on Saturday, 7 February 2015 at 11.00 am by Peter Owen
categorised as Opinion
Madeleine Davies A response to Stephen Fry
Giles Fraser The Guardian I don’t believe in the God that Stephen Fry doesn’t believe in either
Maurice Glasman Church Times After the bad and the ugly — good economics
You have to read decent theologians on the problem of evil. Not Madeleine Davies, not Giles Fraser, not Tom Wright (hopeless), not the Pope. Someone good like Keith Ward.
What kind of a God do I believe in? I tell myself, and others who are inclined to listen, that God is a mystery. That’s how many Christians ‘explain’ it when we cannot reconcile the fact of evil with the goodness of God. Our reasoning breaks down. And faith steps in. Both Giles Fraser and Madeleine Davies make good points. And so does Stephen Fry.
I remember when Mother Theresa’s diaries came out a few years ago, w/ their lengthy “dark night of the soul” passages. “A-ha!” said some anti-theists. “Mother Theresa didn’t believe in God either! Nobody does!”
Unbelievers like Fry dis-believe in the same way that believers have dis-believed since Hebrew Bible times (and certainly before). Which is to say, they don’t really disbelieve—and they’re angry about that.
But God can take it. God made our “dis-belief”, after all.
Stephen Fry, i love the man, i think he is neat. I sense what he is challenging us theists is how do we reconcile a loving God with so much human suffering in the world. Fry’s challenge to us does cause us to think and re-think about how would we respond to a secular unbelieving world about how god as a person (as Anglicans God is three persons) can tolerate suffering, often needless suffering in the world that he has created?
Fr.Giles Fraser – again, hitting the jackpot: The God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ is One who shares the suffering of God’s creation. This is no despot!
Herein lies the kenotic strength of Christianity.
JCF God gave us absolute free will. God is not a puppeteer. If rational adults say they don’t believe in God, why not simply believe them? Why question them? Why should God go around “making” people disbelieve? Now, there may be different types of disbelief. Some may reject the concept of God altogether. Some may reject what they see as most people’s concept of God, they don’t like the concept of “the Guy in the sky”. But, no I don’t buy the “Oh, they really believe, but they’re angry because their favorite kitten died, or their mother was crippled in… Read more »
The strange thing is that life has always been hard since the time of primitive humans: even the oldest remains often show signs of diseases, injury, wars… There is no evidence of an era when there was only love, peace and harmony…
Yet we feel “it shouldnt be like this”.
*THAT* is evidence that there is something beyond this reality- our hearts see how things should be.
It is not only a question of evil done by humans. It is a question of suffering – and to say that God shares that suffering is understandable (if “unorthodox) but I think meaningless and certainly no answer. For literally millions of years creatures that have evolved have suffered terribly including the various human species up to homo sapiens, and they continue to suffer. Witness David Attenborough’s wonderful programs. And can that suffering be justified if a tiny fraction of human beings go to “heaven” or even if all go there – good neanderthals for example ? with or without… Read more »
Re the Maurice Glasman piece (thank you) the observation about Catholic social teaching is important. A “plain” reading of the bible, of the gospels, of the words assigned to Jesus,is not a sufficient framework, taken in isolation, in terms of a rejoinder to contemporary economic injustice. It is important, first of all, to excavate Jesus’ program and lay it out in contrast to the forces he contended with during his lifetime. Dom Crossan, for example, looks at the imperial and mercantile forces in play. Beyond that, transcendent norms and values, as they may exist in scripture, must be contextualized within… Read more »
“Why should God go around “making” people disbelieve?” Oh dear. As soon as I uploaded my comment, I had the feeling it might be misunderstood (truly, my bad). What I meant was, God made (in God’s Image) the human *capacity* to disbelieve, as wholly a part of our capacity to believe (which is why doubt—even angry doubt of God’s morality—is an *intrinsic* part of faith). Beyond that, I don’t pretend to have answers . . . and yet, and yet, I still have faith. For whatever reason/unreason. *** Back to the Problem of Evil— “They are no more evil than… Read more »
Good postings from peterpi and John Bunyan.
My general point would be that, since the problem of evil/suffering is so fundamental to disbelief in God, it is no good Christians reacting like rabbits pretrified in light when confronted with it. G Fraser (as usual, I’m afraid) fluffed the opportunity of sketching what an intelligent Christian response might look like. Of course, there are enormous difficulties here, because such a response is going to take you far beyond Christian orthodoxy.
