Out of the Frying Pan…

“Why should I respect a capricious, mean-minded, stupid God who creates a world that is so full of injustice and pain?” – Stephen Fry

Comedian, actor and dabbler in theology Stephen Fry has been doing the rounds on social media again, reaching over 5 millions views on YouTube. And he’s angry! Stephen’s angry about something people have been angry about for centuries: theodicy (not to be confused with The Odyssey). Or put more simply, why bad things happen to good people. He criticises what he views as the Judeo-Christian image of “a capricious mean-minded stupid God”. Why do we attribute characteristics to God that would make a human evil, when God is supposed to be the most good of all, as the “all-seeing, all-wise, all-kind, all-benevolent”? This array of ‘omnis’ is just a veil for God’s evil. God is “utterly evil”. Right?

Don’t worry, everyone, I’m not going to attempt to defend the God Stephen Fry describes. Why? Because it’s not the God of Scripture and it’s not the God I believe in. Human suffering does not entail an evil God and more broadly, anthropomorphising God is not just a veil for evil; it actually reveals a key concept about the God of Scripture and history. I also should point out I am not attempting to disprove Stephen Fry’s claims or prove the existence of God. I’m just using his rant as a springboard for my rant.

To be fair to Fry, were he ranting at the time of the Greek philosophers, when God was the divine, immutable, untouchable being of apatheia, I might have more time for him, as there is definitely more potential for that God to fall foul to his criticisms. But when I said people have been angry about this issue for centuries, I more specifically meant, religious people have been angry. And not for centuries, but millennia.

And Fry of all people should know this. Among his many projects is one recording memories of Holocaust survivors, Fry himself being descended from survivors. Throughout the 20th Century and particularly in light of the Holocaust, our theology has been forced to shift in order to reconcile evil and in particular, acute human suffering with a perfect God: where was God at Auschwitz? A famous story told by the survivor Eli Wiesel encapsulates this, in which a Jewish boy is hung by the SS soldiers, an observer crying “Where is God now?” and another responding “There he is, hanging in the gallows”. Conversely, the message from this is not of God’s heartlessness, but as Jürgen Moltmann draws from this story, that God too is the victim, suffering in union with humans. How could God, the active victim of suffering, be a mean-minded, cruel God?

We cannot just directly pluck theological conclusions from the contemporary reality of our world though. The God we believe in is more than a response to the human situation today. The Jewish theologian Heschel recognised in prophetic literature a God directly opposed to the Greek apatheia, which he termed pathos. This term was used to describe God’s concern and involvement in our world and how God engages himself in human history throughout the Hebrew scripture. This is especially true in the brit or covenantal relationship which is not a one-way agreement but a mutual partnership. God suffers on behalf of us and grieves with us. For example, “the Lord would be moved to pity by their groaning” (Judg. 2:18) and God led his people “with cords of human kindness and with bands of love” (Hos. 11:4).

A God of passion and pathos is shown, who is disappointed by his people’s faithlessness, grieves over them; he actively suffers with them in their sufferings. In the Christian tradition, the being of the Godhead is not immune to even the most physical suffering. After all, the core of Christian faith is the cross and the passion.

Fry’s rant is essentially limited in its image of the world, of theism and of God. It is a simplistic and uninspired response to a complex truth of human existence. Let’s turn the question around. When asked of unjust human suffering, theists stand by their belief in God regardless. But what does the atheistic view of the world look like; a world still full of human injustice and pain as Fry points out, yet without God? It’s just that; still full of injustice and pain but without the sympathetic God of Scripture and history, who cares for us, suffers with us and ultimately will redeem us.

So the good news for Fry is that religious people also don’t believe in the God he doesn’t believe in. He says “atheism isn’t just about disbelieving in God, but asking what kind of God”, but it is the Judeo-Christian religious tradition that has been questioning the kind of God we believe in for much longer. In this way, he sets himself within a religious polemic stretching back far before him and all of us. If you want an example of an intense reflection on the question of human suffering, look no further than the Book of Job in which not just an innocent, but an actively morally good person, suffers undeservedly at the hands of God. It doesn’t exactly give a satisfactory answer to the issue but after all, it is only Fry and the new atheists who purport to have all the answers.

Of course I share in Stephen Fry’s anger at the suffering in the world in which we live. It’s also hard to detach our often painful human experience from a philosophy of the world and everything in it. And quite clearly, I’m not attempting to disprove Stephen Fry or atheists (a discussion of Biblical passages wouldn’t exactly convince anyone who doesn’t give two hoots about religion). This is more a theological discussion of the issues Fry’s rant brings to the fore than anything else. I’ll leave the manifesto for theism to the PhilThes among us.

But I still want to point out that I don’t think atheism offers the solution Fry would want. On the contrary, it removes our only redemption from it. So our best response to human suffering is not to deny the existence of God. It is the humanity of God that helps us make sense of a world tainted by our own inhumanity.

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