Despatches from the front line of the Church
Stephen Fry’s 2015 is looking pretty good so far. Fry got married a few days ago (congratulations, Stephen!), and on Irish TV yesterday he all but silenced his interviewer with a deft and powerful response to a question about the existence of God.
The binary outrage/applause valve that is Twitter exploded (predictably) into action, while everybody from the Huffington Post to the Irish Times jumped on the story, presumably relieved to have a reasonable and warm atheist to talk to about these things now that Richard Dawkins has imploded into a cross between a cab driver and Darth Vader. The Daily Mail – with whom Stephen Fry has not traditionally seen eye-to-eye – is so far absent from the list of media outlets covering it.
The interview was with veteran Irish TV presenter Gay Byrne, and the notable bit followed Byrne’s question: ‘Suppose it’s all true, and you walk up to the pearly gates, and are confronted by God. What will Stephen Fry say to him, her, or it?’
Have a look.
The outrage is more than understandable – all reasonably-minded Christians should share it. Bone-cancer in children? What is that about? Fry’s challenge to those who believe in a loving God is a fair question. It needs to be asked.
But what should our response be?
Cold, academic theodicy cannot help here. Linguistic and theological somersaults sitting on pieces of paper, conceived in peaceful offices in leafy university quads or over steamy lattes are hardly able to address the storm of horror in the resus room as the dying eight-year old cannot be revived. Rational discussion is important, and sharing ideas is vital, but it only takes us so far and let’s not kid ourselves that well-reasoned analytical arguments are going to satisfy those immersed in the horror. Jesus’ response to it was not to retreat to the nearest synagogue to rationalise it – it was to tackle it.
“Honey, the MacBook is making that plinky-plink noise again.”
There are two inherent assumptions in this chat between Byrne and Fry that derail us. The first is Fry’s, and is that we even could understand the reason Why, even though our brains are no bigger than a toaster, I can’t remember where my shoes are most days and next door’s dog continually outsmarts me in our ongoing war about where exactly it is allowed to deposit its own special contributions to the ecosystem (my lawn, these days, is richly fertile – but you wouldn’t want to mow it). I can’t work my Macbook. It’s all pictures and bleepy-flashy. I’ve lost track of number of times I’ve announced that it’s broken, and then Wifey (who is At One With The Machines) has made it cooperate with embarrassing ease. It takes a very special kind of confidence to assume that because we can’t solve a puzzle, there isn’t a solution, and yet this is often the first place we go.
The second is Byrne’s, and involves the portrayal of God as a impersonal, imperious Super-Judge, and of this life as some kind of exam without much revision (a bit like those dreams you get where it’s suddenly exam time and you realise you did nothing but drink beer and watch Trisha all year – or maybe that wasn’t a dream). As if life is The Voice, and we get however-much time to do our thing, hoping that God’s chair will spin round. And maybe for some Christians, this is how they see God. Perhaps those that champion moral codes over compassion, dogma over inclusion, might see God this way.
But I am convinced that Jesus did not. Jesus offered a very different God indeed. A God who couldn’t be more different to His portrayal by the media, Western culture and in many ways, the Church.
Far from following this God out of fear of punishment, I follow the possibility of Jesus’ God because His plan of forgiveness, compassion and action – topped with a promise that He will supercharge our efforts Himself – is the best approach I’ve yet seen to how to tackle the horror. And far from the awfulness of Earth being a reason for the absence of God, the possibility of this God gives me hope that there could be ultimate justice and that everything will be okay.
So what do you do – accept that Earth is horrific, and that despite our efforts to limit it, the horror will always be there? Or dare to hope, to gamble, that the weird things that happened in Palestine 2000 years ago are a glimpse of something lying just at the edges of our sight that is more amazing than you could possibly imagine? That there could be hope, after all?
Which of these spurs you more into action against the horror?
I know which one I choose.