“Yet you say, ‘The way of the Lord is not just.’ Hear, O house of Israel: Is my way unjust? Is it not your ways that are unjust?”
— Ezekiel 18:25
Let me preface this with an admission, or perhaps a confession. I do not like Stephen Fry, or I at least do not agree with some of the things he says and the manner in which he says them.
I know he is not the only person who says such things, but here I am going to focus solely on quotes attributed to Mr. Fry himself, because I have seen them shared and spread around. He says things that many atheists and skeptics identify with. He says things that I may, at one point, have identified with had I read them at that time in my life.
That all being said, I respect Mr. Fry and he is entitled to his opinion. Discourse about ideas, especially big ones like God, is important for any person seeking answers in this world.
One of the first things I discovered in my recent exploration of Mr. Fry’s words was his interview for a program called The Meaning of Life. The interviewer asked Stephen what the latter would say if he met God face-to-face at the “pearly gates.” Mr. Fry announced that his first words would be
“Bone cancer in children? What’s that about? How dare you? How dare you create a world in which there is such misery that is not our fault?”
One “standard” Christian answer is to point to Adam and Eve, to point to the Fall that led to the corruption and imperfection of the world, which was hitherto designed to be a perfect place. God remains perfect, and man is the cause of all the misfortune in the world. This may very well be a satisfying answer for someone who accepts a certain view of the Bible, but this argument is meaningless to an atheist or even a non-Christian.
We must therefore discuss on different terms.
In another, separate quote attributed to Fry, Stephen challenges Christians with this idea directly rather than issuing a hypothetical challenge to God:
“You can’t just say there is a God because well, the world is beautiful. You have to account for bone cancer in children. You have to account for the fact that almost all animals in the wild live under stress with not enough to eat and will die violent and bloody deaths. There is not any way you can just choose the nice bits and say that means there is a God and ignore the true fact of what nature is.”
To this I must respond: not all Christians are ignorant. Not all religious people are ignorant. Like almost any group, loud extremists get attention, while the quiet, satisfied people who hold more moderate (I’m hesitating to say balanced) beliefs fall by the wayside.
To other Christians I say, as a caveat, I’m not writing this to condemn the extremists. To me, being a Christian means believing certain things about Jesus Christ as a savior and the rest is between you and God.
Back to my point: I do account for bone cancer in children. I do account for the savagery of nature and indeed that of man. And I am a Christian and I think God is good and just.
And I know I’m not the only one who believes this way.
This seems to be a not-uncommon assumption from some anti-theists or anti-Christians: that Christians are not only ignorant of scientific knowledge but that they also must live in a little bubble, separate from reality, in order to preserve their faith. If only they gained more knowledge, more experience, opponents say, these Christians would be forced to capitulate and admit that there is no God.
To be clear, I’m not saying that all atheists or non-Christians are this way. I’m referring here to the evangelicals, those who are not content to live peacefully side-by-side with Christians (although I admit, some Christians don’t make it easy).
From Bone Cancer to God of the Gaps
I know a woman right now, personally, who has in the past identified as Christian. I’m not entirely sure how she identifies at the moment: she is married to an atheist and she is currently reading and exploring scientific knowledge about the world and the universe.
She is a prime example of the “bubble Christian.” Her faith is being shaken because the new information she is reading is contradicting the things she learned growing up in church. Combine that with the fact that many (most?) Christians take an all-or-nothing approach to the Bible and it means that when she starts to disagree with, say, Genesis, she has no choice but to chuck the whole thing out the window.
This is something all humans, Christians or otherwise, can be guilty of: throwing the baby out with the bathwater. The Bible talks about a six-day creation, the parting of seas, columns of fire and talking donkeys. Believe me, Genesis is not the biggest stretch in the Bible. Many non-Christians look at all that, dismiss it as nonsense, and throw out the whole book.
Or they read about not being able to eat pork, daughters lying with their father, women being turned to salt and cities being leveled by flame. Then the whole thing is evil and hateful and it gets thrown out for that, instead.
But the Bible also talks about redemption, humility, acceptance, equality, forgiveness, and perhaps most important of all, Love. It teaches that there is a Being, an Intelligence behind the universe, and that that Being, named YHWH or Jehovah or God, is not a distant and dispassionate ruler, lording over a distant land, but a loving Father who wants nothing more than to be reunited with His children.
Faith has value. The Bible has value. Its value may not be readily apparent, especially to a casual reader or observer. Let me say here that it was not my study of the Bible that first led me to God. It was only after I understood what capital-L Love meant that I accepted the capital-T Truth of the Bible.
