Discussions with Stephen Law

This is going to be one of those ‘central posts’ where I’ll gather some threads together, principally about the problem of suffering, and the relative merits of atheism and Christian faith.

For those who don’t know, at two of the establishments where I studied Philosophy and Theology I was tutored by Stephen Law, who I found to be a great teacher and a very nice man. He’s also a very intelligent and committed atheist, which gives rise to more or less helpful discussions!

My first post on the problem of suffering here.
Stephen responds here and here.
I respond here.

Stephen takes up Hart’s essay on theodicy here, my explanation of Hart here, and he takes up some of my comments here, here , here and here.
I comment on this blog here.
And I offer a more substantial response here.
When Stephen responds to that I’ll link it in.

Even though I end up being abused rather a lot (eg ‘bullshit artist’!) I find the process helpful and it helps to clarify my own thinking, even if that clarity doesn’t seem to get shared very far.

Meaning, Suffering and Integrity

Returning to the discussion about suffering. This is long (c 3700 words).

We had an interesting reading from Romans in our last Sunday service:

“…but we also rejoice in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope. And hope does not disappoint us, because God has poured out his love into our hearts by the Holy Spirit, whom he has given us.” (Rom 5.3-5, NIV)


What does it mean to believe in God? Specifically, what does it mean for a Christian to believe in God? As I understand it, the essential element is about meaning or purpose – to believe in God is to believe that life is meaningful, is purposeful, and this meaning is by definition independent of personal choice or preference, it is something that stands outside of our desires and it is something to which we need to conform in order to flourish. The Christian claim is that this meaning became manifest in human form in the person of Jesus of Nazareth who taught, was crucified and rose again on the third day two thousand years ago. This is what is meant in the prologue to John’s gospel: the Word became flesh. The logos (meaning, purpose) took human form, lived amongst us, full of grace and truth. Thus, there may be many ways of describing meaning in human life; the Christian claim is that this meaning is explicitly revealed in Jesus yet (if a Christian accepts that all things were made through Christ) we can expect to find meaning outside of the Christian tradition. No genuine human meaning is incompatible with Christianity.


Consider what happens at a church wedding, and specifically the contrast with a state service. At both of them legal vows will be exchanged, yet in the former the language and liturgy of God is foremost; in the latter all references to religion are forbidden. Specifically, in the vows spoken in a church service there is the phrase ‘in the presence of God I make this vow’.

What is being referred to with this language of God is precisely the larger purpose, the larger framework of meaning, within which the vows have their place. There is an acknowledgment of several things: that the desires of the couple are not sovereign; that they are dependent upon God’s grace for the health of their relationship; that the commitment is sacred involving the most profound elements of the personality; that the process is open-ended, may involve drastic change to one or both parties, but that the covenant being made in the sight of God is being set up above whatever individual choices and preferences the parties bring to the agreement.

In other words, a marriage is not just a contract. To say that the marriage is being made ‘in the presence of God’ is to place the relationship in that larger framework of meaning and purpose from which all other meanings and purposes (in a Christian culture) derive their sense. It is about rooting the relationship in a much longer and deeper pattern of life than personal choice and desire.

It is, of course, perfectly possible to have a non-Christian wedding service that partakes of this same character, eg Jewish, Hindu, Buddhist wedding services. What I do not perceive to be possible is to have an explicitly atheist wedding service which partakes of the same sharing in a wider purpose, independent of human choices. The difference I perceive between humourless and sophisticated atheism is that the former doesn’t recognise there to be any problem here; the latter does, and offers alternatives. It is not so much the word ‘God’ itself that matters, it is the acknowledgment of something higher.


How does human suffering fit in with this context of meaning? How does this understanding of the word ‘God’ fit in with “the problem of suffering”? There seem two ways to address this issue, one academic, one more personal.

The academic issue is to point out inconsistencies between supposed attributes of God and the presence of suffering, either as a logical problem (see here) or as an ‘evidentiary’ problem (see here). The greatest problem of these academic approaches is that they mistake the nature of (in particular) Christian faith in God. There are three inter-linked problems:

i) it is a central claim of the tradition that God is ultimately mysterious and not finally knowable. We cannot attain to a position of oversight with respect to God, we are always in an inferior position – that’s part of what the word ‘God’ means – something which is above and beyond our comprehension. Any analysis which seeks to render God’s attributes definable is not engaging with a Christian analysis;

ii) related to this is the axiom that I have mentioned several times before about idolatry. This can be defined in several ways, one of the simplest being ‘God is not a member of a set’ (including the set of things which are not members of a set!). This is a rule of thumb – a grammatical rule – determining how the word God can be used. What it means is that nothing definable in the human realm can be given an absolute meaning. All things are subject to change;

iii) a third implication is that it is blasphemous to try and justify God to humanity – what is technically called theodicy – because the attempt necessarily violates points i) and ii) above, and therefore runs counter to the meaning and purpose that the word God refers to. This doesn’t mean that the problem can’t be considered and clarified further through discussion – it does mean (and this is something that is slowly dawning on me personally) that the faithful not only cannot provide an intellectually satisfactory answer, but that they mustn’t. This is one of the points I take from the Hart article.


