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Posted by on Aug 20, 2015 | 3 comments

Is ‘Suffering’ Still the Greatest Objection to Christianity?

I want to suggest that over the last few decades there has been a slow decline in objections to Christianity taking the form: “How could an all-powerful, loving God allow so much evil and suffering in the world?” The question itself comes from a modernist culture which had a very high view of human intellect, and very little room for mystery (i.e. anything that is beyond human comprehension).

What has replaced it, in my experience, is a view which takes the form: “Religion is too dogmatic and constraining; it tells everyone what they should and shouldn’t believe/do, obstructing the freedom and diversity of true spirituality.” In a postmodern culture, where what’s-true-for-me is not necessarily what’s-true-for-you, the real problem is with anything that makes absolute truth claims affecting both of us.

The odd thing is that these two objections are almost the opposite of each other. In the past Christianity was chided for not having enough answers. Now it is chided for having too many answers. Previously the failing of Christian teaching was the gaps in its explanation of reality; now it fails because it doesn’t leave enough gaps – doesn’t give the individual their freedom to believe and do what they feel to be best.

We can see this dynamic at work in Stephen Fry’s recent outburst against Christianity.

Fry represents the classical modernist way of thinking, in which human beings have a bird’s-eye perspective from which to judge and evaluate God’s effectiveness in achieving ultimate good.[1]

A much younger celebrity, Russell Brand, has criticised Fry’s position in what I consider a near-perfect example of the postmodern attitude to God, religion, and spirituality.

Around minute 7:30 of the video, Brand begins his tirade against “dogma” and “religion.” Here are some of the things he says:

“The church was born of an alliance between an emperor and some radical rebels. It’s about … intellectual colonialism … materialistic, humanistic, dogma. That’s not spirituality, that’s not mysticism, that’s not the acceptance that we are temporary.”

Around minute 8:30 he gives his understanding of spirituality and God:

“From the quantum to the cosmic, there is an unknown force behind things. … Every dogma in the world has been trying to tackle and understand it … and no-one can.”

It has been truly said that postmodernism’s one dogma is to be against all dogmas. But modernism’s dogma is to be against all mysteries. Neither Russell Brand nor Stephen Fry can imagine a worldview in which dogma and mystery support and reinforce one another towards a common goal, like the sail and keel of a ship, driving it through the water by their seemingly opposing forces.

Christianity is what it always has been: a complex set of paradoxes which somehow hold together reason and faith, religion and spirituality, dogma and mystery, in a balanced tension. As a follower of Jesus, you find freedom in slavery, you save your life by losing it, you are insignificantly small and yet unbelievably important, and you will find true fulfilment in the end but not on your terms or in your timing. God is at once closer to you than your own skin and further away than the furthest galaxy; the greatest intellectual cannot comprehend him, but the smallest child can pray to him.

But although Christianity hasn’t changed, the culture around it has. Like a picture in a new frame or a piece of furniture in a new room, against this new cultural atmosphere different parts of Christian faith stand out and are noticed. One side of the paradox is accepted and the other side is rejected as unfitting, because Christian faith does not belong to the world.

Over a hundred years ago the literary critic G.K. Chesterton noticed the seemingly opposite accusations made against the Christian faith, and came up with a theory about why that might be:

Suppose we heard an unknown man spoken of by many people. Suppose we were puzzled to hear that some men said he was too tall and some too short; some objected to his fatness, some lamented his leanness; some thought him too dark, and some too fair. One explanation (as has been already admitted) would be that he might be an odd shape. But there is another explanation. He might be the right shape. Outrageously tall men might feel him to be short. Very short men might feel him to be tall. Old bucks who are growing stout might consider him insufficiently filled out; old beaux who were growing thin might feel that he expanded beyond the narrow lines of elegance. … Perhaps (in short) this extraordinary thing is really the ordinary thing; at least the normal thing, the centre.[2]

Chesterton was quite aware that this explanation doesn’t prove anything. The rest of the book is about how he tests it against other criteria. But it does show one thing for sure. Yesterday’s “most popular reason not to be Christian” is not today’s, and today’s will not be tomorrow’s. One of the best things we can do to gain some perspective over against the pressure of contemporary culture on our faith, is to read books outside our time period, as C.S. Lewis also noted.