Science also has value. Christians who choose to disregard humanity’s scientific endeavors do so at their own peril, lest they end up like the woman I mentioned above, finding themselves at a crossroads where they must either deny the science or deny God.
The choice between Luddite and atheist is, however, a false dichotomy. There need be no war between religion and science, but still we humans persist on fighting one. A longer defense of the compatibility of the two disciplines is beyond the scope of this essay, so I will return to a familiar point of contention, aided once again by (a quote attributed to) Mr. Fry.
“[We] wonder [at nature and reality] all the way. We don’t just stop and say that which I cannot understand I’ll call God, which is what mankind has done historically.”
This is an argument against a perspective known as “God of the gaps,” which points to unexplained phenomena and attributes the cause to God. As an example, think ancient Greeks telling stories about Zeus shooting down lightning or Hephaestus clanging away in his forge, inducing earthquakes and volcanic eruptions.
We might want to laugh at the ignorance of the ancients until we remember that there are still people trying to use “irreducible complexity” as an argument for creation over evolution.
I am not the first to chastise Christians for this view, so I’ll borrow words from those who have gone before, like Lutheran pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who was executed by the Nazis during the last days of World War II.
“[How] wrong it is to use God as a stop-gap for the incompleteness of our knowledge. If in fact the frontiers of knowledge are being pushed further and further back (and that is bound to be the case), then God is being pushed back with them, and is therefore continually in retreat. We are to find God in what we know, not in what we don’t know.”
I wonder what Fry would say if he realized he was arguing on the same side as Christians! It is true that people still maintain this “God of the gaps” perspective, but it is to their own detriment, as it leaves them with an indefensible position from which to hold off challenges to their faith, allowing people like Stephen Fry to crawl through the cracks and make all of Christendom look foolish.
Another, unrelated quote I found attributed to Fry is this one:
“I suppose the thing I most would have liked to have known or been reassured about is that in the world, what counts more than talent, what counts more than energy or concentration or commitment, or anything else – is kindness. And the more in the world that you encounter kindness or cheerfulness – which is its kind of amiable uncle or aunt – the better the world always is. All the big words: virtue, justice, truth – are dwarfed by the greatness of kindness.”
Oy. As I said, this is attributed to Stephen Fry, but even if he didn’t say it, someone did. I feel as though, if Mr. Fry did say this, it explains a great deal about how he views God. “Virtue, justice, and truth,” he says, are “dwarfed by the greatness of kindness.”
The world, however, is not kind. If the world was designed by God, then God must be unkind. And if kindness is the greatest virtue, that which counted the most, then unkindness would be the greatest vice. Therefore, God is, as Mr. Fry has said, “utterly evil.”
But is it? Is kindness the greatest virtue? You have likely guessed my position by now.
Let us first, before we go further, let us define kindness.
The Oxford Dictionary website defines kindness as
“The quality of being friendly, generous, and considerate.”
Well, that certainly sounds like a good thing. We could use more of that in the world. Let’s take a look at the root word: kind.
Oxford basically repeats the above definition for kindness, so let’s look at Merriam-Webster:
“having or showing a gentle nature and a desire to help others : wanting and liking to do good things and to bring happiness to others.”
Bringing happiness! Isn’t that like what Mr. Fry said? Cheerfulness! What a great thing.
I am reminded of a story called Liar! by Isaac Asimov. It is one of Asimov’s stories about positronic robots and it features a robot named Herbie who, due to some unknown error, is able to read minds. Those familiar with Asimov’s stories will recall his famous “Three Laws of Robotics,” which are reprinted below:
- A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm.
- A robot must obey the orders given it by human beings, except where such orders would conflict with the First Law.
- A robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Laws.
In the story, Herbie tells a lie to psychologist Susan Calvin about a man in whom she is interested. The robot tells her that the man loves her, but he only tells her this because he does not want to hurt her feelings. He is not allowed to, according to the First Law.
Later, Calvin finds out that the man is getting married and realizes that Herbie has lied. She goads and challenges the mind-reading robot until it breaks down, utterly insane, unable to find a solution that fits within the boundaries of the Three Laws.
Herbie tries to be kind, tries to bring happiness to others. But this happiness is immediate, not lasting, and by focusing on the pleasure of the moment, he condemns Calvin to greater sorrow. When she comes to him, upset, he tries to convince her that all of what is happening is just a dream!
He lies once and then piles more lies on top because he cannot address the real issue without hurting Calvin’s feelings. The quote about the greatness of kindness elevates kindness above even truth. What would Mr. Fry (and those like him) say to Herbie, who seeks to be kind at the expense of truth?