Thank you John Bunyan! I have been astonished by the large number of Christians who did not understand the simple logic of Stephen Fry’s questions and whose answers ran from rubbishing him, declaring he was on the verge of becoming a Christian, saying they didn’t believe in the same God either, saying that it’s all about free will, saying that in Jesus, God showed us that he’s suffering alongside with us…. None of that answers the basic question: If God is the creator of all that is, seen and unseen, if we call him saviour, redeemer, loving… then how can… Read more »
Good to have a thread that isn’t about current internal church affairs (albeit ones with much wider repercussions). Thanks to John Bunyan and Erika Baker for their incisive honesty. I think Giles Fraser is right in his basic approach – the seeking for God, and so for redemption, in the place where grace and suffering meet. That seems like a faith rooted only in ‘Christ, and him crucified’. But there are two caveats to that: – that there is overwhelming suffering throughout history which appears on face value at least to be without any obvious redemption; a theme on which… Read more »
Erika, agree there are limits to what we can know. However, I think it’s quite reasonable to at least say that we don’t think that this world is heaven, and that we don’t think that we are angels… we are a mixture of good and bad intentions, and this world is a mixture of good and bad experiences. To live in a perfectly good world, we would have to be perfectly good! We pray for God’s kingdom to come (eg “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done”) and we see that “kingdom” breaking into this world around Christ, and to… Read more »
Rev David, thank you. The question remains “Whatever other world we might be able to imagine (and all our imagining is always limited by our experience), to say that to live in a perfectly good world, we would have to be perfectly good, doesn’t answer the essential question about God and this world. The fundamental problem is that Jesus on the cross does answer the question of mankind’s evil. It does not answer the question of suffering in nature, of the whole process of evolution that is based on discarding what is not fit enough to survive, often very painfully… Read more »
fr rob hall,
If you just Google Keith Ward suffering, you’ll find things.
Stephen Fry chose his target well and confronted the rationale behind organised religion on its self-acknowledged weakest ground. The thoughtful and religious cannot but admit this. However it also reveals the limits of the rational approach. Is it not human suffering – sometimes human in origin, sometimes not – that can also drive people into the arms of belief in God? Organised religion could hardly have been described by another of its opponents as the opium of the masses were this not the case. You might argue that this is infantile wish-fulfilment, desperation, or cynical manipulation by the religious-political complex,… Read more »
Erika, re: natural suffering/evil/disease At a risk of being over-simplistic, for myself (and remembering that much in this passing, temporary world is a mystery: not until the world to come shall things be fully revealed; and that in the divine timescale, we are to be as “little children” who do not, until they reach the fulness of the stature of Christ, fully comprehend what/why their Father is sometimes saying/doing): 1) God’s design and plan is for a world in which mankind is perfectly free and constantly exercises that freedom to choose what is right. 2) In such a world there… Read more »
John UK, that won’t do if you’re trying to explain to an atheist why we believe in a loving God. In Blue Planet there were agonising images of animals having to let their own young die, feeding only the strong one, having to ignore the pitiful pleading of the weaker, because there was only enough food for one… Scenes like that cannot be explained away with “we are meant to learn what goodness and health are.” That’s far too human-centric. And when we watch human children die from diseases we cannot yet control, it’s almost shockingly selfish to say that… Read more »
What does it mean to claim we are ‘perfectly free’? If we were would not the world be a very different place? The distortion or human will and our helplessness to change is the heart of it isn’t it? ‘For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do … Who will rescue me …?’ Rom 7
“The distortion or human will and our helplessness to change is the heart of it isn’t it?”
Only if you put human beings at the heart of creation.
I am very pleased that this subject is being discussed here. It is so necessary. Struggling with stuff alone can be very tough, I find. I find the ‘atheist’ arguments (sorry to sound simplistic, using shorthand)very compelling,not only intellectually, but because of the honest passion and integrity of many of these writers. I often find intellectually and emotionally the Church itself- all of it a huge stumbling block to me — and so many ways. Having become a member of the RC church, I am struck by how inadequate it is on a day by day basis, to help one… Read more »
So, Erika, reading your comments; what is your answer to Stephen Fry’s dilemma – if you have one?
