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'In Search of God' With John Humphrys

Tuesday 31st October 2006

A transcript of the Archbishop's interview with John Humphrys for his BBC Radio 4 series 'Humphrys In Search of God'. The programme was broadcast on BBC Radio 4 on 31st October 2006.

JOHN HUMPHRYS: Radio 4 interviewers don't have to observe many rules, but we are required to be impartial, not to express our own convictions. Well I'm breaking that rule for these interviews with leaders of the Christian, Jewish and Islamic faiths. Indeed that's the point of them: I personally am involved. I'm inviting them one at a time to convert me, to persuade me, if you like, that God does in fact exist. I believed that once, but for nearly fifty years I've been a journalist and I've seen perhaps too much suffering, too many children dying, too much wanton savagery to continue to believe it. A God of mercy, any God, seems out of the question. The Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr Rowan Williams is my first interviewee. If anyone should be able to convince me, surely it should be he? First though I want to know if he believes there is a God or knows there is a God.

ARCHBISHOP OF CANTERBURY: I don't know that there is God or a God in the simple sense that I can tick that off as an item I'm familiar with. Believing is a matter of being committed to the reality of God. The knowledge that comes, that grows if you like, through a relationship. I believe I commit myself, I accept what God gives me; I try to accept what God gives me. Grow in that relationship and you grow in a kind of certainty or anchorage in the belief. Knowledge, well yes of a certain kind, yes but not acquaintance with a particular fact or a particular state of affairs; it's the knowledge that comes from relation and takes time.

JH: But what do you say then to somebody like me, because I've given it time if it's a matter of choice or a matter of giving is it happens. Um, I'm 63, I believed I had an unquestioning belief as a child, as children tend to do. I was brought up to believe and I was christened, I was confirmed, I remember that's one of the things one had to do, writing my own prayer book out, I prayed and I had an unquestioning belief. And over the years it was chipped away and now there's a gap where it previously existed. So I've given it time, and I think about it a great deal and have continued to think about it. Why has it not happened to me?

ABC: Well I'm not going to offer you a definitive answer to that but perhaps I could answer...

JH: I wish you would!

ABC: If I could. But I would like to ask what it was that chipped away, and what it was that was chipped away at? What did you think God was?

JH: Well I suppose originally I thought He was the old man with a beard, of course we all do. And eventually I suppose I thought God was a supreme being, the creator, supreme moral conscience. I toyed with conscience for a great deal of time and all the rest of it. And I suppose in the end what chipped away at it for me, what finally destroyed it for me indeed was the presence of so much suffering. It's the classic thing, this is hardly original, I'm very conscious of that. It's very clichéd, but none the less very real. And I could not any longer accept and we had a conversation about it, you and I, on the Today Programme, Beslan when Beslan happened. Although I'd seen lots of other things as bad as, how do you make comparisons between these awful things? But nonetheless that was, I suppose if there were a final straw, that was probably it.

ABC: And you're obviously not very impressed by the free will defence here?

JH: I don't understand the free will defence. Heavens you're interviewing me now! What a nice change, there's a conversion! I'm not impressed by the free will position, no. Free will is fine for mature, reasonably intelligent or at least conscious adults, mature adults. Children have no free will, the murderer has the will, the victim doesn't.

ABC: But isn't that the nature of the case, the free will of one person, of you or of me, affects others whatever we do. And I can't quite see how a universe could be constructed in which some people's free will was, if you like, guaranteed to be aborted at certain points, so that it wouldn't damage others. When people talk about free will in relation to moral evil, I think what they're saying is something like this. God has made a universe in which conscious people emerge, people with decisions to make, with thoughts that can form their decisions. And because we don't live as isolated units, in little bubbles around the place, my thought my action impinges on yours, we're interconnected, our freedom affects others. Now what would it be like if we said 'okay God makes that sort of world, but there is some sort of cut off point where the effect that my freedom has on other people is guaranteed not to make their life too difficult'. What's the cut off point? Now that's where I think there's a rather stark choice. I think either you say that's the kind of world it is and go on reflecting in the light of God about it, try to make sense of it.

