I’m with Stephen Fry. He states that he doesn’t believe in a malicious God who gives cancer to children and creates animals that cause blindness. Neither do I. I do not believe in the God Fry characterises. And neither should you.
For me, Stephen Fry is near the top of my ‘dream team dinner guest’ list. He is an award winning, highly lauded, rightly applauded, writer presenter comedian. He has come through crippling depression, and he takes his humanity very seriously – as seen by his involvement in charitable foundations and movements to enhance the Arts. He remains near the top of my dream team dinner guest list, not so I can argue with him about God, but so I can enjoy the company of a great mind.
I am a minister of the Christian Gospel, so I obviously disagree with him over his views on who God might be – which, incidentally, is a philosophically interesting starting point for an atheist.
To be honest, my view of God does not involve a God who needs me to defend him or her. God is not sitting in heaven upset over Stephen Fry’s outburst, wondering what to do about it. That’s my first observation to this whole episode – it was an outburst. An unusual one.
Last year, a beautiful clip of Bear Grylls and Stephen Fry went round the Christian circles on the internet. It showed a much more thoughtful and contemplative Fry – not angry about God, but respectful, intelligent and engaged. Grylls spoke gently about his faith, obviously a highly personal source of strength. Fry engaged softly, and honestly, offering explanation for his own atheism while listening to Grylls explanation for his faith. The mountains and the streams seemed to have a different effect on him than the lights and logistics of an enclosed room with Gay Byrne. There is a bit of me thinks this gentleman had an early start, had eaten something that was upsetting his stomach, was having an off day (all of which happen to most of us regularly), and was, inwardly bemused by what was essentially a silly question: “How will you react if everything you think is wrong and when you die you find yourself in heaven facing God?”
My view of God does not involve a God who needs me to defend him or her.
The question itself presupposes a Platonic misrepresentation of the Christian faith, the presumption being that Christian faith is all about a gateway to the afterlife; a ticket to heaven. This Platonic misrepresentation lowers Christian faith to the ultimate consumer commodity. It demeans the person of Christ. It creates a system of faith concerned only on individualistic end goals. And it foregoes the life of Jesus of Nazareth, concentrating only upon his death.
It demeans the person of Christ by turning Christ into a tiller at a shopping centre. You must have a basket filled with the correct elements, and correct money, to pass through.
It creates a system of individualistic faith by turning questions of corporate family ‘here & now’ existence – into personal questions of ‘then & there’ existence. And it foregoes the life of Jesus of Nazareth (a life which constantly barged against systems of religion that keep people enslaved to power) in favour of an understanding of faith which centres on death – death of Jesus and death of us.
I am surprised Stephen Fry let himself be taken into the question. But he is a polite man; he knows TV. On a side note, another reaction of mine was to immediately picture the producer of the show, a gentleman I have met and whom I like a lot, sitting in the corner watching this conversation unfold and almost salivating, knowing the reaction will be huge. The reaction has been huge. The reputation and ratings for RTE ‘Meaning of Life’ will do the whole Irish TV industry good for a short time. But like all media, it hides more than it reveals – revealing only what is edited – and reduces real matters of life and death to soundbites.
This brings me to my final thought. If the nature of TV necessarily reduces reality, Stephen Fry reduces it more by reducing (in this clip) the existence of God to one argument. The existence of pain and suffering.
Two things. Firstly, as stated above, the argument that God does not exist because God is evil is philosophical nonsense. How can you be evil, if you don’t exist?! But secondly, and a lot more seriously, the question of pain and suffering is real in Scripture. The oldest piece of writing in the Torah is the book of Job. Its content can be shortened to: “Why is this **** happening to me?” The answer? Unhelpfully, “God is God, you are not.”
I am not in a position to, and am not minded to, discuss an explanation for the existence of suffering more than to say, it is part of authentic reality. And for faith to be real, it must be authentic. I am minister of the Christian Church; I have buried the people Stephen Fry mentions. I have seen at close quarters – in hospitals, in morgues, at gravesides. I have no mind to explain it away.
But I am minded to remember the crux of Christian faith is not the death of Christ, it’s the life of Christ. A life born a refugee. A life that touched the untouchable, feasted with the forgotten, and held out hands to the unclean. A life that stood in the midst of the marginalized and was eventually killed for treason and blasphemy. A life laid down in sacrificial love. A life that more than anything else speaks, “I do know; I am not far from you.” This is the life that shows what Scripture wants us to know about God.
Photo: Tadgh Healy