One of the problems that I have experienced in discussing this issue is that many theologians explicitly pursue theodicies. The implication of my argument above is that they are faithless. I do not believe it to be an accident that Modern Protestants are over-represented amongst such thinkers.

A Modern Protestant might agree that ‘There is an x such that x is God’. More traditional Christians cry out with Augustine ‘our hearts are restless until they find their rest in thee’.


You can add up the parts
but you won’t have the sum
You can strike up the march,
there is no drum
Every heart, every heart
to love will come
but like a refugee.

Ring the bells that still can ring
Forget your perfect offering
There is a crack, a crack in everything
That’s how the light gets in.

(Leonard Cohen, Anthem)


The more personal problem of suffering relates to what people actually do when they are faced with suffering. When a person’s world crumbles around them because of a particular turn of events is it still possible to claim that life is still meaningful? Does the language about the world having meaning and purpose, apart from our own choices, still make any sort of sense when confronted with life-shattering circumstances? The question could be: when we are in the pit of despair, is there a ladder that can be used to climb up out?

There are at least three options:

i) a nihilist answer: there is no ladder. Life is bleak and meaningless. There is no higher purpose. Get used to it! Stop indulging in lily-livered sentimentalism and self-deceit. The trouble I see with this sort of answer is that it destroys everything that makes humanity distinctively human – there is no longer any human Quality available. There is nothing to build a life around.

ii) an enlightened existentialist answer: make the ladder yourself, out of your own resources. Where I think this line of thought breaks down in this context (it breaks down elsewhere too) is that it is appealing to resources of character and moral strength that may be precisely what have been exhausted by the suffering.

iii) a Christian (or other religious response) which, ultimately, ends up talking about mystery. That which was thought to be God – a stable source of meaning and value – turns out now to be no such thing. Either there is no God (options i) and ii) open up) or else God is not what God was thought to be. In other words the context of suffering is one where we are brought closer to reality and closer to God. For they are the same thing in the end. Option iii) is essentially a declaration of faith.


This was a sermon I gave at the funeral of a teenage girl who had taken her own life:

We have come and gathered in this church today to mourn the death of _____; to lament for a life lost all too soon; to seek some measure of understanding of what has been, and perhaps, some hope for what will be.

In all of the tragedies offered up in our human life, very few are as severe or as painful as the loss sustained by ________’s family. It is a loss which shatters all the foundations on which a family is built up – the bonds of love and trust which hold a family together. As the reading from the book of Lamentations puts it – “In all the world has there been such sorrow?” And this shock and grief is not confined to ________’s own family, for it is something which affects the entire community, all of us gathered here today. For we do share life with each other. We are not separate from each other. We are our brother’s keeper, and our sister’s keeper. And so this wound, which is so overwhelming for _______’s family, is also a wound in our community, our fellowship of neighbours and friends. Where do we go from here?

When someone takes their own life, we who are left behind are confronted with questions. The pain inside demands an answer, and so the mind tortures itself with doubt and worries. Was there something that I could have said differently that might have prevented this? Was there something I could have done that would have eased the pain in _______’s heart? If only I hadn’t done this or said that. This is our natural reaction, it is a reaction of care and concern which demonstrates the love we had for _______. But ultimately, there can be no final answers; there certainly cannot be any final blame. We are confronted, in _______’s taking of her own life, with a deep and a very painful mystery. And all we can ask is ‘why?’ Perhaps most of all, we ask, ‘Why God? Where were you in all this?’ For it seems to me that when we are faced with pain that we do not understand, when we come close to being overwhelmed by it, what is most painful is the meaning of what has happened. We ask the question why. Why God? Why?

In our gospel reading we heard the story of the death of Lazarus, which also gathered a community together in grief. When Jesus comes to Mary and Martha he is too late to prevent Lazarus’ death – Lazarus, whom he loved and befriended. And it wasn’t that Jesus couldn’t get there in time – he chose to delay for a few days. And both Mary and Martha ask him why, saying “Lord, if you had been here, Lazarus wouldn’t have died.” We don’t know why Jesus didn’t come immediately. Just as we don’t know why nothing prevented _______’s death. We do know that Jesus was terribly upset by the death, and by the grief of the community. And in consequence, Jesus acts to raise Lazarus from death, to unbind him from his shroud and release him from his tomb. Lazarus is set free from death – a promise of resurrection that is extended to all who trust in Jesus.

But why couldn’t Jesus just have prevented the death in the first place? Why couldn’t God make a world which doesn’t have suffering in it? Why can’t he tell us how and why it all makes sense – why is it that this world is the sort of place that _______ couldn’t cope with, when she had so much to live for, and there was so much love available for her? I have no easy answer for that question. We live within the world that He has created, where we must wrestle and struggle with this mystery of human pain and suffering. But in the face of that suffering, I do believe that there is the possibility of hope; and that hope is the only answer we can find, which might heal our wounds.