JH: Which is what you do?

ABC: Which is what I do. Or, you know, what do you say? 'Well you know the whole notion of a God making a world with freedom in it just doesn't wash...'

JH: Ah, except that that's not quite what I'm saying. You've used the word love. God is a God of love and a merciful God. How do you reconcile a God of love and a God of mercy with what we see happening? How do you say to the other whose child is dying of cancer that God is a God of love? Where is the love of God here?

ABC: In a way it's the same kind of question that arises; is there a point at which you know God has to intervene to clear his character? And how bad does it have to be? A child with cancer, an innocent in those circumstances, suffers and suffers appallingly because certain causes, certain processes have kicked in, we don't quite know why.

JH: But God created them

ABC: God created the system in which they occur, just as God creates the system in which human freedom occurs.

JH: Indeed, but He created everything according to your basis.

ABC: That's right, that's right. Which doesn't mean that you know every single thing that happened. God says 'oh oh I'll make life difficult for them, I'll step in there.' That's the system within which these things arise.

JH: Why? What was God getting at when He created this world in the certain knowledge (because God knows everything) that there would be enormous, intolerable, literally intolerable, because many people go mad or kill themselves as a result of these awful things. I know of a family whose child has just died. They are now - their lives have been destroyed. They will never recover their life, ever, ever. Why did God create that world?

ABC: My faith tells me - and it's very hard to believe in these circumstances, but it tells me and I trust this - that the world, yes, is such that suffering arises in these unspeakable ways. It also tells me that what God can do with those circumstances and those persons is not exhausted by the world. There's more.

JH: Sorry, more what?

ABC: God has more to give. God has more to do with the mother, the child, whatever the circumstances are. God has an eternity in which to heal or to lead forward the people involved in those circumstances. I don't mean make it up to them but I mean that there's a future.

JH: But the child is dead, the parent's lives have been destroyed.

ABC: Humanly speaking that's the end of the story and that's the nightmare. Faith says that's not the end of the story.

JH: So we'll go to heaven?

ABC: God. God has eternity in which to go on working with those persons.

JH: So the best you can offer to the person whose child has died from cancer, the best you can offer those parents is 'bear up, there's a reason' as it were - and forgive me for the clichéd language but - your reward will be in heaven?

ABC: No.

JH: Is that it?

ABC: No that's not what I want to offer at all, because the conversation I'd have in those circumstances isn't the kind of conversation I'd have here. For one thing I think I'd need to say if someone says 'where's God in that situation?' it would have to be answered partly in terms of - 'where are the people who as a matter of fact are alongside those who are suffering, offering what love and healing they can'. Whether in the name of God or not, the act of God is there as well. I'm not saying there's a purpose in the sense that God has said, 'oh yes for that goal, for that end I will devise this disaster', or even that there's a reward in heaven, I'd say there's hope.

JH: Hope of what?

ABC: Hope of healing.

JH: When?

ABC: In God's perspective, in God's time, maybe within this world and maybe not. And part of the difficulty of living with faith is the knowledge which you've underlined so powerfully, that for some people in our time frame in this world there is not that kind of healing. It's not there. And that's not easy to face or to live with.

JH: But you can live with it?

ABC: Just, just.

JH: Let me be clear then. Is God or is He not an interventionist? Does He look at things that are happening and say 'enough already', or does He not? Because in the Bible that is what He did. If we're to believe our Old and New Testaments God intervened, regular as clockwork.

ABC: What all that presupposes is, God is in one bit of the room and there's, if you like, chaos in the other end of the room. God looks at His watch and decides at what point He's got to step in to sort it out. At the same time I think although the Bible uses such language, talks about miracle, there's already in the Bible, in the Old Testament as well as the New Testament, a level of puzzlement about that. People are already asking 'well if He does it there why doesn't He do it there?' And Jesus goes to his home town and he doesn't heal anybody. Why not?

