The Loud Absence: Where is God in Suffering?: John Lennox (Transcript)

Full text of John Lennox’s talk titled “The Loud Absence: Where is God in Suffering?” at Harvard Medical School. In this lecture, John Lennox, Oxford Professor of Mathematics, explores the question, “Where is God in suffering?”

Listen to the MP3 Audio here:

TRANSCRIPT:

MODERATOR: So welcome everyone. It’s wonderful to be with you. The way the format is for this evening is we’re going to begin by asking Dr. Lennox to say a few words for for 20-25 minutes, and then we’re going to go into a time of Q&A. I’ll begin by asking some questions and then you’ll also have the opportunity to be asking questions. Was that already explained? It was. Okay, good. So feel free as you hear things to be sending in your questions and we’ll try to incorporate that within the Q&A time.

So without further ado, Dr. Lennox.

John Lennox – Professor of Mathematics at Oxford University

Well ladies and gentlemen, thank you very much for the invitation to Harvard Medical School. You may think it rather strange that a mathematician would come to medical school. The fact that a mathematician would dare to come to medical school.

But I need to explain to you that I come from Oxford where I’m professor of mathematics. But perhaps more importantly than that, I am a fellow at Green Templeton College. It was originally two colleges, one Green, one Templeton. So we merged them and we didn’t call it Templeton Green because that sounded too much like a London subway station. So we called it Green Templeton.

And Green College was founded by Cecil Green, the founder of Texas Instruments, to be a home for medicine. So in fact, I’ve been very privileged to work with countless medics surrounding me. And they even got me persuaded so far that I did a degree in bioethics. And I think I’m the only professor of mathematics in England who has a degree in bioethics.

But it’s a wonderful privilege to be invited here and particularly to be honoured by being interviewed by someone who is in the very sensitive area of medicine, and that is in palliative care. Because the topic we have before us tonight is one of the most difficult questions that any of us face, whether we’re Christians, whether we’re atheists, agnostics, or whatever particular worldview we have. We’re all faced with the questions of pain and of suffering.

Now, I want to just set it up so that we can get to the real meat of the evening, because I look forward to the questions much more than I do to my own talks. I can find myself considerably boring. So we’ll set up a few ideas that you might want to think about that will form a framework for our discussion.

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And the first thing is, of course, there are two problems here. There’s the problem of moral evil, 911, for instance. And there’s the problem of natural evil, Ebola, for instance. Those are logically distinct problems. Although, of course, they can intermingle. For example, problems of malnutrition can be created by deforestation caused by very greedy exploiters. So you can’t always separate the problem of moral evil and the problem of natural evil, but they have to be thought about together.

The second thing is, there are two different perspectives. I suspect many of you will be studying oncology, and you will become, in time, professors of oncology. It’s one thing to study cancer as a professor of oncology. It’s another thing to have cancer and be told that you’ve only two or three months to live.

Now, I’m very sensitive to this because, one, these are very difficult questions. They’ve got two sides. The professor of oncology must have a certain detachment, must be intellectually rigorous if he’s going to help the patient who’s suffering. But the patient who’s suffering may need a great deal of empathy, of emotional counseling, of care and help. And therefore, when we approach this question, we’re approaching something that’s not just like the mathematics that I do in my work. It’s not like algebra. It involves the deepest resonances of humankind, and I’m very sensitive to that. And I hope you will appreciate that as we go on.

I’m starting by telling you I find this a very difficult question, but I know everybody else does, because we’re faced with a world that sends mixed signals to us, and we have to try to interpret them. We see in our world beauty and love and have marvellous experiences, like I’ve had in the last couple of days, seeing for the first time in my life the leaves in New England turning gold and brown. I could not have imagined it could be so beautiful.

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But at the same time, I watch people being shot to pieces in Ukraine, people being beheaded in the Middle East, Ebola reaching North America. It’s a mixed picture that we’re being sent. And so each of us in this room has a worldview. We have our way of handling it. Now, that worldview may be, it will be if you’re a student, it will be just developing. And various ideas of how we cope with these things.

Well, in one sense, there’s many ways of coping with it, as there are individuals. In another sense, there’s only three or so major families of worldviews. Because as we approach the problem of suffering and evil, we have to ask ourselves, what do we believe ultimate reality to be? And how is the problem to be seen against the background of ultimate reality?

And in the ancient world, you had people that believed that mass energy was ultimate reality. You have many people in the academy today that believe that. They are materialist naturalists. There are others in the ancient world, like my hero Socrates and Plato and Aristotle, who believed that there was transcendence, there were the gods, there was God, there was a Creator who created the universe and who upholds it in being. And then there were the skeptics, the ancient postmoderns, and so on.

And a third family of worldviews is the family of pantheism, where God and the universe coalesce into something fundamentally impersonal. And in a sense, those are the three or four major options. There are many sub options within them, but they can help us navigate our way, at least into the beginnings of this very difficult problem.

So suffering coming from two logically distinct sources and the intellectual response, first of all, has been well expressed by David Hume. I quote, “Epicurus’ old questions are yet unanswered: Is he (that is God) willing to prevent evil, but not able? Then is he impotent? Is he able, but not willing? Then is he malevolent? Is he both able and willing, whence then this evil?”

Now I find among my friends, and I mean my friends, not just my acquaintances, I have many people who look at the mixed signals that the universe sends to us and the experience does, and they become atheists. They don’t become agnostics so much as atheists. And I’ll never forget meeting two people from Israel in Austria at one stage, and we were talking about these things, and they said, ‘We are atheists.’

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And I said, ‘I’d be very interested to know why, because part of the reason I believe in God is your history as a nation.’

And they said, ‘Well, we don’t want to tell you.’

And I said, ‘Well, that’s okay.’ I said, ‘Why don’t you want to tell me?’

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