For Christians follow an innocent man who was hung to death on a cross; and a representation of that event hangs above me now. And his cry from the cross was “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” For Jesus also felt abandoned by God, even he couldn’t understand what it was that was happening. And yet on the morning of the third day, he was raised to life again, which is why we still talk about him over 2000 years later. This might seem just to replace one mystery with another, but what has changed is that we can hope. For when we are confronted with pain that we don’t understand, when we feel cheated by life, we still have a choice. We can say that life is meaningless, that it doesn’t make sense, and reject everything that God has given to us. But if we do that, we never move away from the cross. We remain rooted in our pain and we never get to Easter morning. For the alternative is to say, although I don’t, although I can’t understand how this tragedy can make sense, I trust… I trust that God is in charge, that He loves us, and that no one who is truly loved is ever lost. For love is eternal, it is what the world is made of, and it is what the maker of this world is made of.

In the face of the pain of this tragic event, if we can trust in God, if we can hold on to hope, we can trust that one day we will share in that resurrection when, finally, we will understand how and why it all makes sense. On that day we shall be reunited with those we love, and then there will be no more pain, there will be no more grief and sorrow, and God will gently wipe away every tear from our eyes.


I see the personal problem as much the most important and significant question to address. That is why I want to know what (humourless) atheists would say to people in concrete situations. Do they choose option i) or ii) or do they choose different ones? It’s not a trivial request and the discussion will forever share a certain abstract and unreal quality until answers are provided.

“Life can educate one to a belief in God. And experiences too are what bring this about; but I don’t mean visions and other forms of sense experience which show us the ‘existence of this being’, but, eg, sufferings of various sorts. They neither show us God in the way a sense impression shows us an object, nor do they give rise to conjectures about him. Experiences, thoughts, – life can force this concept on us.” (Wittgenstein, 1950)

Why is it that it was the highly educated in Paris who were so shocked by the Lisbon earthquake, whereas those who had experienced the suffering carried on with their prayers? Could it be that for all their intellectual refinement they were not as in touch with reality as the poor Portuguese? It is, after all, part of the logic of belief in God that non-belief is evidence of delusion, of a failure to properly grasp the nature of reality.


Can the ladder be climbed up? Or is it simply delusional to think that life is meaningful?

One of the things that I feel is often missed in discussion with atheists is the necessary connection between ‘God’ and ‘meaning/purpose’. From my perspective you cannot have one without the other – which means that if meaning and purpose are accepted as part and parcel of human life then that necessarily implies a belief in God.

Of course, the word ‘God’ is not the crucial thing here. The attainment of union with that meaning and purpose could be called Nirvana and still be referring to the same thing. The language that has been developed in our culture happens to be drawn from the Jewish and Christian scriptures. The way in which we talk about things that are worthwhile, indeed, what sort of things we count as being worthwhile, are inherited from this Christian context.

What is important is not the words or rituals that are used but the life that is lived. And where the life is lived with hope, integrity and purpose – there is God.

“What can we bring to the Lord?
What kind of offerings should we give him?
Should we bow before God
with offerings of yearling calves?
Should we offer him thousands of rams
and ten thousand rivers of olive oil?
Should we sacrifice our firstborn children
to pay for our sins?

No, O people, the Lord has told you what is good,
and this is what he requires of you:
to do what is right, to love mercy,
and to walk humbly with your God.” (Micah 6.6-8 NLT)


I was profoundly struck by Scott g’s comment (here)”pirsig painted constant attempts to have us resonate with a model of ‘quality,’ both by what it is and what it isn’t, and i would expect you to constantly attempt to paint whatever you need to to have us resonate with ‘god.’ this is the difference between what you do, and what pirsig does. what pirsig does is enlightening, and what you do is frustrating. pirsig wants us to get it. you seem to not want us to get it.”

I think I have been at fault in these discussions. The first fault is one which the interlocutors at Stephen’s site have picked up on, describing me as having a strategy “of obfuscation and smokescreen delivered with an air of intellectual and spiritual superiority.” I am culpable of intellectual arrogance. Specifically: I do believe that no open-minded person with a genuine curiosity about the issues could remain a humourless atheist; I do see it as an intellectual backwater driven more by a polemical agenda than a heartfelt pursuit of truth. Which is why I enjoy engaging with sophisticated atheists so much – they recognise, inter alia, that a) there is more to Christianity than Modern Protestantism; b) that the rhetoric of science doesn’t match up with the reality; c) that the heritage of Christianity is still dominant in Western societies; d) that Christianity and other religions engage in certain humanly essential pursuits which need to be addressed by anything purporting to replace it.

I think I need to repent of some intellectual arrogance, and that repentance needs principally to take the form of listening more attentively to interlocutors. What went wrong with the recent conversation at Stephen Law’s site would seem to be that I lost track of what was actually being asked.

