People start to write because they think they can change the world for the better. In the end, you find that it's hard enough to make your writing better. Occasionally, though, you can change something, even if it's only yourself. You probably already know this story: a group of prisoners in Auschwitz convened a rabbinical court, put God himself on trial - and found him guilty. I'm pretty sure now that it's an apocryphal tale, one of those stories that persists because it strikes a chord. It certainly struck a chord with a producer called Mark Redhead, who had been trying to turn the story into a film for almost 20 years by the time he called me in 2005 to write the screenplay.
Three years on, the result, called God On Trial, airs on BBC2 early next month. As courtroom dramas go, the story has its drawbacks: the accused is not going to break down under cross-examination, or confess all in tears. On the other hand, as Redhead pointed out, both the World Trade Centre attacks and the Boxing Day tsunami had seemed - in their different ways - to put God back on the world stage and raise again old questions about justice and suffering. The timing was right, but I wasn't sure about his choice of writer. Nearly any other screenwriter in the country would have been only too happy to Dawkins up some diatribe about the badness of God. But as a Catholic, I'm actually quite fond of him and felt uncomfortable about acting for the prosecution.
Two academic rabbis, Dan Cohn-Sherbok and Jonathan Romaine, changed my mind. They introduced me to a long Jewish tradition of wrangling with God, going right back to Abraham bargaining with him over the destruction of Sodom, and forward to Elie Weisel's famous declaration that God was hanged on the gallows in Auschwitz. Here were people talking to God on a frequency that wasn't on my dial. The trial of God would not have been some blasphemous aberration, but something in the tradition of the psalms, the Book of Job and even Christ's terrible accusing cry from the cross: "Why have you forsaken me?"
Although the subject of the guilt of God is universal, when it came to writing I confined myself to imagining this particular trial: the problems of setting up a court in a blockhouse, the kind of arguments that those men might have advanced. I focused on the Covenant, God's special deal with the Jewish people. I thought I was doing this to keep faith with the story - but maybe I was also doing it to distance it from my own spiritual life. The magic of stories, though, is that the more specific you are, the more universal they seem to get. The Covenant turned out to be a really good way of talking about anyone who expects anything from God.
Instead of the usual snappy dialogue, I wrote speeches that ran for pages. To get them right, I had to read the scriptures: the Torah, the Talmud, everything. I assumed that doing so would enrich my own spiritual life. It almost killed it stone dead. I thought I was familiar with much of these texts, but reading them straight through was a different experience. Here was a God who was savage and capricious, who chose favourites then dropped them, who set his people ridiculous tests. And the people! A full account of social etiquette during the time of the book of Genesis would have to include an entry under: What to do when the neighbours come round mob-handed demanding to have sex with your visitors. The answer is: Offer them your virginal daughter instead.
As a writer, I was thrilled by this: free stories! Shocking, bloodthirsty stories of ancient atrocities, stories that almost everyone has forgotten. The screenwriter side of me was happy all day. But the good Catholic side of me was being beaten black and blue. I thought my faith was invulnerable. I've been through family illness. I've witnessed cruelty. I read Darwin all the time and find it feeds my faith. Richard Dawkins makes me want to pray, the same as Homer Simpson makes me want to exercise - for fear that I, too, will end up like him, a whining pub bore with the prose style of an internet conspiracy theorist. The first real challenge to my faith came from reading the scriptures. It may seem deliciously ironic to you, but for me it was a time of a permanent headache and no sleep. I felt that half of me was dying.
I was anxious, too, about the Holocaust setting. George Steiner warned writers against using the Holocaust to give a story spurious extra significance and emotion. So I tried hard to keep the script as theological as possible. All the things a screenwriter is supposed to do, I did the opposite. I was vague about the setting. I tried to avoid creating interesting characters. I gave them no history except where it served the argument. When I was pitching, I said: "It's not about the Holocaust, it's about God."
