October 2015

On suffering and God: a response to Stephen Fry

A “burgeoning interest” in cosmology provides Good Samaritan Sister Patty Fawkner with a different ‘take’ on suffering and evil as well as new insights into the mystery of God and our place in the universe.

BY Patty Fawkner SGS

British comedian, actor and writer Stephen Fry has a great intellect – no doubt. His intelligence, wit and extraordinary life were clearly displayed during an interview broadcast recently on the ABC’s Compass program.

When asked what he would say to God if he happened to get to the pearly gates, Fry, a declared atheist, didn’t miss a beat. “I’ll say, ‘Bone cancer in children? What’s that about? How dare you? How dare you create a world in which there is such misery that is not our fault’.”

He continued, “Why should I respect a capricious, mean-minded, stupid God who creates a world which is so full of injustice and pain?”

Like many others, Fry’s atheism and outrage is built on the edifice of theodicy – the problem of evil. How can an almighty and all-powerful God allow bad things to happen to good people? The question is as old as humanity and any satisfactory answer, given the scale of evil and suffering in our world, proves to be implacably inadequate and elusive.

It doesn’t provide me with neat answers – far from it. But a burgeoning interest in cosmology, the study of the origin and evolution of the universe, does give me a different ‘take’ on suffering and evil as well as new insights into the mystery of God and our place in the universe.

For some time now a fresh wave of scholars have been exploring the relationship between religion and science. Authors such as Thomas Berry, Brian Swimme, Elizabeth Johnson, Sally McFague, Judy Cannato, John F. Haught, Ilia Delio and Australia’s own Denis Edwards are plumbing the mystery of God with insights from the story of the universe. I find their writing thrilling and evocative, mind-stretching and heart-warming.

These writers take seriously Thomas Aquinas’ 700-year-old warning that “If we get creation wrong we get God wrong”.

We know that we have got many things wrong about creation. The world wasn’t created in seven days, the sun doesn’t rotate around the earth and the first humans didn’t live in a Middle Eastern paradise.

Elizabeth Johnson says that medieval cosmology, influenced by a literal reading of the book of Genesis, saw the world as static and unchanging, hierarchically ordered and centred on humanity.

In later centuries Isaac Newton and his Enlightenment colleagues believed that universal laws of motion governed the universe resulting in a ‘neat ‘n nice’ universe that was determinate and explicable.

Following on from Charles Darwin and Albert Einstein, and informed by the Hubble telescope’s wondrous exploration of the far reaches of the universe, contemporary science, Johnson says, sees a very different world, one that is “surprisingly dynamic, organic, self-organising, indeterminate, chancy, boundless and open to the mystery of reality”.

Scientists now tell us that the universe first came into existence with an initial cosmic inflation or ‘Big Bang’ about 13.7 billion years ago. It has been expanding and dynamically evolving ever since. Life on earth in the form of simple single cell organisms began about 3.7 billion years ago and modern humans emerged, not from Eden, but from an African savannah about 180,000 years ago – in cosmic terms a relatively recent event.

Death and destruction have been there from the beginning, forging increasing creativity and greater complexity. All the elements in our world, including the iron in our blood and the calcium in our bones, were created in violent stellar nuclear explosions. All life has come about because of the death of a star.

Death and suffering is intrinsic to life and evolution. Mammals – hence we humans – were able to flourish mainly because of the mass extinction of the dinosaurs in all likelihood caused by a huge asteroid hitting planet earth about 65 million years ago. Evolution only proceeds through death and suffering. Without death there is no new life.

The theology of many people of faith has not kept pace with their cosmology. With a medieval mindset, God is seen as the divine clock-maker, mechanically winding up the creation clock at the dawn of time, and then, job complete, withdrawing to contemplate his (sic) creation.

Such a God then intervenes arbitrarily and miraculously by causing earthquake here, flood there, disease elsewhere. This God could also, of course, send along a fine day for the parish picnic for which believers had earnestly prayed!

This is stereotyping to be sure. But the belief in a disengaged, capricious God dispensing blessings and curses upon humanity, a God who fails to respect the laws of nature, lingers in the human psyche. As does the belief that God sends suffering to test us or punish us.

Stephen Fry’s God is not the God revealed to us by Jesus Christ. Jesus’ God is an intimate, compassionate, forgiving and affectionately caring God who dreams of “fullness of life” for all (John 10:10), especially the lost, the least and the last.

Jesus embraces and heals those bewildered by suffering – the poor and disempowered, the abandoned and misjudged, the grief-stricken and broken. When we see how Jesus loves, we see how God loves.

Interestingly, Jesus neither explains nor makes sense of suffering; but neither does he shirk it. “In the cross of Jesus,” Denis Edwards says, “God enters into, and embraces, the suffering of a suffering world.”

Communion with God did not protect Jesus from suffering. He enters fully into the fragility of human experience so that something new may be born. The pattern of Jesus’ life, death and resurrection repeats the ancient pattern of cosmic life. Death is not the end but a transformative process giving way to new life. Just as the star dies giving birth to new, more complex and beautiful life, so Jesus becomes human, dies and is raised.

“In the resurrection of the crucified one,” Edwards says, “Christians see an unbreakable promise of God that God will bring the whole creation to new life.” God in Jesus, and so too in us, says spiritual writer, Iain Matthew, “can turn the pain, where there has to be pain, from death-throes into the pangs of birth”. “God will wipe away every tear. There will be no more death or sorrow or crying or pain” (Revelation 21:4).

Jesus never trivialises suffering, nor should we his followers. In attempts to offer comfort, we hear familiar platitudes: this trial is God’s will; this suffering will make you stronger; God tests those God loves; God never sends us more than we can bear. Or we are encouraged to ‘offer it up’ in the hope of a heavenly reward.

Even when we acknowledge that pain and death are givens in the process of evolutionary life, we are still confounded by the question: why does God create in this way? Denis Edwards tells us that “theology does not have any kind of full, rational answer as to why God created in an evolutionary and emergent way. Our question stands before a God of incomprehensible mystery”.

I cannot plumb the mystery of God nor the mystery of evil and suffering. Yes, I believe that God is incomprehensible mystery, but God is Gracious Mystery.

I am comforted by contemporary cosmology which tells me that dynamic energy is the heartbeat of the universe, and I am reassured by my Christian faith which tells me that this energy is divine and it is love.

God is love. God creates the universe out of love and God lovingly gives God’s very self to this creation in Jesus. “If God’s gaze holds the world in being,” Iain Matthew assures us, “it holds it all in being, including its pain”.

Why do bad things happen to good people? It is not because of a whimsical, manipulative, yet disengaged God, nor is it, as we are tempted to think, in punishment for our own or others’ misdeeds.

God does not cause suffering. It is woven into the very being of the cosmos. The real question is not why the suffering, but where is God in the suffering. A loving God does not, could not, desire our suffering. Rather, says Jürgen Moltmann, in accord with many contemporary theologians, God suffers with us.

Stephen Fry is right to reject his “capricious, mean-minded, stupid God” who creates a world replete with so much heartache, injustice and excruciating pain. I also reject this God, for this God does not exist.

Patty Fawkner

Sister Patty Fawkner is a former Congregational Leader of the Sisters of the Good Samaritan. She is an adult educator, writer and facilitator with formal tertiary qualifications in arts, education, theology and spirituality. Patty is interested in exploring what wisdom the Christian tradition has for contemporary issues. She has an abiding interest in questions of justice and spirituality.

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