If you love articulate British comedians and God, like I do, then this has been a pretty bizarre week for you. I’ve enjoyed the challenges posed to my understanding of God by Stephen Fry, and by the equally challenging account of the divine from Russell Brand.
Fry believes nothing is true about God. Brand believes everything we can possibly imagine about God is true because we can’t possibly know him because of our finite limitations in an infinite universe. While Brand’s approach to the God question is much closer to my own, I can’t help but think that I’d rather preach to people who think like Fry. His objections are actually easier to engage with than Brand’s wholesale lack of objections.
Both of them have such a profoundly anaemic picture of Christianity, and thus, I think, of God, because both of them entirely miss the point of Jesus.
In Jesus we see God’s response to the brokenness, evil, and suffering in this world – the promise of a better world through the absolute victory over evil and death. But in Jesus we also see the gap between our finite limitations and God’s infinite nature bridged, so that truths about life, the universe, and everything, become knowable because the God who spoke life, the universe, and everything, by his word sends his word into the world, as a man. That’s how John, the disciple, describes the arrival of Jesus on the scene. Jesus steps out of infinity, and into concrete, measurable, reality.
“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning. Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made. In him was life, and that life was the light of all mankind. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.” — John 1:1-5
He comes to make God knowable – contrary to Brand’s understanding of God as expressed below…
The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the one and only Son, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth… or the law was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ. No one has ever seen God, but the one and only Son, who is himself God and is in closest relationship with the Father, has made him known. — John 1:14, 17-18
I’m sharing these verses now because the right place to go when people ask questions about God — his character, his existence, or his nature, in order to understand nature, is always Jesus. At least in the first instance. That’s what John is claiming here. And Jesus, acting in this capacity, is largely missing from both Fry and Brand’s treatment of the God question.
There’s a fair bit of Bible in this post— because despite Fry’s very eloquent, tight, takedown of God, despite the appearance that this is a modern insight that makes belief in God completely untenable — these questions are complicated, but they’re answered incredibly thoroughly in the Bible, they aren’t questions that should be particularly confronting to Christians. Like every good Sunday School question, the answer is Jesus. If you’re reading because you think Fry has fired a shot that has fatally wounded God, or the Christian faith, can I encourage you to slog through it, and at least by the end you’ll understand why I haven’t, as a result of Fry’s video, quit my job and packed in my faith.
Jesus makes God knowable. He makes God approachable. He comes to bring light to darkness, order to chaos, comfort to the afflicted — he came to put an end to the exact problems Fry identifies with the world. The question of why a good God would allow such problems to occur is one that I’ve tried to answer in several thousand words elsewhere. But it’s a separate question.
Stephen Fry appeared on a show called “The Meaning of Life” and was asked what he, an atheist, would say to God if he were to be confronted by him after death.
Here’s his answer.
Here are some of the highlights…
“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?”
“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?”
“Yes, the world is very splendid but it also has in it insects whose whole lifecycle is to burrow into the eyes of children and make them blind,” he says. “They eat outwards from the eyes. Why? Why did you do that to us? You could easily have made a creation in which that didn’t exist. It is simply not acceptable.”
“It’s perfectly apparent that he is monstrous. Utterly monstrous and deserves no respect whatsoever. The moment you banish him, life becomes simpler, purer, cleaner, more worth living in my opinion.”
Wow. If you’re going to grapple with the Christian God — that is, God as Christians understand God to be — then you’ve got to take this God on the terms Christians take him. Fry totally fails to do this. He seems prepared to cherry pick bits of the Bible and Christian understandings of God that suit his picture of God, but he’s pretty dismissive of the bits that don’t make him a capricious monster.
The rudimentary Christian response to Fry — based on the same Bible he cherry picks from to build this picture of the God he doesn’t believe in — is that God did not make a world full of injustice and pain, he made a good world (Genesis 1), that humanity then stuffed up, when we tried to replace him and be our own gods, as a result this world was ‘cursed’ (Genesis 3)… but God sets about restoring the world through the rest of the Bible. Fry would have us be automatically obedient to God — prevented from such rebellion, but this creates the sort of “totally selfish” God he abhors. In terms of the question of other potential responses God could have taken to our rebellion, Brand is right to recognise the very finite, selfish, perspective we bring to these sorts of questions.
The slightly more complicated response would be that God made a world with flesh eating insects in it and gave humans the job of faithfully spreading the perfect and peaceful Garden of Eden over the face of the earth “subduing” the chaos, as we reflected his creation out of darkness (Genesis 1), that’s caught up in bearing his image, ruling his world as his representatives and being fruitful and multiplying… The dark, watery, formless world God works with after Genesis 1:2 is an ancient picture of a chaotic void that required subduing.