There is a second fault flowing from this, and from the above. I have been engaging in the argument on secular terms and it is becoming more and more clear to me that the framework of the debate is inherently atheistic. That is, it is impossible to explain the word ‘God’ and all that it means whilst accepting a secular frame of reference (and by secular I mean the late Modern Protestant framework that most Philosophy of Religion is pursued within).

Scott correctly identifies the solution: ‘pirsig painted constant attempts to have us resonate with a model of ‘quality,’ both by what it is and what it isn’t, and i would expect you to constantly attempt to paint whatever you need to to have us resonate with ‘god.’

I think this is exactly right. I need to talk positively about what God means – God as understood and explored within the mainstream Christian tradition. God is not a concept to be defined but a reality to be explored. And I have no desire to hide that in a smokescreen.


What I am really thinking about is a discussion of ‘the way’. Protestant cultures have a high reverence for words – it is a legacy of the technological revolution which put the Bible into every household, as the immediate source of authority. Yet words are ultimately useless. Another Wittgenstein reference: ‘it has been impossible for me to say one word in my writings about all that music has meant to me in my life. How then can I hope to be understood?’

I do need to talk about the way – about how meaning and purpose are integrated into a life – about how the presence of suffering not only doesn’t destroy that meaning but is tied up with it, in that the most profound understandings of meaning and purpose come on the far side of the suffering, not before.

And the way is not something reducible to words. It has to be shown in order to make any sense. Which brings us back to where I began – with Jesus. Christianity makes no sense without him, without what he taught, how he lived, how he died and rose again. The way I would want to describe is the way that he walked. It is not a matter of words but of the Word – the logos. The logic which animates Christian life, and which can’t ultimately be wrapped up in neat and tidy definitions. It can only be shown with a life.


An honest religious thinker is like a tightrope walker. He almost looks as though he were walking on nothing but air. His support is the slenderest imaginable. And yet it really is possible to walk on it.

Wittgenstein, 1948

Theodicy meme

To my great pleasure and interest, people are running with the theodicy meme.

These are the answers I’ve found so far:
Velveteen Rabbi (lovely title for a blog)
Jim West
James McGrath (and I should say that clicking through to his site made me see a tremendously significant SPOILER for the next episode of Lost which has made me a trifle upset; I normally postpone reading James until after I’ve seen the relevant episodes!)
Eddie Arthur
Chuck Grantham
Tzvee Zahavy
Duane Smith
Alto Artist
Amber Temple
Mark Woo
Several responses at Sarx

I’ll try and keep tabs on them all and put the links up here.

For my earlier post on the problem of suffering go here.

The meme is being spread around the community of believers (from which I gain reassurance that my perspective is not at all unusual) but criticisms from an atheist angle can be found at Stephen Law’s place. He’s written quite a lot about it (see here).

Reasonable Atheism (19): Four questions on theodicy

In a comment, scott (gray) asked these four questions, which I think could work as a meme…

1. if the nature of god is omnipotent, benevolent, and anthropomorphic (that god is a person, who sees suffering as wrong, and can change all of it), why does god not act to relieve all suffering, or at least the greatest amount of suffering for the greatest amount of people the greatest amount of time?
2. if you were god, and you were omnipotent and benevolent, how would you respond to suffering?
3. if this is not the nature of god, what is the nature of god, that allows suffering in the world?
4. if these are the wrong questions to ask, what are the right ones?

My answers:
1. Put briefly I don’t think that these philosophical categories map naturally onto the Christian God (they are Greek rather than Hebrew?). In particular God does not act arbitrarily (that is, he is consistent) and therefore once he is in the relationship of creator to creation, which allows freedom, he doesn’t overpower that freedom of creation. Hence we have sin which causes suffering (which is a way of saying: Christians interpret suffering as estrangement from God. I think there is a deeply embedded overlap here between the orthodox Christian view and the Buddhist idea that suffering is illusion, but I would want to ponder that more).
2. Well, I’m not God and part of the problem is that God’s will is by definition unfathomable. I’m not sure that a God who was fully explicable in human terms would be worth worshipping. I think this is one of the most crucial areas that lead to incomprehension on the part of atheists, because belief in God requires a certain degree of surrendering judgement and that is so profoundly taboo in Modern understandings that it is barely even mentionable.
3. The nature of God is resurrection after crucifixion. Suffering is overcome and redeemed, not blotted out.
4. I think the question I would want to pursue in the context of a conversation about suffering is: what makes life meaningful in the face of death? Does anything matter? How do we order our lives in such a way that they gain integrity and depth and meaning in the face of what can appear a totally capricious fate? (Nussbaum is really good on outlining the Ancient Greek interpretations of this in The Fragility of Goodness) It seems to me that as soon as a positive answer to these questions is explored either all meaning is self-generated and chosen (which is the specifically Modern conceit) or else we begin to talk about meaning being derived from something apart from our choices. At that point we have entered the realm of religious language and theology.

To turn it into a meme, I tag John, Peter, Paul, Joe and Tom.

