Wednesday, 4 February 2015

TL:DR - Barnett vs Fry

I have a lot of time for Stephen Fry.  I find him clever, witty, kind-hearted and often very funny.  And it just so happens that this week something he said has gone viral on the internet.  Everyone's already talking about it so I'll just let you watch it...

It's a good question, voiced angrily and with passion by a man in the public eye known for his intellect and quiet polite demeanour, all of which give it extra impact.  This is the kind of thing that any faith has to be robust enough to weather, or else be discarded.  People have already been responding, and the responses have fallen into two categories.  There's Giles Fraser's 'I Don't Believe In The God Fry Doesn't Believe In Either', which hears Fry saying he can't believe in a God who is such evil maniac to allow the suffering he does and replies "Well it's a good job he isn't like that. God is actually very loving." but for me that is too vague and doesn't really answer the question.  If Fry is mistaken in his idea of God as a "capricious...evil...maniac" and Fraser's loving, good God is the reality then why, as Fry puts it, do there exist small parasitic insects that burrow into your eyes and eat them from the inside out?  We're back to square one.  (Incidentally I also don't think God is capricious because if I was a capricious God and someone told me I was unacceptable and evil, they wouldn't have long left to say anything else!  And I wouldn't use a burrowing eye-worm to do it either.  True psychopaths don't murder by proxy.)

The other response doing the rounds is Pete Greig's 'Amen to Fry's Atheism', which actually attempts a little theology and some helpful anecdotes, but for me is still too vague.  It talks about God actually sharing our suffering with us, but this can come across as very disingenuous, like when you tell a friend about something awful happening to you and they sympathetically reply "Oh yeah, I feel your pain."  They don't.  They mean well but they just don't.

Before going any further, I would recommend Krish Kandiah's response, which to me best addresses the question that's actually being asked.  And in a lot fewer words than I'm about to use...

Greig's and Fraser's answers swing around the idea that Fry's capricious God doesn't exist, but Fry's argument that a good God clearly doesn't exist either leaves us with either Evil God or ... no God.  And for those of us who have been faced with the reality of God's existence (sometimes despite our best efforts!) and can't walk away from it, this is unsatisfactory.  Even moreso if you're like me, and have found the God that you can't stop from existing to be neither maniacal or capricious over the last 26 years.  Regardless of circumstances, his opinion of me is often a lot higher than my own.  If God is who the Bible and the life of Jesus and my own experience suggest he is, this needs resolution.

For me at least, any consolation to be found in this dreadful paradox lies in Job.  This is a book found in the Bible, and whether or not you think these things are literal or metaphorical, it got included because it was trying to say something important, so hear me out.
Job is found somewhere in the middle of the Old Testament but is actually one of the oldest recorded stories we have, in both the Bible and the world.  It was written down in about 1500BC but would have been passed round orally for centuries before that.  And it is occupied wholly and completely with random human suffering - sudden family deaths, loss of livelihood, loss of health.

Isn't that interesting?  Stephen Fry's viral statement that we found so startling is actually one of the first discussions humans ever thought to preserve!  You can go read Job yourself if you want to, there's an app for that, but I'm going to paraphrase to save time.

Job is an upstanding member of the ancient community.  He loves and worships God, is healthy, has a family with ten kids (i.e. love, safety in numbers, a legacy, and care in his old age), and owns a lot of livestock (providing his food, clothing, and tradeable goods).  One day all of this goes away.  His kids are killed in an accident at a party, thieves steal all his livestock, and finally Job himself becomes very sick and is covered with boils.  He is now, suddenly and for no apparent reason, broke, alone, ill and ostracised from society.
Don't skip through that last sentence, this is serious stuff.  This happens to people, even in our 'developed' western society.

The background here is that the devil/Lucifer/the Enemy/Whatever has gone to God and had a conversation a bit like this:
Enemy: So this man Job?  He seems like a nice guy.
God:  Yeah, we're good friends.
Enemy: I'm not buying it.  He only loves you because of what you give him.  If you were to let me take it away, he'd ditch you.
God: I don't think so, no.  Job's not a freeloader, we actually have this thing call a relationship.  You might have heard of those?
Enemy: Seriously?  Let me prove it to you.  I'll take away all the free stuff you gave him; his health, his job security, his loved ones, and we'll see what happens.
God: Hmmm... Don't kill him, but ok.