Now the earth was formless and empty, darkness was over the surface of the deep, and the Spirit of God was hovering over the waters. — Genesis 1:2
Then God said, “Let us make mankind in our image, in our likeness, so that they may rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky, over the livestock and all the wild animals, and over all the creatures that move along the ground.”
So God created mankind in his own image,
in the image of God he created them;
male and female he created them.
God blessed them and said to them, “Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it. Rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky and over every living creature that moves on the ground.” — Genesis 1:26-28
If there wasn’t darkness to overcome, or something to fix, how then would we express this relationship? How would we be anything other than divine playthings— or servants— the kind you find in most other ancient religions.
We were given a job to do, as part of improving the world from good to perfect, and we failed to do that when we metaphorically flipped him the bird. Jesus completes this job. He defeats evil. That’s the storyline of the Bible in three sentences.
The properly human thing to do — if we’re going to be obedient image bearers, is to work to stop flesh eating insects burrowing into the eyes of children, and in plenty of cases through history, it’s Christians leading the charge against exactly this sort of brokenness in the world, because a Christian worldview equips us to think and engage well with such brokenness. Whatever motivation might Fry have to eradicate this bug as a result of his rejection of God? It will come from his humanism, not his atheism. Fry identifies a problem with the Christian God, but provides no more satisfying account of the mixed and broken nature of the world we live in than Christianity (I’m biased, but I’d say his views of the world are less coherent). This is actually a much better picture of what God hopes for from humanity than Fry’s conception of the faithful Christian life, where “we have to spend our life on our knees thanking him?!” In this view of our created role, representing the creator in his good creation, we show our thankfulness to God and glorify him when we are creative, exercising our God-given imagination in line with this God-given purpose.
Let’s leave aside this dilemma for a moment, and turn, instead, to Russell Brand, and his response to Stephen Fry. This clip features a few more bits of the Stephen Fry interview, but also Brand’s own take on God. Brand says a lot of cool stuff that I agree with — but his answer, too, is completely devoid of Jesus.
There’s a bit in that video where Fry and Brand both talk about Jesus. They both talk about him as though he can be discussed apart from the nature of God — a treatment of Jesus foreign to any orthodox Christian since the very earliest days of the church (and arguably from the very earliest descriptions of Jesus in the Bible, and from the teaching of Jesus himself)
Fry says, of Jesus:
“I think he was a very good soul. An inspiration as a teacher. I do think a lot of the things he says are actually nonsense when you examine them. They seem very beautiful. But it’s a bit like the Dalai Llama. They’re actually twee, and completely impractical, and in that sense an insult to the human spirit. Like, “let him who is without sin cast the first stone” – at first you think that is wonderful, “yes, what hypocrites” how can you possibly have a justice system? Nobody would ever go to prison?”
So he’s hardly likely to find any answers to his big questions about God and suffering if he a priori rules out Jesus as a source of the answers to that question.
Brand has a go showing that Jesus’ teachings aren’t so ‘twee’ by applying this principal to the justice system… it’s an interesting exercise, and it certainly shows an awareness of the human heart…
“I would say that when you are condemning murderers or pedophiles is to acknowledge that within us all is the capacity for evil. As the Russian writer Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn said, the line between good and evil runs not between nations, religions, continents or creeds, but through every human heart, so when you are judging the pedophile, when you are judging the worst kind of criminal, to acknowledge that the thing in them that has manifest as negativity is also within us, and our first duty is to negotiate with the negativity within ourselves, and if we can successfully negotiate with that then we can create a better society.”
The problem with this picture — so far as the Bible’s description of Jesus is concerned — is that it seems to me one of the necessary implications of the ‘he who is without sin’ passage is that it is Jesus, the one who is without sin, the one with the undivided heart, who, rightfully can throw stones (or judge) sinners, and who rightfully, can judge not just the worst kind of criminal but every one of us who has our heart split between good and evil. He’s also the one who creates the better society…
But I digress. Not so far, because what is clear here is that neither Brand nor Fry are operating, or engaging, with an understanding of Jesus that looks remotely like the understanding that Christians have of Jesus when it comes to questions of evil, suffering (Fry’s big thing), infinity, or our ability to know God in our limited human way (Brand’s big thing).
Brand’s God is what in theological terms is called transcendent —wholly other, unable to be properly described or contained using human words or senses. But he is not what, similarly, in theological terms, is called immanent — present and observable in this world (beyond some nebulous spiritual connection between all things that exist or are conscious).
