Perhaps it’s why he smokes.
Giles Fraser is a good man. I’ve a lot of respect for him. But in the wake of the comments that Stephen Fry made about God being an ‘evil maniac,’ he’s written a piece that I simply cannot agree with. His argument that Fry has set up the wrong kind of God is fair enough, but he then goes on:
For if we are imagining a God whose only power, indeed whose only existence, is love itself 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.
I have to admit it: I’ve become very tired of this argument. Having once found it a rather good rebuttal to those who might ask where God was in Auschwitz (he was there!) I now found it profoundly cruel. What was God doing in the midst of this suffering? What good was it to suffer it with us?
The problem lies in the underlying assumption that Giles Fraser makes. Because God has suffered with us,
even in the midst of absolute horror, [God] has the authority to whisper in my ear that all will be well.
All will be well. Or, as Rob Bell put it, ‘the universe is rigged in your favour.‘ Which means the cigarettes don’t matter much. Because all will be well. And presumably ebola isn’t much more than a little problem, because all will be well. War doesn’t matter because all will be well, and oppression doesn’t matter because all will be well.
Sing loud, slaves, sing your fine gospel songs because your chains are only temporary because all will be well.
This is not religion at its most gracious, Christianity at its most empathetic and powerful. This is the weak and insipid smile of the priest with no more to say to the dying. ‘God is in the midst of this with you and all will be well’ is the panacea, the final abdication.
It is the means by which our pain is explained away by deference to belief in a future time when God will make everything better. When there will be no more dying or pain, when every tear will be wiped from every eye.
It is the route by which our pain becomes sanctified, the path we follow that relies on our death holding some greater, higher meaning.
And yet, oddly, Fraser doesn’t actually believe in this sort of God, the God of omnipotence, of ultimate coherence:
The other problem with Fry’s argument is philosophical. Simply put: there is no such thing as the God he imagines. It is the flying teapot orbiting a distant planet about which nothing can be said. Such a God doesn’t exist. Nilch. Nada. It’s a nonsense. Indeed, as no less an authority than Thomas Aquinas rightly insists, existence itself is a questionable predicate to use of God.
God isn’t about such trivial matters as existing. Instead, Giles wants ‘God’ to be something more elusive than a force that ‘exists’ or has any power:
God is the story of human dreams and fears. God is the shape we try to make of our lives. God is the name of the respect we owe the planet. God is the poetry of our lives. Of course this is real. Frighteningly real. Real enough to live and die for even.
Hold on, if this is what God is, then where is this sort of God in the midst of suffering now? Writing a poem? Dreaming? If ‘God’ is no more than the shape we try to make our lives, is no more than the dreams and fears that we have or the hopes we have for our planet, then this ‘God’ has no power whatsoever to whisper that ‘all will be well.’
To create a theological scaffold that, on the one hand, wants God to be powerful enough to work towards a point of universal reconciliation, but on the other avoids any of the tough questions of being and wants to be a poetic idea, is as cruel as the God Stephen Fry rightly refuses to believe in.
The question of suffering is one that has worked to generate theologies. Christians have worked extraordinarily hard to explain it: God has a plan, this is only temporary, it’ll be for God’s glory… Fraser’s answer is the latest in a long line, but I think his thinking in this article shows that he needs to have the guts to go far further.
The radical move is not to suggest that God suffered with us. The radical move is to say that God died. God is finished. Ended. If Fraser wants one, that is the true horror of the cross: our assurances of a higher power who would make all things well are erased. Gone. To put it in Fraser’s other language: the heart of the crucifixion is that the long-held human dream that our universe has some higher purpose which we are central to needs to die.
We need to wake up from the dream. I won’t any longer accept this story of God being in the midst, of God being in the gas chamber and in the offices of Charlie Hebdo. Far more humanising is the acceptance of the horror of the fact that suffering is ours alone to alleviate. If there are bugs who burrow into the eyes of children, then we must work to lift those children out of the poverty that makes them susceptible to those bugs.
But we cannot expect to live in an Eden. It does not exist. There will be cancer and pain and depression. Fry would be right to rail against an existing God who did so little. But Fraser is wrong to offer comfort on the one hand, and psychological ideas on the other. We need to take tougher, harder, more radical decisions than that.
Our job is not to pat people on the back, tell them not to blame that nasty God, nor pretend that he’s in it with them. Our job is to step into that place ourselves and do what we can to lift one another out of it.
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