Anglican Newsletter - March
I was asked recently what sort of God so organises the weather (totally beyond the control of mankind) that we have to suffer destruction and death. In my last letter I referred to the destructive weather all round the world, not mentioning the UK. However, after the December, January and now February that we have had, I have to add us to the list even though in this little corner of West Norfolk, we somehow seem to be sheltered. I really do not believe that this is because we have done a better job here of placating an awful God or of earning the smiles of a forgiving God. But that initial question remains so relevant so often. Why does this ‘loving’ Christian God allow torture, the death of infants, the destruction of communities, when none of the victims seem to be particularly guilty of anything?
Well, let me as a Christian say straight away that I don’t know! I believe in a God who has revealed much of himself to us, but by no means all and probably the relevation is tiny. So, when I am asked this question, as I so often am (sometimes I even ask myself!), I usually find myself going back to an issue of The Spectator many years ago, when that excellent writer Paul Johnson used to hold forth. Mind you, I certainly do not hold with all that Johnson wrote. Starting off as a Bevanite on the left he has finished off as a very right wing conservative with some pretty extreme views. He is a Catholic, educated by Jesuits and his religious views reflect all that. BUT, in the one article to which I now refer he wrote the following, under the headline “The notion that God permits atrocities is more bearable than the alternative”. [He was actually referring to certain man-perpetrated atrocities in the world, but ‘acts of God’ can be far more terrible! – we just can’t see how to punish that particular perpetrator.]
He wrote: “The licence God apparently gives to the commission of unpunished evil, and the infliction of pain on the innocent, is undoubtedly the commonest reason why intelligent men and women cease to believe in a deity.” He goes on to discuss how in modern times “we have become aware of the sheer power and complexities of intelligence. Our minds are powerful enough to perceive the possibility of God’s existence and of the nature of an intelligence inconceivably greater than our own. BUT, knowing as yet only a fragment of the facets of existence, in the widest sense, we would indeed be foolish to pronounce judgment on a being whose workings we do not as yet – and may never – understand; or to dismiss him, in rage and despair, as non-existent.
“The alternative to suspending judgement is far more terrible. It is to conclude that the amount of pain in the world serves no purpose at all; that the existence of the human race, with all its delights and dramas as well as suffering, is a meaningless accident; that life is totally without aim or principle, plan or explanation, beginning in pain, ending in pain and followed by senseless annihilation; that no one is in charge, ever has been or ever will be; and that life will continue its motiveless course until another meaningless accident extinguishes the whole. I find this explanation totally unbearable and far more merciless than the vision of a God who permits dreadful things to occur which we cannot understand but which one day we may come to comprehend as the wisdom which passeth all understanding.”
It’s not an attractive basis for belief, but it is extraordinarily powerful. It does put us rather into our place in the great scheme of things (assuming that like Johnson, you feel impelled to believe that there IS a scheme!). Continuing to name drop, Einstein said that “only two things are infinite, the universe and human stupidity, and I’m not sure about the former”. And, talking of not even the infinite, but of the finite, Andrew Holmes (about whom I know nothing else!) said “It is well to remember that the entire universe, with one trifling exception, is composed of others”. So this God, whom (ignoring all my other reasons for believing in him) I am compelled to believe in by Johnson, has some weighty matters on his mind in addition to us on this planet and what happens here may have impacts that we cannot conceive of.
This is all very philosophical and not very emotionally attractive as a discussion. So, as we see the terrible impact of storms in the Atlantic which hit us so hard, but which often started out as even more terrible ice and snow storms in North America; as we see on the News the effect of typhoons in the Western Pacific; as we read about the gradual disappearance of inhabited Pacific Islands under the waves of rising sea levels, as all this goes on around us, it really behoves us in our island of relative calm to consider how terrible it all really is and what we can do about it. If Paul Johnson is wrong, then why bother, let us, like the author of the Rubaiyat, eat, drink and be merry for tomorrow we die. And that’s the end of us.
But, if we stand back a little and put it all into perspective, perhaps we can relax sufficiently that we can do something useful. We are told that the rainfall in the past couple of months has been the worst since 1766 (or a year close to that, if I have got it slightly wrong). But that means that our island was hit harder than we have been only a little over 200 years ago. How did they manage? I suspect that they managed better than we are doing, because they had not messed up their countryside as much as we have. We may have no choice now but to dredge the rivers in and around Somerset to speed up the flow of water away from the Levels, bur why had we straitened them out so much in the first place, so that there are no natural outlets and flood plains to handle high levels of flow? God may be permitting nearly unprecedentedly severe weather conditions – but how responsible are we for our inability to handle these conditions? If Johnson is wrong, it does not matter – let’s those of us who are unaffected carry on with our bright and trivial lives. But, if he is right, then we should buckle down and try to improve the lot of all those around us – which could (actually WILL) be to our own enduring benefit also.
Final quote – from the Benedicite, a canticle rarely heard in Churches nowadays, but which I loved to sing as a boy – O All ye Works of the Lord, Bless ye the Lord: Praise Him and magnify Him for ever.