Chapter 10
Some Objections

I think it was Peter Ustinov, on being elected Rector of a Scottish University, who remarked that, if the time ever came when there were no more questions left to be asked, because men and women had at last discovered all the answers, the only course open to a reasonable person would be to commit suicide. I know what he means, for when I meet churchmen - or Communists or humanists for that matter - who claim to have all the answers to all the problems of being alive, they induce something very like suicidal tendencies in me with greater speed than anything else.

As far as churchmen are concerned, I long to confront them with the mother of a child of three or four years of age who has just been told that her daughter has an inoperable cancer and will last with luck for a few painful months before dying, and ask them, 'Why?' ; and if this question fails to shake their trust in their own omniscience, I should like to make them write an essay on the theology of the malarial mosquito or alternatively a thesis on the divine purpose in the creation of pasteurella pestis, the bacillus which causes bubonic plague. The problems to which Christians have no complete or satisfactory answers are numerous, and it is essential to say so; for not only is our ignorance obvious to everyone else, but to admit it may lead us into a further examination of those problems in the hope that at least we may be able to make some sort of contribution to their understanding, even if we cannot solve them.

Obviously, within the short compass of this book I cannot possibly look at all the problems posed by belief in God or discuss all the objections which people might wish to raise against it; but I do want to glance briefly at the two greatest impediments to religious belief in general and Christian belief in particular which bothered me for years, and indeed still do so: namely, the existence of suffering to the idea of a just and loving God, and it has not disappeared since Job's day; and as for the Church, at times it seems as if the best that can be said for it is that it must have some hidden purpose in the providence of God, or he would have destroyed it centuries ago. Yet the paradoxical fact must also be recognized, simply because it is a fact, that God is more often reached - or, rather, people are more often reached by God - through and beyond the rationally indefensible experience of suffering and the manifest absurdity of a worldly, legalistic, bickering and recurrently obscurantist Church than in any other ways. For both suffering and the Church are two-sided; they can be seen in two apparently incompatible ways, suffering as the Siamese twin of love, and the Church as the point in time and space where the love of God meets the failure of man.

The Church's sins of commission and omission have been so numerous down the ages that it would be impossible to make an adequate list of them here, and they are so well-documented that such a monumental labour of distaste would in any case by unnecessary. Moreover, it could be argued that there is no point in raking up old scandals, since the past is the past, and having lost much of its old political and economic power in most parts of the world the Church no longer indulges in the more spectacular crimes with which it occupied itself in the old days; religious wars, burnings, persecutions, anathemas and the like are now more typical of Communists and certain Moslems than of Christians, though in Ireland and Lebanon tribal groups with denominational labels still bring religion into disrepute with their crimes of violence. But despite these exceptions, most churchmen today would contend that the Church is different from what it used to be in the bad old days.

Up to a point, I agree, but there is one respect in which the Church has not changed at all. All down the ages, while claiming to be a divine institution, filled and led by the Spirit of God, and with no abiding citizenship in this world, the Church, like some deathless chameleon, has taken on the colour of whatever worldly society it has happened to find itself in at the time, while indulging in most of the sins and crimes typical of the age; and it has never done this more thoroughly than today. In Byzantine days it could scarcely have been more imperial than it was, supporting the various Emperors in their passion to maintain the unity of their huge and potentially fissiparous realm by persecuting internal dissent with implacable orthodox ferocity and launching what would now be called imperialist missions to bring the Empire's non-Christian neighbours into line by ideological conversion. A little later, in feudal days, the Church was so much part of its parent society that many of the cathedrals built at this time closely resemble castles, while bishops' palaces actually were castles in all but name, and the bishops themselves, like their secular counterparts the barons, as often as not could be seen on horseback with their swords red with the blood of the enemies of Christendom, whether they happened to be Turks, Saracens or Mameluks. Times changed, however, and as the aristocratic seventeenth century in France passed smoothly into the eighteenth, Saint-Simon recorded in his Memoirs how, on one occasion, the chaplain to the Duke of Rohan was obliged to inform his lord and master that owing to a most unfortunate oversight the special wafers impressed with the ducal arms and used at Mass to communicate His Grace had run out, and inquired in fear and some trembling whether the Duke would be willing for once to take pot luck with the common people. Meanwhile, the situation was not so very different in England where, it has been said, a typical eighteenth-century Anglican bishop had one thing and one thing only in common with Almighty God, namely that one could say of both the one and the other that 'no man hath seen him at any time'. Later still, in Victorian days the English Church taught its children to sing of God's wisdom in creating the rich man in his castle and the poor man at his gate, while sending legions of missionaries overseas as the spiritual arm of colonialism to convert the heathen in his blindness to a proper appreciation of the benefits of British rule.

