Stephen Fry and the gods No One Believes In

For those of you not from the British Isles, Stephen Fry is an English comedian and gameshow host who is very erudite and much loved. Gay Byrne is an Irish talkshow host and road safety authority who is very skilled and considered a sort of historic cultural figure in Ireland.

They feature together in an episode of a series Byrne hosts for the Irish state broadcaster called “The Meaning of Life”. I don’t think they ever invited Terry Eagleton on, which is unfortunate because he is funnier and smarter than Fry and more skilled than Byrne, and he literally wrote the book on the topic.

Anyway, if you missed the controversial bit, here it is:

Many people believe that Fry hit the nail on the head. He spoke the truth. How can the delusions of faith stand in the face of such articulate and elegant reasoning? I watched it and thought, “He’d never say that if he was around for dinner with me and my friends.” Well, of course he wouldn’t. It would be rude. Wife-unit and I would have made him a lovely aubergine parmigiana and some brownies. How churlish it would be. But it would also be laughable. Maybe he would still think it, but such pomposity doesn’t play well when you are dining with atheists who became Christians.

That is all Fry’s comments are: pompous bluster. There is no god that he is referencing, except that vague god that atheists sometimes think Christians and Jews worship. (Have you ever noticed that for all their talk about how heinous Islam is, atheists still seem to think that Muslims worship a different (worse) god (that doesn’t exist) than Christians?) There are many philosophical problems with what Fry lays out and I am sure there are hundreds of pieces already written that enumerate them. One such problem is that putting God in the dock requires an expectation of God that seems to demand a metaphysical explanation for goodness. In other words: if we fail God for not being good, where does the standard of good come from?

Just as a side-point: that is not the same thing as saying that we need a god to generate good. The knotty problem I have alluded to doesn’t get resolved quite so simply. It is a variety of Augustine’s contention that the problem that the human is faced with isn’t why is there suffering, but why is there joy? The grand puzzle of reality is not so much the horror of the burrowing insect as the satisfaction of a cold glass of water on a hot July day. That and why did I not enjoy that film “500 Days of Summer” because looking at Zooey Deschanel and Joseph Gordon Levitt for an hour and a half sounds like something only the blind could find boring.

My interest isn’t (any longer) in such philosophical tinkering. It has its place, but that place isn’t at my dinner table. In our gaff, we’re very, very interested in Jesus.

When Christians talk about God, they are talking about Jesus. Jesus reveals who God is. God reveals Himself in Jesus. The God that Christians expect to meet when that time comes is a God who comes to us as, in one particularly disturbing image in the New Testament, as a slaughtered lamb. He comes to us as a Palestinian tradesman with a gash caused by a Roman sword down his side, and nail holes in his arms and ankles, his forehead scarred by a cruel joke and his back lacerated by a whip. That God, that Christians worship, is not a God who will be impressed by rich white Englishmen saying “How dare you?!” The 1st century equivalent of rich white Englishmen hung him from the tree. That bunch of men encountered this Godman and decided that if they banished him, their life would become “simpler, purer, cleaner, and more worth living.” It didn’t. They didn’t know what they were doing. That pattern continues. Always expect the powerful to prefer their gods like the Greek deities. Those titans supported power instead of subverting it.

There are many problematic things about Christianity, perplexing and troubling things. Early on, the church developed or adopted big words to cope with all of them. Election. Trinity. Incarnation. Personhood. Kerygma. Parousia. Eschaton.

It is very significant that it was well into the Englightenment before we had to come up with the word theodicy, that Fry references at the beginning. Still, most of us prefer the simpler word suffering. Contrary to the widely propagated myth, Christian people are not running from suffering. The torture device they use as their visual calling card should remind you of that.

There are many problematic things about Christianity. There are weak points where opponents can score points. Suffering isn’t one of them. The God that the Christians declare is one who revealed his divinity in momentous suffering.

There is a basic rule of argumentation that holds that you cannot be making a good point if your opponent cannot recognise her viewpoint when you describe it. Fry makes the mistake of the new-atheists. He does not respect his opponent enough to hear them. Ironically, this is the mistake Christians made when they were in the cultural ascendancy in an earlier age. The kind of “gotcha!” argument that Fry deploys is the kind of argument that swallows itself. It works when you are up against Gay Byrne on a tv camera. It falls to pieces when you are sitting across from the people in my congregation who can testify from their suffering to their conviction that no human has ever been more human than when the Godman suffocated under his own weight.

The new-atheists never try to kill that God. He’s already died. He sides with the suffering and the broken, the oppressed and the downtrodden. He is most welcomed by the people oppressed by men bearing Union flags, Stars and Stripes, and the 12 golden stars of Europe. He is many things, and in many ways confounding, but let us not come with any patronising nonsense about him being defeated by suffering. He has not left that open to us. He did not intend to.

Your Correspondent, Young, rich, and full of sugar

7 Replies to “Stephen Fry and the gods No One Believes In”

  1. Hi Kevin ,

    Well reasoned. His rant wouldn’t hold water against a more informed individual. Pompus Bluster indeed.

  2. Legend Kevin!!! It’s been WAY too long! I came across this randomly – I’ve been looking to reconnect with you guys, thinking of you much often. Loved this response by the way – but who are you trying to kid self-stating you’re still “young”?!! :)) Thanks for sharing. Hope Aberdeen is keeping you entertained!

  3. There is an assumption that smugness adds weight to an argument. I saw it in a recent Newsweek piece on the Bible, and it characterizes Fry’s argument as well. Unfortunately many Christians are patronizing as well in their shallow rants or the ones they post secondhand on Facebook.

    I have found Christianity to be messy in the relatively tidy world of philosophical argumentation, precisely because it is a personal relationship rather than a simple set of postulates, and has a God who is a person rather than a simple force, who stepped into history, who intervenes unpredictably in the lives of individuals. Our faith is glorious in its messiness, as we experience and witness redemption in the midst of life’s squalor and pettiness.

  4. Weak overall retort. It seems actually that Christians think Muslims worship a different God much more often than atheists.
    And Fry was attacking God, not in the frame of Jesus or the Bible, but simply in reference to the brutality of nature.
    New Atheists, or antitheists don’t often attack Jesus this is true. Mostly because we don’t think he existed. But there is some definite immorality that Jesus brought with him. The evil doctrine of vicarious redemption is one, Hell is another. His ostensible condoning of slavery another. To antitheists like myself, Jesus is a shiny veneer on a dark, twisted soul.

  5. Thanks Kevin, I’ve been revisiting John’s gospel and am struck anew by the compassion and strength of Jesus and by his feminisist stance within a culture dismissive of women’s rights. The upside down nature of it all, His absolute surrender of rights for the rights of others, His acceptance of death for the life of others and the Godhead’s continued respect for the free will of people which albeit brings with it the potential of people to do such dreadful things but where would we be without free will? Whose responsible for the terrible suffering in the world? – unfortunately we are and not God.

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