The meaning of God

Most Irish people, I would wager, didn’t really know much about Stephen Fry.
At least not before he called God an ‘evil, capricious, monstrous maniac’ on RTE television’s, The Meaning of Life. The avuncular Uncle Gaybo posed his usual final question: what would he say to God if he met him face to face?
Usually, the reply is a pithy, humorous riposte, clearly rehearsed as the predictable final word. But Fry took off on an unexpected rant, described by Giles Frazer in The Guardian as ‘almost biblical in its theological intensity’.
As Fry is a convinced atheist, belief in every sense was suspended as he explained, with mounting anger, what he would say to a God he didn’t believe in, if he happened to exist. The difficulty is that Fry, like the new battalion of militant atheists – Christopher Hitchens, A. C. Grayling , etc – is railing against a God that for most believers most certainly doesn’t exist.
You can see where Fry is coming from. Religious people often give the impression that the God they believe in is an egocentric, power-demented being who, if we fail to satisfy him (or her), will condemn us all to the fires of Hell for all eternity. So we spend our lives, trying to satisfy this dictator, existing simply to make sure that when he calls us over the last threshold we’ve enough brownie points to allow us to squeeze through the pearly gates.
But who or whatever that God is, the God railed against by Fry is not the God of Jesus Christ. If our image of God is confined to what the Old Testament tells us, we’ve missed the central point of why Jesus lived among us: to reveal God to us. Would the baby wrapped in swaddling clothes or the grown man dying on a cross on Calvary distribute cancer like confetti or invent insects that burrow into children’s eyes? In short, if you want to know who God is, read about Jesus Christ.
The God Christians believe in is not the monstrous caricature depicted by Stephen Fry, not the God of fear of the Old Testament but the God of love, revealed to us in the life and teaching of Jesus.
That so many, believers and non-believers, see God as Fry sees him, is borne out by the usual guests on The Meaning of Life, celebrities mainly who are chosen because of who they are rather than on what they have to say, indeed if they have anything to say. The focus, almost invariably, is on the celebrities distancing themselves from Fry’s caricature because they seem to imagine that’s the God most people believe in. Few seem to have thought a great deal about the meaning of their lives. Even fewer seem to have the ability to articulate it. Last year, on the same programme, An Taoiseach, Enda Kenny, struggled mightily to explain his vague image of God as some kind of ‘power’ and seemed to spend most of the time trying to pretend he wasn’t a Catholic even though he still went to Mass.
Gay Byrne usually suggests, in that mild, slightly exasperated tone he has mastered, that what his guests have presented as ‘a faith’ is at odds with what the Christian denomination the guest adheres to or actually professes, in Gay’s view that is.
The over-all impression from the programme is that religion is out-of-date and old-fashioned. (Even those, like the lachrymose Eamon Dunphy who feel it has something to be said for it, don’t really practice it themselves.) God, it would seem, seems to be fairly redundant in the modern world. A personal faith (or articulating a personal faith, which is not the same thing) seems to be beyond most people on the programme.
Yet when Gay gently prises open some unexplored avenue in his guest’s life, especially if there’s a history of pain or distress there, behind the fake tan and the fashionable clothes and the jargon about modern life he can open up a vulnerable space where loss and doubt appear. The reality that is unmasked is the universal experience of humankind, the search for some kind of meaning behind the veneer.
Most of Byrne’s guests seem to have rejected much of the Catholic culture that defined the world they knew. Most are critical of the Catholic Church and press the usual buttons: the sex abuse scandals, church involvement in education and health and so forth. Some are anxious to establish their secular credentials and to indicate that they’ve ‘grown out of’ the God/religion/faith axis that once determined their view of the world.
But, in a country immersed in religion, it’s quite extraordinary how few seem to have given little more than a passing thought to the meaning of their lives – and how many still imagine that God is some version of Fry’s caricature, notwithstanding huge unanswered (and probably unanswerable) questions about the problem of evil and suffering in the world.
I once heard a radio interview with the late actor, the seanachaí, Eamon Kelly. He spoke about his childhood, painting in the background to his life in warm, generous colours. Coming towards the end of his life he spoke about how, though he longed for the firm faith of his childhood, he had to come to terms with his growing doubts about the existence of God. The God of his childhood was a benign, bearded old man but he had come to see God as ‘the pulse of the universe, the spirit of creation’. And, as the years went by, his image of God was constantly changing.
The human quest is to make sense of where we are and what’s happening to us, to search for meaning through the maze of human experience. For a time we push aside the received religious wisdom and opt for more passing enthusiasms. Then, as the years slide by and as mortality becomes more than just a distant intimation, we’re confronted by the large questions that insist on being taken seriously.
And sometimes, not always, but sometimes, we can find ourselves re-visiting that rich tradition of faith, which we can find has more purchase than we sometimes imagined.
Believing in something, it seems to me, is better than believing in nothing and much better than believing in anything.

