A few days holiday allow space for recording a few books read recently.

Doctors at War, ethnographer Professor Mark de Rond’s powerful record of his time embedded with a medical unit at Camp Bastian in Afghanistan, provokes much thought and emotion. It is clear that exposure to the sheer unnecessary and seemingly random suffering of ordinary people as well as combatants raises questions of theodicy. This disturbs Mark’s own faith questions, and leads him ultimately to an expression of atheism. Reading the book, however, provoked in me a different question: not how we account for suffering and evil, but, rather, how we account for joy in a world of such suffering? This is not glib; I would love to see a further discussion of it.

At the other end of the scale is Simon Jenkins’ entertaining romp
through Christian faith and its oddities, Jumble Sales of the Apocalypse. The book comprises columns Simon published in the United Reformed Church (not ‘Reform’ as it says in the book itself) magazine Reform. Making theology simple and accessible is not as easy as Simon makes it look. He shines an unusual light from an unusual angle to open up our thinking and not close it down. As I know from years of writing scripts for Radio 2, this isn’t always an obvious or simple task.

Sitting here in Berlin waiting for a thunder storm to break, it is worth
recommending James Hawes breathless race through the entire history of Germany. The Shortest History of Germany is excellent and enlightening, but it is clear he neither likes nor trusts Prussians. A better overview of Europe’s most important country you will not find – and in these days of Brexit and Trump, with a German election coming up later this year, it is worth the quick read.

Finally for now, Tom Fletcher’s book about the impac of digital change on international diplomacy, The Naked Diplomat, is excellent. Again, an easy read, it says a lot about communication, leadership and handling change. It also contains the most memorable quote about diplomacy – inevitably from Winston Churchill: “Diplomacy is the art of telling people to go to hell in such a way that they ask for directions.”

Discuss.

I am still catching up with some of the stuff floating around the media in the last few days. The most absurd has to be the latest Richard Dawkins fundamentalist flounce about Christianity in the Times.

Does he not have an adviser or editor? Consider the language:

…hubristical.. petty moralistic purposes… milder-mannered faith-heads… hypocrisy… loathsome… those faux-anguished hypocrites… It is the obnoxious Pat Robertson who is the true Christian here… Dear modern, enlightened, theologically sophisticated, gentle Christian, you cannot be serious… effrontery… the odious doctrine… a nasty human mind (Paul’s of course)… the Christian “atonement” would win a prize for pointless futility as well as moral depravity…

And he keeps going:

You nice, middle-of-the-road theologians and clergymen, be-frocked and bleating in your pulpits… Educated apologist, how dare you weep Christian tears, when your entire theology is one long celebration of suffering: suffering as payback for “sin” — or suffering as “atonement” for it? You may weep for Haiti where Pat Robertson does not, but at least, in his hick, sub-Palinesque ignorance, he holds up an honest mirror to the ugliness of Christian theology. You are nothing but a whited sepulchre.

Dawkins not only demonstrates that he is prone to the very charge he levels at Christians: making apologetic capital out of the suffering of Haitians. He does so in extreme language, but along the way demonstrates that he knows nothing about theology or philosophy, nothing about how to read literature (including the Bible) and, more oddly, seems to pride himself on his ignorance.

I don’t know anyone who would dream of speaking about biology with the degree of prejudiced ignorance with which he speaks of religion. Does he read poetry as if it were an engineering book? Moralising caricature simply prevents a sensible engagement and this is all that Dawkins ever offers us. Pity, really.

The suffering caused by the earthquake in Haiti is of such enormity that it seems decent only to put energy into getting resources out there. For people to spend their energies asking philosophical questions about the event and its meaning seems somewhat cheap. Yet many people do ask questions and some of the answers posited have been appalling.

I decided not to comment (on the grounds that everyone else was), but am moved to do so by the absence of a certain voice. Whether I am wise to do so will have to be judged by others. I am aware that what I am about to write runs the risk of seeming glib: words always do when people are suffering.

The right-wing tele-evangelist Pat Robertson has rightly been castigated for responding to the tragedy in Haiti with a comment of stupidity and theologically inane cruelty. But much breath has been wasted responding to statements that deserved to be ignored. Hate should not be responded to with hate, but the anger turned to gracious attention to maximising our resources for the help needed on the ground.

The story of the Gospels is one in which Jesus takes on himself the anger of others and turns it into grace.

However, the question of God’s place in natural disasters as this keeps arising and, with some trepidation at attempting an approach in a few words, I offer the following observation.

Some time ago Professor John Polkinghorne published a summary of his writings on science and Christian faith (written for bumpkins like me): Quarks, Chaos and Christianity. In it he took as a starting point the fact that the earth is a living organism populated by organisms that must, by their very design and function, change, mutate and behave according to its properties. Hence, he says, there must be a place for cancer, earthquakes and everything else the world throws at us. We cannot both live as the creatures we are (cell-replicating and essentially mortal) and be immune from the environment in which we live and move and have our being.

The magnificant mountains of Austria (which I was enjoying today) are the product of a shifting and exploding earth’s crust, just as the volcanoes of Indonesia and the earthquake-produced distortions of the earth emanated from this ‘living’ mass of solidity, fire and water.

In other words, if we live in a contingent physical world, we must take with this life all the consequences and not just the nice bits.

Now, I know I am leaping over a longer argument here, but the question we should be occupied with is not’ why does God allow these things to happen?’ (which begs other assumptional questions), but ‘why do we human beings allow people to live in poverty, in poorly-built structures and in areas that are prone to natural disasters?’ This is a human question of human responsibility and human moral choice. (Why is $5 billion too much to educate and immunise every child in the world, but a drop in the ocean when it comes to rescuing the banks?)

The Christian observation is, of course, that God does not exempt anyone (including – or, even, particularly, Christians) from the realities of living in this wonderful and fearful world. He proved this by coming into the world and not opting out of it. God’s presence is to be found right in the mess of the world (not aloof from it) and will be evidenced in the costly self-sacrificial self-giving of his people in bringing relief to those fearfully affected by natural disaster.

This might seem counter-intuitive – even to many Christians – but Christian commitment means laying down your life, not protecting it. God calls us to get stuck into the world, not to try to escape from it. It also means that we must not begin to pray without being prepared to be the answer to our own prayers.

All our energies need to go into alleviating by all means possible the suffering in Haiti. Concurrently we need to be asking why we don’t put effort into alleviating poverty and suffering before such tragedies happen.