Far from renouncing this kind of social conformism or abdicating its role as chameleon, nowadays the Church has transformed itself into a bureaucratic annexe to the Welfare State with a few pious and neo-Gothic overtones. Hag-ridden by committees and worm-eaten by synodical government, it has dedicated itself to activism, having banished prayer, mystery, silence, beauty and its own rich musical and liturgical heritage to a few remote oases in order to make way for hymns written by third-rate disciples of Noel Coward and sung to the
strident noise of guitars played by charismatic curates in jeans; it is wedded, too, to the spirit, while confusing chumminess and post-Communion coffee with the love of God and fellowship of the Holy Spirit, and is so rooted and grounded in this world that to use the words 'other worldly' has become a social and doctrinal solecism. In politics the Church frowns of extremes and makes it virtually compulsory for churchmen to be wishy-washy pink but with true blue edges. Rumour has it that Sir Steven Runciman, depressed by this Gardarene stampeded of the Western Churches into the secular sea all round them, has prophesied that the Orthodox Church will be the only Church left in fifty years time, and when I survey the contemporary ecclesiastical scene, I am sometimes tempted to fear, not that he may be right but that he may be wrong.

And yet, in a supremely paradoxical way, these recurrent and abysmal idiocies of the Church, ridiculous here on earth, can also be grounds for hope and reassurance: hope because, despite the fact that they have indeed been recurrent down the ages, there are still nearly two thousand million Christians in the world, and reassuring because Christianity is not about the creation of a faultless community of idealists, judged to be perfect by the standards of this world, but about the transformation by the grace and love of God of ordinary men and women who know that they are not sufficient of themselves to think anything as of themselves, but hope and trust that in the end their sufficiency may be of God. When I remember this and look again at the world's idealists and their self-assured communities, I fall in love with the Church all over again, warts and all, for there seems to me to be nothing in the world more lethally dangerous than a bunch of dedicated idealists; as Professor John Passmore remarked in his book, The Perfectibility of Man, (1970):

'They set out in search of a total order, a total harmony, and neither science nor art, as Plato saw and the dystopians have seen after him, could be freely operating within such a total order; science and art are by their very nature revolutionary, destructive of established orders. Perfectibilists tell us not only to abandon our possessions but to abandon our loves; to be not merely dispassionate but, what is very different, without passion; to seek a kind of unity which is destructive of that diversity which is the glory of the world and the secret of all man's achievement; to be self-sufficient in a sense which does not permit of love.'

He might have added that dedicated idealists are also perhaps the most frequent advocates of violence as a means of achieving whatever ideal political ends they may happen to cherish. Certainly, the worst crimes committed by Christians have nearly always been perpetrated in the name of God and in furtherance of some lofty ecclesiastic ideal - the truth, the purity of the faith, the unity of Christendom, the defeat of evil or the conversion of the heathen - while their greatest achievements have been the result of a vision vouchsafed to people like Francis of Assisi, John Wesley, William Wilberforce, Albert Schweitzer, and Mother Teresa of Calcutta; a vision of ordinary, fallible, muddled and messy human beings as images of God to be loved as they are and for what they are.

At this point, perhaps I should say in brief parenthesis that I did not joint the Church, if that is the right way to describe being ordained into its ministry, for any very noble reasons or because I felt irresistibly called by God to do so. In fact, when it first crossed my mind that I might become a clergyman, the idea was so ludicrous that I dismissed it at once as a symptom of incipient religious mania. By this time, however, I suspected that as a painter I should never be a Rembrandt or a Rouault, and as the weeks and months went by and I heard
appeals from the pulpit Sunday by Sunday for people to volunteer for the ministry, I found it progressively difficult to see any good reason why I should not at least offer myself; but since I could also see no good reason why I should do so, I remained in a state of indecision. Then, one day in the early 1950s after I had spent some time in silence in the London house of a monastic order of Anglican monks, I went to see my mother, who was recovering from a minor operation in a nursing home. I travelled on the top of a bus, and as it made its way
up the Tottenham Court Road I was overcome by the same sort of experience that I had had years ago in the suburban train near Bromley; once again, the dingy landscape became transparent to something other than itself, and as I looked at the small forest of dreary Victorian church spires pointing upwards to the grey London sky over the desert of urban roof-tops which stretched away to the wrecked horizon, I knew that I had to identify myself with them. They were symbols of hope in a dry land; hope whether the people of London, for whom they pointed their stony fingers to God, knew it or not; hope that the ordinary men and women who lived there, like the London spires, were also pointers to God for those with eyes to see the hidden truth of them. When I told my wife that I had decided to offer myself for ordination, she sat down asked me for a drink.