Then we went to a muddy ex-military base near Glasgow and started shooting, and all that changed. The minute you saw actors - even well-fed actors with familiar faces - in those uniforms, all the intellectual theorising went straight to the background. The director, Andy de Emmony, shot the film as if it were a play, using multiple cameras and going for 10-minute takes. He was getting through 15 to 20 minutes of script a day instead of the usual four or five. In film, the recreation of reality normally takes place in the editing suite; here, it was happening on the set, in the midst of a bunch of human beings. As the human dimension that I'd pushed to the back came to the fore, I wondered what it said about me as a dramatist that I hadn't seen this coming. Making the complex, contradictory human experience the first consideration - it's more or less a definition of drama.
So God On Trial stopped being about theological arguments, and became about the fact that people might be capable of having a theological argument on the way to the gas chamber. In Vasily Grossman's novel Life and Fate, there is the story of a doctor who is giving someone long-term treatment for cataracts, even though she knows that both she and her patient have only days to live. Is this idiot optimism, self-deception, or a heroic refusal to submit to the dehumanising process? And where does that heroism come from? It's a fact that, although many people lost their faith in the camps, just as many had it renewed. As French philosopher La Rochefoucauld says: "A great storm puts out a little fire, but it feeds a strong one." Reading the Bible in the light of the Holocaust was a bit of a storm for me. It came close to putting out my fire, but in the end it blew stronger.
I didn't tell you the end of the story. After they find God guilty, one of the rabbis says: "So what do we do now?" The reply is: "Let us pray." Is this a wry story about Jewish stoicism? Is it about a failure of moral courage? Or what? For me, it's about faith. Faith has had a bad press of late. It's been used by politicians as a rationale for going to war without reason, because it "feels right". That is not faith - that's a hunch, plus vanity. The Final Solution was conceived as a public health project; its perpetrators thought it was a dirty job, but someone had to do it. No matter how extreme it was, we should remember that the rationale was completely in line with the then "best practice" in eugenics. People who are now humanist heroes - Marie Stopes, for instance - were of the opinion that the gene pool needed cleaning (she stopped talking to her son when he married someone with glasses).
The camps tried to reduce individuals to components in a project. In the end, they did that literally. What good stories do is the opposite. They say the human is irreducible. Tobias Wolff has described the story of the Prodigal Son as "surely the most beautiful thing ever written". No one hears it without feeling the conflict between the need to do right by the eldest son, and the need to express the overwhelming love you feel for the lost one, now returned. The father is nothing without the son. That contradiction is crucial. I'm hoping that God On Trial is a mirror image of that story. Only this time it was God who seemed to go away, and people who - inexplicably perhaps - were prepared to rush out to welcome him back.
· God On Trial is on BBC2 in early September.
God on Trial
Towards the end of God on Trial, broadcast on Wednesday 3rd September 2008 on BBC2, a group of Auschwitz prisoners concluded that God was indeed guilty of breaking his covenant with the Jews. Their response? They prayed.
This scene highlighted what is arguably the more telling paradox at the heart of the God-and-suffering issue. For perhaps the harder question is not the philosophical or logical one of how to reconcile a God of love with a suffering world, but rather the existential or personal question of why so many people persist with faith despite their own experience of suffering.
If we consider the global scene, the response of the Auschwitz prisoners is not atypical, but rather the norm. Across Africa, for instance, God is guilty of allowing atrocious barbarism to occur, yet still the vast majority of Africans trust and pray and hope. And just a few weeks ago in an article for G2, Frank Cottrell Boyce, who wrote God on Trial, talks of the struggle his own faith encountered as he confronted these issues, and how at the end of it, his faith "blew stronger". Why is this? And why do we see this pattern so frequently? For, if David Hume and a succession of philosophers since him are right, rather than foster faith, the reality of suffering should lead to its demise.
As I've indicated, though, that is not what we perceive. In those parts of our world where pain, hardship and distress are far more prevalent, we find the highest rates of faith, while it is in the relatively comfortable and affluent west where faith is least observed. This is the precise reverse of what we would expect if Hume's argument had any real weight. How do we account for this?
