FAITH Magazine March-April 2010
DEFENDING GOD AT THE BBC
How we might have answered the questions put during a hostile BBC radio interview in the aftermath of the Haiti earthquake.
MAKING SENSE OF THE HORROR
"I have nothing to say that makes sense of this horror... ". That was the headline quote chosen by the BBC from an interview with John Sentamu, Anglican Archbishop of York, on Radio 4's popular Today programme the morning after the Haiti earthquake. The words are, of course, edited away from their following context in which he said that there are no easy answers to this tragedy, but that God is with those suffering in the person of the risen Christ.
The prominent BBC interviewer began by referring to Christian calls to pray, demanding to know "But who do we pray to? The God who allowed all these people to die? - ironically adding "Archbishop, why did God allow this to happen?" After listening to a denial that God inflicts tragedies randomly, the journalist intervened with: "I don't understand what you are trying to say ... What you seem to be arguing for is a slot machine God ... the suffering that has been imposed upon the people of Haiti, many of them clearly innocent, is random." Also posed was the perennial question: "How can God be all-powerful and all merciful?"
The Archbishop was probably taken aback by the aggressively indignant tone of the presenter John Humphries, as he attacked Christian belief in a good God. He was also, no doubt, trying to avoid giving too glib an answer. However, with hindsight we can formulate some more focussed answers to the points raised, which others may find helpful in answering troubled parishioners or sceptical enquirers. Here is what might have been said:
HOW COULD GOD LET IT HAPPEN?
"First of all, it is not as if this event has suddenly confronted Christian believers with new issues for their faith. Suffering, especially on a large scale, is always shocking, of course, but natural disasters have happened before and individual tragedies can affect families and just as deeply. So this is not really a question about Haiti specifically, it is the question of why there is any suffering at all.
Actually behind all suffering, even so called "natural disasters", there are often many layers of complex causality. It is not enough just to ask why earthquakes happen. We know what the physical causes are. We need to ask why people were living in cramped poverty in inadequate housing on this vulnerable island? Why was there no warning when we have such sophisticated scientific techniques for predicting these things now? The answers will touch on slavery, colonialism, modern day corruption, crime and drug addiction, the lack of equity in international development, human ignorance, greed, and many other things.
WHAT SORT OF GOD DO WE PRAY TO?
Yes, there are natural forces that shape the earth and the environment we live in, and these can be dangerous for us. We are contingent creatures in a fragile world. In the same way there are dangers for a baby or toddler even in the most loving home, not because the homemakers are evil, but because of the immature nature of the child. So we guide and teach our children to avoid these dangers. And that is how God wants to deal with us, but our relationship with God has been severely disrupted. We often don't listen, but we are also incapable of hearing clearly because our consciences have been damaged by sin. Our relationship with each other and indeed with the natural environment has been damaged and distorted too. Our reaction to suffering, therefore, should not be to turn away from God, but to seek him more earnestly in prayer, at the same time as helping others in whatever way we can.
Christianity does not teach a naive vision of life with a fairy tale God, despite the caricature of faith promoted by some atheists. If it did, how could we cope with the fact of our Lord and Saviour dying on a cross? We do not pray to a god who waved a magic wand to heal this world of its woes. We worship God who took humanity and suffering upon himself in order to heal and transform it from the inside. Death is not the ultimate tragedy. God the Father allowed Jesus to die. The death of the soul is the ultimate tragedy. Perhaps there are many painful things in this world which cannot be put right until human nature itself is healed.
DOES SUFFERING DISPROVE GOD?
In any case, suffering does not logically disprove God. The very scientific laws of Nature show us that there is an absolute transcendent Mind behind the cosmos. Suffering may make us question his goodness, but not his existence. Ironically, if you do reject God and become an atheist because of the problem of suffering, then you no longer have a rational basis to feel that suffering is "not right". If there is nothing other than matter, then that is just the way things are - no "good" or "bad" about it. There is no higher vantage point from which to make a judgement about how things "ought to be".
How can God be both all-powerful and all merciful? If He is almighty then why does he not prevent evil. If he can prevent it but does not, then he is not good.
Our answer, which we have been exploring a little here, is that ultimate goodness and power are not as we may imagine them to be, as the crucified Christ makes clear.
IS THERE AN ANSWER TO EVIL?
The traditional answer to the question of evil is that even God cannot force us to love him or to be good, because it is the very nature of love to be free. Love is goodness freely embraced, and God is Love by nature. God respects our freedom, and our free choices have real consequences that affect others, they may affect the planet and future generations. It may not be their fault, but the fault lines spread outwards into every aspect of human existence.
