Sunday, 1 February 2015

A Straw God Argument

The increasingly ludicrous Stephen Fry answered a question about what he would say if he died and found that, unexpectedly, there was a God, and he was face to face with him.

He launched into what I see as a pompous and arrogant rant, accusing God of being evil for creating a world in which the innocent suffer.

He is right about one thing: the problem of suffering is one that any serious theology has to address.

But the reason I describe his ad Deum attack as a Straw God Argument is because he attacks a theology that nobody holds. It seems clear from the terms of his argument that he has no idea how scholars - mightier brains than he, though he may not recognise the fact - from Judaic and Christian backgrounds, have grappled with this; nor even how other atheists, again with more powerful and penetrating insights than his, have framed the debate. He is a bit like someone arguing against climate change who points out that we have had a very cold winter: he is rather missing the point at issue.

What is lamentable isn't so much his ignorance and arrogance, as the fact that many people seem to think that he is saying something of worth.

The other extraordinary thing is his failure of imagination. The premise of the question was that he found, after death, that he was wrong about something he is so sure of. Yet there is no sense of a need to reappraise his belief-system or even question it. Instead, he imagines telling the Almighty off as though He were an errant property mistress on a TV studio floor.

When St John, the Beloved Disciple, encountered the Risen Christ he fell on the floor as one dead (see the start of the Apocalypse). Yet Fry imagines he will tower over the Father and tell Him what's what. I hope and pray that when that day comes to pass, Fry will have more humility, and indeed more sense, and will find it in himself to ask for the mercy that we all need on that Day of Judgement.

It is not all Fry's fault, of course. He lives in an age when the Church has largely failed to proclaim the Gospel in a clear and compelling way; and in particular with regard to suffering.

At the root of the mystery of Suffering is the mystery of Freedom; and at the root of that, the mystery of Love.

God wanted to create creatures capable of love. To love is an act of the will: to choose what is good for the beloved. Thus the will must be free: a forced choice is no choice at all. Which means that freedom to love must be accompanied by the freedom not to love - and that is the root of all suffering. Moreover, since the Original Sin of our first parents, we are all damaged and have a tendency to self-love over and against the love of our neighbour. Our freedom to choose not-love means that we are able to hurt each other, and also to hurt and damage all of nature at a lower level than ourselves, to an extraordinary extent.

At the level of emotional suffering, and indeed most man-made suffering, that is clear enough. But what of the hard cases that Fry raises: the child with bone marrow cancer, for example?

This is where another truth that is under-proclaimed at present becomes important: the fact that we are under the Angels. The Angels too had freedom to choose. Lucifer chose not to love. And being of angelic power and intelligence, he can hurt and damage all of nature at a lower level than himself. That is where natural disasters and natural disease have their origins. Yet how shy we are of that truth.

But we can also say more about suffering. God is not heedless of it: indeed He took mortal flesh precisely so that He could enter into human suffering. He joins us in it, He helps us to bear it, and he helps us to find redemptive meaning in and through it.  So suffering, which is an undoubted evil, can be used for good by God and his saints: indeed, paradoxically to our mind, it is those whom the Father loves most who have the fullest cup of suffering: starting with His Son, and with Our Blessed Lady accompanying Him in His Passion, and standing at the foot of the Cross.

And finally, there is the matter of perspective. If to help a patient recover, a doctor has to cause him some pain, that counts as nothing when the patient is restored to health for the rest of his life. How much more is that the case, when we consider the fleeting nature of this earthly life against the eternity of happiness that God promises. 

None of this finally resolves the problem of Suffering; but it offers some insight. And for Fry to pontificate about God and suffering without any awareness of these considerations demonstrates the paucity of his thought on this subject.

1 comment:

Patricius said...

I suppose he has to have some excuse for, among other things, credit card fraud.