Monday, May 8, 2017

Which one will Fry after judgment?

I leave it to the Irish juridical authorities to determine whether their blasphemy laws have been broken or not by Stephen Fry. On the face of it, he is unlikely to be found guilty, as any case against him would need to consider the full extent of what he said when he accused God of being a "maniac". 

And that full extent is pretty standard fare when we see that what he said, albeit colourfully, is simply that he would like God to explain why there is suffering in the world. Even theologians discuss that problem!

"Asked what he would say if he was confronted by God, Fry replied: "How dare you create a world in which there is such misery that is not our fault? It's not right."It's utterly, utterly evil.
"Why should I respect a capricious, mean-minded, stupid God who creates a world which is so full of injustice and pain?"Questioned on how he would react if he was locked outside the pearly gates, he responded: "I would say, 'Bone cancer in children? What's that about?'"Because the God who created this universe, if it was created by God, is quite clearly a maniac, utter maniac."Totally selfish. We have to spend our life on our knees thanking him? What kind of God would do that?""
 Fry's point in terms of "blasphemy" is that either God does not exist (so blasphemy cannot be an offence) or God exists and the suffering in the world is what is offensive. Dear God, please explain.

All, by the by, nicely illustrating C.S. Lewis's point about the modern age: we are no longer in the dock, being judged, but God is in the dock and if he should come up with a plausible explanation for suffering then he might get off. But we would need to be persuaded in the face of mounting evidence for the prosecution.

The question in my mind, and I suspect in yours also, is not whether Fry has been blasphemous but whether we can answer the charges he brings against God.

(Very, very briefly, on a subject on which much has been written) one thought that strikes me is that within the household of faith we often meet this kind of challenge by talking in terms of "mystery."

Why God permits suffering while being the God who is love is a mystery (i.e. we do not understand). How God through the incarnate Christ dying on the cross identifies with us in our suffering (or, more generally, in the suffering of the world) is a mystery. And, noting a further Fry charge, God is not selfish or self-centred: the command to worship and to give thanks is precisely something we joyfully respond to as that which rightly belongs to God because God is God (and not an ego). God is neither a maniac nor selfish but God is mysterious.

Clearly this kind of talk does not wash with Stephen Fry. His logic means there is no mystery about human suffering. God being God should and could do something about it, especially the remorseless evil of bone cancer killing children. The only mystery is that some crazy Christians won't admit to the obvious truth: if there is a God then God is a maniac. Maniacs meet the Maniac.

Fry, in other words, is challenging the household of faith about its witness to the world. Whatever it may mean within the household to talk about the mystery of suffering in the face of the God of love, the household has a credibility chasm talking about it to those outside. I suspect Fry actually speaks for millions of atheists and agnostics who refuse to commit to the God Who Will Not Adequately Explain Why Children Suffer.

Thoughts about our "external" language to the world around us?

Also you may like to go to this link.

24 comments:

Father Ron said...

Peter, my only answer to Stephen Fry - and all who question God's motivation in allowing suffering to be part opf the human experience - is this:

1.God created everything and saw that it was very good (Everything!)

2. In setting Creation free, God allowed us, the stewards of Creation, to use it, for either good or evil.

3. Humanity, in choosing the easier way, often made/makes the wrong choices and, therefore, is doomed to suffer the consequences. (One instance of this might be the effects of 'climate change').

4. God sent His Only-Begotten Son into the world to share our common human nature and to redeem it THROUGH SUFFERING. A significant element of his partaking in our humanity caused Jesus (God) to share our human suffering - even to the point of death at the hands of His fellow human beings.

5. God, therefore, knows what it is to suffer in the created order, and yet, amazingly - through the Resurrection of Christ - still offers his errant children the gift of Life Eternal - where there is no pain or suffering for those who believe. "Christ is Risen, Alleluia!"

Bryden Black said...

Stephen Fry has of course a number of fish to fry when it comes to the Orthodox Christian Faith. The old chestnut of “suffering” or theodicy is but one of them. And in this issue, he is simply displaying a distinctly modern turn.

