Stephen Fry vs God

Stephen Fry has taken up the distressed cries of thousands of years, from believers and unbelievers alike, by asking that crucial question: if God exists, how can there be such suffering in the world? Here’s the clip that went viral:

A gallant man of impassioned phrase and strident tongue has taken on the Almighty where He seems weakest: how can an all-loving, all-powerful God create a world of child cancer?  Fry is following a great tradition, says the former Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr Rowan Williams.  Such anguished cries of distress against God are already heard in Scripture: in the Books of Job and among the Psalms. Not to mention Blake and others.

The essence of the answer to Fry here is not meant to dull his cry and query, so much as show that it is misplaced.  Free will is the short, traditional and complete answer to such cries.  A longer answer deals with the nature of God, which is missed by Fry’s words.  That is, though all-powerful, God is also the exact opposite.  Not just a Grand Old Man on a throne creating a mountain here, a species there, a disease here …  He is also a baby; a poor carpenter; a crucified, mocked, dying man.  And it is this second ‘God’ that gives this deity the unique right to speak on suffering – and to comfort us that “all shall be well”.  Giles Fraser, Guardian columnist and once Canon Chancellor at St Paul’s Cathedral, sums it up:

“This is why the Jesus story is, for me, the most theologically revolutionary story that there can be. Because it imagines God and power separated. God as a baby. God poor. God helpless on a cross. God with a mocking and ironic crown of thorns. In these scenes it is Caesar who has the power. And so the question posed is: which one will you follow when push comes to shove? You can follow what is right and get strung up for it. Or you can cosy up to power and do as you are told. By saying that he will stare ultimate power in the face and, without fear, call it by its real name, Fry has indicated he is on the side of the angels (even though he does not believe in them). […]

Furthermore, this powerless thing subverts Fry’s accusation of God’s iniquity. 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. Which is why, even in the midst of absolute horror, he has the authority to whisper in my ear that all will be well.”

What’s more, crying to God that there’s evil and sickness and harm in the world begs the question: what are we going to do about them?  Have we not intelligence, and power, and skill, in ourselves – God-given or otherwise?  Tim Stanley, of the Telegraph, puts it this way:

“Stephen Fry suggested that religion has no answer to the problem of suffering. On the contrary, it’s obsessed with it. Consider Christianity (because most of you reading this will be Christian, either by belief or culture). The Christian take on suffering is that it’s an inevitable part of being human. This is because we live in a fallen world in which God largely leaves us up to our own devices to look after ourselves – although he gifted us intelligence and compassion to enable us to do the right thing.”

The reason this sort of question is posed with such vigour by Stephen Fry is that it is a natural one.  Indeed, it is a powerfully dramatic one – hence why the clip went viral.  Other media examples even include fictional uses.  President Bartlet of The West Wing spoke truth to power on the accidental and unfathomable death of an old friend; this is heroic venting at its most powerful, orating as he advances straight down the aisle of National Cathedral, Washington D.C., cigarette in hand:

Let’s also refer in passing to Kevin Spacey’s eulogy for the dead child in the recent House of Cards: he both shocks and connects with his audience-congregation by shouting “I hate you God!”, before (cynically, in his case) speaking on suffering.

These ‘longer answers than free will’, as I hinted above, necessitate discussing the nature of God. Fraser touches on it further in his article quoted above, but let me quote instead from Stanley – and particularly the human example with which this section concludes:

“[Firstly,] the idea that God just watches suffering and feels indifferent to it is nonsense. This is a God who sent down his only Son to actively endure the worst pain and humiliation that any human can take. The Romans drove nails through his body, suspended him from a cross and left him in the burning heat slowly to expire – crucified alongside a common criminal.

[… Secondly,] our model in life isn’t some Aryan hard-body god with good health, white teeth and a tan. It’s a broken cripple upon a cross. And living up to that model means not avoiding suffering but going to where it is found – in hospitals, care homes, prisons etc. It means suffering alongside people in the hope of sharing the burden of their pain. […] Often the question is asked, ‘Where was God at Auschwitz?’ The answer is Father Kolbe.”

One final comment.  Because you might worry that all this means “you have to suffer to be good” – that popular form of spiritual sado-masochism that feels good by feeling bad all the time, where true happiness is supposed to be achieved by being truly miserable … You don’t. Instead, it’s a question of resisting the bad by walking alongside those who suffer, as God/Christ did/does.

That is why God is not that aloof being, carelessly creating the world of child cancer and hunger that Fry describes in his distress. But rather, a being who has given us a world where we are free to do as we please – for good or ill – and who suffers as we do, but also shows us ways to alleviate this, and gives us the intelligence and the grace to do it.  To give freedom to beings you’ve created, knowing it could all go horribly wrong – or that some of the problems they’ll encounter, they simply won’t be able to solve (yet), is love of a deep and parental kind. Blaming a deity for human problems that humans haven’t yet solved, seems to be missing the point.

