Monday, February 9, 2015

The provocation of Stephen Fry: The 21st century's (3- minute) Ivan Karamazov?

A little over a week ago, recently-married British comedian Stephen Fry appeared on the Irish program “The Meaning of Life” and spoke with Gay Byrne about his beliefs and what he would say to God should he meet him/her/it at the pearly gates. Fry’s passionate response created quite a buzz on the internet. 

Here is the video:

(I include the full transcript of the exchange at the end of this blog for those who cannot see the video--my thanks to John Cummings' blog for this.)
When the interview first came across my radar last week, I was in a mood to sympathize very strongly with Stephen Fry. Non-religious people sometimes suppose that faithful, practicing religious people like myself simply don’t think about these things, or that the conflict between God’s will and their own is not an issue to them. I cannot speak for all religious people, but I can say that the difficulty—even the anguish—is very real to me. It just so happens that when I first heard of the exchange, I was struggling with some dramatic questions in my own life; places where understanding God’s will was (and in many ways, still is), very painful to me. Fry’s video thus caught me by surprise. Watching Fry explain himself to Byrne, I thought “Yes!,” and then “Yet no, no, no, NO.….”

I want to be very clear about a few things as I attempt to respond to Fry’s critique (which I will do in several installments). First, the limitations of responding “to Fry.” I know very little about Fry the man. As a comedian, he is also a performer. I cannot judge what part of his response is fully felt and what part may be showmanship; his answer certainly seems very prepared.  I know that he has struggled with addiction (so he’s aware of his personal limitations and failings), and that he’s come out the other end. He’s gay and he recently married his boyfriend; he expressed great joy at both this event itself and the support of friends (so he’s not, as far as I can make out, an unhappy man).  But basically, my response is to the man at the other end of this video. I make no claims that he is Stephen Fry in the full sense. I need to explain why and how I disagree with him. But I don’t judge him; I understand where he’s coming from.
Second, I know how difficult it is to deal in theodicy (or justifying the ways of God). Better, smarter, more thorough people have been trying it for centuries. It isn’t easy, and I make no claims to succeeding where they have failed. I hope my attempts won’t be judged as arrogant.

Because, honestly, they don’t come from an arrogant place. They come from a deeply needy place. A place in my mind and heart that needs to make sense of life, even while I recognize the limits of my understanding.  What I do claim, is that –despite my great sense of kinship with Fry in his frustration—I can still dissent from his perspective and conclusions in the final analysis. And do so reasonably. Because the problem isn’t just a logical one; it isn’t just about who’s right. It’s about how you can actually live that way.

Gay Byrne: “Suppose what Oscar believed in when he died, despite your protestations, it’s all true and you walk up to the Pearly Gates and you are confronted by God, what will Stephen Fry say to him, her or it?”

Stephen Fry:
 “I will basically, that is the theodicy I think, I will say ‘Bone cancer in children? What’s that about? How dare you, how dare you create a world in which there is such misery it’s not our fault? It’s not right, it’s utterly utterly evil, why should I respect a capricious, mean-minded, stupid god who creates a world which is so full of injustice and pain?’ That’s what I’d say.”

“You think you’re going to get in?”
Fry: “No, but I wouldn’t want to. I wouldn’t want to get in on his terms. They’re wrong. Now if I died and it was Pluto, Hades and it were the twelve Greek Gods then I would have more truck with it because the Greeks were, they didn’t pretend not to be human in their appetites and in their capriciousness and in their unreasonableness.
They didn’t present themselves as being all seeing all-wise all-kind all beneficent, because the god who created this universe, if there is a god was quite clearly a maniac, an utter maniac, totally selfish, totally, we have to spend our life on our knees thanking him, what kind of god would do that?.
Yes the world is very splendid but it also has in it insects whose whole life cycle is to burrow into the eyes of children and make them blind, they eat outwards from the eyes, why, why did you do that to us?
You could easily have made a creation in which that didn’t exist, it is simply not acceptable, so you know atheism is not just about not believing there is a god, but on the assumption that there is one what kind of god is it, it’s perfectly apparent he is monstrous, utterly monstrous, he deserves no respect whatsoever, the moment we banish him life becomes simple purer, cleaner, and more worth living in my view.”
Byrne: “That sure is the longest answer to that question that I ever got in this entire series.”
Original Interview: The Meaning of Life with Gay Byrne, aired Sunday February 1, 2015 at 10.30pm

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