The British Bank Holiday is a notoriously slow news day. Unless an untoward sighting of a royal backside occurs, hapless journalists are tied to their telephones in half empty offices hoping for a story to emerge. If the sun is shining and their spouses are burying their children in sand on British beaches, the misery of their Babylonian captivity is heightened.
The Clacton Lion last week may have seemed a poor second to, say, an apparition of the Blessed Virgin on Brighton pier, but it was a proximate cause of what can only be called a minor liberation and a mass movement. Happy hacks headed for Liverpool Street Station as from Noah's Ark, two by two, reporter and camera man, or headed off on the A12 for Clacton. The camp site proprietor whence the sighting of the Lion had occurred was warding off the invasion. Intrepid seekers for the truth tripped gaily through fields looking for back entrances, unarmed and fearless in fields of wheat stubble and the threat of imminent attack.
It was a happy day for the Essex Constabulary too, present in numbers adequate to protect the general public from a pride of man-eaters. A Helicopter and armed police added to the gaiety. A local Clactonian, possibly a little worse for wear, spread rumours that they had "cornered the beast".
A good day too for the happy campers who had snapped the lion and had doubtless been remunerated for their photographs. That the lion looked remarkably like a large ginger cat was overlooked, with delicate attention given to due diligence and the pleasure being given, by all including the local Zoo. The spirit of Freedom across the land was only dissipated mid-afternoon when the police felt obliged to tell the waiting world that the hunt was called off and it was probably a big moggy. There had to be a Party-pooper but, by then, the Clacton Lion had undoubtedly added to the sum total of human happiness.
On hearing of these prodigious events, my mind went back to the story of Yuri Andropov of KGB fame and later Soviet leader. He had come to Prague after the Soviet invasion had crushed the Prague Spring in 1968 to explain to the Czech Communist Party that the Soviet Union had only come on the invitation of the Czech people to deal with the hooliganism and disorder of some imperialist-backed lackeys and thugs. The script has a modern ring. It might have been written in Damascus. He knew that he was lying. They knew that he was lying. And he knew that they knew that he was lying.
All of which goes to show that the truth does not necessarily set you free. It may do the opposite. And this in turn suggests that there must be truths and Truths. The point is not easily conceded. The pejorative name for this modest insight is "à la carte religion".
The trouble is that the great Truths of the faiths are open to several interpretations as to what they involve in the realm of middle axioms, action and agency. Whether the competing truth claims of the major faiths have again become a problem in the modern world depends very much on how they are construed. À la Carte religion can indeed be dangerous: minor aspects of authoritative teaching, pushed into prominence and made absolute can, and does, distort the lives of faith communities. Too often they overwhelm the richness of a faith tradition to create what might be described as the diminishment of single-issue religion.
Single-issue religion seems invariably to attract, or create, people with the single religious identities that Amartya Sen has so frequently warned against. Linked to ethnicity or nationalism, such identities, under stress, are given to violence and political activism. Indian partition 1946-1948 is a notable and horrific example, but recent history is not short of examples. The same developments within faiths are no less redolent of conflict and killings. The emergence of Sunni-Shi'a conflict in the Middle East is a clear and present danger.
Feeding into single issue politics such convictions can destroy a political culture. So perhaps the formula should be "the Truth ought to make you free" - with the caveat that there are contexts which make this unlikely and ways of interpreting it that definitely won't.
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