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 …
Related articles on celebrity/religion: