Thirty years ago the then religious affairs correspondent for the BBC, Gerald Priestland, wrote a book based on a radio series he produced called ‘The Case Against God’. In this he told the story of a group Jews in a concentration camp who put God on trial for the suffering they saw. They found the case overwhelming. God was guilty of willful recklessness in creating a world where evil and great suffering were possible. It was irresponsible and he was guilty. At the end a rabbi reminded them that it was time for evening prayers.
The case against God is met by our readings this morning which present a counter blast (Proverbs 8:1, 22-31; Colossians 1:15-20; John 1:1-14). They talk of the world and the universe, of all that there is being intelligible. This intelligibility is that we can make sense of it and it displays characteristics of order and purpose. The ancient writers of the Old Testament saw wisdom, rational purpose, lying at the root of all that there is. The book of Proverbs is itself a collection of wise sayings which see themselves as being based on the fundamental intelligibility of the universe, of the created order. It draws this from the wisdom of God.
When people don’t believe in God, and indeed when they do, a key question is what kind of God do they, or don’t they, believe in. Because the word ’God’ can mean different things and there are pictures, notions of God that I don’t believe in. So as Rowan Williams said when he was Archbishop of Canterbury, the trouble with the call to teach atheism in schools is that it takes so many different forms depending on who is defining and what idea of God is being rejected. So atheism is no more a distinct body of teaching or thought than different faiths or traditions in those faiths are.
All sorts of people have been accused of atheism over the centuries. Nick Spencer in his book ‘Atheists: the origin of the species’ points out that in the first century Christians were regarded as atheists by the Roman world because they didn’t have any idols. The God I don’t believe in is the one who treats creation like a puppeteer, pulling strings and reducing humanity to mere playthings. This is sadly what we would have if the freedom which allows evil and suffering, mortality and fragility, was eliminated. We’d be left as robots in the manner of sci-fi films like Bladerunner and Terminator, where bi-orgs act like free humans but are in fact just robots utilizing advanced artificial intelligence. Everything would be delusional and religion then a mere opiate. Sometimes I think prayer is used as a cross between magic and an appeal to a puppeteer god I don’t believe in.
When we want to see this intelligibility behind everything we find it in Jesus. Our readings described him as the image of the invisible God, the fullness of God dwelling and bridging the otherwise chasm between Creator and created. Present but not controlling, holding but not micromanaging, restoring but allowing decay, God in Christ reveals a much more complicated God than we often allow for. It presents a much more complicated universe and accommodates science much more easily than is often assumed.
On Saturday last week (31stJanuary), Michael Saward, the author of our final hymn ‘Christ Triumphant’ died at the age of 82. Hewrote the hymn in 1964 for a young people’s fellowship in his church. He wanted to produce a credal type of hymn which ascribed glory to Christ by using a series of titles for him which described something of his nature and therefore the nature of God. So the Lord of heaven sustains our life; the eternal wisdom, the Word, reveals truth, intelligibility; the suffering servant, who is ill-treated, defeats the ultimate ill-treatment in death by identifying with it on the cross; as priestly king, he is enthroned for ever and ultimate purpose is revealed in his resurrection and ascension. It ends with a song of praise, glory and honour. However much we may waver and have difficulty, God in Christ reveals the glory and purpose of God.
The deep distress and questions are not easily brushed aside. As we gaze on the cross of Christ there is great puzzlement and sometimes the pain of what we see makes us question why what is is as it is. It would clearly be different without it but that doesn’t help when the tears of grief and cries of anguish rise to heaven. What we see in Jesus is that whatever we may say about God in Christ he does not stand aloof from the pain and suffering. He takes the responsibility and shares in the pain. In the suffering servant - scorned, ill-treated - the pain of the all who suffer is found to be caught and held by the eternal. It is not detached from the intelligibility, from the wisdom and therefore from the purpose of the creation. Christianity is no mere intellectualizing of life. There is passion, there is grit, and there is beauty.
We have also struggled this week with intelligibility and with our ability to intervene when nature goes wrong. Mitochondrial DNA therapy stretches my scientific knowledge. I had to read up on this to understand what Parliament was being asked to do on Tuesday. Medical advances have come such a long way that we are faced with ethical challenges past generations had no comprehension of. What was rather misleadingly called ‘three’ parent babies is actually more akin to a software fix when the operating system is doing something that is corrupting the system. The exact function of mitochondria is only partially understood, and there is an argument for more research being needed, but it is not thought it does any more than make sure cells reproduce properly. The content of the DNA of a person that makes them who they are is not affected by this process. If that is the case, and I quickly get out of my depth here, then the ethics are less problematic. The struggle with this kind of debate is part of the intelligibility of the universe and part of our calling to share in stewardship of the earth, to use the skills we have to heal and honour. However much we may rail and rant against God I find this kind of intelligibility reminds me that there are things we don’t understand because of our frailty, but I find accidental, random, purposeless existence just does not add up for me.
So at the end of this service let us sing to the power and majesty concealed in the humble Christ who came among us, suffering and sharing in our grief, who rose from the dead and showed that there is purpose and intelligibility behind our life. Let us sing to Christ triumphant, thankful for Michael Saward who gave us that hymn and in his poetry reflects the intelligibility and purpose of God which is our life, our hope and our faith.
Sermon preached at Peterborough Parish Church, Sunday 8th February 2015