[1] I am not saying that his objections should not be taken seriously. On the contrary, I believe we should think deeply about what it means to live in a world of such suffering and yet believe in a loving, all-powerful God. Such meditation can transform our whole way of seeing the world and our mission within it, as I reflected on in a previous post.

[2] G. K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy, 1908, chapter 6 “The Paradoxes of Christianity.” Also available online.

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Just your average grad student, trying to conquer the world through theological debate, like so many before me. I believe theology can be both profound & easy to understand, academically rigorous & accessible. I contribute to a less academic blog at Everyday Theology.
  • Bobby Howard

    A friend shared this post with me. Good work!

    Bobby Howard
    University of Arkansas
    Philosophy Department
    (Graduate Assistant)

  • Barney, this is a helpful diagnosis of the protean nature of Christianity’s critics, but what you don’t seem to provide here is any advice concerning what to do after one recognizes such multiplicity. While I totally agree with the sentiment that you ascribe here to C. S. Lewis—that we should “read books outside our time period”—I don’t know what this does in and of itself apart from disclosing the diversity of human cultures through time. Christianity is just as susceptible to metamorphosis as its adversaries. I can’t imagine that you would want to your readers to discover and accept mere flux. (This, I admit, would be something with which I would be more than comfortable.)

    I fear that you have left the vital component unsaid: the norm that would give stability to this amorphous plurality. What precisely is the nucleus of this set of tensive paradoxes? Chesterton presumes that the “unknown man” is one easily identifiable individual, but the history of the church militates against this. As long as there have been Christians, there has been division concerning what precisely is entailed by their religion. To return to the metaphor, prior to all comments concerning the acceptability of his shape, Christians and their critics have hardly been unanimous in pinpointing the man about whom they are talking. True Christianity may not have changed, but it certainly has proven difficult to locate it among the manifold pretenders. Unless the concept of Christianity can be provided with some enduring, perceptible structure, unless we can agree to discuss the same man, it is only natural that the critiques would change in tandem with different permutations of the faith. The trouble is that I don’t think we will ever be able to reach such agreement.

    • Ryan, thank you for this incisive criticism. You are quite right when you say that there has always been disagreement among Christians about what Christians, precisely, believe. You are also quite right when you point out that I do not offer a substantive core to Christianity, but merely draw attention to the changing criticisms of it throughout the ages.

      In reply I draw on what I believe to be Wittgenstein in a passage I cannot now find. It has to do with the difference between precision of language and reality of thing to which language ponits. Suppose I told a certain man “stand in the corner of the room” and he stood one foot away from the corner. Most would probably say that he had obeyed me, but some might disagree. Suppose he stood two feet away? More would disagree. Three feet? Between the point at which all agree that he obeyed and the point at which all agree that he didn’t, there is much disagreement. But that doesn’t mean there is no such thing as the corner of the room, or that we don’t all have a common sense of where it is. Similarly, just because we cannot all agree on every detail of Christian belief, doesn’t mean there is no common sense of which direction it is headed in.

      C.S. Lewis, in the article I linked to, says the following: “We are all rightly distressed, and ashamed also, at the divisions of Christendom. But those who have always lived within the Christian fold may be too easily dispirited by them. They are bad, but such people do not know what it looks like from without. Seen from there, what is left intact despite all the divisions, still appears (as it truly is) an immensely formidable unity. I know, for I saw it; and well our enemies know it.”

      I suggest that the changing vs. unchanging nature of Christianity is more a matter of zoom-level. From a closely zoomed-in perspective, it looks like all division and disagreement. But from a zoomed-out perspective, there is considerable agreement hitherto unnoticed.

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