In 1989, the American economist, JK Galbraith, gave an address at a graduation ceremony at Smith College, an exclusive women’s college in Massachusetts. He spoke to the graduates about the career choices they would face and warned them about the seductive charms of institutional truth:
I come now to your real choice. Your real choice will be in the realm of truth. Specifically, it will be in deciding whether you will be guided by sometimes inconvenient, even painful reality or by what I will call institutional truth. Institutional truth in our times bears no necessary relation to simple truth. It is, instead, what serves the needs and purposes of the large and socially pervasive institutions that increasingly dominate modern life.
Institutional truth is what the organisations, businesses, political parties, churches we belong to or are paid by require us to believe and proclaim. It’s not necessarily a result of ill-will or conspiracy – it’s simply the way institutions tend to work in achieving coherent forward movement. It raises the question, though, of how we maintain personal integrity in the face of the pressure of institutional truth, a problem faced by many people in all parts of our society. How do we stand up for the simple truth and reality? As Galbraith says, ‘It is far, far safer to be wrong with the majority than to be right alone. And more reputable, too.’ On the other hand, ‘there is considerable personal enjoyment in pursuing it. To the adherents of institutional truth there is nothing more inconvenient, nothing that so contributes to discomfort, than open, persistent, articulate assertion of what is real.’
As Christians, we claim to be concerned about reality and about the truth that sets people free. How does that fit with the institutional truths that all churches are bound to proclaim? Dean Inge, one of the great Anglican characters of the last century, wrote, I think tongue in cheek, ‘The Almighty is obliged to do many things in his official capacity which he would scorn to do as a private individual.’ Thirty years on from Galbraith’s warning, where do we stand? Would it be fanciful to proclaim 2019 as a Year of Reality?
Venerable Dr Christopher Cunliffe
Archdeacon of Derby