One has to be honest about things. The universe itself as it is is the product of destruction as well as creation. We humans are the products of evolution. To acquire energy for living animals have to eat. That mostly means eating each other. That process fosters further evolution. But that further evolution necessarily involves greater suffering (killing an amoeba is nothing, killing a creature with a central nervous sytem hurts that creature). Death is necessary for life. Everyone knows these things, though not enough people acknowledge them (hence the desperate efforts of fundamentalists to deny evolution). And human beings… Read more »
JohnUK, listen to yourself! “Disease and natural disaster, for God’s good reasons, if to us mysterious, are the ways in which, in this world, we are meant to learn what goodness and health are.” Have you ever been in serious pain? I have, of a long. long time… if that is God’s pedagogic trick to teach me what real health is, I’m with Fry, he frankly must not be worshipped. As for all the smug Christian apologies written in reaction claiming S. Fry had no idea Christians spent some 200 years speaking about these things, I have a vague feeling… Read more »
I know this may sound horrifically trite, but I think that we are often looking for a meta-explanation of, or solution to, the problem of evil, when I suspect that the only acceptable answer is God. I would not want to conceive of a solution that somehow explains away the exquisite pain and the suffering that arises randomly from being at the wrong place at the wrong time — places like the school gates yesterday. Any insight, idea, or even intuition that takes the edge off that sort of suffering is a horror. The same goes for all kinds of… Read more »
My own response, Fr Ron? I don’t have an intellectual one. I don’t think there can be one. I have experienced God in my life and it has always been an empowering, healing experience of love. Not the soppy stuff, but the kind that gives hope where there otherwise is none. It makes absolutely no intellectual sense to me at all. But it is enough to keep me believing and trusting against the evidence. But I also know that this is the answer of a believer and that it cuts no ice with those who have not had the same… Read more »
Thank you Stephen Fry? For what? Because he took advantage of a situation to promote his own brand of atheism? Because he made squishy Christians feel even more squishy? There is only one question to consider here: “Who is this that darkens counsel by words without knowledge? … Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth? Tell me, if you have understanding…. In light of this we have a number of options, none of which involve answering the question “Why does God ….” Stephen Fry is an actor who studies his lines and knows how to play… Read more »
Afraid Joe’s reflections strike me as an example of the higher mumbo-jumbo.
Erika, the answer is as I have stated it. Or, if not, why not? To quote again Keith Ward. In this sort of question, ‘you have to start with the science’. Lorenzo is of course absolutely right that babbling about ‘the Fall’ (as e.g. Wright does) is historically hopeless. Or if ‘the Fall’ is understood as a timeless metaphor for the human condition (relatively harmless, I suppose), there’s heaps it doesn’t explain, like, for example. almost everything here under discussion.
Joe’s reflections are absolutely spot on.
You can start with any science you like, as there is no actual evidence for God, there is even less evidence for what kind of God there is.
“Erika, the answer is as I have stated it.” is priceless.
Your post about evolution does nothing more than describe the status quo. That is not in doubt.
The question is how, looking at the status quo, we can deduce that there is not only a God behind it all, but that this God is loving.
Erika, Seems to me you’re missing several basic points. (1) I am arguing from an avowedly Christian stand-point; (2) I am trying to supply an answer to the problem of evil/suffering; (3) I have done so – where’s your answer? (4) the implication of what I have said is that there’s no divide between ‘the science’ and ‘the theology’, because ‘the science’ could not be any other way if intelligent life were to come to be and have some chance of communication with God; (5) beyond all this, there can be love, but it’s ‘tough love’; (6) I do think… Read more »
I thought Rowan Williams rather waspish on Newsnight.
But I must say that in 9 years working with terminally ill infants and their families God was the solace, the hope, the comforter, even the joy and the sharer in their journey…… never the villain or monster.
And there I was, thinking I was more or less agreeing with John!
Nicely put, Joe. I accept the charge – and say sorry. But to ‘the ishoos’. Isn’t a meta-narrative’ precisely what Christianity claims to offer? Then if a difficulty comes up – and not just any difficulty – but ‘the’ difficulty – Christians say (I paraphrase): ‘Boo-hoo, but through it all I still believe in God’. I just think we have to do better than that.
John, that you are arguing from a Christian standpoint is the first problem. Stephen Fry has asked us to put ourselves in his shoes and explain why a Christian standpoint should be worth considering. We have no idea if science could have been any other way, we can only evaluate the science we know from within the universe we know. And in that universe there is nothing that requires a God apart from theology’s claim that it is so. If there was, the whole God question would have been conclusively resolved by now and atheists would be nothing more than… Read more »
John: I don’t know that I can add much to what Erika has been saying. I do think we can engage intelligently with atheists, but there is a limit, and the limit is when we start abstracting from the experience of the sufferer. Keith Ward does what he does magisterially, but again there remains something unsaid. The line I was taking is not that different from that taken by Rowan Williams, though I obviously lack his eloquence. His concern is to keep the voice of the sufferer front and centre and not to mute it via this or that mistaken… Read more »
Erika, I am an academic, I believe in proper argument. Just one example: ‘As for your last point, I don’t know what you mean by saying that without the resurrection there is no chance of proving God.’ What I actually said was: ‘there’s no chance of proving – or of there being – a God of love and justice’. That was a response to Joe’s minimisation, or relativisation, of resurrection. Because, oh so obviously, when millions of human get horribly killed through no fault of their own, there has to be a mechanism whereby they obtain true justice. I do… Read more »
John, I think you are still not answering Stephen Fry’s question, which is not whether a God of love can redeem suffering , but whether a loving God would have created a world that subsequently needs to be redeemed.
