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Opening up questions

04 March 2016

Wise guides in these slim volumes, says Mark Oakley


Why Does God Allow Suffering?
Robin Gill
SPCK £3.99
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Why Are We Here?
Alister McGrath
SPCK £3.99
Church Times Bookshop £3.60


Why Go to Church?
John Pritchard
SPCK £3.99
Church Times Bookshop £3.60


What is Christianity?
Rowan Williams
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Church Times Bookshop £3.60


ALWAYS suspicious of the quick clarity of the fridge magnet’s take on life and reality, I approached these four “little books of guidance” that sell themselves as “finding answers to life’s big questions!” with a sinking heart. But then I saw the authors. Surely these are not the sort of people who would resolve faith’s complexity at the expense of depth?

No, I quickly discovered, they are not. If the titles of their 40-page booklets are questions, this is because each values questioning as an exploration rather than the search for an easy certainty. But these essays are not colourless or without some conclusion, as they encourage thoughtful sceptics, and the disillusioned, on board. As one of the authors writes, “perhaps the attempt to answer these questions will help bring other questions more clearly into focus.”

Robin Gill reflects on the sharp tension between belief in an all-loving, all-powerful, and all-knowing God and our experience of suffering. He sets out the classic problem of unwarranted suffering, looks at the problem of religious language, and at whether Candide’s cry of “If this is the best of all possible worlds, what are the others?” is misleading. Perhaps this may be the only possible world that could allow for the emergence of life possessing rational and moral choice? Polkinghorne, Hawking, and McLeish are quoted; and then a final chapter on Jesus and suffering unapologetically places the problem into the author’s Christian context.

Discarding God makes suffering even more pointless, Gill suggests, and, like Jesus, we can set about a “faithful living” in which “a mature faith in God sees beyond suffering.” He cites the story of Gordon Wilson, who lost his daughter at Enniskillen, as a humbling example of this faithful living in the presence of God despite immense personal pain.

Alister McGrath has, perhaps, the most difficult question to open up. Taking the premise of Einstein that the mystery of this world is its comprehensibility, he argues that faith does not leap in the intellectual dark but continues a trajectory beyond the thresholds of the scientific method. Faith “may go beyond reason and evidence; it does not go against them, but continues their line of thought”.

Infused with C. S. Lewis, McGrath then reminds us of human longing and of modernity’s opium that won’t allow us to believe that this longing might be an invitation towards a transcendent reality. He observes that we are rarely satisfied with information, but seek formation, looking for meaning in identity, value, purpose, and agency. The Christian faith doesn’t just make sense to us, but sense of us, as it frames us in a larger narrative. He ends with an Augustinian flourish: “For things of this world are but signs and pointers; and if we really want to understand why we are here we must let them lead us to their source.”

John Pritchard’s Why Go to Church? is of a different type from others, but is equally valuable and often very funny. Taken from his Going to Church: A user’s guide, it is aimed at “people wondering whether to keep going to church and those who are wondering whether to try it”.

He explores reasons people have for not attending church — both spiritual (“I don’t believe in God”), ecclesiastical (“the Church is out of touch, out of time and out of favour”), and practical (such as churches that keep their doors open, or light the altar candles, to heat the place up).

He then points to some reasons for reconsidering it, and how to cope if you do. There are insightful, humane, and tender moments: “we often try to ascend the ladders that society puts before us. Sometimes we run out of puff and need to sit down at the bottom. . . strangely that’s often when we encounter Christ who came down the ladder in the incarnation and who now sits with those who can’t climb any more.”

Rowan Williams offers a typically intelligent, attractive, and beguiling picture of what it means to be a Christian. You might need to revisit the odd sentence a few times to understand it — and then be expanded by it. He argues that one of the tests of actual faith (as opposed to bad religion) is whether “it stops you ignoring things.”

Faith is, he argues, genetically programmed to work against emotional infantilism, exploitative selfishness, and an attitude of calculation and suspicion in human relationships. If asked if faith in Christ is true, he replies: “if by standing where Jesus incites you to stand you see more than you would otherwise see, if you see a world larger than you thought you inhabited, you have at least to ask yourself, ‘Is not this a reality?’ and perhaps also to ask ‘Am I afraid of this reality?’ And if this even might be the truth, might be the grain of the real world, where do I want to put myself?” As usual, when I read Williams I feel something coming to birth inside me, whispers from a shore I want to set out for.

The readership for these guides is understandably defined. It would be an important contribution to publish versions on similar themes for the younger, and less middle-class, generations that, some are importantly reminding the Church, it is called to serve practically but also imaginatively. That said, these are welcome reminders that unignorable questions lie at the bottom of life and religion. Even if we can’t always find satisfactory answers to them, to ask them carefully is to refine them, and this process has the potential to revitalise the religious sense that ultimately reality might be trustworthy.


The Revd Mark Oakley is Canon Chancellor of St Paul’s Cathedral.

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