Stephen Fry and the disease of Life

Stephen Fry is almost an honorary member of our family. It’s rather unlikely that he knows of his esteemed position, but he’s been an integral part of parenthood & childhood (via Harry Potter audio books) and, more lately a source of fun and education on QI, and in the rediscovery of classics like A Little Bit of Fry and Laurie and Blackadder. [Hugh Laurie is another honorary member].

Stephen Fry’s given us all much fun and joy, for which I am hugely grateful. We ain’t going to throw him out of the family just yet. You are welcome to dinner anytime Stephen!

Stephen FryIn his most recent interview yesterday he says he is glad that what he said has got people talking. And how.

I’ve had a browse of (an admittedly tiny) selection of Christian responses. Tiny because, as Stephen Fry says, this life is short and we’ve got to make the best of the time we’ve got 😉 – and that probably doesn’t include hours reading people trading insults in the comments section of the Guardian (of more below).

One of the most gracious and moving was by someone called Chris Stead. His story of faith, hope and love in the midst of watching powerlessly the daily traumatic suffering of his daughter, gives the lie to superficial stereotypes of Christians blindly and unreflectively following a ‘stupid and capricious God’. Christians can and do rejoice at the utter goodness of God even in the midst of great suffering. Facing suffering with dignity and hope and strength is woven into the fabric of Christian faith. It is Christianity which has inspired countless millions to give their lives caring for others  – and to continue to fight injustice and to alleviate suffering often at great personal cost.

One of the most unpersuasive was by Canon Giles Fraser in the Guardian. He got an awful bashing in the comments section from atheists and others quite rightly rather vexed that his ‘defence’ of God led to the conclusion that

For God is the story of human dreams and fears. God is the shape we try to make of our lives. God is the name of the respect we owe the planet. God is the poetry of our lives.

I’m sorry but this is liberal twaddle at its worst. ‘God’ is exempt from the charge of being responsible for evil and suffering because … he doesn’t exist outside our imaginations. Well, that’s things solved then. God is ‘love’ in the abstract. To be honest I’m at a loss how someone who holds such a view can continue to work as a paid cleric in the Church of England. Would not the local humanist association be more fitting?

In a very good piece, Krish Kandiah, the newly appointed President of London School of Theology, highlights the parallels between Fry’s moral outrage and how C S Lewis moved from atheism to Christian belief. He also says this

At the heart of the Fry’s argument is the idea that the world that exists is as God intended it to be. He assumes that God deliberately created a universe with appalling undeserved suffering. But a central doctrine of the Christian faith is that God created a good and perfect world and after the fall of humanity nothing is fully as it should be. To blame God for natural disasters and childhood cancer is like blaming the landlord after tenants have trashed their house.

Closer to home, Aberdonian exile Kevin Hargaden at Creideamh, points out the irony in Stephen Fry’s moral outrage – from whence comes the morality? He also rightly argues we need to move beyond philosophical speculation to specifics of the Christian God incarnate in Jesus Christ. And when we do this we see that

There are many problematic things about Christianity. There are weak points where opponents can score points. Suffering isn’t one of them. The God that the Christians declare is one who revealed his divinity in momentous suffering … no human has ever been more human than when the Godman suffocated under his own weight. The new-atheists never try to kill that God. He’s already died. He sides with the suffering and the broken, the oppressed and the downtrodden.

I find myself saying “Yes … But” to both Krish and Kevin.

Yes Krish’s first three sentences are I think indisputably accurate description. But it’s the last line that isn’t fully convincing. The atheist sceptic will reply, “OK, even if I accept that man is directly responsible for the vast amount of suffering that goes on in the world, God is still ultimately responsible. He created the world in the first place and made this world of natural disasters, suffering and injustice possible.” In other words, while the Fall introduces death and sin and all the horrors that follow, including a twisting of creation itself, presumably God could have chosen not to create.

Yes, Kevin puts it so well: it is often in suffering that goodness and love and grace are poured out in profound ways. God is no deist; he is a God of utter love and compassion; he is on the side of the poor and oppressed; he has even entered our world of suffering and embraced death in Christ. The heart of God is revealed in the tears of Jesus at the death of his friend Lazarus. Jesus’ grave-side indignation is at the way death ruptures the way things should be. His raising of Lazarus foreshadows the resurrection to come when death will be done away with. But a focus on God’s response to evil and suffering, however loving and self-sacrificial, still does not answer the objection that an omnipotent God made this post-Fall world possible.

Put it another way. Forget for a moment Fry’s examples of eye-burrowing worms (which might not  actually exist apparently) or bone-cancer in children. These are emotive and awful diseases, but ultimately a distraction in the argument. The much bigger ‘complaint’ Stephen Fry really has is the ‘disease’ of Life itself.

While he says that life is to be celebrated, shared, enjoyed and lived to the full (Amen), it is a simple fact that the very possibility of life as we know it means the inevitability of death. For life is terminal, one way or another. We are fairly fragile carbon-based life forms which, sooner or later, start to malfunction and then die. And most of the time death involves suffering. Getting old, as my 90 year old father says, is ‘not for wimps’. So Fry is really blaming God for designing a world in which death and suffering were possible.

The irony in this whole discussion is that both Stephen Fry and Christians desire and want a world without suffering, pain or death – and both feel the desperate ‘wrongness’ of this broken world. Stephen Fry blames God for allowing this world to exist. Christians believe that this broken world was not God’s original design. Death and suffering are alien intruders who will one day be evicted.

It seems to me then, that there are two big background questions lurking behind this discussion:

Why creation at all?

Where does evil (that led to the Fall) come from?

And it is here I think Christians need to be upfront and say there aren’t easy answers. For, as far as I can tell, Scripture does not ask those sort of philosophical questions (the book of Job gets nearest).

As to why creation itself, we can suggest answers such as the creative glory of God, the wonder of the cross, the necessity of human free will, the context for faith, love and hope to flourish, the mysterious purposes of God that are [unsurprisingly beyond our knowledge since he is God and we are not] – but that’s as far as we can go.

And when it comes to the origin of evil, the Bible simply does not tell us how it came to be. It does say that Satan rebels and becomes the enemy of God, the ‘prince of this world’ and the author of evil. But this is not quite the same thing as saying how evil entered a good creation.

We can, however, insist on the certainty of three things that shape our thinking about God and suffering.

1. God is absolutely and utterly Good. As Kevin and Chris Stead highlight, this goodness is revealed in his response to suffering. It is revealed in his ultimate end game which is blessing. It is supremely seen in Jesus Christ, the Son of God.

2. God is God: omnipotent creator of all and Lord of history. He is not to be explained away in order to excuse him from the responsibility of being God (Giles Fraser)

3. Evil exists and is opposed to God. Despite what Stephen Fry asserts, God is not the author of sin, suffering, disease, injustice, and death. God stands against these things deeply and passionately than any human can imagine. He overcomes them at infinite personal cost. It is at the cross where God’s absolute goodness, omnipotence meet head on with the forces of evil and defeat them utterly (Col. 2:15). That decisive victory is what gives hope of a world without bone cancer or holocausts or even death itself.

So while Stephen Fry sees ‘God’ as ultimate bad news, Christians will insist that the gospel of God is the ultimate good news: good news about who God is, what he has done, what he is doing and what he will do.

Comments, as ever, welcome.

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