Reasonable Atheism (18): Hart, Law and the problem of suffering

I sent a link to David Bentley Hart’s article on the problem of suffering to Stephen Law, which has occasioned some discussion, much of which seems to be incomprehension. I think this is a good example of where there is some talking past each other going on (partly because Hart’s argument is addressed to a Christian audience) so I thought I’d try and summarise what Hart’s argument is. Click ‘full post’ for text.

As I read it, Hart is arguing for the following four points (my emphases in bold):
1. The problems thrown up by these catastrophes are not new problems

“…nothing that occurred that day or in the days that followed told us anything about the nature of finite existence of which we were not already entirely aware.”

2. Atheists don’t understand Christian perspective

“…it is difficult not to be annoyed when a zealous skeptic, eager to be the first to deliver God His long overdue coup de grâce, begins confidently to speak as if believers have never until this moment considered the problem of evil or confronted despair or suffering or death.”
“It would have at least been courteous, one would think, if he had made more than a perfunctory effort to ascertain what religious persons actually do believe before presuming to instruct them on what they cannot believe.”
(On Voltaire’s response to the Lisbon earthquake): “Voltaire’s poem is not a challenge to Christian faith; it inveighs against a variant of the “deist” God, one who has simply ordered the world exactly as it now is, and who balances out all its eventualities in a precise equilibrium between felicity and morality.”

3. It is the fault of Christians themselves that they’re not understood – lots of bad theology

“In truth, though, confronted by such enormous suffering, Christians have less to fear from the piercing dialectic of the village atheist than they do from the earnestness of certain believers … more troubling are the attempts of some Christians to rationalize this catastrophe in ways that, however inadvertently, make that argument all at once seem profound.”
“All three wished to justify the ways of God to man, to affirm God’s benevolence, to see meaning in the seemingly monstrous randomness of nature’s violence, and to find solace in God’s guiding hand. None seemed to worry that others might think him to be making a fine case for a rejection of God, or of faith in divine goodness. Simply said, there is no more liberating knowledge given us by the gospel — and none in which we should find more comfort — than the knowledge that suffering and death, considered in themselves, have no ultimate meaning at all.”
Dostoevsky: “Ivan asks, if you could bring about a universal and final beatitude for all beings by torturing one small child to death, would you think the price acceptable?”
“Voltaire sees only the terrible truth that the actual history of suffering and death is not morally intelligible. Dostoevsky sees — and this bespeaks both his moral genius and his Christian view of reality — that it would be far more terrible if it were.”
“No less metaphysically incoherent — though immeasurably more vile — is the suggestion that God requires suffering and death to reveal certain of his attributes (capricious cruelty, perhaps? morbid indifference? a twisted sense of humor?). It is precisely sin, suffering, and death that blind us to God’s true nature.”
“…consider the price at which that comfort is purchased: it requires us to believe in and love a God whose good ends will be realized not only in spite of — but entirely by way of — every cruelty, every fortuitous misery, every catastrophe, every betrayal, every sin the world has ever known; it requires us to believe in the eternal spiritual necessity of a child dying an agonizing death from diphtheria, of a young mother ravaged by cancer, of tens of thousands of Asians swallowed in an instant by the sea, of millions murdered in death camps and gulags and forced famines. It seems a strange thing to find peace in a universe rendered morally intelligible at the cost of a God rendered morally loathsome.

4. Suffering is evil, a cosmic disorder, which will be put right (ie mended)

“Ours is, after all, a religion of salvation; our faith is in a God who has come to rescue His creation from the absurdity of sin and the emptiness of death, and so we are permitted to hate these things with a perfect hatred. [SN: ie not try to justify them] For while Christ takes the suffering of his creatures up into his own, it is not because he or they had need of suffering, but because he would not abandon his creatures to the grave.”
“As for comfort, when we seek it, I can imagine none greater than the happy knowledge that when I see the death of a child I do not see the face of God, but the face of His enemy. It is not a faith that would necessarily satisfy Ivan Karamazov, but neither is it one that his arguments can defeat: for it has set us free from optimism, and taught us hope instead.”
“We can rejoice that we are saved not through the immanent mechanisms of history and nature, but by grace; that God will not unite all of history’s many strands in one great synthesis, but will judge much of history false and damnable; that He will not simply reveal the sublime logic of fallen nature, but will strike off the fetters in which creation languishes; and that, rather than showing us how the tears of a small girl suffering in the dark were necessary for the building of the Kingdom, He will instead raise her up and wipe away all tears from her eyes — and there shall be no more death, nor sorrow, nor crying, nor any more pain, for the former things will have passed away, and He that sits upon the throne will say, “Behold, I make all things new.”


In sum, Hart is arguing that Christian theology does not seek to explain or justify the existence of suffering in the world in terms of God’s ultimate purpose. Suffering is understood as a disorder, a privation of the good, something which is opposed to God and which can therefore be ‘hated with a perfect hatred’.