JH: Picks the odd person here and there...

ABC: Picks the odd person here and there. And I think the only way of making full sense of this is to say one thing, and going back to the basic questions. God isn't a person alongside other persons, a reality alongside other realities: 'there's someone on the other side of the room watching'. God is the agency that's at work in everything and has set up the world in such a way that not only is evil possible, but moments are also possible where something breaks through of healing, of miracle, for the newness. Why it breaks through here rather than there, we don't know the causes that make that possible.

JH: Something else we have to take on trust?

ABC: On faith, on faith. What I'm trying to outline, and I know it's not a simple thought, is that God set up the universe in such a way that when certain causes come together, certain circumstances come together, more is possible than those immediately involved would imagine. As if there's something breaks through. Not because God decides that 'there and not there, it'll happen', but because God has set up the conditions in which in this situation rather than that. As I've sometimes put it, the membrane is thinner, his action is nearer the surface. And that may be because of human prayer, because of human holiness, something more comes through than you might otherwise expect.

JH: Let me put to you what John Fowles wrote. You'll be familiar with the quote I'm sure. "Freedom of will is the highest human good and it is impossible to have both that freedom and an intervening deity". Isn't that the reality? It is either or?

ABC: No, it's not. Because if our freedom is the highest good, and if that freedom is -as the Bible says - the image of God in us, then the full exercise of our freedom in let's say in holiness, in prayer, can allow something of God's action to come in with us. Not overriding our freedom but, if you like, working through it.

JH: But if we accept freedom of will, why do we pray? Why do you pray if you know that in the end God is not going to intervene, unless through a happy combination of circumstances, and that very rarely indeed. They prayed in Auschwitz.

ABC: They prayed in Auschwitz, and they prayed I imagine for two reasons. One is God is always to be praised. And the extraordinary thing is that they prayed in Auschwitz. That people felt that God's name was to be honoured even there.

JH: Or they were in total despair and they had nowhere else to go, that's the other explanation.

ABC: And I think there's something of both of them. But I don't think it's just about total despair and having nowhere else to go. They knew they were doomed, I think, the people who prayed in Auschwitz. I read about those especially, you know, Hasidic Orthodox Jews, going into the chambers praising God. Now whatever that's about it's not easy solutions, it's not rewards and success, but they prayed because they had to do it. God's name had to be honoured. Now, that's one reason. The other reason I think is that I pray so that in my own focus, attempting to be loving, to focus on this person, this problem, I may somehow make a channel for God's action to come through into the situation. To what degree and with what effect I won't know, but I've got to do it because I believe that's one of the factors that might make a difference.

JH: Lets get back to my search, which is what this programme's supposed to be about I suppose. I can say to you, will say, I want to believe. I have opened my heart, if you like. I've gone down on my knees night after night and I have tried talking to God, and I have failed. Why can't I say, 'but hang on a minute, you have faith, lucky chap, I want it, and I want it perhaps just as sincerely as you do, but I am denied it'.

ABC: What do you want to believe?

JH: I want to believe, I want to believe in the sort of vague God, if you'll forgive me, that you do.

ABC: Believe in; why?

JH: Because you clearly get great satisfaction from it, and because I want to make sense of the world, because I cannot understand why we're doing what we're doing to each other, because there seemed to be many answers out there. Now, bizarrely, those people who profess faith don't seem to worry about being able to find the answers. You see the number of times you've said to me, 'actually I don't know, but that's what I believe'. I'd like to be able to do that. That's sounds more cynical than it's meant to be.

ABC: No, I hear you. I could say the basic question, the challenge if you like to you is, can you believe that you John Humphrys are the object of an unconditional eternal love which values you in such a way that your contribution as you to the world is uniquely precious to the one who made it?

JH: No I can't because I don't believe that there is one who made it, so I'm stuck

ABC: Does it help at all to give the time not just to talking to God but to the silent waiting on the truth, which for some people is the beginning of this? I mean pure sort of sitting and breathing in the presence of the question mark, because ...

