Tuesday, 3 February 2015

Stephen Fry on God: Missing The Wood For The Trees?

A video of Stephen Fry has just gone viral - it's the one in which he gives quite a frank response to the question "What would you say to God?":

"I'd say, 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? It's not right, it's utterly, utterly evil. Why should I respect a capricious, mean-minded, stupid God that creates a world that is so full of injustice and pain?"

What this really amounts to is Stephen Fry not being able to reconcile the world with a Creator God. That's fair enough - some people can't, whereas others can. Whichever way we cut the cloth, it is a tough world, with lots of cruelty and injustice as well as plenty of beauty and wonder, and whereas many atheists can't see that world as being created by a perfect God, Christians see the fallenness and afflictions of nature as being part of the earthly narrative from which God has saved us in Christ, and into which He'll come back again to restore to glory.

It's quite understandable that believers and unbelievers would view the above differently, but here's an interesting question that both may not have considered in quite this way - one that on first inspection seems easy and obvious, but on closer inspection maybe isn't. The question is: given the natural laws of nature, why is it that we can imagine a reality so much better than this one? The 'on the surface' answer is easy, but deeper layers reveal it to be a much more profound question.

The surface answer seems to be that we can imagine a better reality because we know of a better reality through other people's experience. For example, if you asked me the question - how can you imagine how good it would be to win the lottery and be super rich? - my answer would be that although I've never been super rich myself, I know what the pleasures of having money is like, I know what nice things are like, and I can get a sense of what others are feeling when they win big money. They have more days off than me; they have more holidays, a nicer house, a nicer car, they can do more to help others financially, and so forth.

The reason I can imagine how good it would be to win the lottery and be super rich is because the pleasures are not qualitatively beyond what I can conjecture - they amount to a quantitative increase in pleasure because they are more of what I already know. Similarly, suppose a machine was invented that can make the male orgasm last 30 minutes. I can imagine what a 30 minute orgasm would be like because I know what a shorter orgasm feels like, so again what I'm being asked to consider is a quantitative improvement not a qualitative one.

Now when it comes to the question - why is it that we can imagine an other-worldly reality so much better than this one? - we obviously need a qualifier, because it is easy to assume that the so-called 'better' reality imagined is really a mental aggregation of all our earthly experiences and aspirations.

But it seems to me that there is more to it than that. The imagined better world I have in mind seems to me to be the imagination of a reality that transcends our universe altogether. Perhaps it is intuition, perhaps it is even a trick of the mind - but perhaps that reality imagined really is a case of tapping into an extra-worldly reality for which we were created - that this world is only a prelude to a more stupendous disquisition not yet fully realised.

Here's another additional point to ponder. It's also the case that in evolutionary terms the things most necessary for survival are the things most inherent in our cognitive make-up: the need for food, drink, copulation, warmth, safety, and so forth. But it is interesting that the things most necessary for our survival are not the most wonderful things that make life really worth living in terms of those stupendous pleasures that make life so glorious. That is to say, the things about reality that make it really worth living in terms of supererogation (more than what is asked for) are those extras in life not necessary for survival but that make life all the more enriching - the joy of romantic love, the marvelling at great poetry, and art, and theology, and literature, and mathematical patterns, the enchantment of deep philosophical questions, and the beauty of imbibing the wonder of the natural world - they are the things least necessary for survival, but yet the most intellectually stunning and emotionally breathtaking things about being human.

Maybe when the poets tell us that heavenly roses are planted where earthly thorns grow, and that we are to expect souls to heaven taking flight, they were tapping into hints of a reality that dwarfs the stupendousness of earthly life. Perhaps when Christian scripture writers tell us that we have a heavenly city that has foundations whose designer and builder is God, or that the river of the water of life is as bright as crystal and flowing from the throne of God, or that there will be a new heaven and a new earth for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, what's actually being expressed with those metaphors and symbolisms is the real glory for which we were created, and into which we'll enter, thanks to Christ's love and grace on the cross.

*Photo courtesy of M2.Joe.ie


  1. Wonderfully written, I would add to your list of life enriching experiences the joy of enjoying my children, a joy I could not conceive before they were born.

  2. Thanks Danny. I had to omit children-raising from my list as it one of the things essential for survival, whereas my list was specifically for the joys and wonders of things *not* essential for survival. Thanks for bringing it up though - I've no doubt raising children is one of life's wonderful blessings.