On Theodicy and Stephen Fry image

On Theodicy and Stephen Fry

When I first heard Stephen Fry's comments about God last week (the cave-dwellers among you can watch it here), I didn't think anything of it. The problem of suffering is by far the strongest objection to Christian belief that there is, all Christians are aware of it, have thought about it, and have probably wrestled with it personally, and Fry, who has been a high-profile and fairly strident atheist for many years, was saying nothing that has not been said far more angrily and far more viscerally before (think of Ivan in Dostoevsky's The Brothers Karamazov). But the video provoked far more responses than I expected, perhaps because Fry is such a national treasure these days; I felt like the journalists in 1997 who were bamboozled by the response to the death of Princess Diana. And what was striking about these responses was not just the number of them, but the variety of ways in which they addressed Fry's comments. Given the ubiquity of the objection - a loving God would never create a world with so much suffering, and any God who did create such a world would be evil - it was interesting how divergent the answers were. Here's a round-up of a few of the more interesting ones.

Timothy Stanley produced the most diffident reply, in the Telegraph: who cares? Suffering happens for three obvious reasons, he argued (random acts of nature, the Devil, and human choices), which should make Fry’s objection rather passé. And by lumping Fry in with Dawkins - which I think is quite harsh, but that’s for another day - he identified both men as examples of a knee-jerk atheism which should, by now, be fairly boring:

Ultimately, I don’t care that Fry doesn’t believe in God or that he spouts off about it at every given opportunity like a crazy man on a bus. What irritates me is that his remarks are reported as though they are important. He’s not Oscar Wilde (who died a Catholic). He’s not even Benny Hill (who was funny). Celebrity atheism was a big thing ten years ago but now is old hat and rather tiresome. Oh, there are atheist thinkers out there whose opinions are worth hearing and there are eloquent people of faith ready to respond. But why must it always be the same old bores boring on about the subject? This yawnfest has to stop.

Personally, I don’t think the problem of suffering is at all passé, and I don’t think it has been satisfactorily answered for a pluralist society (let alone in a way that can be summarised in one sentence), so I don’t think Stanley’s approach will convince many. But that’s one way of doing it.

Giles Fraser, in the Guardian, answered very differently. The God Stephen Fry rejects, he argued, is not the God I believe in either:

For if we are imagining a God whose only power, indeed whose only existence, is love itself – and yes, this means we will have to think metaphorically about a lot of the Bible – then God cannot stand accused as the cause of humanity’s suffering. Rather, by being human as well as divine, he fully shares in it. This is precisely the point of Christianity: that God is not some distant observer but suffers alongside all humanity ... 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. Of course this is real. Frighteningly real. Real enough to live and die for even. But this is not the same as saying that God is a command and control astronaut responsible for some wicked hunger game experiment on planet earth. Such a being does not exist. And for the precisely the reasons Fry expounds, thank God for that.

Standard liberal leftish fare here: emphasise immanence, diminish transcendence, and appeal to nebulous notions like “thinking metaphorically about a lot of the Bible” (where?) and God as “the respect we owe the planet” (what?) One suspects, however, that when it comes to the detail, Fraser’s approach may involve a fair bit of rescuing Christianity from the Bible.

Pete Greig, by contrast, presented the best bit of Fraser’s critique (that Stephen Fry is attacking a God no Christian believes in), but through a thoroughly evangelical lens. He summarises:

Fry blames God for the evils of life and as Christians we may sometimes share his sense of outrage, praying ‘How dare you? How dare you?’ But ultimately we attribute evil elsewhere; discerning a battle between the unalloyed goodness of God and the destructive machinations of hell. I feel a little weird writing about such things even though I know them to be true. I’m aware that biblical cosmology can seem a little archaic to Western minds; like a medieval storyline in a Marvel comic. And yet this bitter conflict is a daily reality in our lives. Just read the headlines today, whatever day you happen to be reading this. We know that for every thousand people who care for children, someone somewhere will abuse one. For every hundred doctors, nurses, and medical researchers, there is a chronic illness that still cannot be cured. And within every one of us there are destructive temptations we barely dare acknowledge. There is a battle between good and evil, that God will one day win.

Greig’s excellent God on Mute handles this question at much more length, from a robustly Arminian viewpoint.

Krish Kandiah wrote a fairly measured response, and was promptly invited onto BBC Radio 5 Live to discuss it with Nicky Campbell. Morning radio is not an easy place to have a serious discussion about serious issues, but he gave a good Arminian-ish theodicy, with some very helpful illustrations. Attacking God for suffering is like attacking someone who’s just been burgled for not keeping the place tidy, he explained. Yes, God foreknows evil, but he doesn’t predestine it; knowing Liverpool is going to win is not the same as making them win. True love involves true choices. Human freedom and divine sovereignty are a paradox we can’t fathom, just as light is both a particle and a wave at the same time (echoes here of his recent book Paradoxology). And Stephen Fry is probably closer to faith than he thinks. You’re never going to win an argument on this subject in five minutes, but Krish did a very good job in the circumstances.

The limitation to most of these responses, as far as I can see, is that they do not really engage with the objection in its strongest form (Krish being the exception, because he had it put to him on live radio). We can say all we want about evil not being caused by God but by the Devil, or human choices, or the machinations of hell, or random acts of nature, but the question which still haunts Christian theodicy is simply: why did God cause those things? If God is all-knowing, and knew in advance that the world he was going to create would lead to the sufferings described by Stephen Fry - whether or not you use the language of “ordination” or “predestination” for that - then why did he create it, and thereby allow it? Blaming the Devil, human choices, hell or nature for suffering simply pushes the question further back one stage, since those things are only present as a result of God’s actions. If God is the ultimate cause of all things, which orthodox Christianity insists he is, then how can we get him off the hook? Why did God create a world in which so much suffering takes place?

Like I said, this is a summary of the responses to Stephen Fry, rather than an explanation or defence of my own view. But if you’re curious, this is how I tend to respond to this most awkward of questions. If nothing else, I hope Fry’s comments might remind us that the question of evil is by no means passé or old hat - and that without it, there’s no need for a gospel.

How could a loving God possibly allow so much suffering? from Kings Church on Vimeo.

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