True to form, I haven’t done as much reading as I’d planned relating to my recent
interest in religion
I have, however, read both The God Delusion
by Richard Dawkins and The Problem of Pain
, which is by C.S. Lewis. Each was fascinating.
I had suspected Dawkins to be all bluster and boorishness. That seems to be the received wisdom amongst (many) believers and sceptics alike. It is also tempting to say that he is as mired in his own faith as anyone is in theirs. I don’t think that either of those is a fair assessment.
Sure, it came as a bit of a jolt - after reading through pages of clinical, empirical analysis - when he suddenly stated that extra-terrestrial life is likely. He is absurdly unconvincing when he compares the relative impacts of religion and atheism on human happiness. But I find him innocent on the charge of being humourless or hopelessly dogmatic.
Someone better versed in these matters would doubtless make a better fist of critiquing him, but I found the book highly stimulating and engaging. Moreover, the search for truth is not NECESSARILY best served by only listening to moderates (Dawkins would probably describe himself as one though), just as the search for truth in a court of law may be best served by opposing, partial advocates. I don’t agree with everything Ayn Rand had to say, but she sure gets the old cogs whirring. I suggest anyone remotely interested in this stuff at least dips into Dawkins.The Problem of Pain
considers a specific issue of monumental importance – the difficulty of reconciling suffering with the existence of a benevolent and omnipotent God. What follows is not a comprehensive analysis of C.S. Lewis’s tome – I commend it to you in its entirety – but rather represents my personal response to it.
It is a highly intelligent work, all the more powerful for being superbly well written but also full of self-deprecation. Lewis freely admits that he doesn’t have all the answers. It strikes me as a pre-requisite of any remotely convincing theological work that the author(s) should take that position. (I suppose this prompts the question ‘Do you apply that test to the Bible?’. The answer is ‘Yes’.)
Lewis makes a persuasive case that God’s plans for us need not make complete sense to us for them to be right. He is surely correct to say that true love makes demands, for those who truly love us can never be indifferent to our transgressions. And perhaps some of the things we have to endure here on Earth could make sense if there is an afterlife.
I also quite agree with anyone who says that a life without challenges, struggle and disappointments would be no life at all. I am grateful for many of those that I have faced; I can conceive of reaching a stage where one day I will be grateful for all of them.
But here’s the thing: that’s me. I cannot even begin to defend some of the things that have happened, are happening and will happen to other people. (Some of which, I have to accept, could happen to me and my loved ones.)
It’s not obscene to say that good can come out of the most appalling events. Great crises enable people to show their mettle. Tragedy draws people together. Horrific events provide an opportunity for bravery. They can illuminate the existence of love.
The other night I was involved in a comedy show in Oxford to raise money for Darfur. It was a hugely enjoyable night. The standard was very high, and we raised a lot of money for an excellent cause, getting supplies to that bedevilled – I nearly wrote ‘godforsaken’ – region.
I joked in my act about how spending ten minutes making people laugh was a massive and noble sacrifice. Of course it was nothing of the sort. Other people had worked a lot harder getting the show together, and they would be the first to admit that their own efforts pale in comparison to those of people who risk their lives to help others. Nonetheless, I think we were right to feel pleased with ourselves and a little proud. Others can feel prouder still. And we can all take comfort from a renewed faith in humanity.
But consider this. Had any of us at the comedy earnestly said that we were glad for the crisis in Darfur because it had given us a chance to put on a show, that remark would have been universally held to be spectacularly distasteful. Even as a joke it might well have gone down badly.
I think this applies across the board. People who have the courage to spend time helping people in war-torn countries often gain a great deal. But would you think better of them if they told you that they wouldn’t swap those experiences for peace?
We are, of course, imperfect beings - both morally and in terms of our intelligence. It makes sense to me that we should face privations and obstacles. It does not make sense to me that God – if He is all-powerful – has to make so many (or even just one) of us suffer so massively in order to afford us an opportunity to do good, or show our love for Him.
Conquering a phobia is a proportionate challenge. Facing down a rival on a tennis court is a proportionate challenge. Much stiffer challenges than that can be justified. Learning that your family has been wiped out in a car accident is not. Being sent to a concentration camp is not. Enduring a punishing disability – or watching your child do so – is not.
Here a religious fellow may counter that suffering is a result of Man, and that attaching any real meaning to the concept of Free Will necessitates the possibility of evil actions.
That doesn’t explain why God has to allow people to go mad. It doesn’t explain why He has to allow men to be so astonishingly cruel. The kind of unpleasant things that mankind gets up to are well documented, but let’s briefly remind ourselves that they include murder, rape, bullying, assault, fraud, theft, warmongering and derivative comedy. Why would God allow us to be THAT venal, and why would He fashion us so that we could choose to be?
(Free Will and the concurrent existence of a God as He is typically described trouble me for logical reasons. If we truly have Free Will, then surely God cannot determine what we choose to do. But of course if He is omnipotent, then He can. Arguably He could choose to suspend that power. Yet how do we make sense of His supposedly flawless ability to predict what we will do? It’s one thing to be very predictable. But doesn’t being UTTERLY predictable mean that we are not ultimately in control? I haven’t made my mind up about this.)
Man’s cruelty is finite, however. No matter how cavalier we may be about our impact on global warming, I’m unaware of scientific evidence that shows that tsunamis and earthquakes are man-made. I continue (ironically?) to call them acts of God. You can’t inject the condition of muscular dystrophy into someone. Blaming such events on the Fall of Man or explaining that God gave us dominion over the Earth (whatever that means) doesn’t cut it. I agree that even a baby is imperfect. I will not accept – morally or logically – that it is just to make her perish in a disaster for her sin or future sin, or for the sins of others.
It may be risky business to ascribe human characteristics to God. But if He once took corporeal form it seems all the more reasonable to say that causing chaos and unhappiness in order to give us the chance to show our love for each other – and for Him – looks like the actions of an appalling maniac.
Can everything be made right in Heaven? I don’t think so. First of all, if everyone sits around in a state of beatific calm, that sounds pretty boring and meaningless. If such a life doesn’t lack meaning, that begs the question why we don’t simply have such a life here on Earth. Secondly, one of the few things that I never doubt is that this life has meaning and importance. It is not merely a waiting room for somewhere else. What happens here counts. We cannot, then, be expected not to care passionately.
I’m stumbling along in my quest for spiritual enlightenment, and I find it of very limited use to identify myself as an anything (I’m happy to call myself a conservative and a stand-up comedian and a Greeves, and that’s about it.) But at this moment in time, I do not have faith in an all-loving, all-powerful God.