Most helpful in this regard then is Susan Neiman, Evil in Modern Thought: an alternative history of philosophy (Princeton, 2002). The book starts with an evaluation of the Lisbon earthquake, 1755, which she claims “shook the Enlightenment” as profoundly as the word Auschwitz disturbs any evaluation of the 20th century. As Fr Ron comments, there are other possible ‘takes’ even on such a ghastly, reprehensible ‘thing’ as “The Final Solution”. Yet, unfortunately for Neiman, as a secular Jewish philosopher, her own final solution, opined in her last chapter entitled “Homeless”, where she ‘manfully’ [one may express it no other way] strives still, in the face of Auschwitz and our seeming human failure to grasp its ‘meaning’, for “sufficient reason” to understand the gap between what “is” and what “ought” to be ... itself fails. That is, the way she sets up the very question(s) fails, IMHO.

While her attempt at mustering the ‘evidence’ of the past 300+ years is noble and bold, and helpful to a degree, the very kind of ‘g-o-d’ with which she and others wrestle itself requires a more profound dose of deconstruction. If Ron begins to point the way, he only begins however. For any claim to Incarnation propels us, as the history of the Early Church demonstrates, to re-evaluate our very notions of ‘g-o-d’ and so start rather down the road of a Trinitarian understanding and praxis. Most problematic in this regard is the fate of Trinitarian thinking from the 17th C onwards in Europe - despite official ‘orthodoxies’. See Jason Vickers’ delightful assessment in Invocation and Assent: The Making and Remaking of Trinitarian Theology (Eerdmans, 2008). And the doctrine’s revival since Barth’s glorious opening gambit of the 1930s has still to bear full fruition.

In which light, the Stephen Frys among us should prod and probe any and all Christians to learn afresh, with Karl Barth, their “theological ABCs”, the very grammar of which has to be/become utterly trinitarian through and through. Whatever the Irish courts’ verdict, thank you, Stephen, for your goading. Yet here too, Stephen, beware Acts 26:14 ...

Peter Carrell said...

Comment from Brian Kelly.
(Brian, I have removed a sentence or so describing Stephen Fry's vices. I realise that what you is almost certainly in the public domain, but I have a fear of being sued [today's news story: Kiwi blogger sue Kiwi politician who is suing the Kiwi blogger], but it adds nothing to your main point and adds every risk to my sparse bank accounts. Peter)

"In which light, the Stephen Frys among us should prod and probe any and all Christians to learn afresh, with Karl Barth, their “theological ABCs"....'

- oh, if only, if only. It is a fearful task to scale a mountain of ignorance and titanic pride. You do realise you are talking about a man ... Do you think he has the foggiest (yes, foggiest) idea who Karl Barth was? - or could follow Barth's thinking on 'das Nichtige'? Peter Hitchens rather unkindly but fairly accurately described Fry ....

It seems to me that Fry didn't understand the journalist's question: 'If in spite of what you say now you met God after death, what would you say?'
The only answer is Job's after meeting YHWH in the whirlwind: 'I spoke of what I did not know. Now I repent in dust and ashes.'
What this silly episode shows is what we knew already, that Fry is no philosopher but at best a 'spermologos' (Acts 17.18), albeit one with a wide following thanks to TV and the internet. A definitive answer to the theodicy problem was already given back in 1974 in Alvin Plantinga's 'God, Evil and the Free Will Defense' which even the atheist J L Mackie recognised. A simplified and succinct version is offered by W L Craig: 'It is impossible to show that God does not have morally sufficiently reasons for allowing evil to exist.'

What these reasons are may be difficult to descry - but that is very different from saying such reasons *cannot exist.

Brian Kelly said...

How is it libel to quote a person's own words? Has NZ gone completely weird?

https://www.theguardian.com/culture/2014/sep/26/stephen-fry-admits-cocaine-buckingham-palace-autobiography

Peter Carrell said...

Happy to post material with a link to a reliable/reputable source, Brian.

Glen Young said...


If this universe is here by Darwinian processes,are not these questions equally relevant to the atheist and agnostic? Fry should apply his thinking to nature and justify why we should have any respect for nature.

Anonymous said...

Several decades ago, Reformed philosopher Alvin Plantinga* showed that there are logical limits to what an omnipotent being can do, and that therefore many states of affairs, both possible and impossible, are beyond his direct control. Thus it is not within even the Almighty's power to actualise every possible state of affairs that he might prefer. A rare consensus of philosophers, atheist and theist, recognises the soundness of Plantinga's argument.

