Does It Matter ?

God and the Universe and Suffering

Various Bible passages describe the grand sweep of creation, as part of the Sovereign majesty of God. The readings for the 'Second Sunday Before Lent' (Revised Common Lectionary year B), eg, do just that: Proverbs 8 v1,22-31, St Paul's letter to the Colossians 1 v15-20, and the first 14 verses of St John's Gospel, proclaim that theme. For people of faith it can seem obvious that creation, ie, the universe, shows something of a loving God.

Yet atheistic comments of Stephen Fry have very much attacked that view. How can there be so much suffering in the universe if there is a 'loving' God? Surely God seems rather cruel.

Stephen Fry is an intelligent and articulate person, and the questions he asks about ''God and Suffering'' are very relevant and proper questions to ask.

Richard Dawkins has rightly been praised as a very good evolutionary biologist. His books on biology are stimulating, very clear explanations of complex issues in evolutionary biology, and continue to be well worth reading (even if some of the science has moved on).

But both Stephen Fry and Richard Dawkins are rather poor at doing theology - and yet, because they are very good in other fields of thought, and they are both good communicators, even on the issue of religion they are being heard and accepted by many. People rightly respect them for the areas that they are skilled at, that they also listen to this area of religion which they are not as skilled at.

Christians and other people of faith need to refute and rebut this atheistic attack. But it would be quite wrong to be anti-science or to be in denial about the understanding of the universe that we gain from science. 'Creationism' or 'Intellent Design' is no answer: certainly not without scientific evidence, of which there is currently none!

Nor should we attack the right of people to be atheist. Freedom of speech, respect for others, means that we do not try to drown the voices of others. Just as many Christians have no problem with the concept that that there is much of beauty, truth and goodness in many other Faiths, much we can share and learn from; so we can listen to atheists. We are one human family, one human species that can share so much.

Nevertheless, the atheist view on the subject of a loving God and suffering within the universe, can at times miss the point.

God and Suffering?

First the universe is how it is. It seems that no life could have evolved, or rather perhaps, have continued to evolve on earth, unless the planet was dynamic. That may be true throughout the universe, though currently we don't have direct evidence for life elsewhere. The emergence and continuation of life required energy and chemical compounds, and so on, released by the movement of active tectonic plates on the surface of the planet. The movement of those tectonic plates result in earthquakes, volcanoes and tsunamis; which in turn can result in catastrophe and suffering. Thus natural disasters are just the way a universe is, if there is to be life.

Secondly, life needs freedom to evolve. Chance and the adaptations to fit the vast number of biological niches means that we have butterflies, cherry blossom, elephants, lichen, sticklebacks, owls and a vast array of beautiful plants and animals. But the very nature of evolution means that some cells evolve into 'bad' viruses and germs: and some species have, to human sensibilities, unpleasant parasitic tendancies (they are just filling a biological niche). Thus the very existence of life means the possibility of disease, pain and suffering. There would be no life if there was no freedom of evolution, whether of galaxies and solar systems, or of living entities.

Thirdly, humans, to a greater or lesser extent, have considerable free-will. Humans have chosen to be kind, compassionate and loving. Humans have chosen to be selfish, greedy and indifferent. Most of us are probably a mixture of both. We hope that we are closer to St Francis of Assisi or the Buddha on that spectrum, and further away from Hitler or Stalin at the other end of that spectrum. Yet as the Bible indicates, using the myth of Adam & Eve, we are ''fallen'' as a species. In that Biblical myth having the ''knowledge of good and evil'' (ie, the evolution of human intelligence) means intelligent life always has that strand of evil intent woven in it - balanced by the fact that we are also in the ''image of God'', ie, with the beautiful, creative, loving divine spark within all.

Thus to have life at all, and to have human freedom, means that the universe has to be the way it is.

Neither the universe, nor life within it, including intelligent life, could have evolved without the possibilty of suffering. Neverthleless, similar to the adage that it is ''better to have loved and lost, than never loved at all''; so it is better to have life than no life, and not least because most faiths indicate a final victory of love and the rich vitality of life over evil and death. Therefore God allows the universe to exist (that can neither be proved nor disproved by science).

Like a good parent God loves the 'baby' universe, or 'baby' human race, as it grows and evolves. A human parent hopes their baby will become a loving, nobel-prize winning scientist, who can write poetry, sing and play cricket for their country (or some such!). But if the baby grows into a drug-dealing criminal and ends up in prison, a good parent will still love that child, and hope for repentance and a turning back to a good life. That is no less true of God.