John: do read the Chapter on Williams. He addresses exactly the point I think you’re trying to make about resurrection: it cannot be commensurable with the kind of horror you point to. In Wittgensteinian terms, it’s a category mistake; in theological terms, it’s a projection of our finitude onto God. I’m certainly not relativising the resurrection (far from it, I’m ‘upping’ it), but what I am doing is recommending Rowan’s argument against McCord Adams’s attempt to address the ‘healing of outrages’. This is not the best forum to address such issues. Its difficult to say , ‘Hang on, that’s not… Read more »
John, also, as an academic who believes in proper argument, I would have liked you to engage with the other points I made thought this thread and not simply pick out the one where I misread you. Laurie said that he finds the atheist argument compelling and much the church offers not helpful. As I agree with him, there is little I else I can contribute there. It troubles me that Joe and others here say that you need to read the very most complex theologians to get an understanding of the issue. Because atheists come in all shapes and… Read more »
If God is love, then He must desire to increase love. That cannot be done without free will. Without free will, we would not be happy, not safe, not . . . anything. Mindless and meaningless, mere extrusions. With free will, some will choose evil, some good. The argument that diseases and parasites are evidence of an unloving God or no God at all is shaky, at best. If God loves all creation, then He must also love the parasitic insect, the bacterium. Should He strike down humans because we predate on plants? Death is not an evil, in the… Read more »
Thanks very much for this. I do agree with much of what you write but that’s not really the point: I appreciate the graciousness. On the arguments – depends where on the scale you want to start – but I do of course still think you have to slam in some theodicy quickly as a holding-measure against Fry-type attacks. Then you can do the subtle stuff.
Till next time,
Not to sound too defensive, but my references to Rowan’s work were meant to suggest that there is a problem to theodicy, that there may be a problem with the expectations behind the questions that theodicies try to answer. Perhaps I put too much trust in Rowan: he can be really accessible when he wants to, but in this case, the problem is too stubborn. I do think there is an answer (not that that’s the best word), as I said in my original post, but the answer is God, not in ideas about God. And we come face to… Read more »
Mark, “As for giving us the escape from the suffering, we have it. Our minds, our skills, our medicines, our consciousness and compassion – all built right in” That’s a very human-centric view focused on our own century only. It does not take into account earlier times with less medical knowledge and it does not take into account the suffering that runs through nature as a matter of course. To say that “if God loves he must also love the parasite” is back to front. It tries to read love into a world that appears to be without it. Of… Read more »
Joe, Thanks again. I will try to read said chapter. Erika, Don’t really understand. No one here is saying you have to be oxbridge-educated to talk about these questions and no one certainly is decrying those who aren’t oxbridge-educated. On parasites (very nasty ones, that is, many are benign): the answer is – I know this will annoy you – as I have stated it: (1) Because of evolution such creatures will occur. (2) Unless one is a very fundamentalist Christian, one does not believe that in his laboratory in the sky God designed and gave life to such parasites.… Read more »
John, your answer does not annoy me, why would it. It is one of many possible answers. What frustrates me is the number of people who dismiss the question. And, you’re right, your answer does not satisfy me. “Because of evolution such creatures will occur”. Yes, that is stating the obvious. It does not explain why a loving God would have created this process of evolution. If a God wanted to get to where we are now, he’s chosen the right process. It is not obviously loving. And to what extent people find comfort in the idea that the resurrection… Read more »
John: “But God didn’t create that parasite worm — he only created part of the universe” or “But God didn’t create that parasite worm — he just set the universe going without knowing how it would turn out” would seem to be adequate answers to Mr Fry but they don’t seem to be exactly what the Church says to us, and given how well they deal with the problem, why do they come so late in these comments? Does the general resurrection “make up” to the innocents of the animal kingdom, who are mostly those in need of a “making… Read more »
Well, I’m glad this conversation is continuing. Erika, I think evolution was the best mechanism, otherwise you just get God creating puppets. I also think the negatives of evolution are easily overstated. The world is in many ways beautiful, animals are beautiful, there is much love. I completely agree questions about pain and suffering – hard-wired into evolution as they are – should not be ignored. That’s why I’m confronting them head-on. And – pace Joe – I do think they raise questions of theodicy. Picky: what God knew or could have known at the outset of the process are… Read more »
One of the things overlooked about the suffering of animals is that we don’t know. We know that they feel pain, we know that they are abused by us, but pain is not the same as suffering. This will outrage and offend many, but it is true. We can’t speak for what animals feel. My cats, when sick, are in pain, or, at least, discomfort, but I can only be certain that I suffer. To the exploitation of animals, even the Biblical narrative makes that a consequence of human sinfulness – it isn’t seen as a normative or healthy expression… Read more »