Lying behind this article is another perspective that needs to be taken account of in order to understand his argument, about what it means to call God ‘good’. Orthodox Christianity is very careful about what it means to call God ‘good’ because of the ever-present danger of tacitly assuming a place from which to judge God as either good or evil. So when a Christian believer calls God ‘good’ the language does not function in the same way as it would when such a Christian describes another person as good (or evil), and, further, it becomes just as meaningful to describe God as the source of suffering (of ‘weal and woe’ as Isaiah puts it) as it would be to describe God as source of good things when those good things are judged as such in human terms.

This is why possibly the most important sentence in Hart’s article is this comparatively early one: “Simply said, there is no more liberating knowledge given us by the gospel — and none in which we should find more comfort — than the knowledge that suffering and death, considered in themselves, have no ultimate meaning at all.” In other words, the problem of suffering is not as important as we might think it to be, and when Christian theologians treat this problem as something that calls into question the existence of God, they are giving it more importance than it deserves (as a theological question). If this world is all that there is, then the problem of suffering is enhanced – for in the face of suffering and death, how can meaning be established? Yet if – as Christian theology insists – there is more to life than what we can perceive with our immediate material senses, then it is possible to assert that meaning (and therefore the language of faith – Godtalk – theology) persists in the face of suffering.

One way of bringing this out is to return to the question of Voltaire and the response to the earthquake in Lisbon. There was no immediate cessation of belief in God on the part of the residents of Lisbon, rather the opposite. It was only on the cultured sensibilities of Voltaire and his ilk that this event had such an impact; as Hart implies, it was only to theodicy – which, as a form of justifying God to humanity, cannot be orthodox Christianity – that such events were a shock. I do not believe it to be accidental that it is to the increasingly affluent and cultured despisers of faith that such traumas are experienced as shocking. Those who spend their lives more closely engaged with the daily reality and struggle for existence, who are much more acquainted with suffering on a daily basis, are also the ones in whom religious faith is most deeply rooted. (But then, they tend not to be educated in the Western sense, so their views don’t count…)

A bit more bull

I’ve been reflecting on the ‘dialogue’ that was taking place over at Stephen Law’s site, about the problem of suffering and so on. A few things come to mind, the first a quotation that I may well have shared before:

The ‘third rate’ critic attacks the original thinker on the basis of the rhetorical consequences of his thought and defends the status quo against the corrupting effects of the philosopher’s rhetoric. ‘Second rate’ critics defend the same received wisdom by semantic analyses of the thinker which highlight ambiguities and vagueness in his terms and arguments. But ‘first rate’ critics “delight in the originality of those they criticise…; they attack an optimal version of the philosopher’s position”–one in which the holes in the argument have been plugged or politely ignored.

I don’t know who originally wrote it, but it was Matt K who posted it on the MD discussion board about five years ago when I came across it. It has more and more resonance with me as time goes on. (NB I’m thinking in this post primarily of the other commenters, not Stephen himself, who seems more circumspect).

The second thing that strikes me, in a sort of ‘background awareness’ sort of way – that is, I might be wrong but haven’t yet seen any reason to suspect that I am – is that my interlocutors mistake the nature of religious language. I have written elsewhere about there being different sorts of knowledge or belief – compare for example ‘Mrs Jones has committed adultery’ and ‘your wife has committed adultery’ – and the point is the embedded nature of religious beliefs within certain practices and forms of life. In other words, the depth grammar of religious belief is not the same as the depth grammar of, eg, a scientific debate. Scientific or philosophical language is simply not the same sort of thing as religious language. My interlocutors seemed to believe that if they could point out an inconsistency or gap in my thinking, in an abstract sense, then this would be enough for my whole way of life to come crumbling down around my ears. Hence the discussion rather rapidly seemed unreal. There is, here, I suspect, a commitment to an Enlightenment-era model of rational discourse, which gives rationality the primary place in shaping a world view. In my view rationality has very definite uses, but there comes a time when it is redundant in assessing truth.

One aspect of this is something I call John Locke’s ghost – that is, I believe that my interlocutors are haunted by seventeenth century terrors. John Locke advanced the argument that we are morally accountable for our beliefs (see this book), and the context for this was the way in which the peace of Europe had been sundered by (supposedly) religious warfare through the preceding 150 years or so. There is therefore a peculiar static charge associated with accepting ambiguity in a world-view – if you quite happily accept that there is something not fully understood in your belief system then you are fall under a judgement of moral failure – and thus a fear for life and property. I think this is often completely unconscious – it’s been absorbed into general Western culture (especially academic culture) – but it isn’t a perspective that can sustain much rational scrutiny itself. It’s a ghost that could do with a proper burial.

