Human Suffering, Divine Indifference
Robinson College, Cambridge, 20th January 2013

(Dr Simon Perry)

Like several others here, I used to be in the Scouts – and in the scout movement there is a clear and straightforward hierarchy.  There is a basic, standard-issue scout with a beret, a neckerchief and a woggle – then there are assistant patrol leaders, then there are patrol leaders, then the adult scout leaders, then the scout master, and then – way up at the top of the tree – is the Group Scout Leader.  And our Group Scout Leader was an absolutely terrifying figure.  Everyone was terrified of him, and when I say everyone, I include the other scout leaders and the scout master.  His presence would change the atmosphere, evoke fear from everyone present, and frighten evil spirits back into the abyss. 

And yet, when we used to go on Scout camp – when it was cold and wet and miserable, and the food was horrible and I was missing my mum – I didn’t go and seek comfort from the assistant patrol leader, or the patrol leader, or the scout leaders or the scout master.  I went straight to this terrifying figure way up there at the top of the tree: the Group Scout Leader.  And I suppose the obvious question is why.  Well, the answer is really simple.  The Group Scout leader was my dad.  Yes, he was terrifying, but to me he was completely approachable.

This term we are looking at the character of the Christian god, and the contradictory dimensions we traditionally ascribe to this god.  On the one hand – he is the loving, caring, God-with us, character – on the other hand, he is the judge, the celestial thought police, the hanging judge who condemns the majority of his creatures to a life-time of stress, and for most humans, an eternity of torment.  Can an individual deity possibly be both all-powerful and omnipotent, and yet perfect in love?  Epicurus, the philosopher posed this very question three centuries before Christ:

Is God willing to prevent evil, but not able? Then he is not omnipotent. Is he able, but not willing? Then he is malevolent. Is he both able and willing? Then whence cometh evil? Is he neither able nor willing? Then why call him God?”

By the time this sentiment has squeezed itself through the pen of Richard Dawkins, it loses more than a touch of its subtlety.

The God of the Old Testament is arguably the most unpleasant character in all fiction: jealous and proud of it; a petty, unjust, unforgiving control-freak; a vindictive, bloodthirsty ethnic cleanser; a misogynistic, homophobic, racist, infanticidal, genocidal, filicidal, pestilential, megalomaniacal, sadomasochistic, capriciously malevolent bully.

Well, these are the aspects of the divine character that we will be exploring throughout the rest of Lent term, the focus being upon why an all-powerful God can tolerate and even demand human suffering.  After all, human suffering is everywhere!  We live in a violent universe – a universe not only in which we sometimes encounter violence, but a universe in which life can only flourish because we are in the middle of a massively violent explosion of cosmic proportions.  Violence is what we see, whether we marvel at the beauty of the milky way, or at the intricacy of the spider’s web. 
How then, could a loving god justify creating a world in which violence is the norm?  Why did he not create a world of bliss only, something closer to the kind of afterlife imagined by so many Christians?  Why would he want his children to grow up in a world of such horror?

I suppose the beginning of an answer is found by pursuing a question about an alternative.  Is it possible that a deity could create a serene, luxurious, couch-potato existence, devoid of all suffering, pain and death and yet an existence that would still be precious, worthwhile and have supreme value?  Should god have invented a non-violent universe? This, after all, is what an omnipotent god can do: he can create ecosystems in which different species are not interdependent, where the life of one does not depend upon the death of another.  Of course to create an eco system without violence is like creating a four-sided triangle, or creating a rock so big even he couldn’t move it.  But … the god of Scripture is not, and is absolutely not, an Omnipotent God!  Omnipotence comes from Greek philosophy, not Christian or Jewish Scriptures.  The God of Scripture is powerful, who creates a universe, answers prayers, and – it seems – acts in ways that do not fit with Newtonian laws of nature.  But you don’t have to be omnipotent to be an almighty god. 