His picture of God as the infinite, indescribable, ground of being and existence meshes up with the Christian God — except that the Christian God reveals things about himself through revelation, this is how Christians understand God, especially in the light of the life of Jesus — who claimed to be one with the father. And thus is the lynchpin between God’s immanence and his transcendence. Because Jesus lived, breathed, spoke, and died — and in living affirmed God’s previous revelation concerning himself in the Old Testament — we know that the God we believe in is not just the transcendent creator and sustainer of life and ‘being’ in this universe, but that he is also knowable, and describable (so long as we acknowledge out limits and recognise Jesus as they way in to such descriptions). In Jesus, God entered the finite world in a way that was accessible to our finite senses. In Jesus, God becomes accessible.
“Jesus answered, “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. If you really know me, you will know my Father as well. From now on, you do know him and have seen him.
Philip said, “Lord, show us the Father and that will be enough for us.”
Jesus answered: “Don’t you know me, Philip, even after I have been among you such a long time? Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father. How can you say, ‘Show us the Father’? Don’t you believe that I am in the Father, and that the Father is in me? The words I say to you I do not speak on my own authority. Rather, it is the Father, living in me, who is doing his work. Believe me when I say that I am in the Father and the Father is in me; or at least believe on the evidence of the works themselves.” — John 14:6-11
An interesting implication of Jesus’ description here, where his life perfectly represents the Father, is that this is what people were created to do. This is Jesus living out the good human life. The next thing he says is an invitation back to this type of function — which I think is a fair way removed from the picture of the ‘Christian’ life Fry paints.
“Very truly I tell you, whoever believes in me will do the works I have been doing, and they will do even greater things than these, because I am going to the Father.” — John 14:12
In John 17, just before he’s arrested, he sums up his work in an interesting way in the light of the sort of work we were created for…
“Now this is eternal life: that they know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom you have sent. I have brought you glory on earth by finishing the work you gave me to do.” — John 17:3-4
A bit later Jesus describes what this sort of life looks like — it’s not rocket science to figure out how this might help us think about a human role in the face of suffering… it also puts paid, I think, to the idea that we need to be on our knees because God is some sort of self-seeking maniac.
“As the Father has loved me, so have I loved you. Now remain in my love. If you keep my commands, you will remain in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commands and remain in his love. I have told you this so that my joy may be in you and that your joy may be complete. My command is this: Love each other as I have loved you. Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.You are my friends if you do what I command. I no longer call you servants, because a servant does not know his master’s business. Instead, I have called you friends, for everything that I learned from my Father I have made known to you. ” — John 15:9-15
Here are some highlights from Brand. These aren’t things I completely agree with — but they’re things that people who want to dismiss God holus-bolus, like Fry, have to grapple with, or at least, I think, they need to provide an alternatively coherent account of the world if they want to subject the idea of God to ridicule.
Brand acknowledges the limitations of our humanity — something Fry, as an atheist-humanist is not so keen to do, because it doesn’t really mesh with his narrative that all you need for human flourishing is humanity, and human endeavour.
“Now Joseph Campbell, the cultural mythologist, said all religions are true in that the metaphor is true. So what Campbell is saying is that religion is an attempt to explain the unknowable in the same way that science is an attempt to explain the unknowable. Science can explain the mechanics of the universe, it can explain the mechanics of anatomy and biology, but can it ever explain the why? The answer is no. It can never explain the why. What we all want to know is is there a reason for us being here,and what is the nature of the universe, what is the nature of our consciousness.”
Brand trots out the argument from an incredibly fine tuned universe as support for his believe in God. Which is interesting. He is also trying to grapple with the question of infinity — either the infinite nature of God, or of the universe against the very finite nature of our existence.
“I suppose what Christianity, and Islam, and Judaism, and Hinduism, and Jaianism, and Buddhism are trying to do is make sense of our position, our perspective as awake, conscious, sentient beings within the infinite.”
He gets plenty wacky in his exploration of consciousness — but again, for those of us who accept that God is the ground of being for every life in this universe, there’s something quite close to what Christians might affirm here.
“For me, as a person who believes in God, my understanding is this, that my consciousness emanates from a perspective and it passes through endless filters, the filters of the senses, the subjective filters of the senses and of my own biography. This is good. This is bad. This is wrong. I want this. I don’t want this. But behind all of that there’s an awakeness. An awareness that sees it all. And it’s in you too. And it’s in Stephen Fry. And it’s in the man who interviewed him. It’s in all of us. An awakeness. An interconnectivity. None of us can ever know if there is a God. But we do know there is an us. None of us can ever know if there’s wrong or right. But we do know there is an us.”
Our finitude does, Brand suggests, come with certain limitations when it comes to making absolute moral judgments. Especially judgments of an infinite being. It’s a weird category jump to assess God in human terms, and that Fry wants to hold God up to human standards, or against some sort of definition of morality apart from God, suggests that he hasn’t quite grasped the nature of the God Christians believe in. God is not subject to universal moral principles deduced from our human experience — he is wholly other, he authored the universe, it exists within him, he is not a part of the universe from within.