Which leads into the final thing I would want to say – the incomprehension and ridicule of mystery. Mystery seems to be assessed as the complete abdication of rational faculties, rather than their fulfilment (which is how mysticism is understood in the Christian tradition). To bring out this point it’s worth making a comparison with the way that science evolves. No scientific view or theory is perfect; each has flaws and gaps; but these are not seen as things which necessarily overwhelm the system as a whole. What causes the system as a whole to collapse – ie a paradigm shift – is when the framework itself is no longer seen as fruitful for further enquiry. This was one of the points at stake in the Galileo debate – even though a heliocentric model was less accurate than the Ptolemaic one in use at the time, the heliocentric model held out the prospect of being much more fertile, which was why the scientific approach embraced it. The same thing applies to the embrace of a religious faith – here there is the possibility of ‘fruitful lines of enquiry’ which, translated from scientific language into religious language means ‘here I can grow as a person’, ‘this is not sterile for me’, ‘this is food for my soul, not just my intellect’. That doesn’t mean that there are no gaps or mysteries – but religious faith is not unique in that – it means that these particular gaps aren’t overwhelming in the context of everything else in play. More than this – it is precisely the intellectual tradition of religious mysticism that gives a proper understanding of what to do in the face of these gaps.

I think my dominant impression – and it is a sad realisation – is that not only do I feel that my point of view was not understood but that there was no desire to understand it. No sense of a genuine dialogue and interchange of views, no sense that a religious believer might be something other than dishonest, intellectually crippled and emotionally cowering. There was a distinct flavour of ‘real men don’t eat quiche’ in the comment thread – where the religious are by definition the quiche-eaters, as compared to the red blooded atheists who are the brave pioneers into the intellectual wilderness. (This despite the fact that this particular wilderness has now been so well travelled that Tesco has decided to open a new store there). My interlocutors seem content to keep their noses pressed to their well-thumbed critiques and have no desire to engage in an honest exploration of what a religious perspective entails. There seemed very little intellectual curiosity on display (and surely curiosity is linked to courage?).

I’ll finish with one more quotation – again, I suspect I’ve quoted it before, but it is a good one – from Denys Turner, in his ‘how to be an atheist’ essay:

“…since today my purpose is to encourage the atheists to engage in some more cogent and comprehensive levels of denying, I shall limit my comment to saying that thus far they lag well behind even the theologically necessary levels of negation, which is why their atheisms are generally lacking in theological interest… such atheists are, as it were, but theologians in an arrested condition of denial: in the sense in which atheists of this sort say God ‘does not exist’, the atheist has merely arrived at the theological starting-point. Theologians of the classical traditions, an Augustine, a Thomas Aquinas or a Meister Eckhart, simply agree about the disposing of idolatries, and then proceed with the proper business of doing theology.”

A few thoughts about the problem of evil

Something I wrote a few months ago, as the issue is one that I chew over on a regular basis.

As I see it the problem of evil is much more about how to live in the face of suffering, rather than being an intellectual nut to crack. This is the formulation I prefer:

P1: God is omniscient
P2: God is omnipotent
P3: God does not desire suffering
P4: There is suffering
It is incoherent to assert all of P1 – P4.

There are lots of ways in which religious people have responded to the problem, most of which take the form of denying one or more of P1-P4. I have some sympathies with all of those, in other words, I think that all of P1-P4 are complex truths which need to be broken down, and that much of the immediate force of the problem is lessened when they are broken down. But I don’t think that this answers the real force behind the question, which I think is much more direct and relevant than most philosophical questions.

Some time back I took the funeral of a 33 year old man who had died in tragic and unclear circumstances. There was a suggestion that drugs were involved, but there were no clear answers. In talking to the parents, the father talked about how he had built a swimming pool in the garden for his son to play in, but that now his son was dead, “was it worth it?” In other words, the real problem of evil is one about the meaning of the suffering that we experience. In my ministry so far, I’ve discovered that those who can place some sort of interpretation on what they experience are far better able to cope with tragedy than those without some sort of guiding framework; in particular, those who lack any sort of religious faith can be totally overwhelmed by an experience such as this.

I think when any of us are faced with an overwhelming experience of suffering, there is a profound existential choice that is made – and all of the religious and philosophical arguments only come in to play after that choice has been made. The choice is about whether life is meaningful or not, and it is that choice which generates the various resources needed in order to live. In other words, when the problem of evil becomes one that is of vital importance to resolve – because life has just whacked you over the head with something awful – then you are forced into determining your own attitude.

If you resolve that life is meaningful, then you carry on building your life around whatever it is that you value, and you say that those things which you value are sustainable in the face of evidence to the contrary (the suffering, the logical problems etc). And I would say that as soon as you start to talk about those things which you value in this context, you are inescapably resorting to religious language. ‘To believe in God is to see that life has meaning’ (Wittgenstein) [The most coherent case against this is Camus’ in La Peste, even though I don’t think it holds up in the end.]

If, on the other hand, you resolve that life isn’t meaningful then – I would argue – something essential for a good life is taken away, and you are left with suicide in various different forms, some of which don’t immediately lead to a physical death. And religious language is meaningless.

