The Beauty and the Horror
Church Times Bookshop £17.99
IN MY early twenties, I confronted a Roman Catholic priest about the problem of evil. His reply has stuck with me ever since: “the problem of evil doesn’t trouble me as much as the problem of beauty.” His point, as I understood it, was this: it’s the world’s unbearable beauty that makes evil problematic. If life were simply a “vale of tears”, suffering would be routine and unremarkable.
Richard Harries’s latest book, The Beauty and the Horror, plunges into the heart of this dilemma. Drawing on a broad range of literary and artistic sources, Harries tries to make sense of a world in which it is possible to experience both exquisite pleasure and hideous pain. As those familiar with Harries’s writing will expect, the book is packed with apt cultural references and insights drawn from a lifetime of learning and theological reflection. But Harries also surprises us in this book by offering a profoundly radical reflection on one of the central issues in theology.
Harries’s framing of the issue is significant. By asking how horror and beauty can exist together in the world, he steps around the classic formulation of the problem of evil, which is how the attributes of goodness and omnipotence can exist together in God. Harries’s approach is radically non-theological, focusing on the universal human challenge of living with “the horrors of existence”. How we square evil with lists of God’s attributes is no longer the point.
In a brief chapter in the middle of the book, Harries carefully disconnects God from the causes of evil. Natural evil, he says, is an inevitable consequence of the material world’s taking its own course: tsunamis and AIDS are “nature doing its own thing”.
And moral evil is just the logical by-product of human freedom: that’s what happens when you give people choices. With God absolved of culpability for either natural disasters or human wickedness, the problem of evil becomes human and existential. The relevant question for Harries is not how God could let tragedy happen, but how God can help us endure it.
At the end of the book, Harries offers us a philosophy of stoic humanism. We must stare the pain of the world in the face and yet still affirm values of love and human solidarity, hoping and trusting in a perfect world to come, and working where we can to make life better. I describe this as a “philosophy”, because Harries does not fully explain why God is essential to this world-view, or how it is distinctively Christian.
Harries protests that he is a staunchly orthodox believer, but the way in which he interprets orthodoxy is by pushing it to the precipice of atheism: “There is no compelling logic that can show us that the universe should make sense. It may all be without purpose.” Harries leaves a wafer-thin dimension in which God can continue to be relevant.
With no “logic” available to demonstrate his existence, and with God no longer causally connected with the roots of suffering or its solutions, he becomes an article of the most rarefied faith. God is conceptually and spiritually “with us” in our suffering, although unable to ameliorate our pain. And somehow in the future — but Harries says that we cannot guess when or how — God will bring about his Kingdom.
At the heart of the book is Harries’s refusal to diminish the reality and significance of the world’s suffering. He recoils from any “solution”, theological or otherwise, that seeks to “justify” suffering. He gives short shrift to the idea that suffering is either a divine punishment or a lesson for our moral edification. He shies away from the Augustinian “solution” that, despite evil, the totality of divine history looks more beautiful than we can presently imagine. He is unpersuaded by the Nietzschean “solution” that urges us joyfully to embrace tragedy as part of the essence of life.
The problem of suffering cannot be “solved”: the resurrection is not a “solution” to Good Friday. And here, I think, is the essence of Harries’s argument: we must always have both eyes open: one on the cross, the other on the open tomb. All theological questions are subordinate to the primacy of our experiences of beauty and horror. How we make sense of these experiences is a problem that we share with all humanity. If Christians are really different at all, it is only in the seriousness with which they take the evil at the core of the human predicament, and their refusal either to become “adjusted” to suffering or cynical about hope.
The Revd Dr Hugh Rayment-Pickard is a co-founder of the charity IntoUniversity.