Of course, one of the answers given at this point is to posit a form of cultural intellectual hegemony and suggest that the reason all those Africans retain their faith in God is simply that they haven't thought through the issue sufficiently. If only they had the benefit of the enlightenment eyes with which we are blessed then they too would realise that the reality of suffering disproves the existence of God. Perhaps it is no coincidence that David Hume, who in support of his atheism expounded the problem of suffering, also said: "I am apt to suspect the negroes and in general all other species of men … to be naturally inferior to the whites."
Such blatant racism, either from Hume or his contemporary followers, must not be tolerated. The idea that we have anything to teach Africans about suffering would be laughable, were it not so painful. So, the question remains, why does faith persist in the face of such suffering? Given that it is not due to a lack of intellect, or a failure to think through the issues – what is the answer?
Before I became a theologian, I was training as a paediatrician. In that capacity, on occasions, I had to give treatments or conduct tests that were uncomfortable and distressing for the children. Not surprisingly, some of the children did not respond to me particularly warmly as a result. Yet, perhaps remarkably, despite the fact that at times it was their parents who held them tightly during these procedures, the children never failed to continue to show love and affection towards them. Indeed, even when it was the parents who did these things they continued – as soon as the painful procedure was over – to throw themselves into their parents' arms. Why this difference of reaction?
I would suggest it is because while their main experience of me was either neutral or unpleasant, their experience of their parents was of ongoing care, love, compassion, feeding, warmth, and so on. So when, on occasions, their parents did things they neither liked, nor always understood (if they were too young), they were able to put those experiences in the context of an overall picture of unconditional love. Even though they couldn't always understand why their parents let this particular thing happen, they knew that their parents loved them despite it.
Is it possible that this is also why suffering can produce such starkly different responses in people of faith and people of none? Atheists or agnostics do not have a context of God's love into which this particular painful tragedy can be relativised. All they have is the tragedy itself, and no wonder their response is an even more ardent form of atheism or animosity towards the god hypothesis. In contrast, the people of faith do have such a context. This means that even though they may not be able to explain why God would allow this particular event to occur, they know that the God who on countless other occasions has demonstrated his love and compassion must have a reason. Almost certainly, such a reason has something to do with human freewill, which includes the ability of some to abuse their freedom by infringing that of others. Of course, for those who consider their rationality to be on a par with God's, such an answer will fail to suffice. For they like to think they could have designed a better world in which everyone has complete freedom to act, but remarkably no-one would freely choose to harm another.
African Christians, then, who have an awareness of God's love and compassion, are entirely rational to conclude that their own particular suffering must be fitted into a wider context than just this event. There is nothing illogical in them continuing to believe, for they feel the force of the argument that all that is required to reconcile God's love, power and the presence of suffering is merely the presence of some reason that may or may not be fully accessible to them, but that nevertheless justifies God (like the parent) in allowing some tragedy to occur for the sake of a greater good. In saying this, it's important to see that the logical force of this argument does not depend on us knowing the nature of that greater good, or how precisely the calculation works. The freewill of humanity as a whole (but not as individuals) may or may not be that greater good. But what matters (logically, though not I acknowledge emotionally) is whether there is such a greater good, not whether we are aware of its precise contours.
However, the atheist does not have that wider context. And if you also like to think that you and God are on the same intellectual plane, then all you have left is raw, illogical, indeed insane, pain. Hence, within the confines of their limited perspective, such a person is also entirely rational to conclude that God cannot exist.
The presence of suffering, then, does not disprove the existence of God, but it does confirm us in whatever belief system we already had. As was noted in the film by one of the Auschwitz prisoners, quoting the French philosopher, La Rochefoucauld, "A great storm puts out a little fire, but it feeds a strong one." And that is why the author of this horrific narrative found his faith blowing even stronger at the end.
Title: God on Trial
Transmission Date: Wednesday 3rd September 2008
© 2008 Justin Thacker
Used by kind permission of the author.
A slightly shorter version of this article first appeared on the Evangelical Alliance's Friday Night Theology website. This version was published on Guardian.co.uk, on 7th September 2008.
The Evangelical Alliance’s Friday Night Theology e-mail provides a weekly comment on a topical event to help evangelism. Sign up for free at www.eauk.org/fnt.
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