The Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, recently made the news when he admitted that the terrorist attacks in Paris had caused him to “doubt where God is,” and that they had put a “chink in his armour.” Interviewed for the BBC’s Songs of Praise, he said:
“Yes. Saturday morning – I was out and as I was walking I was praying and saying: ‘God why – why is this happening? Where are you in all this?’ and then engaging and talking to God. Yes, I doubt.”
He then went on to say:
“Like everyone else – first shock and horror and then a profound sadness – and in my family’s case, that is added to because my wife and I lived in Paris for five years. It was one of the happiest places we have lived and to think of a place of such celebration of life seeing such suffering is utterly heart-breaking.”
Most, if not all, Christians go through periods of doubt. Events that seem inexplicable can often trouble the consciences of faithful men, women and children. But the problem with Mr Welby’s comments is not so much that he aired his doubts, but rather that – to my knowledge – he did not follow them up with any coherent reason as to why he, or any other Christian out there, should not go the whole hog and reject God altogether. Nor did he attempt to explain to non-Christians out there why they should come to accept the God that he is apparently meant to represent. The impression given is that having doubted, we are simply meant to jump back into the circle of faith, but without any cogent reasons for doing so. Blind faith, I believe it’s called. “And all of God’s humanist opponents say ‘Amen, we told you so!'”
Well, if the leader of the established church in England, and the worldwide Anglican communion is not prepared to attempt a cogent response to his doubts, I suppose someone’s got to give it a go. Since this is not the kind of issue that can be dealt with in the twinkling of an eye, and in order not to give you one overlong and tedious piece, I’ll give my shot at an answer over two parts. As Blaise Pascal once said, “I made this letter very long, because I did not have the leisure to make it shorter”. So here goes.
The first place to start is to reiterate a point made by Kathy Gyngell in her piece on the same issue: the attacks in Paris, horrendous as they were, can hardly have been the first bit of bad news that Mr Welby has ever heard of. Although I understand that certain events affect us more than others, there is something peculiarly West-o-centric about his doubts. Did he doubt after a Russian airliner was blown out of the sky above the Sinai Peninsula, purportedly by the same terrorist group, at the end of October? Did he doubt when over 40 people died as a result of suicide bombings in the Burj al-Barajneh district of Beirut the day prior to Paris, again purportedly by the same terrorist outfit? And what about those that died in a series of bombings in Nigerian streets over the past few weeks?
But why confine ourselves to atrocities? Estimates of the numbers dying every single day on planet Earth are around 150,000. In other words, there’s a lot of death going on, some of it gruesome, some of it more peaceful, some seemingly inexplicable, but all of it thoroughly unpleasant. The question is therefore not so much how we process death on the streets of Paris, but how we process death on any street, death in any home, death in any hospital, death in any police cell, death on the battlefield, death anywhere come to that.
My answer requires you to come on a journey with me. I’m walking along and I come to a fork in the road. There are two roads ahead, each heading off into different directions. I look down and see a person lying dead. Perhaps someone killed by terrorists in Paris. It’s gruesome and sickening and I wonder “Why did this person have to die?” It makes no sense. I then look at each road before me and notice that there is a sign at the start of each one. One of the signs says “There is no God”. The other simply says, “Emmanuel: God with us”.
I look down at the person lying on the floor and become filled with moral outrage and a longing for justice. There’s a God and he let this happen? Where was he? Why didn’t he do something to stop it? And why doesn’t he do something about the rest of the evil in the world?
Disgusted, I start to walk down the road which begins “There is no God”. At first, it feels like a good place to be. I retain my sense of moral outrage, not only with the perpetrators but also with God. Or not even God, as such, since I am on the road of denial, but maybe the idea of God. And I’m thankful that I’m not on the other road, trying to reconcile the irreconcilable.
As I continue on down this road, I become aware that there are others taking the same route and they are throwing a lot of stones at the folks on the other road, deriding them for still believing in a God “who allows that kind of thing to happen”. I join in for a while, but soon get bored. As I take my eyes off the other road for a few moments, and start to concentrate on the one I’m walking on, I begin to get the uncomfortable feeling that removing God from the picture hasn’t actually answered any of my questions at all. On the contrary, it has thrown up more.
