Stephen Fry and the Meaning of Life

Putting God on Trial: The Prosecutor’s Indignation
Stephen Fry’s appearance on the Meaning of Life show has caused quite a stir and gained international attention. When asked “What would Stephen Fry say to God?”, he replied with alacrity and in a way that showed he was no stranger to the issue, as indeed none of us should be.

Measured words rarely gain the attention of an audience, particularly in the age of internet discourse where the shouting is expected to have begun before the issue has even been fully enunciated. Mr. Fry’s words were passionate to say the least- accusatory would be a more apt description. He spoke of how he would start by saying “how dare you!”, and select a number of examples in creation that put into question the concept of a benign Creator. He made it abundantly clear that given the opportunity he would give God a good going-over.

The Right to Rage
Does his fury at God make any sense? That depends, quite apart from the issue of suffering, if there is a God or not. If there is no God then rage clearly has no place and is absurd, since there must be an object of the rage, and that object is something or someone that has done something morally wrong. No one gets angry at a rock when it falls on a friend and kills them. In a universe that accidentally creates itself there is nothing and no one to rage against, and raging against the universe itself is as futile as raging against the rock- neither of them hears or cares or understands the question. It would be like a man given three days to live being angry with the number three and swearing revenge against it.

What about if God does exist? Surely then Mr. Fry could admonish Him for the failings of His design that allows for such things as cancer, His lack of regard for what He made, in that people suffer, and His capriciousness as to who suffers and when they do?

I’m not sure if he does in fact have a rational basis for being God’s judge, since after all it implies superior wisdom as well as a superior moral position. How else does one judge someone else except by those standards?

A murderer is tried against a superior wisdom (the law) that is higher than any remonstrations that the murderer can bring forward in relation to motive or desire. The law can only be applied by those not guilty of the same crime; they must have a superior moral position that they can appeal to in the face of the murderer’s personal feelings that he can act any way he likes and it is not wrong.

The Right to Judge
To which of these can Stephen Fry appeal to? He looks at the problems he finds in the universe and has to claim he would have made it better than God, if only in some areas. It is interesting that this is one of the implicit claims Job makes in the biblical book of Job (written over 3000 year ago) in the midst of his own suffering. The problem is that Mr. Fry can’t possibly claim to have a greater wisdom than God concerning creation. None of us can, since our limitations in understanding are evident to us every minute of every day of our lives. Some claim they can “read” other people but clearly they can’t, even in the most superficial way. We don’t even know our own minds. Astronomers can look at the universe through a telescope or biologists at a microbe through a microscope, but still have only a rudimentary grasp of what they are looking at. Order the universe more wisely? That power is beyond any created thing.

The Morality of It
No, it can’t be a failing of understanding or wisdom on the part of God- regardless of any “why” questions, He has proved by His ability to manage astonishing complexity and bring about a diverse and magnificent universe on a macro and micro level; it must therefore be a moral failing that Mr. Fry is raging against.

Unfortunately the ground here is no firmer than it was on the issue of superior wisdom, because if he really did want to get angry he would be required to appeal to or claim a superior morality. What however, could this standard possibly be? In a universe without God the concept of morality is an evolutionary construct, each society producing its own codes of conduct, all of which a product of their genes, themselves a product of chance plus time. If as he says God is a moral monster, then that God created Stephen Fry and placed him in a society with a morality that believed any god creating a world with cancer is a moral monster, then instilled in them a view that God is not supposed to be a moral monster.

So God creates a world where he knowingly judges and condemns Himself by His own rules. If Mr. Fry rages, he uses the standard given to him by God and implies that this God-given standard is a good and ultimate source of justice and judgment. As C.S. Lewis wrote

The moment you say that one set of moral ideas can be better than another; you are in fact, measuring them both by a standard, saying that one of them conforms to that standard more nearly than the other. The standard that measures the two things is something different from either… you are in fact comparing them both with some ‘Real Morality’ admitting that there is such a thing as real Right independent of what people think, and that some people’s ideas get nearer to the real Right than others.