“Now, we can argue that when a lion eats the gazelle it can’t be very nice for the gazelle, but what we can argue is that in infinite space, that doesn’t matter. That in the tiny fragment of reality that we experience through our material senses – our eyes that only see a limited range of light, our ears that only hear a limited range of vibration. The things that we experience here, we can’t make any absolute conclusions from them. No one knows if there is a God, or if there isn’t a God. No one knows which interpretation is closest.”
Unlike Fry who simply holds up the question of suffering as though it’s a complete rebuttal to the idea of an all-powerful, all-loving, God, Brand sees that humans are partly culpable for whatever suffering happens in this world, and also partly the God-ordained solution (this is especially true if what’s suggested about Genesis, above, is correct). For Brand, suffering, too, is a reminder of our limitations, and a motivator for good. He’s able to see something like a divine purpose in the suffering, with this idea that it pushes us towards the divine. Even if, for him, the ‘divine’ is the consciousness that holds us all together.
“Yes there is suffering. What can we do about suffering? We can help one another. We can love one another. And if you can do that through atheism – then do it through atheism. But a lot of people need to know that this is temporary, that we are the temporary manifestation of something greater. Something complete and whole. Something timeless and spaceless and absolute. And every dogma in the world has been trying to tackle and understand that. Art has been trying to represent it, science has been trying to explain it and no one can. We’re up against the parameters, and I believe without embracing something spiritual, something whole, something beyond human thought we have no chance of saving ourselves, and saving the planet, we are all connected to consciousness, we are all connected to one another, and to me that sounds a bit like God.”
If God is purely a transcendent being who doesn’t really interact with the world, and who leaves us waving our arms around blindly in the throes of our suffering, hoping that we’ll somehow accidentally bump into him, or each other, for the better — which is sort of Brand’s version of God — then I think Fry is actually closer to the money. This sort of God is a bit of a monster, human existence becomes something like a reality TV show that God watches, or controls, from the sidelines. God becomes this sort of Big Brother, muttering the occasional instruction, keeping the housemates in the dark about the reality of the universe.
But God doesn’t do this. He doesn’t stand apart from our pain. He enters it. First by becoming human – Jesus, God the Son, enters the world as a baby, a lowly baby, a part of a despised and persecuted people group, in an imperial backwater. Then by being executed. Painfully. Horribly. Unjustly. The injustice is magnified when you consider just who it is that is being executed and what he has given up in order to become human, let alone to suffer and die. John puts it like this:
“So the soldiers took charge of Jesus. Carrying his own cross, he went out to the place of the Skull (which in Aramaic is called Golgotha). There they crucified him, and with him two others—one on each side and Jesus in the middle.”—John 19:16-18
Jesus is nailed to two planks of wood. On a hill. In public display — for the purpose of seeing him utterly humiliated. The lowest of the low. Killed in the most painful way imaginable. For the sake of those who kill him, and those who given the chance, and given his claim to be ruler of our lives, would also want to kill him.
John describes the life of Jesus, and rejection of Jesus, in his opening:
“The true light that gives light to everyone was coming into the world. He was in the world, and though the world was made through him, the world did not recognize him. He came to that which was his own, but his own did not receive him.”— John 1:9-11
This is not a God who is distant and unknowable, who leaves us flailing around blindly in our pain. Who uses pain as some sort of subliminal way of getting our attention (though it might point us to the truth that something is very wrong with the world). Nor is it a maniacal self-serving God who demands we approach him on our knees and sends flesh-eating worms with no solutions. This is a God who is so committed to doing something about the pain and suffering in the world — pain and suffering that, if God is the God of the Bible, is a result of us rejecting him, that he came into the world to be rejected all over again, to take on pain and suffering, out of love.
What’s interesting, too, is that the kind of connection-via-consciousness that Brand so desperately wants as a link to the divine is something Jesus says is the result of his life, and death, for those who reconnect to the transcendent God, the source of life, through him.
“My prayer is not for them alone. I pray also for those who will believe in me through their message, that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you. May they also be in us so that the world may believe that you have sent me. I have given them the glory that you gave me, that they may be one as we are one — I in them and you in me—so that they may be brought to complete unity. Then the world will know that you sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me.
“Father, I want those you have given me to be with me where I am, and to see my glory, the glory you have given me because you loved me before the creation of the world.” John 17:20-24
I like the version of God revealed in Jesus much better than Fry’s version of God, and more, even, than Brand’s version of God. I think Jesus gives us not just hope in suffering, or hope beyond suffering, but also a pattern for responding to the suffering of others that is much more satisfying the Fry’s directionless indignation (because, let’s face it, he’s angry at a God he doesn’t believe in who looks nothing like the God who reveals himself in Jesus), and much more focused than Brand’s unknowable God-beyond-our-senses.
If only I had a British accent.