And so does the flipside of Fry’s comment, which suggests a desire for Utopia.  If we expect both human freedom and worldly perfection to exist at one and the same time, then we are asking to be deceived.  Pick one …

– WDG.

Related articles on celebrity/religion:

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What’s Bred in the Bone

Why Symbols and Richness of Imagery Matter

This passage is from Canadian author Robertson Davies’ novel, “What’s Bred in the Bone”. It describes why science (however wonderful all its discoveries) has a good deal to learn from all the symbols and images of religion (however religious or not one may be). These images enrich the human experience of the world; they are essential to wonder; they are essential to discovery.

“Well, science is the theology of our time, and like the old theology it’s a muddle of conflicting assertions. What gripes my gut is that it has such a miserable vocabulary and such a pallid pack of images to offer to us – to the humble laity – for our edification and our faith. The old priest in his black robe gave us things that seemed to have concrete existence; you prayed to the Mother of God and somebody had given you an image that looked just right for the Mother of God.

The new priest in his whitish lab-coat gives you nothing at all except a constantly changing vocabulary which he – because he usually doesn’t know any Greek – can’t pronounce, and you are expected to trust him implicitly because he knows what you are too dumb to comprehend. It’s the most overweening, pompous priesthood mankind has ever endured in all its recorded history, and its lack of symbol and metaphor and its zeal for abstraction drive mankind to a barren land of starved imagination.

But you, Maria, speak the old language that strikes upon the heart. You talk about the Recording Angel and you talk about his lesser angels, and we both know exactly what you mean. You give comprehensible and attractive names to psychological facts, and God – another effectively named psychological fact- bless you for it.”

Robertson Davies was a UCC man who taught at Trinity and was a parishioner of the Church of St Mary Magdalene. All his books are about Torontonian culture in all its glory. He spoke in a sort of Victorian RP and wore a Jehovah-like beard his whole life. Here is a video of him:

A deeply-dipped hat tip to Dr Michael Bonner, who suggested this text, and this author.

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Stage Twelve: Return with the Elixir

RETURN WITH THE ELIXIR: The hero comes back to his ordinary world, having survived all ordeals and lived through death, but his adventure would be meaningless unless he brought back the elixir, or treasure, or some lesson from the special world. Sometimes it’s just knowledge or experience, but unless he comes back with something, he’s doomed to repeat the adventure until he does. If he does learn something, his new life will be one forever different because of the road just travelled. True heroes will bring back something that they share with others, or with a power to heal (body, mind or soul).

This is the part the French call the dénouement (un-knotting, un-tying). A story or myth or life is like a weaving in which the lives of characters and people are interwoven into a coherent pattern. Where there is conflict, there’s a knot. It’s desirable usually to release the tension and resolve conflicts by untying these. Hollywood films have a ‘happy ending’. British, European, Australian & New Zealand films are more open-ended/realistic, with unanswered questions and ambiguity.

Bilbo

Bilbo

When the young knight, Percival, brings the Holy Grail back to his ailing King, Arthur, the King revives and rides out with his knights again. They are so filled with new life that flowers burst into bloom at their passing. Thanks to Percival, they have become a living Elixir, whose mere presence renews nature. Dorothy’s return in The Wizard of Oz shows her having learnt every lesson on the road, and finally happy in her own skin, feeling at home no matter where she is. That is her Elixir – the new idea of ‘home’ and how she sees herself.

In Casablanca (1942), Humphrey Bogart’s character, Rick Blaine, makes a difficult Resurrection sacrifice, by giving up the chance to be with the woman he loves, and in doing so, puts his life in danger from the Nazis, whom he hates. His reward – the Elixir he brings away from the experience – is his new alliance with French governor, Louie. They will be unstoppable. Or, as Rick puts it, in one of the most famous lines in film history, “Louie, I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship.”

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Stage Eleven: Resurrection

THE RESURRECTION: The hero emerges from the special world, transformed by his experience. “What can I do, old man? I’m dead, aren’t I?”[11] This is the climax, the last and most dangerous meeting with Death in any myth. We as humans or heroes have to undergo a final purge, a final purification, before re-entering the Ordinary World. Think about this …

We shuffle back towards the village. Look! The smoke of the Home Tribe fires! Pick up the pace, we’re almost back – huzzah! But wait – the priest appears to stop us from charging back in. You have been to the land of Death, he says, and you look like Death itself, covered in blood, carrying the torn flesh and hide of your game from the hunt. If you march back into the village without purifying and cleansing yourselves, you may bring death back with you. You must undergo one final sacrifice before rejoining the tribe. Your warrior self – the adventuring hero in you – must ‘die’ so you can be reborn as an innocent into the group. The trick is to keep the wisdom of the Ordeal, while getting rid of its bad effects. After all we’ve been through on the quest, we must face a final trial – maybe the hardest.