(It's worth pointing out that it's never clear which of them, if either, is actually visiting this harm upon Job.  God says he's going to let the Enemy do it, but the narrator then later refers to God as doing it.  This was, and in parts of the world still is, a pretty common way to talk about external things outside of your control that might affect you.  In rural areas of Uganda people still say "I'll meet you after dinner, God willing." It's basically just an acknowledgement of the fragility and unpredictability of life.  In summary: Things Happen)

This conversation is often framed as a wager, but what's actually being asked here is a question - is man capable of unconditional love?  We're told through the Bible and the life of Jesus that God can and does love unconditionally.  No matter how often people cheat on him he always takes them back, always wants them to grow and get better, always wants the best for them in the end.  But can humans love when there's no reward in it for them?  Going back to Fry's argument about the eye-bugs, the reason Fry is angry is because he feels that if there is a good God everything ought to be perfect, or at least better than it is.  That there's no reason God shouldn't make everything perfect for us.  Job starts from the opposite position - there's no reason that even a good God should make anything perfect for us.  He owes us nothing, and we are entitled to nothing, making every breath we breathe, every sight we do see (before the bugs get us) an extraordinary undeserved free gift for us to enjoy while we have it and hang onto in our hearts when it finishes.  Anything else is just a child stamping it's foot screaming "I'm special!  Give me stuff, I'm special!"  Which of those perspectives you take here is very much a choice, and will colour how you look at everything else that follows.

Job, to his credit, does fairly well despite knowing nothing of this conversation.  From his perspective his suffering seems completely random, however he firmly refuses to blame God for taking back the stuff that had only been lent to Job in the first place.  However this doesn't mean he isn't upset and angry and confused, much like Fry was this week and like I was through Advent.  He is depressed.  He can't eat, can't sleep, wishes he were dead, says repeatedly that if God were down here, right now, he'd give him a piece of his mind, also like Stephen and I!  He'd put God on trial and make him account for what's been going on!  Even Job's not-particularly-helpful wife begs him to just curse God for allowing his pain, because then God will smite him for blasphemy (they still believed in smiting back then) and Job will die but at least his pain will be over.  Job can't do it, but continues to wail and cry into the silence.  Too distraught to live, too hooked on survival to die.  I think maybe some of us have been there.

Next Job's friends show up, and their intentions are good but man they are the worst.  Okay, I'm being harsh, they actually start out alright, spending a week just sitting with Job.  But then they start discussing the situation and it all goes downhill from there.  They do what humans do; what Fry, and Fraser, and Greig, and now I have all been doing.  They try to apply mental logic to what is inherently an emotionally rooted situation.  For chapter after chapter Job's friends take it in turns to tell him why he's in the state that he's in.

Friends: We know how the world works.  Good things ought to happen to good people, and bad things ought to happen to bad people, it really is that simple.
Job: I don't think it is.  Bad people prosper all the time, and good people suffer. It's never been simple.
Friends: Of course it has!  You must have done something wrong and this is a punishment.  Say you're sorry and God will give you your stuff back.
Job: It wasn't my stuff, and I can't be sorry because I didn't do anything wrong.
Friends: But you must have!  There must be a reason for this!  Stop being so stubborn.
Job: You guys suck.

And Job is right, he has done nothing to 'deserve' this.  It is just random suffering  Why him?  Why not him?  Does that make it better, because it means it's not his or God's direct fault?  Or does that make it worse because we want God to care about what we do, and treat us accordingly?  Although if it is that second one, I think we're all in trouble because you do NOT want to see what goes on inside my head sometimes.  I don't think I'd make the cut.

I think it is the apparent randomness that upsets us so much.  I say 'apparent' because remember, behind the scenes there is this bigger question about humanity going on that we can't see.  Pain... hurts.  Physical, mental, emotional, it all hurts, sometimes unbearably.  And somehow we feel that if there was a more obvious point, some meaning behind us going through the things we do, it would make it worthwhile, make it justifiable.  We want it to be justifiable.  Pain with no point is far worse (which is a problem atheism needs to address too).  And if there was a point behind all this pain, if you could just explain it to us, God, it might be alright.  If we could understand maybe it would be a little easier to bear.

Of course this is where the story goes next, with God showing up (not that he wasn't there the whole time but, you know, visibly).  He comes to Job and his friends and deliberately doesn't answer the question.  Or he does, but in the same way that Jesus answers lots of questions when he turns up later on, that I always find both frustrating and brilliant.  God answers Job's question... with another question.

