Fry responds, “I would say to him bone marrow cancer in small children? What’s that about? How dare you? How dare you create a world where people suffer for no fault of their own?”
He then goes on to lambaste the idea of God as absurd, saying that if God did exist, he must be a selfish maniac.
I imagine that here in this chapel there are three broad responses to Fry’s educated and persuasive outburst. One group applauds him loudly, saying that you too have no faith in any sort of God who would stand aside while innocent people suffer atrocities. Last week I read a book about the village of Chambon sur Lignon in France, which sheltered Jews during the war. While it was wonderful to read about the sacrifice these people made, I also found it harrowing to be reminded about the trains which left Paris regularly, heading for Auschwitz and Vernichtungslager - extermination camps. One train contained 450 children including one little girl who turned one year old in the carriage taking her to the gas chambers. Where was God when those dreadful trains were running? Perhaps there is no God.
A second group here today would disagree strongly with Fry. Yes, you say, the world can be a harsh place, but in the midst of suffering I have discovered the presence of a loving God who cares about me, who knows me, and who inspires me to reach out to others in their suffering. The image here of the crucified Christ points to a God who is not a maniac but who shares our pain. Perhaps suffering is there to make us better people, or perhaps it teaches us to appreciate the good things in life. But whatever its meaning, Christians believe that in the end, the love of God will overcome all evil.
And then there is a third group, neither atheist nor Christian, but intrigued by it all. A few years ago a slightly eccentric friend sent me a text in which he said “What are the most important things in your life?” I laughed and prepared to give him a call telling him to get real - there is no way I can even begin to answer that question in a text. However, then I stopped, and decided to have a go. What brief words could tell him what is really important in my life?
The first word that came was mystery. Science explains so much these days, but even science bows before the question about why things are as they are. Why are we here? What do we mean? Some questions will always remain unanswered, mysterious. And many people, myself included, are fascinated by these mysteries.
The second word was meaning. I cannot see my life entirely as chemistry and physics and nothing more. Am I really just a collection of electrical impulses and chemical reactions? Surely there is more meaning to it than that? I hunger to give my own life meaning, as well as meaning to the people around me.
And the last word is love, sharply and simply defined as the gift of yourself. I have lived on this planet for over 60 years now, and one of the few things I have learnt in that time is that in some mysterious way happiness and meaning are found most strongly when I decide to give something of myself away to others. The tragedy is that so often I forget this simple truth and act selfishly instead. And sadly I discover that when I try to grasp on to things, they make me less happy, not more so. Why should this be so? I do not know - but it is this mystery which gives meaning to my life.
And so I texted him back, “Mystery, meaning and love.” Those are the three words that make my world spin round.
I don’t much care for the word spirituality - it is rather vague, and can mean whatever you want it to mean. But to you, the third group, who listen to Stephen Fry with respect but who wonder if there is not something more to be said about God - I would repeat the old words from Hamlet,
There are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamed of in your philosophy, HoratioShakespeare
We are not just a curious arrangement of molecules, we are thinking questing, self-aware beings, and the best and noblest among us are those whose life is dedicated to the search for spirit, for deep life. By all means listen to, and reflect on, the sincere and troubling questions of Stephen Fry - but don’t give up your own quest for Mystery, meaning and love.
Hidden God, draw us towards your mysterious presence
Help us to find order in chaos, and meaning in random events
Show us again and again how to give ourselves away, and so to find ourselves.