Look at an example from real life. The lack of public ceremonies and counselling for returning soldiers from World War I and the Vietnam War veterans may have contributed to the terrible problems those soldiers had in reintegrating with society. So-called primitive societies, or those who keep cultural and religious ceremonies alive, seem better prepared to handle the return of heroes. They provide rituals to purge the blood and death from hunters and warriors – and their everyday equivalents – so they can become peaceful members of society again.

“Sacrifice” comes from the Latin, “making holy”. Sacred architecture is often used to create this feeling of Resurrection, confining worshippers in a narrow dark hall, before bringing them out into an open, well-lit area, which brings relief. Baptism, for example, by immersion or touching in water, is a ritual designed to give this feeling, both cleansing the sinner and reviving him from symbolic death by drowning.

In terms of myths relating to school life, if the Ordeal stage is your ‘mock’ exams, then the Resurrection is your end-of-year, all-important final exams. You are tested to see if you retained the learning from the Ordeal. It is often a race against time in the final weeks, to make sure everything is remembered. In fiction, look at James Bond – in Goldfinger, 007 battles the villains and races against time and impossible odds to disarm an atomic bomb, with millions of lives at stake. Watching this, we are taken with him right to brink of death one last time before Bond (or his ally, Felix Leiter), manages to yank the right wire and save us all from destruction. In Western films, it is often a shootout, or showdown. In the most powerful stories, this is the moment when all three major conflicts – inside the main character, with another person, and with the whole word – all come to a point at once, and the hero must beat them.

If successful, hero and audience should experience catharsis. This is the Greek word for ‘purging’ (or ‘vomiting up’) but has come to mean a purifying emotional release or breakthrough. In drama, stories and in real life, this allows us to purge the poisons of daily life from our bodies, minds and souls. Laughter, tears, shrieks of joy and shudders of terror, in response to seeing a moving story, are the triggers that bring about this healthy cleansing, catharsis.

In Star Wars, selfish loner Han Solo turns his back on his friends but shows up at the last minute (like the cavalry in a Western), showing that he has finally changed and is now willing to risk his life for a good cause. Luke Skywalker himself sacrifices part of himself – reliance on machines – when hearing Kenobi’s voice in his head to “use the force, Luke.” He learns, for a final time and to spectacular effect, to trust his human instinct instead of machinery. In Terminator 2, once the shapeshifting villain has been destroyed, the story then takes a higher emotional climax when the hero robot (Arnold Schwarzenegger) must sacrifice himself to keep from causing future violence in the world, and to save the young boy. In Charles Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities, a man gives his life on the guillotine to save another man. The Wizard of Oz’s Dorothy learns to look for her heart’s desire in her own back yard – there’s no place like home … which is where we go next.

[11] From The Third Man, by Graham Greene.

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Stage Ten: The Road Back

THE ROAD BACK: The hero’s not out of the woods yet. Some of the best chase scenes come at this point, as the hero is pursued by the vengeful forces from whom he has stolen the elixir or the treasure (e.g. Indiana Jones). These are the final efforts of the world, and of your mind, to stop you achieving what you what to achieve. The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune[9] having a final fling at you.

It is time to wake up, shake off the effects of the feast and celebration, and remember why you embarked on the journey in the first place. People back home are starving and it’s urgent, having recovered from our ordeal, to load up and ship out, taking the food and treasure back home. Besides, there’s no telling what danger still lurks on the edge of the hunting ground. “Easy is the descent to the Lower World; but, to retrace your steps and to escape to the upper air – this is the task, this the toil.”[10]

Dorothy, in The Wizard of Oz, is about to board a hot-air balloon that the wizard has built here, to take her home. But her dog, Toto, sees a cat and dart off into the crowd; Dorothy follows and the balloon wobbles off without her, taking only the wizard (who came to the special world that way). Many heroes have tried to return using such familiar means – old crutches and things on which they used to depend. But the journey has changed them.

Guided by her instincts (represented by an animal, the dog), Dorothy knows deep down that this is not the way for her. Yet she is ready to take The Road Back, and keeps looking for the proper branch of the path. She finds it in saying “There’s no place like home” and in using what she has gained – her knowledge and the ruby slippers – to get back to her world, so all can benefit.

Questions to consider:

  • What is The Road Back in a story you know?
  • What have you personally learnt or gained from confronting death, defeat or danger?
  • Did you feel heroic?
  • How can you use your knowledge, feelings and experience to help yourself and others who have not been on such a journey?

[9] Shakespeare, Hamlet, Act III: Scene 1.

[10] The Sibyl to Aeneas in The Aeneid.