What he does is launch into an in depth description of the natural world, the things Job is used to seeing.  God goes through extreme natural phenomena like a shopping list, detours into poetry to describe the most awe-inspiring animals on the planet.  The roll call is long, and the detail is intensive.  God clearly knows what he's talking about.  He made this stuff, he orchestrates it, keeps it running, and he knows it inside out.
It's not showing off, and it's not wrathful.  The point God seems to be driving at is "Look.  You don't even understand the stuff you interact with every day.  You haven't even got a grasp on the complexities of the physical world around you" (This is still the case.  Just watch an episode of Jeremy Kyle. Our lack of awareness about our own emotional states and their effects is shocking, never mind worrying about other people's feelings.  Our external environmental track record is also appalling.  Check out the conflicting stories on the reintroduction of wolves to Yellowstone, or the suggested rewilding of the UK with pine martens to control grey squirrel populations.  Even the most basic changes in the world around us baffle our best scientists and researchers as we try to 'manage' ecosystems).  "Even if I answered your question, can't you see that you wouldn't understand the answer?  I could explain everything to you, but it wouldn't help."

Even if I answered you, you wouldn't understand the answer.
We knew this almost 4000 years ago, but were still tweeting about it last Monday.
Food for thought.

It's a hard thing to admit that something is beyond your capacity and you have no hope of ever fully grasping it.  Our society is built around scientific discovery and achievement, we value knowledge and individual human endeavour, so it may sound like a cop-out to you, but for me that cop-out is the first major point of the story.
Is there apparently random suffering?: Unequivocally yes
Is God fundamentally good?: Unequivocally yes
How do you reconcile that then?:  I can't.

I can't, and I'm not going to pretend that I can.  And that's ok.  This isn't ignorance, it's intellectual honesty.  When Fry says he can't think of a reason for the eye-eating bugs, that's exactly the point.  He's a very clever man... but none of us are clever enough.  We're all running round yelling "I can solve this!  I can solve this!  I can balance this equation!  I can explain God for you!"  I can't explain God for you.  How would I even imagine I could?  That doesn't mean it's not worth trying; there's theology and philosophy surrounding this, about endgames, and the nature of eternity, and humanity's place in creation, and Now-but-Not-Yet and the role of Jesus in the wider historical context but I'm not going to go into it right now because it would spoil my point.
I can't explain God for you.  You may as well ask a pet bowl-goldfish to describe the vast oceans.  I'm a twenty-six year old caucasian female mammal of the genus homo, comprised mainly of oxygen, carbon, hydrogen, nitrogen and a few other things, well-educated and considered intelligent according the the standards of my contemporary European society.  If all goes well I will live for approximately sixty more orbits around the sun before the meat-vehicle I live in breaks down and dissolves back into the dirt my ancestors were made from.  I'm Job.

Is there apparently random suffering?: Unequivocally yes
Is God fundamentally good?: Unequivocally yes

Both statements are true.  It shouldn't be possible.  And yet.

It's okay not to understand something if you know you can trust the guy that does.  We've all seen those movies where the hero wants to do something seemingly nuts to save the day, their team isn't sure, and then they say "Trust me."  I feel I can, Fry feels he can't.  That's fair enough, he's a grown-ass man and he gets to decide for himself.

I can't explain God for you.


Back to our story.

The funny thing is that (maybe unlike you right now) Job accepts this.  He says "You've got a very good point there, I hadn't thought about it like that.  I shouldn't have brought it up," and backs down gracefully.
Maybe seeing God in person (Try and imagine it.  Really try.  I bet you can't do it it without shrinking him down somehow) brings home to Job that what God is saying is true - he's on a completely other level and there's no way that Job is going to be able to wrap his little human brain around anything that God explains to him.  It would be like explaining advanced quantum mechanics to a toddler.  Yes, Job's suffering was real enough, but when it comes to putting God on trial he doesn't even know where to start, never mind having a leg to stand on, and he's honest enough to admit it.

Maybe it's the fact that God has turned up in person, definitively showing that he has noticed and does actually care, that allows Job to move forwards (this is also part of the point of Jesus: for some situations you need to go in person).  It's been observed in studies that we can endure greater suffering for greater periods, with more mental fortitude, if we feel emotionally supported.  It forms the scaffolding around the crumbly little buildings our lives sometimes become, holding us up until we can make repairs.  As someone who's been through depression I can tell you how true that is.  The physical situation may not change, but our perception of it does.
When a Virgin train crashed due to faulty track in Grayrigg, Cumbria in 2007, causing thirty injuries and a death I remember people being both surprised and moved when Virgin's chairman Richard Branson showed up at the crash site.  Normally we see those in power distancing themselves from any trouble related to them, but it was his train and Branson felt he should come in person.  It didn't change the immediate situation but it did change the way people felt about what had happened.