Therefore the early modern supposition that an omnipotent being could create or actualise any *possible world* (ie complete description of the way things might have been) that pleases him is unpersuasive to informed late moderns. So too, then, are the arguments about *theodicy* of Leibniz etc that rely on this supposition. Voltaire's hilarious Candide, and Stephen Fry's claim are both among them, but Voltaire had an excuse.

And to be clear, the pious belief that Leibniz et al have been interrogating in theodicy arguments is found, not in scripture, but in scholastic efforts to accommodate the god of the Bible to the god of Hellenism. So all that these arguments have ever actually shown is that the two gods are not quite the same. Those who understand the definitions of the ecumenical councils have long known that.

* See The Nature of Necessity, 180–84, and God, Freedom, and Evil, 34–44.

Bowman Walton

Brian Kelly said...

Quite so - it has never been seriously argued that divine omnipotence means that God can create a square circle or any other exemplar of self-contradiction, and the law on non-contradiction is not merely a principle of logic (and thought) but a principle of God's own existence.
Pre-Enlightenment thought did not see the existence of evil as (to use Plantinga's terminology) a defeater for the existence of a maximally perfect being.
And (to quote Carl Trueman, from whom I have learned so much about the ethos of the Reformation era), in the 16th century men may have gone to church to make sense of their pain, but in the 21st century (where anaesthetics and analgesics abound) women and men more readily imagine that the purpose of Christianity is to *take away* their pain - and to hold it cheap if it doesn't. Nobody expected life in a fallen world (whatever that means) to be pain-free. But in 18th century Desim and subsequently, the idea of 'the fall' was ditched and replaced with an organic, developmental view of life and the world: the modern notion (or myth) of progress.

Bryden Black said...

Dear Brian, How can you possibly dispute it's NOT "getting better all the time" (THE FAB FOUR, better than any Trinity surely!)

Bryden Black said...

So all that these arguments have ever actually shown is that the two gods are not quite the same. Those who understand the definitions of the ecumenical councils have long known that. Bowman

Exactly right! And another way of saying what I said earlier re one's g-o-d being in need of deconstructing. The theologians of those Ecumenical Councils confronted the g-o-ds of their day with the full consequences of the Gospel of Jesus, Word Incarnate. Our problem today is twofold.
1. Not a few in the Western Church don't actually believe in revelation. Theirs is a belief only in 'religious experience'.
2. The residual deity of Western culture is a figment. Call It deism, even theism; but for god's sake don't envisage God as being Free to concretely engage with humans, let alone COMMUNICATE!

Brian Kelly said...

Well, I will never speak a word against modern dentistry.

Jean said...

How about ....God created the world but he didn't bring suffering and death into it, that responsibilty lies with another.

"Forasmuch then as the children are partakers of flesh and blood, he also himself likewise took part of the same; that through death he might destroy him that had the power of death, that is, the devil."

Anonymous said...

Thanks, Jean, a helpful comment. For a project elsewhere, I have been thinking about precisely that since Easter.

Bowman Walton

Anonymous said...

With Peter's permission, two quick questions To Whom It May Concern-- (1) What reservations do you have, if any, about the theology that you find in the myriad works of N. T. Wright? (2) Can Anglicans here at ADU assume general agreement with his central proposals in our parishes, dioceses, whatever, or is there well-respected resistance to them, or are they largely unknown? My thanks in advance to any who post a thoughtful reply.

Bowman Walton

Brian Kelly said...

"What reservations do you have, if any, about the theology that you find in the myriad works of N. T. Wright?"

- He's extremely long-winded in his 'serious' works; what working stiff has tine (or money) for that?
- His 'Israel is still in exile' thesis is unconvincing to many (see Stephen Noll essay somewhere on the web).
- He keeps claimiong you can't understand the NT unless you buy his schema.
- His take on justification is hard to grasp (is it the same as Newman's?) and puts him at odds with classical Reformed thinking on imputed righteousness (see debate with John Piper)
- Paul Helm (in 'Helm's Deep' on the web) attacks him on the 'ordo salutis' and thinks he confuses justification with salvation
There's another critique from the guy at Durham.
We love him on the Resurrection!