The effects of the first human sin would actually be analogous to a terrible earthquake, devastating human nature and making man's place in Nature insecure. We are still living with the aftermath, and with the aftershocks of that event. The cumulative results of human degradation, ignorance, greed and venality over the ages have created a conspiracy of suffering which can only be undone by a new injection of wisdom and a new conspiracy of love - love of God and love of neighbour. That can only come from the mind and heart of Jesus Christ.
THE PAPAL ARGUMENT AGAINST RELATIVIST RIGHTS
DEFENDING THE POPE
Recently Pope Benedict said to our Bishops, during their five-yearly visit to him, that the measures enshrined in the Government's equality legislation partly go against the "natural law". For saying this he has received much criticism, and 'gay rights' campaigners, along with 'humanists', have said that they intend to mount protests when Pope Benedict comes to England later this year. The Chief Rabbi and others have supported him, and the Government has pulled back, probably with an eye to the Papal visit.
THE CURRENT SITUATION
The position of the Government and of such campaigners and many other cultural icons in our society is that the rights of active homosexuals to be unimpeded in having their relationship treated as normal trump the rights of Christians not to so cooperate. Hence Catholic adoption agencies have been closed down, individuals such as Gary McFarlane (who refused to give relationship counselling to same-sex couples) and Lillian Ladele (who refused to register civil partnerships) both recently lost their jobs and their appeals. Catholic schools are being forced to make children aware that, without their parents' consent, they can access medical contraception and abortion services, (although we are allowed, kindly, to add our 'opinion' of these activities). And now, in the latest equality legislation, religious organisations were to be forced to be open to employing people who are publicly living lives that contradict our vision of love e.g. actively gay 'partners'. On this latter point the Government lost in the House of Lords over their efforts to force us to employ such people. This led to the government mooting the idea of not bringing the clause back through the House of Commons, which partial climb-down became formal policy the day after the Pope's words.
The Pope has, in recent years, quite often pointed out the perversity of this drift concerning human rights: it is cutting off the branch upon which it is sitting. The very concept of rights flows precisely from the Christian vision concerning the dignity of the human person, which lay at the roots of western civilisation. For it is only upon the vision of each person as called to enter into communion with God and others that certain supports and freedoms which allow and enable Man's response accrue to him - i.e. "rights". At the heart of the recent encyclical Caritas in Veritate was the Pope's attempt to develop this understanding of "natural law" and associated social teaching to emphasise more strongly that Man himself is "gift" made for "relationship".
However, because this very civilisation, at least in England, is removing its Christian foundation, it is removing the coherence of its vision of rights. Thus, with an extreme irony, and an arrogant inconsistency, an exaggerated version of 'gay rights' is being used against the right to religious freedom - a concept that lies at the very heart of any coherent concept of rights at all. The Pope has repeatedly pointed out that this is a dangerous situation. Whose rights will be next to go in the headlong march to make sexual gratification an absolute right? For it is surely this which is driving so much of Britain's anti-life secularisation.
John Deighan 's article in this issue explains the two cases referred to above. Our Road from Regensburg column has been monitoring the development of the Pope's basic argument in this regard, especially over the last year or so. The current instalment includes an extract from his 1 February address.
OVERVIEW OF PROBLEMS WITH NEW LAW
The Children, Schools and Families Bill is very likely to become law making sex and relationships education a statutory part of the national curriculum. Children must "learn the nature of Civil Partnership, and the importance of strong and stable relationships". Removed from the statute book is the rejection of "teaching and materials which are inappropriate, having regard to the age and the religious and cultural background of the pupils concerned". The government has affirmed that faith schools will still be able to present their moral "views", as long as they are not presented as "the only valid ones".
The specific requirements flowing from this are to be worked out by later government "guidance", for Sept 2011 implementation. Consultation on their draft closes on 19 April 2010. Somewhat logically, given the wording and nature of the Bill, this guidance contains elements for Key Stage 2 (age 7-11) which are in serious tension with Catholic teaching (e.g. teaching this age group about sexual intercourse, contraception and homosexuality), and for Key Stage 3 (age 11-14) which directly contradict it.
These latter pupils, who are under the legal age of consent, must be told where they can, without their parents knowing, obtain contraception and the morning-after pill. A Catholic school might be prepared to sail close to the legal wind by contextualising these facts through Church teaching. However the process of proactively providing this information would be to enable, and thus to become party to, teenage promiscuous behaviour - analogous to telling pupils where they can confidentially get boxing gloves for free to reduce the adverse effects of any bullying they might, regrettably, engage in.
There are numerous other very worrying aspects to this legislation. Cf. the Family Education Trust: Tel: 020 8894 2525, www.famyouth.org.uk