How is It Possible to Retain Faith in a God Who Allows Such Terrible Suffering to Go on in the World?
By Craig Brown
IT IS without doubt one of the hardest tests for any Christian’s faith: to watch images of natural disasters on the scale of Hurricane Katrina in 2005 or the Asian tsunami that destroyed thousands of lives in 2004 occur, or to witness a friend or family member suffer a slow and painful death through a terminal illness, and still be sure that their God is, as the Bible asserts, a loving one.
Certainly, at its polarities, the moral complexities are almost unbearable for people of faith: either God sits dispassionately watching disaster unravelling in his creation, unmoved to help; or he is instrumental in their happening and people are merely pawns in a game.
The issue of suffering has taxed both Christian and atheist philosophers and thinkers down the ages, and is described by some as one of the most powerful weapons against faith.
For the Rev Dr Sir John Polkinghorne, physicist and theologian, slicing the Gordian Knot of this particular problem is something that Christians should not shy away from, and it forms the basis of his challenging lecture Does God interact with his suffering world?, which he will give at St Andrews University on Thursday as part of the James Gregory public lectures series on science and religion.
“I think it’s very important that theology is willing to face challenging issues,” he says. “There are two strands to my talk: firstly, does God interact with the world? And if God does, then how come there is so much suffering in the world? Why doesn’t he do a bit more interaction, to put it bluntly.”
Having been a physicist for 25 years – working on elementary particles such as the quark – before resigning from his professorial post at Cambridge University to take religious orders and become an Anglican priest in 1982, Prof Polkinghorne brings his scientific insight to challenge the idea that the world is merely a clockwork device running to some greater power’s ineffable plan.
“Essentially, my response is that, up to the beginning of the 20th century, physics seemed to describe a world of mechanism, a clockwork world, and if that was what we lived in then it would just tick away and God just watched what happened,” he contends.
“But there was always something suspicious about that view, because we have always known that we ourselves are not clockwork automatons. Twentieth century physics has seen the death of a merely mechanical view of the world, first of all through quantum theory, its unpredictabilities, its cloudiness and then to chaos theory, the fact that everyday physics is not predictable in that sense, with the famous ‘butterfly effect’ and the weather, things of that nature.”
Perhaps then, where the possibility exists that a red admiral butterfly could flap its wings in Britain and influence the course of a tornado somewhere on the other side of the world, the idea of a “cosmic hand” pushing weather systems around to disastrous effect is unsophisticated to say the very least.
“Whatever the world is, it is not clockwork and it’s something more subtle than that and, I’m going to argue, more supple than that,” Prof Polkinghorne says.
“For a start, we connect in the world and we are agents who can execute their intentions – I can decide to raise my arm or not – and if we can connect with the world in this way, then it would be very surprising if the world’s creator hadn’t also retained some power of interacting within the ‘open grain’ of nature.
“The picture I want of God’s relationship with the world is one of continuing interaction, not occasional intervention; poking with the divine finger when things go wrong.”
The idea of “interacting within the ‘open grain’” is a subtle distinction that Prof Polkinghorne feels helps Christian theology to steer its way through the two, as he sees it, “unacceptable” extreme pictures of God: that of uninvolved onlooker or, in his words, cosmic tyrant carrying out a sort of “divine puppetry”.
“Both views are unacceptable because Christians believe that the fundamental nature of God is love, and a God of love can neither be an indifferent spectator nor a dominating tyrant.
“I believe that God interacts with the world, but doesn’t overrule the freedom he has given to creatures.”
Such a view chimes with that of the Christian philosopher and author CS Lewis, who, in his meditation on the presence of suffering, The Problem of Pain, wrote: “Not even Omnipotence could create a society of free souls without at the same time creating a relatively independent and ‘inexorable’ Nature.”
However, such freedom inevitably encompasses the existence of suffering. “I think this point of view makes it a more valuable world, but it has an inescapable shadow side to it,” Prof Polkinghorne continues.
“Because the investigations of this evolution will have great fruitfulness to them, sometimes they will have ragged edges and blind alleys.”