I begin to ask questions about what happened in Paris: Why did it happen? Was it an inherent part of a Universe based on randomness and chance? Or is it built into a Universe governed by impersonal fate? Those are my two choices on this road, right? And whichever it is, whether impersonal randomness or impersonal predetermination, it is nevertheless one of blind, pitiless indifference, as Professor Dawkins once put it. And, of course, in either case, there is nothing that I or anyone else could possibly do to stop such things, is there? They just happen and there’s an end to it!
I carry on down the road and an even more disquieting question arises: Why am I grieving over it? If I myself am a product of that Universe in which things just randomly and chaotically happen, or that Universe in which such things are fated to happen, where in the Universe did I get this sense of sorrow from?
My eyes are wide open now and I realise that the problems are mounting up. It suddenly occurs to me that at the end of this path there is death and annihilation with nothing beyond. What does that mean? Well it means that there is no meaning. The Random Universe or the Universe of Fate won’t ever explain to me why these people died. How could they? Do impersonal machines care about their cogs? Do they let them know the meaning of things?
What is more, I know that even though I have a deep longing for justice, it will never be served. The perpetrators and victims suffered the same fate, didn’t they? They both died and they were both annihilated, right? Good luck trying to get justice out of that! And I am fated to go the same way as them – maybe not the same gruesome end, but an end all the same. But the Universe doesn’t care.
The same is true of mercy. My longing for justice is matched only by my longing for mercy, but the Universe of the road I have chosen to tread won’t give it to me. Not just won’t, but can’t. It doesn’t have mercy built into it as a feature. It has impersonality and coldness, randomness or fate, pitilessness and indifference, but it doesn’t know the concept of mercy. I won’t get it, and I can’t get it. But I am left wondering: “So where in the merciless Universe did I get the longing for mercy?”
But here’s another thing. If this road came from nowhere, and leads to nowhere, with no justice at its end, and no mercy to be seen, where did I get my sense of moral outrage from? I try to extract some principles from a vacuum, but it’s an exercise in futility. “In the beginning there was nothing” my book begins, and it ends with “In the end there is nothing”. I have this sense of moral outrage, but the Universe could care less! So my desire turns out to be nothing but smoke and mirrors.
And so the Godless road, the one I took to escape from “Emmanuel: God with us” hasn’t answered any of my questions at all. Worse than that, it hasn’t even explained why I have those questions in the first place. Where did I get my need for meaning, justice, mercy and my sense of moral outrage from in this cold, impersonal Universe where meaning, justice, mercy and morality are just not present?
That road is a good place to be if – and I realise I am making a terrible hash of mixing my metaphors – you want to throw stones at straw-men. But it doesn’t give me any answers. It cannot, by definition give me any answers. In fact, it cannot even explain why I am asking the questions in the first place!
One of the best illustrations of this was actually written by a humanist, H. J. Blackham. He put it like this:
On humanist assumptions, life leads to nothing; and every pretence that it does not is a deceit. If there is a bridge over a gorge which spans only half the distance and ends in mid-air, and if the bridge is crowded with human beings pressing on, one after another they fall into the abyss. The bridge leads nowhere and those who are pressing forward to cross it are going nowhere. It does not matter where they think they are going, what preparations for the journey they may have made, how much they may be enjoying it all. The objection merely points out objectively that such a situation is a model of futility.
What am I to do, then? I suppose I could laugh about it all. Take the existentialist route and say that life is just absurd. Go all out on a Monty Pythonesque quest for the Meaning of Life, laughing at it all and forgetting about trying to make sense of it. Or there’s Douglas Adams’ famously surreal answer to Life, the Universe and Everything: 42?
I could do that, but it won’t solve the problem that the sorrow I feel over Paris, and Sinai, and Beirut, and Nigeria and all the death and every other evil done under the sun is very real. It won’t assuage my desire for justice and mercy any more than the road I’ve been taking.
So what? Must I return to the parting of the ways to reconsider the claims of the other road in the midst of all the carnage? I rejected it because it seemed to make no sense. But was there something I missed? Perhaps. Reluctantly, and without a great deal of hope, I return to the start of the two roads to examine the claims of the one headed: “Emmanuel: God With Us”.