It is easy to speak of people as pointers to God, and for a moment or two on the bus, the people in the street below, like the sky-pointing spires of Bloomsbury and Euston above, seemed to be just that; but I do not want to give a false impression, and most the time I do not find it easy to see people like that. That is a commentary on my own blindness, combined with the fact that true vision is a gift of God, but it is also a commentary, I think, upon the fact that people are unwilling to walk naked and unashamed in another person's presence if they can avoid doing so. Instead, they hide behind a social mask until such time as something happens to make them drop it for a moment or two; the death of a friend, a failure or a fear realized, the birth of a child or the blossoming of an unexpected love; at such times, the dullest of dull people may split open for a moment or two like a ripe fig to reveal the richness of the true person inside, and having once been given a glimpse of one dull person transformed, it is easier to see the truth of other people hidden behind their opaque protective masks and mimes.

Such glimpses come the way of a clergyman more often, perhaps, than they do to many other people, and it is this which makes it easy every now and again to see the dull ranks of church people become filled with multitudes of mini-Mother-Teresas in shabby pews and dowdy hats, and pocket Wesleys and Wilberforces in tired, dilapidated cassocks. To adopt a different metaphor, rather as medieval glass looks grey and lifeless when viewed from outside a church building but from inside lights up in a great richness of colour and splendour of light when the sun comes out, the community of the Church is transformed from time to time when viewed from inside, as the grace of God comes out and illuminates it; from outside, too, the prayers and unnoticed acts of kindness of church people remain largely unseen, the one deemed useless and the other too ordinary to be worthy of attention, while their common acts of sacrifice and generosity and the hours of time given to the lost, the neurotic, the despairing, the suicidal and the other refugees from living, let alone to the just plain dull, remain hidden
with them.

Seen from inside, however, the Church is filled with little irruptions of God and his grace, redeeming its perpetual human failure and absurdity and transforming the lives of those who, having fallen through Koestler's trap-door, turn to it with its music, its ritual and the recurrent miracle of its little mouthfuls of bread and sips of wine, because they can think of nowhere better to turn; but perhaps the greatest transforming miracle of them all is not that the Church, viewed from inside, is seen from time to time to be filled with irruptions of God, but that the natural world looked at from inside the Church is also seen to be as full of traces of God as a dawn hedge is loud with the whistling of blackbirds, even though the world, like the hedge itself, is deaf to the love-song in its branches.

So much for the paradox of the Church with its long and infamous criminal record and its multitudinous and ever-present stupidities co-existing with its equally long and salutary role as the out-patients' department of heaven; but what about the unambiguously evil existence of suffering? Accused by a righteously indignant humanity of creating a world full of cancer, multiple sclerosis, earthquakes, famines, wars and general misery - a world in which, if things are left to God, life for most men, as Thomas Hobbes remarked, is 'solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short' - the twentieth century puts God in the dock and accuses him of talking nonsense when he claims to be loving. The idea of a loving God is so plainly irreconcilable with the fact of a suffering world that one or other has to go; and since we know that the world exists and suffers, we conclude that God does not do so. He is dead, as Nietzsche informed us, or never existed at all, as I believed for years. This is a conclusion which seems inescapable, even when we admit that most human suffering is self-inflicted or inflicted by human beings on each other; but the problem becomes more complicated when you delve a little deeper and are forced to admit that, since to be human is to be free to make choices, however limited that freedom may be by our genetic inheritance, social conditioning and acquired compulsions and habits, then the freedom to love people or to hate them and make them suffer is part of our heritage as human beings.

