John Humphreys is searching for faith. He lost his, he says, over a number of years, as a result of being a journalist who has had to witness some truly dreadful examples of suffering. How, he wonders, can a God, any God, permit that kind of suffering?
Its a very real question - and one that he put, this morning, to the Archbishop of Canterbury...who in turn made a typically thoughtful, gentle, respectful attempt to put forward a Christian viewpoint. You can hear the whole programme by CLICKING HERE.
In dealing with the specific question of why God allows suffering, Rowan Williams (the Archbishop) explored the 'free will defense' - which as you will know boils down to this: God has created a world in which our capacity to grow is worked out through our capacity for free will - in other words we can choose whether or not to look for God and follow him...we are not puppets on God's strings. However, the result of such free will is that inevitably our actions have an impact on those around us. (If we live to love, those around us will be loved. If we live to hate, those around us will be hated). He then pointed out just what a chaotic world this would be if God chose to intervene everytime someone's selfish action was about to cause harm to another.
The 'free will defence' is indeed a standard response to questions of suffering, but it does not immediately appear to offer a solution to the problems of 'natural' suffering: disease, earthquakes, tsunamis etc. It was when moving onto these levels that I felt the Archbishop's response was not as full as it might have been (no doubt due to the time available). He said, essentially that he has to believe that even in such awful and unmerited suffering there is still the possibility of action by God - to bring healing, and love. And of course, I agree. However, if I may make so bold - there is another aspect to the 'free will defence' which he did not explore.
That is to offer the suggestion that all suffering is directly the result of the free will that human kind has exercised over the millennia. By this I mean to say that if humankind had spent the last few thousand years co-operating with each other, rather than destroying each other, there is a very good chance that by now we would have found cures for all diseases, we would have learned not to build homes in earthquake zones (or at least to build earthquke proof homes), we would have decent Tsunami warning systems etc etc etc.
In other words, I sometimes wonder if 'natural' suffering may, in fact, be a reluctant, but necessary part of God's plan: his megaphone to the world which says, "for goodness sake, stop fighting, start sharing".
Full marks to John Humphrys for opening up this important debate.