Sermon given at Matins on Sunday 23 October 2011

23 October 2011 at 10:00 am

The Reverend Professor Vernon White, Canon in Residence

Life does not easily add up.  It throws misfortune and worse at us, as well as pleasure. This texture of life can tax and torment even non-religious people who have no particular reason to think it should be any different.  But for those who believe in a good and almighty creator God of infinite love, it can seem infinitely more problematic.  Why would such a God allow or even cause such a difficult world which, alongside its wonders, also hurls multiple injustices and sufferings at people, indiscriminately, regardless of their faith or virtue?  This  is the fourth, and probably hardest, difficulty of faith I’m considering in this Matins series in October: the problem of evil and suffering.

The question has haunted believers in the Judaeo-Christian tradition for as long as it has existed. ‘Why do the wicked flourish and the righteous perish?’ cries the Psalmist.  ‘Days of affliction have taken hold of me….the night racks my bones…I cry to you and you do not answer …’, says Job. Jesus himself echoes it in Gethsemane facing the cross: ‘my God my God why have you forsaken me?’   Ordinary Christians, ministers, professional theologians alike have struggled with the question in every way and in every age. So what can I possibly say in a bare 10 mins?

Not much.  I certainly have no new answers.  But there are some ancient pointers to remember.  There is the mystery of freedom. Although we do not have absolute freedom, we do have some.  Although we are greatly formed by causes outside our control - our parents, our social setting, our inherited biological dispositions - even so there also remains in almost all of us some space of personal freedom.  The causal network which shapes us has a porosity which allows some possibility for us to say ‘yes’ or ‘no’ to what shapes us. And it is that freedom which gives depth and meaning to our life. It is that capacity, however small, to freely give or withhold such good things as love, prayer, gratitude, and compassion, which turns us from being merely scripted puppets into someone real and worthwhile.   But of course we then must accept the flipside.  This very same freedom will also unleash the possibility of unlove, selfishness, betrayal, greed.  Evil is the inescapable reverse side of freedom.  And it can erupt anywhere - not just in deprived and damaged societies, but also in privileged and prosperous places, at the heart of christianised civilisation and high culture as it did in such vicious forms in 20th century Europe - an indication that this flipside to freedom, called sin, is indeed written into the DNA of us all; its consequences incalculable, its victims often random and innocent.  This is what is portrayed so graphically in the Genesis story of Adam & Eve. St Paul and St Augustine tell the same story, how the great miracle of creation (freedom), the source of all real goodness, is also its source of evil. It seems we simply cannot have one without the other.

And that reminds us how the rest of creation must have its freedom too. Just as we are in part made out of each other, so too we are made out of the dust of the earth. We are made by God out of a matrix of fine-tuned and interrelated physical and biological processes. And they too have to be real, free to be themselves, not just ciphers to be manipulated, otherwise they wouldn’t have their power to help make us.   But then we must accept that this too has consequences. The biological processes which bring maturity, child bearing, new life, as long as they remain free to do this, are also the same processes which age and weaken us, bringing illness and death.  The tectonic plates which help give the very structure of the earth to support us, as long as they remain free to do this, are also the same structures which move together to bring earthquakes. It seems that the good of a real free creation inevitably entails human suffering, just as the good of free human life entails the possibility of human evil. Evil and suffering may simply be the price we have to pay for there to be anything real and worthwhile at all.

And perhaps this is as far as we shall ever get in understanding how a good creator God remains believable in the face of evil.  Especially when the alternative is even harder to believe: the alternative that there is no God, that this world of infinitely improbable balances has generated existence, meaning, all its worthwhile loves and beauties, just by mere random chance…  That is harder to believe! At the very end of his life an old friend and fine christian said to me: ‘I still find the problem of evil overwhelming if there is a God: but not quite as overwhelming as the problem of good if there is no a Godt’. The evidence of evil which cries out against God is great.  But the evidence of our very existence, the meaning and goodness of the word, which cries out for God is even greater. Our task, here and now, is simply to join God in the great redemptive challenge of helping turn the inevitable evil into the good…

No argument or exhortation will help in some circumstances, of course.  Not in the midst of hammering pain. Not in raw grief when lives are cut short, lives which never had a chance to know and enjoy the good there is. How can this ever be justified?  In the celebrated lines of Dostoevsky’s novel, we might well still feel sometimes we want to hand back our ticket to God and say – ‘It’s not worth it: you should never have made this world at all if you couldn’t make it better than this!’  And if that is sometimes our cry, the God who was in Christ in Gethsemane will surely hear it, not with judgement but with fellow feeling.

But even then we might remember, if we can, God was also in the whole story of Christ: in the resurrection, not just the Cross: remembering this not to dull the protest against evil, not to make us accept its pains and injustices - but to give hope.  The hope there is more in this world and the next than we can imagine. The faith which says to the world-weary ‘You may be right, perhaps the undeserved and indiscriminate pains of this world are not worth enduring just for this world to exist as it is; but they might be worth it for the world as it could and will become: for a new heaven and earth; where even its worst pains have been turned to a greater good, for all not just some; where every betrayal has been turned by forgiveness to greater love; where every cross has become a resurrection.’  For that is our faith, even if not always, in this world, our sight. Thanks be to God.

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