This leaves out suffering caused by what the insurance companies call 'acts of God', but once the word 'love' is mentioned in conjunction with suffering yet another aspect of the problem forces itself on the attention; for, as I have already said briefly, there is a sense in which love and suffering are Siamese twins, the one being unable to exist without the other. A thousand Chinese babies and their parents are drowned in a disastrous flood by the river Yangtsze-Kiang, and this is reported in a brief and factual little paragraph on the back page of The Times , where I read of their deaths with equanimity and get on with the more interesting task of solving the crossword puzzle; but when my child, mother, lover or lifelong friend tells me that he or she has a month to live, I suffer because I love. Only a world without love would be a world without suffering. Perhaps the world of reptiles and that of insects is devoid of both love and suffering.

I remember reading a book by a Dutch entomologist who had made a study of a certain kind of bee to be found in some profusion in the rough country behind the sand dunes of Friesland near the Zuider Zee; in order better to study their behaviour, he marked various individual bees with spots of brilliantly coloured paint and then watched them through binoculars as they went about their apian business day by day. One day as he was watching one of his bees flying back to the hive, he was startled to see a spotted flycatcher leave its perch, dash out after the bee and neatly peck off its entire back half, abdomen and all: a disaster, however, which had no apparent effect upon the insect's forward half - its head and winged thorax
which continued to fly homewards in an apparently serene beeline until the bird, recovering from its surprise, darted out and gobbled up the remainder of the insect. It is doubtful whether its loss was noticed, let alone mourned, by its fellow bees in the hive, where love, as we understand it, appears to be as absent as suffering, as we understand it, was conspicuously absent during the mutilation and subsequent death of the bee eaten by the flycatcher. So the insect world may well be a world without either suffering or love, but I doubt very much whether any human being would choose to live in it, had he or she the power to do so, rather than in the human world where the fact that we love inevitably open us to the experience of suffering; and I doubt, too, whether any god worthy of the name of God would ever have dreamt of creating such a terrible and depersonalizing neutrality as a world without either love or suffering. So it seems to me at least possible to argue that only a loving god could have created a suffering world, and indeed that a loving God could not have done otherwise.

This is not a complete answer by any means to the problem of suffering, if indeed there is such a thing, which I doubt; for apart from anything else it leave out of account the related problems of physical pain and of suffering caused, not by love of someone else, but by self-love. I have nothing very useful to say about physical pain, except possibly to remark upon the fairly obvious fact that it is the complement of physical pleasure, rather as suffering is the twin of love; for the same nerves which provide us with much of our sensual delight in life also warn us usefully, if painfully, of those things which we should avoid as destroyers.
Thus, while it is enjoyable to warm our bottoms in front of the fire, it is painful and destructive to sit on it; similarly everyone enjoys being caressed, but few much care for being hit with a sledge-hammer. However, as far as suffering caused by self-love is concerned, once again the myth of the Fall in Genesis has some cogent things to say; for if our ancestors ceased to be simian and became human at that formative mythological 'moment' when they attained self-consciousness with its accompanying psychological act of self-enthronement, presumably the kind of gnawing fear of self-dethronement and corrosive anxiety about self-ending, which everyone experiences, were born at the same time, bringing in their train the self-centred struggle to survive both personally and corporately, which everyone also knows so intimately and drearily well, and which causes so much suffering when thwarted. The lust to succeed, to beat the next person, to dominate and shine were born in Eden: lust for power, lust for success, lust for fame and its counterfeit immortality all had their origin in that God-created but snake-infested paradise, though they came into their own only when the eponymous ancestors of the human race were thrown out of it into the desert of their own creating. There they gave birth to Tillich's triarchy of human anxieties, and there poor Adam and Eve were given time before they died to sit down and try to understand what those aboriginal lusts of theirs, received as birthday presents from the snake, had done to them and their world; though I doubt whether they ever managed to understand them as well as Shakespeare did half-a-creation later:

The expense of spirit in a waste of shame
Is lust in action; and till action, lust
Is perjur'd, murderous, bloody, full of blame,
Savage, extreme, rude, cruel, not to trust;
Enjoy'd no sooner, but despised straight;
Past reason hated, as a swallow'd bait,
On purpose laid to make the taker mad:
Mad in pursuit, and in possession so;
Had, having, and in quest to have, extreme;
A bliss in proof, and prov'd, a very woe;
Before, a joy propos'd; behind, a dream.
All this the world well knowns; yet none knows well
To shun the heaven that leads men to this hell.

Indeed, none does; at least, not in practice, though in theory the way of avoidance is clear enough; for if the self-regarding lusts which lead people into Shakespeare's hell were born at the same moment as that in which human beings enthroned themselves as God, omniscient and self-sufficient, the remedy for the suffering which comes with them and the end of the nightmare is self-abandonment and the re-enthronement of God.