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  1. Clare Hannigan says:

    For some people it is less painful to believe in nothing than to try to go on believing in a God who does not answer prayers for relief of suffering. Terry Wogan spoke of the endless prayers he said in the hope that his new born baby would live. When his baby died he said his faith in God died also. There seems to be no easy explanation for the existence of pointless suffering in the world. We are told God is a loving parent. What sort of parent ignores the pleadings and tears of their child.

  2. As someone who has personally experienced intense suffering I will venture the following: it is inseparable from our particular dignity as sentient, conscious, meaning-seeking yet fragile beings. A grazing antelope will continue to graze beside another that has just been shot by a silenced rifle. There is no suffering caused by the not-knowing of what lies beyond death, no sense of meaninglessness – because the antelope has no need for meaning and no questions.
    Why did my very gifted older brother die of cancer aged 21 in 1962? There is no meaning for me in that – not that I can see. But neither is there certainty that his death was meaningless. I just still have an ache, and my questions – and a habit of prayer that takes me eventually to a place so mysterious, calm and comforting that all resentment dies. I find there a deep certainty of being accompanied, especially when I say Psalm 23 – about the father who was so perfectly represented by the son, who also suffered.
    I couldn’t ‘do’ without that. It is enough, more than enough, for now.

  3. Peter Clifton says:

    Your words, “as the years slip by, and mortality becomes more than a distant intimation”, strike a chord. I am almost 73, I have (I hope) kept the faith, yet, as the end of life on earth approaches, I feel increasingly less sure about what (if anything) lies beyond.
    If I were asked what was the hallmark of my parents’ generation as compared with mine, I would say confidence: confidence in two aspects. My parents (their dates were 1904-1978 and 1910-2001) were not proud or presumptuous people, but they were sure that, if they lived kind and honest lives and were decent to those around them, they would get to heaven. And, although they were very far from being blind to the faults of many people in the insitution, they were equally sure that the church was the vehicle which would get them to their destination.
    It seems to me that, for many of us, this double confidence has simply gone. It certainly has for me, and I ferret around in vain for the reason why. I wonder how many others are in the same boat.
    What to do about it is the problem. For my part, this Lent I am going to go through the credal section of the Catechism of the Catholic Church, and make a study of the Gospel of Luke (for no better reason than that I found it the least appealing if the four, which suggests that I gave missed out on something valuable which it has to teach me). Perhaps

  4. Despite the faults of the programme i think that it is meaningful & worth watching. Some guests on the programme obviously dont think much about the meaning of life while others have considered it more thoughtfully. I found the interview with Stephen Fry quite fascinating & energetic even tough i dont agree with his conclusions. He is a passionate, entertaining man but probable quite wrong about God. His questions & arguments are like Job’s in the Bible even challenging God. He almost seems blasphemous in his rhetoric but like Job he may come to the conclusion some day that he just doesnt understand the heart & mind of God & God’s viewpoint is so much higher than mans limited viewpoint. God is in a different dimension & we are in this dimension..only a being from a higher dimension can fully grasp the situation of the lower dimension. God answered Job’s questions about suffering by taking him on a tour of his amazing creation & asking Job was he there at the beginning of creation. We can rant & rail at an unfair God & sometimes God will remain silent & sometimes will give us some kind of answer. It may not be enough because we are living in a different dimension here on earth & in a thousand or a million years we will have a better understanding of what is going on in our own lives & in the world.

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