Brian Kelly said...

I was thinking of the reviews of 'Paul and the Faithfulness of God' by Simon Gathercole and John Barclay (out there on the web) which find a lot ot affirm in Wright as well as criticising his ideas of 'dikaio' and his tendency to impose schemas on the NT.

Are Wright's views popularly known? Yes, among clergy and readers in open evangelical parishes. Do they impact preaching much? Hard to say - he's been helpful in Resurrection apologetics.

Jean said...

Hi Bowman

I can't offer a lot to help you with your question. As a lay-person I haven't read - aside from a couple of extracts on the web - any of his books. I would imagine, but I am open to correction, the average ADU congregation member who is not Clergy or who who hasn't undertaken theological study is unlikely to have read too much of his work if any. Although, they like I may be aware of him as a Christian theological writer.

: ) Jean

Brian Kelly said...

'Paul Helm (in 'Helm's Deep' on the web) attacks him on the 'ordo salutis' and thinks he confuses justification with salvation'

- now I'm the confused one. I meant 'justification with sanctification'.

Anonymous said...

Thank you so much, Jean and Brian, for rapid yet thoughtful replies! More on these anon.

But first-- what do you think, Father Ron? Benedict XVI invited him to speak to his synod on the Bible. Would you you invite him to speak at SMAA?

http://ntwrightpage.com/2016/04/25/the-fourfold-amor-dei-and-the-word-of-god/

https://thomasgwyndunbar.wordpress.com/2008/10/16/anglican-bishop-addresses-catholic-synod/

And Bryden?

And any readers here beyond the usual suspects?

Again-- With Peter's permission, two quick questions To Whom It May Concern-- (1) What reservations do you have, if any, about the theology that you find in the myriad works of N. T. Wright? (2) Can Anglicans here at ADU assume general agreement with his central proposals in our parishes, dioceses, whatever, or is there well-respected resistance to them, or are they largely unknown? My thanks in advance to any who post a thoughtful reply.

But in light of Jean's and Brian's responses, why not also (3)-- Where Anglicans Down Under who read about scripture are not reading Tom Wright's books, what are they reading instead? Or are they trudging through the canon alone?

Bowman Walton

Anonymous said...

Thank you so much, Jean, for your description of what you see.

I am not so foolish as to attempt to summarise all of N. T. "Tom" Wright's oeuvre but I suspect that you would notice preaching that, to an unusual degree--

(a) Was motivated by a text in scripture.

(b) But tended to first read that text as part of the canon-wide story of Jesus-in-Israel before mining it for propositions or applications.

(c) Presented both Israel-before-Jesus and Jesus-in-Israel as God's interventions to rescue the Creation's societies and persons from the degrading and self-destructive ways of being human exhibited in Genesis 3-11.

(d) Explains those ways as the empowerment of idols and the personal evil behind them. Personal moral failings are real, but for Wright the scriptures treat idolatry as the primary concern.

(e) Contrasted to those mistaken ways the right way of being God's image-bearers in the Creation at large, such that this calling (and the myriad ordinary "vocations") guides personal conduct.

(f) The coming of the Son-- his whole life, climaxing in the cross and resurrection-- has given us an image of the Father that breaks the power of idols.

(g) In breaking the power of idols and sending the Holy Spirit, Jesus inaugurated a New Creation in this present world that he will complete at the End. This down-to-earth Christian hope for all believers in the whole Creation (well... most of it) absorbs the go-to-heaven-when-you-die hope that he sees as a by-product of paganism.

(h) Treats the liturgy in progress as essential to bearing God's image because it refers the praises of the Creation to God, deposes idols from their places in human hearts, and enables the Holy Spirit to further sanctify and strengthen souls for his service to the Creation.

(i) Addresses the congregation as inspirited agents continuing the same history/Creation as the one that was described, much as it happened/existed, in the Bible. No liberal or evangelical harping on the difference between now and then. No explaining away of the Resurrection etc. No attempted restoration today of details of the C1 church. No belief that believers today are especially enlightened by the Enlightenment or its institutions.

(j) Denies that personal assurance separates the believer from the fate of the Creation, that morality is independent of vocation, or that salvation is complete without the mended self and spiritual gifts that enable one to bear God's image well.

