gave an interview earlier this week where he was asked to say something to God. Fry is an atheist, which is probably the reason he got this question. Gay Byrne - the interviewer - looked shocked at Fry's answer. (Honestly, what did Byrne think he was going to get if not something provocative?) Fry's answer, as he prefaced, was something of a theodicy. In short, he places God on trial for the pain and suffering of humanity, especially those elements of nature that cause suffering (e.g. childhood blindness, bone cancer) that cannot be attributed to human action or inaction.
Today comedian Russell Brand answered Fry in this way. To his credit, Brand acknowledges what a cultural gift Fry is, both in his career and his activism. The entire reply has a tone of respectful disagreement--something that Brand does not always do well.
As someone who believes in God more often than I don't, I should probably applaud Russell Brand for making apologetics work in skinny jeans. This is something that C. S. Lewis could never pull off (although Lewis's bellybutton piercing should not be overlooked). But I find myself applauding Stephen Fry in this debate.
Both Fry and Brand begin from a posture of respect. This is no small gesture and I wish that more public figures could figure this out. Both have obviously given the question of theodicy some thought. They're not scholars. But they're not pretending to be. We could quibble with a few details. They both get the "woman caught in adultery" wrong. Overlooking these details, I much appreciate that they demonstrate an intention to bring substance to the conversation. Both demonstrate passion. Indeed they wouldn't be trending on social media without a bit of passion. But what Brand lacks that Fry demonstrates is a sense of empathy. Without empathy, this entire enterprise rings hollow. I don't mean to say that Brand is insincere. But his arguments with Fry don't quite speak to the *heart* of the problem.
Fry has his finger on a problem that haunts any witness of senseless agony. I'm talking about the sort of suffering that can't be measured by reason: the existential experience of chaos, that moment when the pain of another becomes ineffable. It's when theodicy sinks from the head to the gut that it really becomes a problem. Not the fact of it; the identity-altering experience of it. This is the element that doesn't translate to the lecture-hall-debate setting.
Brand's experience of the beauty, precision, and pulse of nature is essentially a religious experience. I'm in. I'm all in. But Fry's experience is equally compelling. It is an experience of nature that is as visceral as any religious experience. When one experiences theodicy at this level, I think that the appropriate reaction is agonizing disbelief. In fact I'm not sure that I can imagine a different response that demonstrates sanity quite as well. If a person can survive such darkness and muster empathy on the other side, I will forgive a bit of anger toward those who prop up a deity devoid of complexity.
Empathy is the key. In a debate setting, it is the ability to hear the basic, gut-level human experience in the testimony of the other side. It is to acknowledge that the experience of the perceived other is valid and illuminating. This is what Russell Brand is missing. This and a hairbrush.