So God brings and will bring hope, love, salvation and compassion to this beautiful but 'troubled' creation.

As a poster in St Aidan's Church states:

The Bible tells who is the creator - it is God.

The Bible tells us why God creates - because God loves all creation.

Science tells us how the universe evolved - it is through chance and natural laws

Science tells us when the universe evolved - perhaps 13.7 billion years ago, probably from a ''big bang'' (and further research will continue to throw new light on that).

So Stephen Fry and Richard Dawkins have asked pertinent questions about how there can be a loving God and yet suffering in the universe. The Bible teaches us that God loves us and will save us from our 'fallen' state; science explains why suffering is woven into the very existence of creation.

May we help those influenced by such atheism to see the wider picture.

[based on a sermon preached by Philip in St Aidan's Church 08/02/2015]


God and Animals

The great 17th C philosopher & mathematician Rene Descartes of ''I think, therefore I am'' fame, stated ''animals are machines'', ie, they have no feelings. That is probably an over-simplification of what Descartes actually believed.

But it is true that for many centuries people like the 12/13th Century St Francis of Assisi and the 18/19th Century Revd Arthur Broome, one of the founders of RSPCA, were exceptions to the majority of people who tended to treat animals simply as as objects.

However scientific research shows more and more how so many animals do have awareness, and that all of them feel pain. Yes, it is often truth that nature is ''red in tooth and claw'' (as Alfred, Lord Tennyson, wrote); but there is increasing evidence of altruism between species. There are examples of bears rescuing drowning birds; dogs 'adopting' baby squirrels and baby owls by caring for them; and of apes, dolphins and many other species doing altruistic things.

The vision of the first Prophet St Isaiah is a metaphorical symbol, but is also a true picture of animals in a heavenly state:

''The wolf shall live with the lamb, the leopard shall lie down with the kid, the calf and the lion and the fatling together,and a little child shall lead them. The cow and the bear shall graze, their young shall lie down together; and the lion shall eat straw like the ox. The nursing child shall play over the hole of the asp, and the weaned child shall put its hand on the adder's den. They will not hurt or destroy on all my holy mountain; for the earth will be full of the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea.'' [Isaiah 11 v6-9]

Yet the warnings of St Isaiah, like those of the other Old Testament Prophets, and the New Testament Saints, such as St John the Forerunner (the Baptist), are that we human animals are to be very aware, and repent of doing wrong.

One great wrong we humans should work at putting right is human indifference and lack of kindness to all other creatures.

Protecting their environment & habits, and being humane in the way we farm animals (if we must) is vital, and not an ''add-on'' to being Christian or indeed for anyone of any faith or no faith being properly human and humane.

There is no excuse for cruelty or not caring about the other creatures we share this planet with.

[Based on a sermon by Philip for Advent II (RCL year A) on 04/12/2016 using the readings Isaiah 11 v1-10; Matthew 3 v1-12]


Charities and their ''Bad Apples''

Some folk in Oxfam have done things that are at best immoral and at worst criminal, preying on very vulnerable individuals (various news reports in February 2018). And it is likely that similar things happen in other aid agencies. Thus the government of the UK threatens to withdraw money; and the politicians of, eg, Haiti, are getting very stroppy with these charities.

However there are many good people working very hard in these charities, in Oxfam and in Médecins Sans Frontières, etc. Why tar them with the same brush and devalue what they are doing? And why threaten the cash supply that is saving so many poor people from starvation, from the effects of natural disasters and war? Why should this flurry of righteous indignation end up making the most vulnerable peoples of the earth suffer even more by taking away such support as they do get?

And there is a wider hypocrisy in all this. Some, but far from all, British politicians of all parties have indulged in activities over the years that at best have been immoral and at worst criminal. Should the British people say that if all political parties do not come totally honest and fully clean up their own mess within a month or two then we will withhold some or all the money we give them, ie, our taxes, which is our money?

Of course that would do great damage to our health, education, transport systems, etc. Just as withholding money from Oxfam, etc, would do great damage to the poor. Sadly, eg, some police, military personnel and medical staff have done bad things (though very, very far from most of them), but there is no question of withholding money from police forces, hospital trusts or the military. Of course not - so it is rather pathetic and selfish for some UK politicians to be anti-Oxfam.

And as for the third world politicians, like those of, eg, Haiti, it is often they who have caused their peoples to become or remain poor over decades and who do very little about it. Yes, root out the ''bad apples'' in any charitable organization, but don't indulge in hypocrisy and charity-bashing.



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