Graham Sykes, Chaplain to the Bishop of Oxford:
In recent months I have spent a disproportionate amount of my time sitting at the hospital bedsides of people I love. First of all it was my mother. She was in a stroke induced coma for two weeks and died without recovering consciousness.
Now it is my father who has terminal heart failure, is depressed by bereavement (my parents were together for 72 years) and has contracted pneumonia. So far he has been in hospital for the past five weeks. All this has reminded me of the year I spent in and out of hospitals, being treated for breast cancer (yes, men get it too, but that’s another story) and being close to death on a couple of occasions. People ask me: ‘doesn't it shake your faith’? My answer has always been and remains an emphatic ‘No’.
During this time I have been filled with pain as I watch the strife in Syria, Southern Sudan and the Central African Republic. The reports come through of Muslims killing Christians, Christians killing Muslims, Muslims killing Muslims and Christians killing Christians and people ask ‘doesn't it shake your faith?’ My answer, again, is an emphatic ‘No’. Rather than shaking my faith it positively reinforces it.
For some this is a paradox and beyond reason. For me, however, it comes from a reasoned understanding about God and the world. It was a kind of reasoning that started for me when I was very young and first began to ask big questions about existence and whether there was a God and, if so, what kind of God? For me the Christian explanation is the only one that makes any sense of it all. I don’t struggle to believe in the existence of God. I find the beauty, wonder and complexity of the world to be too immense to have happened by mere accident. I don’t have problems with my science conflicting with my faith.
Science seeks to address the question how. How did the world come into being? How did human beings come to populate and dominate the Earth? Faith, religion or theology seek to answer a different order of question which is informed by science. Why did the Earth come into existence, for what purpose and to what end? Science doesn’t answer the million dollar question of why there is suffering in the world. Science needs theology.
Disease and death are, in my Christian understanding, a direct result of the abuse of human freedom. In the first paragraphs of the Bible we are told that God made human beings in God’s image. That means we are free to do whatever we want to do. Sometimes we make bad choices that are hurtful and damaging. The Garden of Eden story, which some anthropologists call ‘an interpretation story,’ says that the consequence of misuse of freedom is disease, death and decay. Some human beings use freedom of choice to choose to inflict violence on other human beings using God, faith and religion as an excuse to justify it. Some ask, even demand, that God should intervene when human beings make these kind of choices but that would then be a contradiction of our creation. If, every time a human being makes a bad choice, God intervenes then we have lost that indelible image of God, that freedom and responsibility, which is written deep within us and all creation. Such intervention would render us automaton, mere choice-less robots simply doing God’s will.
My deeply held Christian conviction is that God is love and does not will violence. Love lives with mistakes and imperfection.
Love forgives and pleads for a different way. If every human being bears the image of God then violence against another human being is a form of apostasy and the killing of one human being by another is an act of blasphemy. It is an attack on God. Humanity needs someone to save us from ourselves and that someone, for Christians is Jesus Christ who, in the words of an old Lindisfarne song ‘got busted just for talking and mixing with the wrong sorts’.
Christians believe that Jesus is God in human form, who came to demonstrate God’s love, to draw us back to the way of being that God wills for us. Love never forces itself on the beloved because to do that corrupts love. Response to God’s love is something that we can choose to do or not. Jesus draws us toward the love of God the Father.
Jesus offered love, forgiveness, healing and life as the alternative to hatred, enmity, disease and death.
The way of being offered by Jesus repairs the marred image of God in those who choose to follow him and accept that they need saving from themselves and can’t do it on their own.