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Stage Nine: The Reward

REWARD: THE HERO SEIZES THE SWORD: Having survived death, beaten the dragon, slain the Minotaur, the hero now takes possession of the treasure he’s come seeking. Sometimes the “sword” is knowledge and experience that leads to greater understanding and a reconciliation with hostile forces. The hero may also be reconciled with a woman. Women in these stories (or men if the hero is female) tend to be “shape-shifters.” They seem to change in form or age, reflecting the confusing and constantly changing aspects of the opposite sex as seen from the hero’s point of view.

When hunters have survived death and brought down their game, it’s natural to want to celebrate. Energy has been exhausted and needs to be replenished. Heroes may have a party, or barbecue the spoils of victory. The heroes of the Odyssey always offered a sacrifice and had a meal, to give thanks and celebrate after surviving an ordeal at sea. There are often campfire scenes at this point, or singing, or dancing – the romantic waltz in Beauty and the Beast is the Beast’s Reward for having survived an ordeal with the townspeople and Belle’s Reward for having seen past the Beast’s monstrous appearance.

Whatever he or she does, the hero must at this point take possession of whatever he came seeking. Treasure hunters take the gold, spies snatch the secret, pirates plunder the captured ship, an uncertain hero seizes her self-respect, a slave seizes control of his own destiny. The hero has risked death or sacrificed life, and now gets something in exchange.

The Norse god Odin (or Woden in English, after whom we name our day Wednesday), in his Ordeal, gave up an eye and hangs on the World-Tree for nine days and nights. His Reward was the knowledge of all things and the ability to read the sacred runes. James Bond, in From Russia with Love, takes the Lector – a Sovie translating device, back to British Intelligence, having risked his life. King Kong, who had been young Fay’s abductor, turns into being her protector during the Approach stage (characters change) – so that, by the time he battles to the death with a giant serpent to protect her, he has become a hero, and can take possession of his Reward. Like any good hero, he gets the girl … A reward of any kind – love, money, knowledge, prestige or anything – is called a boon. After getting it, heroes must turn back to completing their quest – the danger is not yet quite over.

HP ...

HP …

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Stage Eight: The Supreme Ordeal

THE SUPREME ORDEAL: The hero endures the supreme ordeal. This is the moment at which the hero touches rock bottom. He faces the possibility of death, brought to brink in a fight with a mythical beast, alien or spirit. The secret? Heroes must ‘die’ so that they can be reborn.

  • Star Wars: Blowing up the Death Star.
  • Lord of the Rings: Mount Doom.
  • The Wizard of Oz: Defeating the Wicked Witch.

This is a critical moment in any story, an ordeal in which the hero appears to die and is born again. It’s a major source of the magic of the hero myth. What happens is that the audience has been led to identify with the hero. We are encouraged to experience the brink-of-death feeling with the hero. We are temporarily depressed, then we are revived by the hero’s return from death. You’re never more alive than when you think you’re going to die.

A witness is important: someone nearby who sees the hero appear to die, momentarily mourns the death and is elated when the hero is revived. In a ‘lesser’ ordeal scene (there can be several), the robot droids R2D2 and C3PO are listening by intercom to the progress of Skywalker & co. The droids are horrified to hear what sounds like the heroes being crushed to death in a giant rubbish compactor, deep in the inmost cave of the Death Star ship – the belly of the whale …

These witnesses echo what we as readers / listeners / viewers feel. It’s not that we enjoy seeing heroes killed, it’s that we all relish a little taste of death every now and then. Its bitter flavour makes life taste sweeter. Anyone who has survived a near-death experience, a sudden close shave in a car or plane, knows that for a while afterward, colours seem sharper, family and friends more important, time more precious. The nearness of death makes life more real.

When Luke Skywalker seems to have been eaten by the monster, we feel pain – only to see him resurrected and alive. The same when he switches off his ship’s computer and guides in the missile on instinct – he has thrown himself into a new way of being, and is dead to the old way. But this Death is only a metaphor for the hero’s fears, his ‘Shadow’. This is the only thing any of us need fear – and a hero overcomes it. Once that part of you ‘dies’, you are dead to the old, limited vision of things and reborn as something new.

Greek hero Perseus’ approach to the monster Medusa goes past statues of heroes turned to stone by her glance. Theseus’ labrynth is littered with the bones of those who were eaten or couldn’t get out. Heroes survive because they have sought supernatural aid at an earlier stage; they cheat death. Perseus uses a mirror; Theseus a line of thread. The ‘cavalry’, planted earlier in the story, may now come to help the hero …

Questions to consider:

  • What is the Ordeal in a story you know?
  • In what way is the villain or antagonist the hero’s “Shadow”?
  • What is your greatest fear? Will you overcome it?
St George and the Dragon

St George and the Dragon