Of course, the “ragged edges” of evolution are a reference to the natural disasters that we see on television and are, as he admits, “challenging”.
“If you take the tsunami of a few years ago, that happened because there was an undersea earthquake,” he explains. “Earthquakes happen because the tectonic plates slip. So you might say: ‘OK, why didn’t God make a better earth than that? Why didn’t he make a world with a solid crust for example? And then there would be no tectonic plates to slip. Well, the world wouldn’t work because the tectonic plates not only bring earthquakes, they also allow in their edges mineral resources to well up and replenish the surface of the earth.”
In his own words, Prof Polkinghorne believes that creation is a “package deal” that, much as we would rather it did not, includes the bad and the good, and that the further mankind delves into its secrets, the more deeply entangled apparently disparate phenomena become.
“The fact there are tsunamis, earthquakes and things like that, it’s not gratuitous, it’s not something that a God who was a bit more competent or a bit less callous could easily remove,” he says.
“It’s very important to realise that science only understands partly how the world works. For example, how chaos theory and quantum theory relate to each other is an unsolved problem. They certainly don’t fit together, they’re incompatible with each other, so there are lots of puzzles.”
However, that does not remove the issue of human evil: the Holocaust and its six million victims pose a serious counter- argument to any Christian claims of a loving, involved God. But Prof Polkinghorne believes that the principle of free-will is so important and so central to human existence that it overrides such concerns. “The standard response to human evil – and you can’t say this without a quiver in your voice, but you say it nonetheless – is that it is better to have a world with freely choosing persons in it, even if some of those choices are disastrous, than it would be to have a world of perfectly programmed automatons,” he says.
“You can argue about that, but I believe that is a true insight. It’s not easy to say that within a century of the Holocaust, but I think there is a truth there.”
Of course, if anything has brought the question of suffering, human evil and God back to the forefront of religious thought, it is the acts of terrorism committed by fundamentalists in the name of their faith.
“Things like the 9/11 attacks pushed it back into consciousness, but it has always been there,” Prof Polkinghorne notes.
“I think it is the most difficult problem, to understand the suffering in the world. It is the one that troubles those of who are believers more than any other. There is a mystery in suffering.”
However, in meeting the challenges, which he acknowledges are deep and existential and cannot be answered easily, Prof Polkinghorne feels that there is a fundamental importance to Christian faith in facing them.
“These are insights which are helpful. They don’t remove the problem, but they show that is not fatal for religious belief.”
* Sir John Polkinghorne will deliver his lecture Does God interact with his suffering world? on Thursday, 9 October, at 5:15pm in the Younger Hall, St Andrews. It will be the fourth in the series of 12 James Gregory public lectures to be held at the university over four years
THE Reverend Dr Sir John Polkinghorne was born in Weston-Super- Mare in October 1930, and attended the Perse School in Cambridge before national service took him into the army education corps from 1948 until 1949.
After completion of his service he went to Trinity College, Cambridge, alongside notable mathematician Michael Atiyah.
He graduated in mathematics in 1952 and studied for a doctorate in physics, which he achieved in 1955.
He later studied at the California Institute of Technology, and spent two years lecturing at Edinburgh University before returning to Cambridge University and being appointed professor of mathematical physics in 1968.
During his time there he published two books on particle physics and was involved in the discovery of the quark. He was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society in 1974.
In 1979, he resigned his Cambridge University professorship and enrolled in the Church of England theological college, Westcott House, to train to become an Anglican priest, qualifying in 1982.
In 1989 he returned to Cambridge University as dean and chaplain of Trinity Hall. He was later to become president of Queen’s College, a position he held until 1996.
In 2002, he was awarded the GBP 795,000 Templeton Prize, an award given by the Templeton Foundation to a living person who has “made an exceptional contribution to affirming life’s spiritual dimension”. Previous winners include Soviet dissident and author Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn and Mother Teresa.
Prof Polkinghorne has served on the General Synod of the Church of England, the Medical Ethics Committee of the British Medical Association and the Human Genetics Commission.
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