Word on Fire
... imagine that someone who had never heard of Tolkien's rich and multi-layered story came, by chance, upon that single paragraph. Would it not be the height of arrogance and presumption for that person to declare that those words made not a lick of sense?
As you may know, Fry is, like his British counterparts Christopher Hitchens and Richard Dawkins, a fairly ferocious atheist, who has made a name for himself in recent years as a very public debunker of all things religious. In the video in question, he articulates precisely what he would say to God if, upon arriving at the pearly gates, he discovered that he was mistaken in his atheism. Fry says that he would ask God why he made a universe in which children get bone cancer, a universe in which human beings suffer horrifically and without justification. If such a monstrous, self-absorbed, and stupid God exists, Fry insists, he would decidedly not want to spend eternity with him. Now there is much more to Fry's rant--it goes on for several minutes--but you get the drift.
To those who feel that Stephen Fry has delivered a devastating blow to religious belief, let me say simply this: this objection is nothing new to Christians. St. Paul, Origen, Augustine, C.S. Lewis, G.K. Chesterton and many, many other Christian theologians up and down the centuries have dealt with it. In fact, one of the pithiest expressions of the problem was formulated by St. Thomas Aquinas in the thirteenth century. The great Catholic philosopher argued that if one of two contraries be infinite, the other would be altogether destroyed. Yet God is called infinitely good. Therefore, if God exists, there should be no evil. But there is evil. Thus it certainly seems to follow that God does not exist. Thomas thereby conveys all of the power of Fry's observations without the histrionics. And of course, all of this subtle theological wrestling with the problem of suffering is grounded, finally, in the most devastating rant ever uttered against God, a rant found not in an essay of some disgruntled atheist philosopher but rather in the pages of the Bible. I'm talking about the book of Job.
According to the familiar story, Job is an innocent man, but he is nevertheless compelled to endure every type of suffering. In one fell swoop, he loses his wealth, his livelihood, his family, and his health. A group of friends console him and then attempt to offer theological explanations for his pain. But Job dismisses them all and, with all the fury of Stephen Fry, calls out God, summoning him, as it were, into the dock to explain himself. Out of the desert whirlwind God then speaks--and it is the longest speech by God in the Scriptures: "Where were you when I laid the foundations of the earth? Tell me, if you know....Who shut within doors the sea...when I made the clouds its garment and thick darkness its swaddling bands? Have you ever in your lifetime commanded the morning and shown the dawn its place" (Job 38:4, 8-10)? God goes on, taking Job on a lengthy tour of the mysteries, conundrums, and wonders of the universe, introducing him to ever wider contexts, situating his suffering within frameworks of meaning that he had never before considered. In light of God's speech, I would first suggest to Stephen Fry that the true God is the providential Lord of all of space and all of time.
Secondly, I would observe that none of us can see more than a tiny swatch of that immense canvas on which God works. And therefore I would urge him to reconsider his confident assertion that the suffering of the world--even the most horrific and seemingly unjustified--is necessarily without meaning. Imagine that one page of Tolkien's Lord of the Rings was torn away and allowed to drift on the wind. Imagine further that that page became, in the course of several months, further ripped and tattered so that only one paragraph of it remained legible. And finally imagine that someone who had never heard of Tolkien's rich and multi-layered story came, by chance, upon that single paragraph. Would it not be the height of arrogance and presumption for that person to declare that those words made not a lick of sense? Would it not be akin to someone, utterly ignorant of higher mathematics, declaring that a complex algebraic formula, coherent in itself but opaque to him, is nothing but gibberish? Given our impossibly narrow point of view, how could any of us ever presume to pronounce on the "meaninglessness" of what happens in the world?
A third basic observation I would make to Mr. Fry is this: once we grant that God exists, we hold to the very real possibility of a life beyond this one. But this implies that no evil in this world, even death itself, is of final significance. Is it terrible that innocent children die of wasting diseases? Well of course. But is it finally and irreversibly terrible? Is it nothing but terrible? By no means! It might in fact be construed as an avenue to something unsurpassably good.
In the last analysis, the best rejoinder to Fry's objection is a distinctively Christian one, for Christians refer to the day on which Jesus was unjustly condemned, abandoned by his friends, brutally scourged, paraded like an animal through the streets, nailed to an instrument of torture and left to die as "Good Friday." To understand that is to have the ultimate answer to Job--and to Stephen Fry.
Bishop Robert Barron is the founder of the global ministry, Word on Fire, and is an Auxiliary Bishop in the Archdiocese of Los Angeles.