JH: Presence of what? You've got to remove the question mark.

ABC: Well I can remove it for you theoretically, I can't remove it for you personally. For me, the presence of an eternal personal love. But thinking of people I've known who've found their way to faith, sometimes it's been in the context of that silence in the presence of and the question mark very, very gradually, very gradually eroding, as something of love comes through.

JH: I've a six year old child. He asked me the other day whether Africa was bigger than England, and we had a little conversation about that. And I tried to explain the difference between continents and gave up at, it was three o'clock in the morning this, it wasn't an easy conversation and er...

ABC: I know these conversations!

JH: And then I said but yes Africa is indeed bigger than England. And his next question was 'why did God allow that to happen?' What do you say to a child who, if you yourself do not believe apart from the blindingly obvious, you... 'There are some people believe in God, some people don't believe in God. You will decide for yourself'. You can't quite do that to a six year old, what do you say?

ABC: Putting myself in the opposition. It's a very difficult question actually. I think I might say maybe you should ask somebody who does believe in God, and see what it sounds like. Not I think entirely irrelevant, but belief in God appears to come more naturally to children than to adults. And you can take that in one of two ways can't you? You can take it as saying belief in God is one of those things like belief in Santa Claus that every sensible person...

JH: So that was what that was about?

ABC: Indeed. Or you can say there's something instinctive about belief in God which life educates out of some of us in ways that are not always positive or constructive. There's something about the instinctual response to the world that is religious, which it takes quite a lot of doing to squeeze out of people. Remembering that, you know, that the modern 20th century North Atlantic mindset is a bit of a minority, both in history and in contemporary terms. And we ought at times, I think, to pause and say 'well is it so obvious that that's a set of responses and instincts that need to be squeezed out?' Some would say yes I suppose, because they'd say look at the results of not having it squeezed out. Look at, you know, barbarism and bigotry and religious violence. And yet it is, I think, quite difficult to write it all off in those terms. And although I wouldn't rest an argument of the existence of God on this, I would say it is something worth pondering that as far back as you could trace a distinctive humanity, there's some sort of awareness of or relation to something more than just the pragmatic, the daily, the earthly. Just as in the life of most children, something of this seems to be going on.

JH: Given that you clearly believe that this is the truth, why do you, you know, try to convert others? You're trying to convert me, if convert is the right way, during the course of this conversation. But why don't you go after the Jews, go after the Muslims and say 'come on you guys', because you don't do that do you?

ABC: No and I don't, you know, I don't exactly do it with you either.

JH: No, no, you didn't assault me in the street, that's perfectly true.

ABC: No, no, um, I'll think about it. No, when you're talking about the truth of the Christian faith with anyone, whether it's a non believer, whether it's a Muslim, a Buddhist or a Hindu or whatever, you don't, I think, simply begin by saying 'okay this is the truth, why don't you believe it? Come on, you know, give me a quick answer, why don't you believe it?'

JH: You're suggesting you're saying to them...?

ABC: No.

JH: must believe it?

ABC: I could only ever get to that point, I think, by a long process of trying to understand the language they were speaking; what made sense to them. Again it's what happened at the very beginning of the Church's life. The Church didn't simply blaze out into the Greco-Roman world saying 'here's the truth, you must believe it!' They said 'look, this is what you say and that's very interesting as it echoes with what we say, and if we talk this through you might find that what you're saying has a much fuller expression in what we're saying'. So 'here's the truth, you must believe!' that has never been exactly what Christians have said.

JH: Well they did go around slaughtering in the most ghastly way an awful lot of people a few centuries ago because they didn't believe.

ABC: Who did?

JH: Christians!

ABC: Example?

JH: Crusaders.

ABC: It's a bad episode. It's a really bad episode because religion and geo politics always mix in a rather explosive way as we've reason to believe, and to know.

JH: Which is why it mightn't be a bad idea to take religion out of ...