At the time of writing, I am still recovering from a broken ankle, and I feel a medical analogy is appropriate here. My cast and my crutches caused me discomfort, and the recovery has been challenging and painful, physically and spiritually. What pains could have been avoided, what suffering alleviated if only I had been allowed to lie in a hospital bed for two months? I could even have been sedated! I wouldn’t have had to suffer at all!
But my cast and crutches, these trappings of my recovery, along with the pain and discomfort I endured on the road to recovery, these things prevented greater suffering and greater anguish. By pushing myself, by remaining active, I am able to strengthen my leg and ankle, and now I feel a joy much greater in scope than the suffering I could have avoided.
Or perhaps more concisely: kindness lacking in any other virtue is like a pain-relieving medication. It treats the symptoms of the problem without addressing the actual problem. Perhaps surgery is in order, to treat a cancer or a broken bone. Surgery is painful; it is damaging to the body. But in the end it is not enough to simply continue the pain medication. The surgery must be allowed to take place to ensure complete healing.
Kindness is medication; Love is surgery. A basic kindness, lacking in respect for justice or truth, merely placates. Love is a deeper kindness, more meaningful, and it ties all virtues into itself and insists on full recovery.
As one of my co-workers put it following my injury:
“Look at it this way: if you had an easy life, you’d be a weak man.”
Our bodies need to be challenged in order to grow strong. Our ideas need to be challenged in order to be resilient. Our love needs to be challenged in order to grow deeper and larger in scope. Even Christ said in Matthew 5:46-47 (NKJV),
“For if you love those who love you, what reward have you? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? And if you greet your brethren only, what do you do more than others?”
What good is it to lead an unchallenged life? The parent who protects their child from the unkindness of the world does nothing to prepare the child for independence. Kindness is a parent holding on to the seat of a bike, endlessly guiding the child as he learns to ride. Love is, at some point, letting go.
Kindness is not the greatest virtue unless it is taken beyond the narrow scope of human vision and tempered with what Mr. Fry might call subordinate virtues: justice, wisdom, temperance, and courage. I would encourage even non-Christians to include faith, hope, and love.
At this point, it becomes something different: the capital-L Love that exists at the edge of human experience, waiting to be realized and accepted.
Bone cancer is a tragedy, even more so when it happens in children. But if we live in a world of cause and effect, of physical laws, of thermodynamics, of random mutation and random molecular movement, then bad things are going to happen.
You don’t have to attribute it to the Fall in Genesis if you don’t like. If you don’t believe in God, then this is simply the way the universe is. But a lesson that can be taken from the story of Adam and Eve is that man (separated from God) is the architect and the groundskeeper of his own suffering. Suffering exists in the human heart, and it can be pushed back.
Even very great suffering can strengthen a body, a mind, or a soul if viewed in the proper light. It is easy to find stories of people who overcame great setbacks and created something great not only in spite but because of their suffering.
God or not, we live in a world where suffering exists. I have experienced what I would call Love with a capital “L,” and I believe that the Bible is right when it says that “God is love.”
If you want to argue against the idea of a loving God, take into account Ezekiel 18:32 (NIV):
“For I take no pleasure in the death of anyone, declares the Sovereign LORD. Repent and live!”
God is no more eager to condemn us than parents are eager to condemn and punish their children. But actions have consequences, and for the most part, human suffering is a result of just that. For the rest of human suffering, see “cause and effect…” above.
Stephen Fry argues in his Meaning of Life interview that
“the Greeks [gods] were… they didn’t pretend not to be human in their appetites, in their capriciousness, in their unreasonableness.”
Stephen Fry does not accept that God is not Herbie the robot, nor is He subject to the limitations of a human mind. At this point, we’re not even discussing the same Being!
Mr. Fry seems to grasp that if a God existed, then He had the power to create the universe. What Mr. Fry does not grasp is that if the previous sentence is true, then it is likely that God does not think like a human! He does not have the same perspective on time and space, on suffering and existence.
The God of the Bible does not lie to humanity. God tells us those things which will make us suffer, and tells us those things which will bring us life.
God is for us, not against us. Why else would He suffer and die, only to save us? And to the non-believer, why else would we live in a world filled with so much beauty, just waiting to be discovered? Mr. Fry says himself that
“The wonder of nature must be taken in its totality and it is a wonderful thing.”
If he, or anyone else, really, truly believes that statement (a statement with which I agree, by the way), then I wonder why they should raise such a fuss over bone cancer.