Preachers can and long have preached a few of these themes. But someone preaching the whole package and doing it from the Bible has probably been reading Tom Wright.

Bowman Walton

Peter Carrell said...

Hi Bowman
My sense is that where my Kiwi colleagues preach out of a thought-through underlying systematic theology/comprehensive whole of Bible narrative, then they are not doing so in large numbers in Wrightian mode.

In particular, Wright's emphasis on salvation by/completed by/deepened by/??? works is viewed suspiciously by evangelicals (who tell me what they are thinking) who look with Lutheran/Calvinist eyes in askance at whether Wright is true to the Scripture. They have read some of Wright but are not persuaded even as they admire his output and energy.

Speaking only for myself, I am unconvinced by Wright's "exile" thesis (though acknowledge it makes a point) and I have yet to do the thinking required on his take on salvation. (I am not unsympathetic to where he goes on that because I think some criticism on that is misconceived: all "justification by faith" evangelicals nevertheless at some point must engage with the question of sanctification, and frankly, some of what non-Wrightian evangelicals say about that looks suspiciously like Wright (because, in the end, as Catholics know only to well, salvation must issue in good works ...).

Bryden Black said...

Bowman, Peter, et al: re NTW.

Wright’s “reception” among parishes etc. in ACANZ&P is frankly complex and as spasmodic as our already indulged lack of engagement with tough theological and spiritual ‘kaumatua’ (elders). We are really just too pragmatic and politically driven, IMHO. And that often goes for certain Evangelicals too ... That said ...

I have discovered that his Everyone commentaries are used quite a bit. More popular works like Surprised by Hope and Virtue Reborn are read and digested. Occasionally, I’ve met a colleague who has grappled with the likes of Jesus and the Victory of God and/or The Resurrection of the Son of God. Frankly, the latter is a delightfully robust antidote to previous generations’ existential views of the disciples’ resurrected faith after Jesus’ death, and should be lauded by Evangelicals of all stripes. So too should they applaud The Last Word: Beyond the Bible Wars to a New Understanding of the Authority of Scripture; alternative title, Scripture and the Authority of God.

As for your comments Peter. I sense the view re “continuing exile” is still disputed, yet Wright’s own push-back in the very latest collection pp.739ff. suggests we should watch this space more closely, probably. Similarly, justification and salvation and sanctification plus ecclesiology - i.e. the nature, scope and status of the true people/family of God and how they might live - seems to me to be often about ships passing in the night rather than actual basic disagreements. It’s as if professional scholars still see their having to put bread on the table by scoring points as their rationale! Pace John Barclay however!

I’d strongly endorse your list, notably re idolatry, Bowman. Yet “the power of sin” and “the power of idols” are twins it seems to me in both Paul and Wright. Likewise, there is much to be said for “torah’s now being written on/in Christians’ hearts” as being the driver for Wright - and Paul! - re the call for a new morally virtuous life, individually and corporately, and its empowerment. 2 Cor 2:14-6:10 seems to me to be absolutely seminal. For “redemption” has to do with the renewal and restoration of the cosmos and all its inhabitants, here and now to a degree, and finally, despite all opposition and in the very midst of all opponents. Though there remains debate about the exact nature of “apocalyptic language” and its plasticity: the spectrum of ‘metaphor’ and ‘concrete events’. At root, what I sense Wright to be trying to achieve is indeed the title of all the part volumes: to what/whom does the word “God” refer in the NT body of writings, and how does His Coming affect His world. For our Enlightenment and post-Enlightenment setting has bequeathed a most confused and confusing legacy. I.e. two stories are to be engaged by the contemporary church: the narrative of Scripture, its ethos and worldview, as best we may via the tools of historiography and a critical realist philosophy; and that of western culture these past 300 years especially.

Enjoy!

Jean said...

Hmm well I believe I am totally unqualified to comment much Bowman about Wright, but on your description I shall comment on the general content of sermons I have heard:

I would have to say no I have not known many Anglican sermons following specifically the points you mention as a set pattern. Yes there has been some on the worshipping of idols but it is not predominant. I have yet to encounter any on the hope of going to heaven contrasting or in conflict with the hope for the new creation on earth - definitely a sense that God's Kingdom exists both on earth through believers and in heaven, and one day will rule all. I have never heard a sermon in an Anglican Church on the resurrection not being real or bodily (although I know of the odd Anglican Church that may preach so). Most sermons have a balance of assurance of salvation with the need to live out that salvation ... (e.g. Evidence of it). I have definitely not noticed evangelical preaching separating vocation and morality... I have definitely not noticed any evangelical preaching on the mission of God's people now as being distinctly different from the mission passed on by the disciples to the church in the NT...

