This follows When in doubt, answer a different question.
On BBC Radio 4’s Any Questions 10 April 2020 Jill Morris asked:
Does the coronavirus prove that God does not exist?
‘People sometimes ask me ‘Where was God in Auschwitz?’ I believe God was there himself violated and blasphemed. The real question is ‘Where was man in Auschwitz?’
John Sentamu continued pretty much as follows – and again I hope my transcription is accurate enough to be fair:
It isn’t [about] whether this is proving God [exists] or not. The question is: in this particular trouble we’re going through where is humanity? And humanity really for me is in what John Donne said:
No man is an island entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main; … any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind. And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.
And that says of humanity – and after all, today is Good Friday when the church teaches about the love of God revealed in the death and resurrection of Jesus. God if he is there, he’s got to show himself, and on the cross of Christ we see tremendous love – Jesus not comforting himself but those around him, forgiving those who are actually crucifying him.
And that’s why probably the Orthodox call this not Good Friday but Great Friday because on the cross the love of God and the desire to defeat evil by love shows itself in its marvellous and wonderful way.
I mentioned last time my worry that with ‘Where was God in Auschwitz?’ he was bringing in the problem of evil, but in a way that conflated human evil with a non-human evil like coronavirus. If we ask ‘Why does God not prevent a human evil like Auschwitz?’, an apologist could respond that God the creator gave humans free will, and to thwart their free will would deny their humanity.
But this get-out is unavailable in the case of non-human evil. Coronavirus is after all just a particularly hideous example of evolution doing what evolution does, with all its attendant suffering and waste. If a single creator God is responsible for all the beauty and harmony and diversity in the universe, then that same single creator God must also be responsible for all the red in nature’s teeth and claws.
One obvious theological response to this is to replace the idea of a single creator with that of two divine principles, one responsible for all the good stuff and one for all the bad stuff. In the history of Christianity examples of this kind of dualism are Manichaeism (which Augustine subscribed to before he converted to Christianity in 387 AD) and Catharism, which was suppressed with intense (human) cruelty by the Albigensian Crusade in 1209 and finally eradicated with yet more (human) cruelty by the Mediaeval Inquisition in the 14th Century.
If however we go along with triumphant monotheistic purity and insist on a single creator God then there is no answer other than accepting the world is a vale of tears, and divine goodness manifests itself in response to this. As long as we conflate human and non-human evil as the Archbishop does then we can carry on reading the graffiti inside our epistemic bubble, and waffle about how we see ‘on the cross the love of God and the desire to defeat evil by love show[ing] itself in its marvellous and wonderful way’. Rather than wondering why on earth a God which professes not to be a cruel God devises such cruel tests for us.
I suppose we shouldn’t expect much else from the Number 2 in the Anglican Church (or Number 3 if you count HRH), but I did find myself thinking of that Oscar Wilde quote: ‘One must have a heart of stone to read the death of little Nell without laughing’.
Chris Lawrence 2020.