Life, however short and apparently meaningless, however painful it might be, is still immeasurably valued by those that have it.  Why does a mammal run from a predator?  When caught, why does it fight until its dying breath?  Life itself is a mind-bogglingly limited resource but if it were not, would it still be precious?  Life on earth is life in the midst of a violent explosion – but this is the only conceivable context in which god-given life can flourish.  Whilst such an observation does not necessarily bring a final answer, it does show that a god who created a violent universe is not necessarily a malevolent, sadistic tyrant of cosmic proportions. 

In the reading we had from Romans, saint Paul accepts full-on, the view that the entire created order is in a state of disintegration and decay.  This is no gloomy, pessimistic, view of the universe.  The reality is that the world is full of horrible and painful stuff happening all the time.  What Paul argues for is – given that this is how the world works, what does it mean to worship a loving God in such a context? 

The upbeat, happy-clappy, god-loves me so aren’t I bless, mentality – finds little place in Scripture.  The view that ‘life-is-great so long as you remain tediously and terminally pious’ is view that many Christians manage to cling to for a long time.  The reading from the psalms seems to back up such a view.  “I was young and now I am old, and I have never seen the righteous forsaken!”  Well, it’s worth remembering that it was a member of the Israeli Royal family who wrote those words… and when you bear that in mind it sounds suspiciously like that phrase attributed to Mary Antoinette: “Let the eat cake.”  Or, “Let them eat brioche” if we translate it properly.  In the context of the psalm, it reads like a piece of well-crafted government propaganda designed to exhort the people to pray in times of trouble, rather like Archbishop William Temple calling the nation to prayer during the second world war.

However we interpret this psalm of David, Paul is under no illusion that we live in a violent, unfair, stressful universe – a creation condemned to frustration – but a creation that is itself on tiptoe waiting for something to happen!  What is that something?
For Paul, it lies in the resurrection of Christ.  In the history of the universe, in the history of nature, and the history of human nature – violent power asserts itself dispassionately, coldly, inevitably.  This was no less true in the history of politics: the great superpower of Rome, like all others, had a strict hierarchy: the privileged towards the centre, the powerless towards the margins – and out there, on the unmetaphysical outside of our world are the disposable humans to whom we remain hostile, indifferent, or ignorant.  Those at the centre exert power, those beyond the household, suffer.  That is the nature of the world we live in.

And the point of resurrection for Paul, is that the power exerted by the son of God, was not a coercive, violent, mechanical, power.  If anything, we see Christ throw off all temptation to exert power – we see him become powerless, to the point of being crucified by those who did have power.  The crucifixion of Jesus, shows that powerlessness gets you nowhere. 

And yet the resurrection is a vindication of the powerlessness of Christ.  A vindication of the self-giving love that Characterised the son of God.  There is nothing omnipotent about this Christ.  And if this Christ reveals the character of God, then this is a god who suffers, whose means are accomplished not by flexing muscle but by inviting his followers to adopt a certain way of being, a way of life in harmony with all that the world is created to be.  The whole creation, says Paul, is on tip toe, waiting for the sons of God to be revealed.  Waiting for sons of God, to be so filled with the Holy Spirit that they live and act the way that Christ lived and acted.

There is little in scripture in the way of armchair social commentary about how God chooses to act.  There is a lot which acknowledges the violent nature of our world and how God equips and invites us to live in such a world.  There is a lot about how God gives himself to such a world, and how God himself acts within such a world.  Not with omnipotence, but with a different brand of power which – on the surface of it looks harmless, toothless and pointless, but which – in reality, can change the way that the world works.

And yet, when we look at the world and we look at Scripture in its fullness – then it looks as though the way God acts in the world is in accordance with the caricatures offered by Dawkins and his followers.  A blood-thirstly, merciless control-freak…
A capriciously malevolent bully?  These are the pictures of God that we will examine throughout the rest of the term – and to see if living in a violent world means worshipping a violent God.