As for if not this what are 'ordinary' lay folk reading instead of Wright. Well, not all read extensively many are more doers of the word and others are still journeying towards faith : ) ... For myself when I came 'back to faith' in my youthful 20's I read mostly the bible and attended bible studies that focused on the text, discussion and for myself use of the study notes in my bible and researching things I am interested in. I did one year of EFM on the OT because I wanted to understand it better, however, by then I had formed my own take on things so while I got a lot out of the themes/Hebrew language structure/order of the books/context etc I wasn't too taken with the theories it presented (e.g. Prophecies written as a post-script after they had come to pass etc).

Otherwise my reading for fun has been wide and varied from CS Lewis, Nouwen, Pullinger, Yancey, Stormie O'Martian, Pascal, Paton, Spurgeon, Paul Brand, Derek Prince, Shane Claiborne, David Wilkerson, Ravi Zacharias, Nabeel Quereshi, Joni Erickson, ....etc etc etc... Not too much systematic theology in the mix. Truthfully, I find not having been shaped by any particular 'take' on the scriptures a blessing having met people who were taught things and accepted them before being in a place where they were confident enough to test the teaching; not that changing ones mind is on a specific topic is hard but when it concerns a core belief it is (e.g. The gifts of the Holy Spirit do not exist in the present age).

Anonymous said...

Thank you yet again, Jean, for the favour of a thoughtful answer with several insights that I shall try to keep in mind, and a few that made me nod with a smile.

A useful detail: Nicholas Thomas Wright publishes his scholarly work as "N. T. Wright" and his popular or devotional work as "Tom Wright." His publishers have insisted on this so that they can sell his books to general readers.

Your comment on the preaching that you have heard agrees with what Peter says above about his evangelical colleagues. And yet, the former Bishop of Durham is the bestselling theologian of our time, and the author of countless books for specialists, general readers, or both. If Anglican evangelicals are not buying and reading them, then who down under is?

An inexpensive way to sample his thinking in smaller chunks is to visit the N. T. Wright Page online and follow the index to your interests. Some of his popular talks are also up on YouTube.

Your reference to doers of the word who do not read much jumped off the screen. In fact, it reminded me of something that should have been on my list above: Wright writes primarily to them! Has any theologian ever done so much to encourage good works with a theology that gives them biblical meaning? His book After You Believe may be the single most agentic one.

Brian mentions a controversy that is related to this emphasis on action -- was Israel still in exile when Jesus came? Of course the Jews were living on their promised land, but under Gentile rule it was the very opposite of the Land of Promise where God's presence in their midst would make their society into "a light to lighten the Gentiles, and the glory of Thy people, Israel." Isaiah prophesied a return of YHWH to his people at Jerusalem, Jesus is shown to be the Son in several gospel episodes, and his very deliberate *adventus* in Jerusalem is important to all four gospels. Connecting dots (too many, says Brian): the enlightening presence of YHWH to the unbelieving is not located on Zion, but wherever the Body of Christ exhibits a better way of being human to neighbours confused by their idols. This emboldens action in three ways: (1) Jesus came as much to defeat social sin as to defeat individual sin; (2) It is by worshiping Jesus as YHWH that our idols are broken and we are sanctified to act for him; (3) The YHWH-centred life includes the avoidance of the listed sins, but also action in accordance with one's call that far transcends it. All of this balances the quiescent sort of evangelicalism that (1') is all about the solitary soul, (2') seeks "sin management" (Dallas Willard) from self-willed moral effort, and (3') favours a standard life rather than a providentially called one.

Apart from Wright, Jean, I was delighted to see that you and I have read some of the same authors. In recent years, I have had the most interesting conversations with Shane Claiborne.

I will probably have more thoughts for you tomorrow when I reply to Peter, Brian, and Bryden.

Bowman Walton