Doing the Right Thing the Wrong Way
I submit that his anger is actually a godly anger, similar to Asaph’s complaint in Psalm 73 about the wicked getting away with murder. Questioning God and being surprised by what we perceive as His wrong-headed activities seems to be a stepping stone to a more profound understanding of how God can use everything to reach people for their good.

“He is not a tame Lion; but He is good”
Can God be good when he creates a world where there are insects that blind children, or where there is such a thing as Leukemia, which are not the fault of of people? It doesn’t seem possible, but at the same time it looks impossible for it to be otherwise. Incompetent He cannot be; uninterested, how could He be? All work is purposeful, there is no work done for no reason at all. An infinite God is infinitely higher and more intelligent than man, yet He made mankind such that man reaches out and calls to His creator. It must be assumed that the Creator not only understands, but is also listening. The universe cannot be a mere experiment since He would know the results in advance, so knowledge-gathering cannot be the goal.

What if God has a good reason?
A God who creates relational beings that seek relationship with Him may have made them for just such a purpose. Relationships are not as simple as “give me what I want and we’ll be fine” except from the most childish viewpoint (and not even then). They must be more complex and nuanced if they are to have any value; the more parties understand the depth of the others’ purpose and character, the stronger and more meaningful the relationship.

Someone might object “Is there no better way to get this result?”. Couldn’t God have made a world where He brought about good through good? God may use instruments that shock us, but maybe we need to be shocked on a corporate and personal level in a way that may be destructive in the short term. Did God make a world where we seek to be healthy and wealthy only to reject the source of any good we enjoy (Himself the author of all good things), while we show how little good we do with what we have been given? Let’s face it- left to ourselves in this world, we fluctuate between disdain and tolerance, with unselfish love coming in a distant third. Health and wealth don’t seem to produce a paradise even though they are given for our good. By that economy everyone living in the Golden Triangle of Greenwich, Conn, the wealthiest Neighborhood in America, should be the happiest, most charitable and most loving people in the world, but does anyone believe that?

Our “Light and Momentary Troubles”
Christians get to look suffering right in the face like everyone else does. Their children get sick, and their family members die. Yet they go on believing in a good and loving God. Why? This passage from the bible might give some insight:

“Therefore we do not lose heart. Though outwardly we are wasting away, yet inwardly we are being renewed day by day. For our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all. So we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen, since what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal.”
-2nd Corinthians 4:16-18

By “light and temporary” the author spoke of his own trials, being beaten, threatened, shipwrecked, suffering serious physical ailments, jailed, watching friends being persecuted and killed by the state. He was no stranger to pain. Yet looking at the long term he could see the hand of God working to a good purpose, and an eternal one. It should be remember that he went on to be executed for his faith, and all of his friends mourned him.

Is it possible that God can turn evil into good? We have all seen it in our lives- things seemingly good turn bad, and the ostensibly bad turn good. Our field of vision in this area is finite, and if we were honest, surprisingly shallow. Our power to interpret events is curtailed by our own weakness and limitations.

What must the disciples have thought when the saw the suffering of Jesus Christ? They were crushed; everything they believed seems to have turned to ashes, and they lost their beloved friend. Something bigger and better was going on. God showed He knows what suffering is.

Instead of raging against God, even when brought on by compassion for the inexplicable suffering of others, what if we looked at the world in a different and perhaps more profound way? Maybe we would see that the God who created compassion, love and tenderness toward the sick and suffering might just be a God who is compassionate, loving and tender? That was certainly what Jesus was like on earth, and He said He was just reflecting His Father. Could we can trust Him when He says all things are done for a good purpose? If there is no God, none of this matters. If there is, the pieces of the puzzle fall into place in a way that can is satisfying, encouraging and ultimately comforting.

Dennis Toufexis,
Director, Reasonable Faith Montreal chapter

Excerpt from Suggested reading: A Grief Observed (C.S. Lewis)

“You never know how much you really believe anything until its truth of falsehood becomes a matter of life and death to you. It is easy to say you believe a rope to be strong and sound as long as you are merely using it to cord a box. But suppose you had to hang by that rope over a precipice. Wouldn’t you then first discover how much you really trusted it?”

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