The whole truth and nothing but the truth

Published June 1, 2011

Some years ago, an airline pilot flying a long night flight invited his two teenage children into the cockpit. Like any proud father, he wanted his children to be inspired by his profession and to experience what it might be like to follow in his footsteps.

He was careful to put the aircraft on autopilot so that his children couldn’t accidentally affect the flight. His son sat in the pilot’s seat and tried steering with the control stick, but since the aircraft was on autopilot, his father was unconcerned.

What his father didn’t know, because the aircraft manufacturer hadn’t told him, was that the autopilot was programmed to turn off automatically, and without notice, when the control stick was moved. The aircraft suddenly swerved and crashed.

The aircraft, an Airbus 310, was owned by the Russian airline Aeroflot. It had been flying a regularly scheduled flight with a Russian crew. So, the Russian equivalent of Transport Canada carried out the resulting investigation.

What followed is of special interest to people of faith.

The accident happened only two years after the fall of communism in Russia. The lead investigator, a Russian and no doubt loyal Communist Party member, came under pressure to assign fault. The stakes were high. The reputation of a major Western aircraft manufacturer was in question, as was the reputation of the national Russian airline. The manufacturer insisted that the fault lay with the captain’s irresponsible decision to allow his children into the cockpit. The Russian airline insisted that the blame be placed on the incomplete training provided by the manufacturer.

The investigator stood to lose his job if he embarrassed the Russian airline. He also stood to lose any hope of ever working in the West for a major company if he embarrassed the manufacturer. What he did was remarkable. He refused to bow to either pressure. With enormous courage, and at enormous personal risk, he insisted on telling the entire truth in his report.

The investigator was an atheist. He wasn’t a person of faith, someone who went to church. He wasn’t a Christian. And yet he was almost Christ-like in his readiness to sacrifice his future life for the truth. How did the investigator’s remarkable sense of integrity originate?

How does the church, in a secular world, account for sacrificial bravery in people with no faith? If an atheist can be so Christ-like, what is the purpose of being a Christian?

Try a thought experiment. What if it could be demonstrated that church-going Christians are actually more ethical and loving than the general population? That would mean that the ethical and loving God pours more goodness upon members of one religion than upon members of other religions-which wouldn’t be ethical or loving.

The implication for people of faith is that we Christians are to live in deep humility. Faith isn’t about us, or our ethical purity. God’s love isn’t limited to being enacted by members of our faith-what a small God that would be! Our faith is about proclaiming a magnificent God of unending ability to break forth in miraculous acts of courageous sacrifice anywhere and in anyone.

If such a God can act through anyone, then we know that nothing and nobody is beyond expressing God’s loving power, and perhaps the tragedy of such a terrible accident, caused by the intersection of a father’s pride and technological confusion, can also be redeemed. Ω

For nearly 13 years, the Rev. Canon Harold Munn has been rector of the Church of St. John the Divine in Victoria, B.C. He retired in May and has now been appointed Visiting Anglican Mentor in Residence at the Vancouver School of Theology, where he will teach Anglican polity, ethos, ministry and mission. He and his wife, Claire, will live on campus in Somerville House.

Canon Munn’s column, “Re-thinking how we do church,” has appeared in the Anglican Journal since September 2009. At the May joint meeting of the Associated Church Press and the Canadian Church Press in Chicago, Canon Munn’s column received four awards, including a first-place Award of Excellence in the category of Newspaper Department.


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