It is how one asks that answers. Ask quietly, and without hope of finding. The asking for God opens the horizon of a possible world where the answer might be -
She may be there.
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