First - apologies for reaching out to you in such an obnoxious manner. No doubt you're tired (as we all are) of the whole 'Open Letter' trope. It's been exploited so many times that it's basically a parody of itself. The author pretends to speak to you, even though - let's face it Stephen - you're not really there. You're not exactly going to read some poorly written Z-List blog, are you? What's more, the true purpose of this facetiousness is plain to everyone: the author puts forward a cover of close proximity whilst in reality he's actually talking to everyone else. (Hi guys... This is Awkward.)
I chose this format because [a] it's fairly readable as formats go; [b] you're trending on social media and I feel a genuine need - as a Christian leader & teacher - to make some form of response, however imperfect; and [c] who knows? It might get me famous in that leechy, makes-you-feel-a-bit-dirty kind of way.
I love you. Yes, ok, in the 'I believe you bear the image of the beautiful God you so clearly detest and therefore you're staggeringly beautiful and worthy of admiration', sort of way. But also in the entirely-predictable-and-now-repeated-a-billion-times-by-Christian-bloggers 'you're a national institution' kinda way as well.
I've admired you since I was a child. You have in no uncertain terms inspired me to love the English language more (an ardour inflamed not least by your Planet Word series). A Bit of Fry & Laurie was a masterclass in late 80s/early 90s post-modern sketch comedy. I don't care how many awards your documentary on manic depression has received; as someone who suffers from depression too, it proved massively inspiring as well as hugely encouraging. I can still remember watching your interviews on Room 101 with huge delight, and, at the end of the day, if you're on the TV I automatically tune in.
I, like, love you, man.
So - no, I wasn't shocked.
Saddened? Of course I was. I'm sure you can understand that when someone belittles and berates the thing most precious to you, it can be a tad upsetting. (Imagine if it were your new husband. Congrats, by the way.) But as good English 'intellectuals' (I know right?!), we'd both agree that nothing should be beyond critical examination.
However. It's for this exact reason that I was neither impressed nor convinced by what you had to say.
Don't get me wrong. You were (as always) wonderfully eloquent and sublimely emotive. And I'm not under some grandiose delusion that you even care about what I'm 'impressed' by. But we both know that actual theological/philosophical debate is nowhere to be found in popular media these days. As such, the majority of those zealously sharing your words were not enamoured by your argumentation, but rather by your rhetoric. And that's cool - pathos is great. Emotions are good. Reason is not the be-all and end-all. But it must still bother you a little - deep down - that your video is popular for reasons far removed from anything Thomas Paine would be proud of. Despite dropping the word 'Theodicy', you didn't really mount an argument. And yet it's this that gets you trending on Twitter. Come on, Stephen. As an intellectual, as a scholar, this must bother you.
These days - as cleverer men than me have observed - popular intellectual debate has gone the way of Don Draper. Yours was a perfect pitch - but I'm still not sold.
First - I recognise and respect the fact that you were hypothetically entertaining the possibility of God's existence. This means, it would be a waste of my time and yours to talk about the reasonableness of believing in God. You were already entertaining that possibility. This means, it'd also be pointless to discuss theodicy, i.e. how God might co-exist with suffering. You were already entertaining Gods existence alongside suffering. That's precisely why you were angry. So I won't be doing that either. I hope you'll respect the fact that I want to address what you actually said, and how you actually said it, rather than fiercely defending an idea you didn't critique or pursuing a point you didn't raise. (I also trust that you'd want to make this plain to your atheist fans, some of whom will possibly comment on this post, demanding that I present evidence for Gods existence. Even though that's not what you were talking about.)
Second - I recognise and respect your outrage at suffering. Of course, it might be argued that utilising examples of pain & suffering (much of which you likely have no experience of yourself), all to score a soundbite in some interview, gives what you said a slightly calculated and artificial texture. (Just as distanced, say, as the God you so detest.) However, I do still respect what you're saying. Like Job, I put my hand to my mouth. In reverence do we approach such horror. I'm aware, Stephen, that you have experienced much pain yourself. I too suffer from depression as well as a disability that leaves me in acute and chronic pain. We both know that suffering is not something to be trifled with. Terrence Tilley once wrote a book entitled "The Evils of Theodicy" - the title says it all. When you know REAL pain, romanticised logical syllogisms suddenly become rather abhorrent.
I get that. I respect that. And I do not wish to undermine your outrage. But Stephen - this does not excuse the fact that there are two huge problems with your rant against the heavens.
First: Your Outrage Is Borrowed.