For me, when I am faced with the logical arguments about the problem of evil (much the strongest arguments against the existence of a loving creator) I am content for there to be an irreducible element of mystery about it, and to say that although I can’t answer the problem now to my own intellectual satisfaction, I believe that there is an answer. This is because I see the alternative as unliveable – I could not raise a family, and enjoy that raising, if I didn’t experience it as ‘worth it’, whatever the future might hold for me or for them.

In other words, my answer to the problem is a choice about how I live, not a belief that I hold in my mind.

Sin City

Go, go, go, said the bird: human kind
Cannot bear very much reality

Last week was a heavy week, in all sorts of ways, most of which can’t be discussed here. My response to too much reality is always to seek refuge in something fantastical, either in a film, a graphic novel or in books (fantasy or SF). Hence my love of Neil Gaiman’s Sandman sequence (big post brewing on that particular subject, coming here soon). Fantasy keeps me sane; it takes me out of myself (ec-stasy); it means that I have some fuel in my tank when I need to take up the burdens of reality once again.

Yesterday was my day off, so I indulged myself fully and went to see TWO films – Sin City, and Batman Begins. I might talk about Batman another time (it was excellent – probably the best Batman adaptation) but for now, a few words about Sin City.

For those of you unfamiliar with Frank Miller, he’s primarily a comic book writer/artist who revolutionised the genre with a remarkable reworking of the Batman mythos in his ‘The Dark Knight Returns’, which came out in the mid/late 80’s. Forget the idea that comic books are for adolescents; Miller is very sharp, and very political.

Now ‘Sin City’ is a sequence of graphic novels (that’s the ‘correct’ term for comics-read-by-adults) drawing on some of the staple noir elements – hard-bitten ex-cons, troubled cops, prostitutes with hearts of gold etc – but putting them through a particular stylisation which makes the contrasts incredibly stark, and which Miller sought to have reflected through a very spare visual vocabulary – lots of heavy black blocking, outline drawing of characters, almost no colour. And Robert Rodriguez has faithfully reproduced that style in his film; it was very effective.

I started reading the Sin City graphic novels a few years ago. I don’t enjoy them as much as his Batman work, because the raw material that he is dealing with is uncompromising and very violent. At this point, there may be the question: is this something that a priest should be reading? (or watching?) Isn’t it anti-Christian in some way? (Heavens, if Harry Potter is considered anti-Christian, then Sin City is enough to make such maiden aunts have heart attacks…. These are the people who want to restore the Levitical purity codes.)

This is something I’ve been musing on a bit recently – it came up in a confirmation class last week. So I thought I’d say a few words about why, despite the occasional qualm, I don’t have a great problem with spending time in Sin City.

To my mind, the issue about any work of art, from a Christian point of view, is whether it is orthodox or not. Now I use orthodox here in a particular way. I don’t mean ‘has it signed up to saying “Jesus Christ is my personal Lord and Saviour”?’ I mean ‘is it informed by the resurrection’? Which I take to mean: are there signs of grace, forgiveness, redemption and hope? Or is it a work characterised by the opposite of the resurrection, which is nihilism, which is characterised by the absence of meaning, the denial of hope, the embrace of corruption and the elevation of inhumanity into a model to be emulated? Is death seen as the final evil, or are there ways in which death is overcome?

For it seems to me that the structures of the world, the principalities and powers (Eph 6) to which we must forever be opposed are built upon the contention that death is the final evil which must be resisted. The resurrection is what demolishes those principalities and powers precisely because it says that we do not need to be quite so afraid of death; that there are things which death cannot touch; and that our life and our hope lie in the resistance, not necessarily the overcoming. (That’s what it means to live eschatologically, in the light of the end time.)

Sin City seems to be a world where – to put it no more strongly – orthodoxy is possible. It is a portrait of a corrupt world, where the principalities and powers are overwhemingly present, and where the suffering that follows is rendered starkly. Yet in the face of these powers, there is redemption and love and self-sacrifice, rendered most obviously in the film through the character-arc of the Bruce Willis character, where any Christian will recognise a copy of the original Story.

“An old man dies, a young girl lives. Fair trade.”

Perhaps it’s the imaginative portrayal of reality in fantasy that makes the reality itself tolerable. The fantasy equips the mind with the tools that enable the reality to be digested, rendered meaningful. Is this not the shield of faith (Eph 6.16) with which we can overcome the world? The link between imagination and faith is intimate, and the nurturing of our imaginations is a Christian task. Just ask Walter Brueggemann.

Two final points.

One. If Christians are not to spend time in Sin City, for fear of being corrupted by the violence and debauchery, then they must also close the pages of the Old Testament. Nothing in Sin City is as shocking as, for example, Ezekiel 16.

Two. Sin City is the abode of those whom society has rejected. The sinners, the outcast, the prostitutes. I have no doubt that Jesus would choose to spend his time in Sin City. There live the ones who recognise Him for who He is.

Those interested in exploring some of the theology underlying this post are directed towards ‘Faith Beyond Resentment’ by James Alison, especially the final chapter, ‘The Boys in the Square’.