Those who know me know how difficult I find doing apologetic talks on suffering and evil. There are no subjects that I find myself more inadequate before. I feel very disabled when speaking on horror from a position of Western security and comparative comfort.
One of the main difficulties I feel is that suffering is a moral and ethical issue to a far greater degree than it is an intellectual one. However, when speaking apologetically (especially in a university context), the tendency is almost always to default to an intellectual approach, especially as most of the audience won't have had too much personal experience of suffering. The intellectual answers, however, are the easy ones. Job's friends discovered as much when they gave him all their good reason and theology for why he was suffering. It didn't help Job and God wasn't pleased.
I was invited to speak on the subject at the Cambridge Christian Union last Friday and reluctantly agreed. I tried to set the subject in the context of real-world suffering and urged the students that the right response is not merely understanding but compassion. Instantly a very bright philosophy student accused me of being insultingly anti-intellectual, saying that it is critical to understand suffering from a philosophical point of view. The only reason that suffering people aren't interested in doing so, he claimed, is that their sufferings prevent them from seeing this clearly. If they weren't suffering they would see the matter clearly, as he felt he did. He vocalised the exact response I was trying to get them to avoid, in the process defining comprehension as the appropriate response to suffering.
I couldn't disagree more. Suffering and comprehension are in different categories. Comprehension is desirable, but it isn't an adequate response. Indeed I think it is a category mistake.
After the event I read an essay online by a young-ish graduate who was once part of of Cambridge Christian Union, on how he lost his faith and now believes that Christianity is false. It is a very thought-provoking piece of writing (click here for the link). Obviously I don't agree with the writer, but I very much identify with him when he says that evangelicals presented him with a faith that smoothed out rather than struggling with inconsistencies, that deliberately avoided the supernatural and offered easy, reductionist formulae when thoughtful depth was called for. He believes that he was presented with intellectual answers rather than with a living relationship with God, leaving him with a what he described as "brittle faith." Or possibly a definition of Christianity that equated having intellectual answers with having a relationship with God. His essay makes me want to pursue depth and flee having a shallow grasp on - and approach to - the gospel. Some of the things he rightly rails against I can hear myself saying in years gone by.
Obviously gospel formulations and clear, short answers to questions are useful. If however we reduce the truth about God to our simplifications, it shouldn't surprise us if the faith that emerges is subsequently found lacking before the harder challenges that the world throws at it. I remember interviewing a young man for a ministry position. When asked to explain the gospel he gave a good presentation of the (excellent) short "Two Ways to Live" gospel outline. When I asked him if he could identify any gaps or holes in the outline he replied "what do you mean? That is the gospel." He had reduced the glorious truth about God to an outline of six easy to remember statements, which is useful for being able to give a simple summary when asked. But hopeless if we then confuse it with the totality of the glorious, technicolour, vast and humbling biblical revelation of God.
Here is the text of my lunchtime talk, for what it is worth. Let me know what you think of the approach.