That sounds simple enough, but it is much easier said than done. The old Adam, self-enthroned and self-regarding, does not die at a stroke, as St Paul discovered when he told the Christians in Rome, 'I do not understand my own actions...I can will what is right, but I cannot do it. For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do'; and for once his meaning is made clearer in a modern translation than it is in the King James Bible without any great linguistic loss. The will is a puny thing with which to take on Shakespeare's 'perjur'd, murderous, bloody' inner compulsions to make something of ourselves by ourselves, and seldom wins; indeed, that may be inevitable, for when people imagine that they have won the battle by their own willpower, they are liable to become so arrogant and blinded by pride that they do not realize how deeply they have fallen into the trap of feeling immense, self-satisfaction at the conquest of their self-centredness - 'God, I thank thee that I am not as other men are.....' - and the last state of such people is worse than the first.

The will is so much a part of the armoury of our self-assertion that usually it has to die before the true self can begin to blossom. {In strict parenthesis, if anyone does not believe in original sin, I invite him or her to watch some children at play in a primary school playground during morning break; if the spectator would prefer to attribute what he or she sees to a congenital tendency to aggressive self-assertion instead of to original sin, my only objection would be to point out that two words are preferable to seven.} But the death of the will is less likely to be an isolated psychological event than to be part and parcel of a greater process of personal bankruptcy, which is why, presumably, it was the poor in spirit, those who mourn, the meek, the weak, and those who, through inability to trust in themselves, were forced to turn elsewhere for hope and satisfaction, who were said to be blessed by Christ. It is yet another paradox, but it is one that many people have experienced, that the death of the old, striving, anxious, self-regarding and self-reliant self in some sorrow or disaster frees the true human self from servitude to Tillich's demonic trinity and from much else beside to become what is said to grow into what it should be.

Yet that is not the end of paradox, for the new freedom to be what one should be does not bring with it an end to suffering; for since escape from suffering would involve escape from loving, there is no way in which a God-given freedom to be truly human can possibly confer such an escape; for it is a freedom which has its origin in the discovery that one is loved by God, and its consequence is the discovery of how lovable other suffering people can be when no longer viewed as potential victims to be sacrificed on the altar of Tillich's demons of
one-upmanship. If Christ was not only the window on to the true nature of God but also a
revelation of what it is like to be truly human, plainly we cannot expect to escape anything - loneliness, misunderstanding, rejection, defeat, derision, or death itself - for he escaped none of those things. Escape from suffering may be included in the list of things advertised for sale by certain religious bucket shops, but it is not to be found in any catalogue of the true gifts of God; on the contrary, 'In the world ye shall have tribulation', Jesus promised his disciples according to St John, thus giving the lie to those who would have us believe that God can be relied upon at all times to pull our personal , economic and political chestnuts out of the fires of our own making, while leaving non-Christians to suffer the consequence of their own actions and indeed of the actions of other. John Betjeman's war-time poem, 'In Westminster Abbey', satirized this lie.

Gracious Lord, oh bomb the Germans.
Spare their women for Thy sake,
And if that is not too easy
We will pardon Thy Mistake.
But, gracious Lord, whate'er shall be,
Don't let anyone bomb me.

But if tribulation in this world is the inescapable human condition, '.....be of good cheer, for I have overcome the world', the Johannine Christ assured his disciples. Peace beyond suffering - the other side of it - and hope beyond the nadir of despair are the true gifts of God. Those whom we love will still die, and so shall we ourselves; there is no escape from those facts of existence; but if God created life out of the wreckage of Calvary with its blood and reek of triumphant violence, he can create hope and trust out of our fear, faithlessness and despair; hope that neither the crematorium chimney nor the neat impersonal municipal grave shall have the last word.

But renewal follows death, never precedes it; or to put this another way, the vision has to be lost in Gethsemane, or so it seems, and in the subsequent darkness at noon before the sun can rise at Easter or the Spirit descend at Whitsun; all of which is a rather pious ecclesiastic way of saying that there are times when scepticism, doubt and darkness are the order of the day, and when everything I have just said sounds like propositional nonsense. In other words, there are times when I doubt whether I believe any of it, and find myself hopelessly struck in Gethsemane. So what do I do then.
Antony Cyprian Bridge