The Cry to God as ‘Father’in the New Testamentis not a calm acknowledgementof a universal truth aboutGod’s abstract fatherhood.It is the Child’s cryout of a nightmare.It is the cry of outrage,fear, shrinking away,when faced with the horrorof the ‘world’–yet not simply or exclusivelyprotest, but trust as well.‘Abba Father’all things are possibleto Thee…~Rowan Williams, as quoted in Celtic Daily Prayer (New York: HarperOne, 1994), p. 46
For the last two months or so I have been getting together with a friend, an atheist, for coffee. Whenever we get together she grills me with tough questions about God, Christianity, life, everything. She keeps me on my toes. Last week our conversation turned, as I knew it inevitably would, towards the question of how we Christians can square our belief in a loving, benevolent, almighty God–“Our Father in Heaven,” as we like to call him–with a world as cruel as this one is. We talked for a long time and I bumbled around, grasping for something to say that sounded at least somewhat compelling. This is what I was at least trying to say: There is no harder question for the Christian, and I make no claim to have the Answer. There can be no easy answers when it comes to the massacring of 130 children in Peshawar or to the ravaging of one child by leukemia.
Christians and non-Christians alike need regularly to be reminded that it is no small thing to refer to the Creator of the universe–Him from Whom, through Whom , and to Whom are all things; Him in Whom we live and move and have our being–as “our Father.” We have a tendency to sentimentalize and trivialize the fatherhood of God, thinking of it as the affirmation of the warmness and fuzziness of God. We who have been brought up in the faith–and who have not lost it–all too easily forget what a staggeringly counterintuitive article of faith it is and always has been to stand with the saints (and martyrs) and say that “I believe in God the Father….” For much of pagan antiquity humankind was thought to live in a world fundamentally constituted by Nature and directed by Fate (modern pagans prefer to say Chance, but the two are practically the same) and in which ultimate reality could not care one whit about the human condition. And the great 20th century atheist philosopher Bertrand Russell articulates well the secular religion bequeathed to us by Modernity:
Brief and powerless is man’s life; on him and all his race the slow, sure doom falls pitiless and dark. Blind to good and evil, reckless of destruction, omnipotent matter rolls on its relentless way; for man, condemned today to lose his dearest, tomorrow himself to pass through the gate of darkness, it remains only to cherish, ere yet that blow fall, the lofty thoughts that ennoble his little day; disdaining the coward terrors of the slave of Fate, to worship at the shrine that his own hands have built; undismayed by the empire of chance, to preserve a mind free from the wanton tyranny that rules his outward life; proudly defiant of the irresistible forces that tolerate, for a moment, his knowledge and his condemnation, to sustain alone, a weary but unyielding Atlas, the world that his own ideals have fashioned despite the trampling march of unconscious power. (“A Free Man’s Worship,” in Why I Am Not A Christian, [New York: Touchstone, 1957], pp. 115-16)
If, like Russell, all we had to work with were “omnipotent matter” rolling on, there are no rational grounds for hope, for ethics, or for genuinely righteous indignation. The best we could do in such a heartless materialist cosmos is to cussedly stick to our guns for no other reason than that they are our guns. We would be left, at best, with Existentialism; with adhering to our subjective values in the teeth of a universe that simply doesn’t give a damn about us or our values. At the end of the day, Existentialists are just stubbornly idealistic Nihilists.
Of course, the very features of the human condition that make Russell’s stubborn Nihilism sound coldly realistic–the Holocaust, extreme poverty, AIDS, the 2004 Tsunami, the 2010 Haiti earthquake, human trafficking–are the same features that give the Christian confession of the Fatherhood of God it’s punch as well. The practice of kneeling by our beds or in our churches to invoke “our Father who art in Heaven” is not entirely unlike assuming the bent, but unbowed posture of Russell’s “weary Atlas” in that the Christian practice, too, grows out of a sober recognition of the frightfulness of the universe. It is, indeed, as Rowan Williams put it, “the Child’s cry out of a nightmare.” But, as Williams goes on to note, it is a cry “not simply or exclusively protest, but trust as well.” It is a cry to the great Person standing behind all that is cold and cruel and impersonal, trusting that His purposes are finally for good, and hoping that someday, someday His Kingdom will come and His will will be done on earth. Of course, this cry is uttered in the teeth of a universe which all too frequently seems to have no regard for what is good or fair or just, and as such it is inevitably an act of faith. But for the life of me I cannot see how there could be anything to our sense of justice and injustice, of right and wrong–anything real, or transcendent, or binding–apart from some such faith. For all of its prima facie plausibility, Russell’s Godless worldview is a non-starter for anyone who believes there is more to our ethical intuitions than mere animal instinct or self-interested pragmatism or personal preference. C.S. Lewis provides us with a helpful entree to this line of thought:
My argument against God was that the universe seemed so cruel and unjust. But how had I got this idea of just and unjust? A man does not call a line crooked unless he has some idea of a straight line. What was I comparing this universe with when I called it unjust? If the whole show was bad and senseless from A to Z, so to speak, why did I, who was supposed to be part of the show, find myself in such violent reaction against it? A man feels wet when he falls into water, because man is not a water animal: a fish would not feel wet. Of course, I could have given up my idea of justice by saying it was nothing but a private idea of my own. But if I did that, then my argument against God collapsed too–for the argument depended on saying that the world was really unjust, not simply that it did not happen to please my private fancies. Thus in the very act of trying to prove that God did not exist–in other words, that the whole of reality was senseless–I found I was forced to assume that one part of reality–namely my idea of justice–was full of sense. Consequently atheism turns out to be too simple. If the whole universe has no meaning, we should never have found out that it has no meaning: just as, if there were no light in the universe and therefore no creatures with eyes, we should never know it was dark. Dark would be without meaning. (Mere Christianity, pp. 45-46)
For my part, I am not ready to give up on my idea of justice being somehow fundamentally rooted in reality–a reality deeper than all of our horrific material circumstances–however vague, confused, and conflicted that idea of justice might be. And so I pray, “Our Father, who art in Heaven…,” trusting that the One to whom I am crying knows, cares, and is able to set wrongs right. Continuing to say such prayers is an act of faith, to be sure, and is no small thing. But I cannot help thinking that there is something to it. God help us if there isn’t.