That is to say - I do not believe that God tinkers with the world as a disinterested watchmaker. Rather, He sustains everything. He makes the sun rise. He gives us every breath each morning. Contrary to your statement that the Biblical God despises sensuality, I believe that God designed the orgasm, for example, and gave it to us as a good gift. He gave us food and musical talent (including that of Wagner!). He gave us sight to enjoy Scottish landscapes and a sense of smell to imbibe the wild flowers. He gave us elements and atoms and everything that's employed to make medicine, to bind up and heal those who are hurt. He gave us everything. He's present - hiding even - in all things, working them for good, even those works done by the non-believer.
So yes. You can indeed be good without God. No one is questioning that you are capable of morality. However, I might well have to challenge you on the consistency of your moral thinking.
Don't get me wrong - I'm not naïve. I know that there are plenty of atheist philosophers and ethicists who have presented a system that they believe gives them a thoroughly cogent basis for moral behaviour. But again, your video wasn't interested in academic nuance, and those who are now sharing your words aren't either. So I'll make this simple: WHY is the African eye worm evil? Societal norms are just collected subjectivity. Evolutionary incentives are not intrinsically bad or good; they just 'are', a fact of biology. Traditions can be and often are wrong (you must surely believe this given your support for LGBT marriage, for example), whilst the values of one's upbringing are entirely relative to one's own story.
I'm going to suggest something, Stephen, but I don't imagine you or your atheist fans are going to like it. It'll be very easy to dismiss what I'm about to say as the simplistic meanderings of some Bible basher who doesn't know what he's talking about. And that's fine. But you, Stephen - you're an intellectual. You value Truth. You cherish knowledge and reason. Good on you. So, in the spirit of reflection and self-criticism and in the calmest manner possible, please consider the possibility that your outrage at all those various evils is borrowed. In order to consistently describe them as evil, you are forced to jettison a cogent humanist perspective - one that does not allow for the superstitious bases of religious morality - and then you have to loan certain ideas from one that permits the transcendent. Your outrage is right. Your sense of goodness is real and to be respected. But your protestations against God ring hollow if you can't even demonstrate the basis on which you howl: "How Dare You?"
Second: YouR Anger Is Misplaced.
You see, that's funny. Because, as others have observed, certain atheists never quite seem to have an accurate picture of who and what the Biblical God is. I mean, sure, you could do the Richard Dawkins thing, and, on the basis of all the messy and rather brutal stuff in the Old Testament, come to something like the same conclusion. But that sort of decontextualised approach is floppy and - by the sounds of it - you know that the New Atheist rhetoric is just not enough. Instead, Stephen, I'd have you come face-to-face with the 'Biblical God' as He actually is. Listen to this:
All this is from God, who reconciled us to Himself through Christ, and has given us the ministry of reconciliation; that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to Himself [2 Cor 5:18-19]
This one - this Jesus of Nazareth - is the face of the Biblical God. And you have to deal with that, or else you're not protesting against the Biblical God, and you're not accurately criticising the Christian conception of Him, you're just attacking a caricature. That Jesus is identical to the God of the whole Bible is not some ancillary dogma which you can just conveniently neglect to mention or consider. But then, that's what many non-Christians do all the time. Bart Ehrman's work on the problem of evil devotes just one page to the consequences of the Incarnation with respect to human suffering. Most renderings of the Evidential Problem of Evil (the most persuasive form) do nothing to take the Incarnation into consideration. But why should you consider it important, Stephen? That's a good question.
Quite simply, it means that God Himself has experienced suffering in the person of Jesus. It means that God Himself has experienced torture and injustice and mockery and foreboding. It means that God Himself has been spat on and beaten and humiliated. It means that God Himself has met the very problem of evil you're citing, and submitted Himself to death on a Roman Cross, the degree of pain it causes having given rise to the word 'excruciating' (literally: from the Cross, ex crucis). When you do 'arrive at the pearly gates', when you unleash your invective, as you charge God with gross negligence and callous indifference, you will not be facing a bearded Sky Daddy.
No. You will be shown the holes in his hands and feet.
You will be talking to the left's hero - Jesus of Nazareth, he who knows first-hand what it means to endure all the suffering we (mostly) have no experience of. Will this suddenly make God exist and the entire problem of evil simply float away? No, not necessarily. But it will force you to talk differently about the Biblical God. We would be being disingenuous to say otherwise. What's more, the depth of our outrage must necessarily flex and change, and perhaps disappear altogether. After all, you will realise that the Biblical God suffers with us, mourns with us and dies with us. It is therefore absolutely impossible to reject the Biblical God without first having regarded Him as Christ-shaped. Our protests ring hollow in the ears of a Crucified God.
And it is my prayer, Stephen, (I know it's annoyingly pious - but I'm being sincere) that you will then hear Him say these words, which are my hope and yours:
"Behold! I making ALL things new" [Rev 21]