Sermon given at Sung Eucharist on Sunday 4th March 2012

4 March 2012 at 11:00 am

The Very Reverend Dr John Hall, Dean of Westminster

It was expected to be the clash of the Titans, the arch-atheist against the archbishop. If so – and certainly the journalists hoped it would be – it failed to live up to expectations. The debate between Rowan Williams and Richard Dawkins on The nature of human beings and the question of their ultimate origin at the Sheldonian Theatre in Oxford on 23rd February this year was calmly intellectual. It lacked fireworks.

In this it differed markedly from a debate in Oxford in 1860 only a few months after the publication of Darwin’s famous work On the Origin of Species. The debate in question took place between the biologist Thomas Huxley and the Bishop of Oxford, Samuel Wilberforce, fifteen years incidentally after Wilberforce’s brief tenure as Dean of Westminster. Accounts differ of that encounter but it seems clear that Wilberforce did his reputation no good by enquiring of Huxley through which of his grandparents he claimed his descent from a monkey. Huxley’s withering reply deplored the introduction by Wilberforce, as a man highly endowed by nature and possessed of great means and influence, of ridicule into a grave scientific discussion.

Dawkins and Williams were restrained with one another, often seeming to agree. The archbishop went out of his way to speak warmly of his opponents’ writing. The ‘world’s most famous atheist’ – you can see the inverted commas – revealed that he was really an agnostic and that, as a cultural Anglican, he had sung a hymn in the shower that morning. He quoted the first two lines of a suitably Lenten hymn - It is a thing most wonderful, almost too wonderful to be. He forbore to quote the rest of the verse – that God’s own Son should come from heaven and die to save a child like me. The hymn was no doubt a memory from his evangelical Christian upbringing. He did not recount whether he had sung the rest of the hymn in the shower.

The debate, chaired by the philosopher Anthony Kenny, moved back from the nature of human beings to their origin, and from there to the origin of life and the origin of the universe. There was discussion about consciousness and self-consciousness, for which neither the archbishop nor the scientist could see any current scientific explanation, though Dawkins claimed science would one day have an explanation.

But I was most engaged with exchanges on the question of what some might call design failures and consequent suffering. For Richard Dawkins it is only because the blind forces of nature are terrible that natural selection produces the results it does. ‘It’s tough; stuff happens.’ Rowan Williams rejected the idea of failures, though recognised imperfection and incompletion. He pointed out that we can only know what it is like for us to design things; we have no idea what it is like to create a universe. But he acknowledged he had no mega-theory. ‘Change and chance are uncontrollable for any individual.’ To see God as micromanager would be very difficult: if he did micromanage then we would expect him to do more.

The archbishop could no doubt have said much on the subject, but time was pressing. The gospel reading today – and this rather different context – tempts me now on to that difficult terrain. If God is the loving creator and all-powerful, how does his universe and world include evil and suffering? There are no knock-down answers. This remains the great intellectual conundrum for the Judaeo-Christian tradition. The book of Job addresses the challenge head on. For Job, the ultimate answer is that the mystery is unsearchable: it is impossible to see the question from God’s point of view. If he could, he would understand. For at least one of the psalms, as Canon Vernon White pointed out on Thursday, in a lecture that can be read on the Abbey's website, the ultimate resolution is in recompense after death for those who have suffered in this life.

This may not feel entirely satisfactory. But there is a way into the issue when we understand the imperfection or incompleteness, of which the archbishop spoke, in terms of choice. Whether as a result of natural disorder or of human cruelty and wickedness, suffering flows from the freedom of choice that is a central characteristic of a universe evolving under God and of human nature. Every incidence of suffering troubles us, whether it is the suffering of someone we love, especially dying young, promise unfulfilled, or the suffering inflicted by a cruel tyrant on his people, or the devastation caused those living there by a tsunami or earthquake. In such circumstances, we can see some positive features, apart from the promise of a better and happier life beyond death. We can see the power and love of God expressed in various ways: in the bravery of those who go to great lengths to rescue the victims; and in the heroism of those recovering from disaster. We can see God bringing good out of evil in all kinds of providential ways. In our own lives too we can properly detect God’s guiding hand, certainly as we look backward.

Still we wonder, should not God have prevented the particular disaster? But surely, if God were to intervene in all the circumstances of individual lives, averting risk and ensuring achievement and happiness, this would reduce to nothing the individual’s freedom of choice. Without choice, we would have no ability to grow, to change, to develop, to choose the good rather than the evil way, to become good. We would not be human beings at all, but automata, puppets on a string.

There remains a real question. If suffering is in some way inevitable, built into the circumstances of life, how should we react, how approach the incidence of suffering in our own lives? How should we react when things turn sour for us or when we find life simply unendurable? The fact of the passion and death of our Lord Jesus Christ inevitably changes the tenor of this discussion. We can see that, in the ways the New Testament writers address the issue of suffering. Suffering is an inevitable consequence of faithfully following Jesus, and to be embraced. We can see it too in today’s Gospel reading. We can also see the difficulty our Lord’s disciples had in coming to terms with the idea. That may be some comfort to us.

Three times, in discussions with his disciples on the road to Jerusalem, Jesus predicts his own Passion. More, he is absolutely clear that his disciples must suffer too. ‘If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.’ There are ways of evading the implications of this in our own day. We can say that this demand only really applied, in the context of the New Testament, at a time when the Church was being persecuted. It is certainly the case that St Paul and St Peter as well as the author of the letter to the Hebrews and the book of Revelation all have strongly in mind their own suffering and the very real threat of persecution unto death. They write to strengthen the faith and resolve of their brothers and sisters.

But, in truth, none of us goes through life without suffering. If we are to follow the way of Christ, we must embrace suffering. We must embrace at least self-limitation, self-discipline. During this holy season of Lent and at other times, we are called to embrace abstinence, repentance and generosity to others. This is indeed the only way of true happiness. As our Lord says, ‘For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it.’ This is not just about what happens after death but about this life too. ‘For what will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life?’

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