The second point of the story for me comes right at the very end, when God turns to Job's friends.  They've been sitting there while Job and God face off, probably wetting themselves at their buddy's insolence.  They wanted Job to suck up to God with a false apology, but Job was too principled to do it and now it turns out he was right all along.  God says two things to them, and then pointedly doesn't say a third:

1.  "You spent all that time explaining to Job about the logic and morals of the situation, but actually his approach was better."
And what was Job's approach?  He has been ranting and raving at God for the last twenty chapters.  He made sure God could be in no doubt about what he felt.  His dialogue wanders a great deal, but two points keep coming out "God you are good."  "But my pain is terrible"  "But you are good"  "But my pain is terrible."  The two threads exist side by side and don't clash.  Job engaged, unlike his friends who distanced themselves and resorted to trite platitudes and rationalisation.  Job's honest account of his fury and despair meant more to God than the well-behaved academic detachment of his friends, who talked about God but never to God.

2.  "And by the way, that account you were giving of me wasn't even right."
He doesn't explain himself, but he does categorically state that the whole 'just desserts' view of the universe that Job's friends were espousing was incorrect.  There was no karma at play, no metaphysical balance sheet.  Job's suffering was never a punishment, and they were wrong to judge him because of where life had dumped him.

3.  The final major point I get from this story is not something God commands or even suggests, but how everyone's behaviour organically changes after their discussion is over.  They are driven to act in a way they weren't before, and that's significant.
Even if God gave us an answer to why we, at least for now, have to put up with bone cancer and bugs that eat your eyeballs and volcanic eruptions, and even if we did understand it, it wouldn't actually change anything about our lives.  Those things would still be there, still be part of our world, and we'd still have to deal with them.  In that sense the answer to the problem of pain, although nice to have, is irrelevant.  It doesn't matter whether we understand it or not, because it doesn't change what we have to do.  And we know what we have to do, because it's the same thing Job's friends do after encountering God.

I have this thing called Burger Theory, which is named after a moment when I told a friend a deep existential thought I was having about the meaninglessness of individual people in the vastness of human history, and her response was to offer me a burger.  We can spend all day debating and arguing over theories and philosophies and syntax and semantics to the point where we're blue in the face and can reasonably prove that we ourselves don't exist (I've done it a few times.  It's not very difficult).  But then the debate ends and, having agreed that nothing exists and life is fundamentally pointless, everyone leaves the room to make dinner.  That's Burger Theory.  Theorising is great, and my brain thrives on that kind of hypothetical intellectual debate, but at the end of the day whatever you decide has to translate into practical action.  A truth discovered can't just work in the realms of intellectualism.  It isn't really true unless you could actually live your life in accordance with it, it's just a fun idea.  You have to be able to live your life by it.

Job's friends spent all day theorising, but failed to do anything about it.  After the initial sympathy was over, they spend all their time trying to correct him and find someone to blame.  Not one of them took him home, or fed him, or looked after him, or held his hand while he cried.

 And what happens after God speaks to Job's friends?
"Then came to him all his brothers and sisters and all who had known him before, and ate bread with him in his house. And they showed him sympathy and comforted him."  Job 42:11
Yeah, you're too late guys.  Where were you forty-one chapters ago?

They also give him money, now that they've established he wasn't personally to blame for his circumstances.  There's got to be some social commentary about the welfare state in there somewhere.

We can spend all day talking about why suffering happens (like Job did, and like we do now.  We call this 'philosophy') and never come up with a satisfactory answer.  Or we can go out there and start looking after the people enduring it.

God lets Job decide what happens to his companions, which I like.  He says Job can make their sacrifices (basically a bronze age 'I'm sorry' present) if he wants to and God will let them off for being such rubbish friends and talking smack about him.  But if Job doesn't make the sacrifices and forgive them, God's not going to either.  (Job does; he's nice like that.  I'm pretty sure God knew he would and was just putting the wind up them).  As a gesture of solidarity I find that kind of adorable.

Job then starts a new family, and gathers new livestock, and his health returns.  The story says that everything he had before is doubled - twice as many cows, camel, sheep etc.  He has another ten children too (interestingly they aren't doubled, which seems right and respectful, but I can't work out precisely emotionally why, except to say that the people we love cannot be made up for by extra people).  Is this a reward, given that we've already established that God doesn't reward and punish by rote based on behaviour?  Is this compensation, or a gesture of consolation?  Is it that Job's a shrewd guy with a good entrepreneurial head on his shoulders?  Is it simply a narrative device to show that Job values what he has twice as much having come through difficulty?  Maybe it's all of them.  After all, this is his life we're talking about.  There doesn't have to be just one exact answer.  Take from that what you will.

And are we capable of unconditional love, regardless of circumstances?

Are we?


  1. Thanks Michelle, I really enjoyed reading this. Very thoughtful and encouraging piece...and you have a nice writing style too.

    1. Thank you. I'm glad someone found it useful :)