Reverend Robert Reiss Canon of Westminster
Monday, 3rd October 2005
In the Nuremberg trials after the Second World War there was a rather terrifying exchange between a Russian prosecutor, Smirnov, and one of the Polish guards at Auschwitz. It seems that towards the end of the war the order went out that in the case of young Jewish children they should not be gassed but were to be thrown alive into the crematorium, and the witness reported that their screams could be heard throughout the camp. The sheer scale of barbaric human suffering not just in that war but through much of the last century no doubt destroyed many people's faith in a beneficent and all powerful God who could intervene in the affairs of men, and that exchange at Nuremberg led one Jewish rabbi, Irving Greenberg, to comment 'No statement, theological or otherwise, should be made that would not be credible in the presence of the burning children.' Perhaps that should be written on every pulpit in the country as it might stop some of the nonsense that is otherwise said.
Such challenges to simple faith in God remain as alive today as they were then, but more recently a new dimension has opened up in what might be described as the problem of God. Some of the more serious crimes of the last few years have been committed by individuals who did what they did not because they ignored God, because they thought they were obeying God. Those individuals include not just extreme Islamic fanatics here but even some Christians on the right, for example, in America, seeking to take the lives of doctors who practice abortion. God has had a difficult press, not just in the face of ghastly human suffering, but in the face of fanaticism as well.
So I suppose it is not surprising that some in our own day think the easiest thing to do is to reject the notion of God entirely. The universe just is as it is, with no reason and with no creator, and it is left to human kind to create such meaning and purpose as we can. 'Forget religion,' some would say, 'Put it down to the adolescence of human development, and move to maturity in a world without God'.
Yet even to put it like that creates its own problems. Can we really ascribe meaning to one part of the universe, the human part, yet ignore it for the whole? And is the notion of good simply a human creation, or is it rooted in something more fundamental? And can we really put the whole religious impulse, something that has produced such things of beauty and magnificence as this Abbey itself and its music, down to a gigantic intellectual mistake? Atheism has its problems as well.
But if belief in God is to be retained, what sort of God can we believe in? Not, I think, a God who is simply a projection of all our frustrations and who, we therefore think, justifies diabolical actions, as the terrorists seem to believe in. Nor can it be in a God who is a sort of master puppeteer, controlling the world by pulling its strings; Auschwitz must have destroyed that.
But there is another Jewish writer who might help. Etty Hillesum was a Dutch Jewish young woman at the time of the Second world war, and she volunteered to join her fellow Jews in a concentration camp in Holland in order to work for them in the camp hospital. She kept a diary during those war years and, remarkably, it survived the war as she threw it out of the train that took her to Auschwitz and to her death. It was picked up and published many years afterwards. Her diary entries become a sort of prayer as she talks to God about what she feels going through that experience, and one extract from her writings, at least helps me in making sense of the notion of God today and perhaps it can keep the rumour of God alive in the human heart.
'I shall try to help You, God, to stop my strength ebbing away, though I cannot vouch for it in advance' she wrote. 'But one thing is becoming increasingly clear to me: that You cannot help us, that we must help You to help ourselves. And that is all we can manage these days, and also all that really matters; that we safeguard that little piece of You, God, in ourselves. And perhaps in others as well. Alas, there doesn't seem to be much You Yourself can do about our circumstances, about our lives. Neither do I hold You responsible. You cannot help us, but we must help You and defend Your dwelling-place inside us to the last.'