ABC: Out of geo politics?

JH: Out of geo politics. Out of everything else. If we had no religion we would...if we had no religions at all over the last many centuries, we'd have had much less strife in the world wouldn't we?

ABC: I don't see how you can know that. You know, we'd have had strife of other kinds, are the basis...

JH: We might...

ABC: We'd have had differences. I mean racial, class, tribal differences...

JH: Okay. But religion's added to it.

ABC: Religion is a very convenient peg on which to hang some of those other tensions. It's a short cut to say religion has always made it worse. I think there are times when religion has made it less bad than it might otherwise have been.

JH: But we don't need to go back centuries to see it do we? We can see it now. Extreme Islam is threatening, some would say, civilization as we understand it.

ABC: So is the answer to say religion is the problem? Or to say bad religion is the problem, good religion is the solution?

JH: What if you had...

ABC: Which is certainly what a lot of Muslims would say.

JH: ...if you had no religion you would not have the problem for which you had to find a solution.

ABC: Ah! As I say, I think that's illusory. I think that you're simply then saying there would not be enough other reasons to give grounds for genocide or slaughter. I mean that, sorry it's another very familiar trope, but the biggest slaughterer of the 20th century...

JH: I'd say too! Stalin.

ABC: Right. Not religious.

ABC: The biggest slaughterers of the 20th century have not been religious men. And to say that, you know, conflict and butchery are so dependant on religious passions.

JH: Oh no I didn't say that. I said it added to it. It added to an explosive mix and without it we'd be better off.

ABC: So would people have been better off in Stalin's Soviet Union without religion?

JH: Didn't do them much good did it?

ABC: Would they have been better off?

JH: They still died.

ABC: They still died, but would they have been better off without it?

JH: It's vanishingly unlikely that I've said anything during this conversation that set you back on your heels and rocked your faith. Equally I suppose I'd have to say you've said nothing that...

ABC: Rocked you back on your own faith?

JH: ...that has knocked me back, quite. The greatest puzzle to me remains why it is that faith which is a gift, yes, has not been given to people like me.

ABC: It's gift of faith or no gift of faith. The gift of God is there for you and my longing would have to be that somehow or other that sense of being the object of God's loving concern comes alive, that's all I can pray for, all I can hope for. I don't believe that you're predestined as it were to 'unfaith' that God says 'it's not much use wasting my time of Humphrys!' But that God as the Bible says, stands at the door and knocks.

JH: What happens to me ultimately if I don't open that door?

ABC: If you don't open the door you're not fully in the company of God. And it's your choice.

JH: And after death?

ABC: What I'd love to think of course is that after death a possibly rather unusual experience might happen in which you'd say 'good God, I got it all wrong!'

JH: Too late, then.

ABC: Yeah.

JH: After death.

ABC: I think we continually have the choice of saying yes or no.

JH: So that death is not the end of us?

ABC: Death is not the end of us. That's rather axiomatic for a religious believer.

JH: Quite so but I said 'us' meaning 'us, non believers'.

ABC: Non believers?

JH: Yes.

ABC: God alone can judge how much of your resistance to God is, if you like, culpable. It's to do with selfishness, laziness of spirit, bloody mindedness. And how much is just due to whatever it is that gets in the way. God alone can judge that. The willingness, the openness of the heart, even the wish to believe, God can work that out.

JH: Isn't the reality that ultimately you simply don't know, you can't by definition know?

ABC: About your eternal destiny or about God?

JH: About any of it.

ABC: I can be confident enough to say 'this is where my life must be, this is what I hope I want to take risks for'. This is as clear as certain as it gets, and the relationship that I hope and trust I develop day by day in prayer deepens that confidence. I can't, either by argument or by magic, just transfer that history and that confidence into another persons mind. In other words I can't make someone else know that.

JH: There's hope for me?

ABC: Oh yes there's that. There's even love for you.

JH: Archbishop Rowan Williams, many thanks.

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