Shane Clifton’s response to John Dickson’s response to Stephen Fry

I do not intend to engage with Stephen Fry’s recent conversation with Gay Byrne concerning God and suffering, where Fry complained that a good God would not have allowed people to suffer innocently. There are others—those who are more qualified than me—who sought to do so.

For example, an Australian Anglican minister and scholar, John Dickson, responded to Stephen Fry’s complaint in an article published by ABC Religion and Ethics on 18th February 2015. (The article can be found by clicking here.)

I think Dickson made some good points. But to be honest, I thought something was missing when I read it. Then I came across Shane Clifton’s response to Dickson (ABC Religion and Ethics on 26th February 2015). (Click here for the article.)

In his article Clifton, himself being a quadriplegic (and a theologian), does not criticise Dickson in a negative way, but helpfully points out that Dickson and others have “a tendency to talk about evil and suffering in the abstract, too readily setting aside the existential”.

Clifton says,

There is much about Dickson’s argument that I agree with, but my concern is one that is inherent to all utilitarian positions. His argument, in sum, is that suffering serves a purpose – that taken altogether, it makes sense in the context of an admittedly mysterious greater good and an eternal promise.

Clifton thinks that there is some truth here, but adds,

Even so, there is a world of difference between the assertion that good can come from hardship, and that suffering is necessary for the good.

In terms of theodicy, the problem with the greater good position, especially with reference to evil, is that it diminishes suffering.

I think Clifton’s point is insightful. I think there is a tendency among Christians today to undervalue suffering. Suffering is not at all pleasant, of course, but one should not diminish it.

Clifton reflects on his own hardship, and says,

I’ve searched high and low for an explanation for my quadriplegia, and tried to imagine the purposes of God in my situation. But ultimately, I’m a quadriplegic because to be human is to be subject to the vulnerabilities and frailties of finite life. To be human – a creature of the earth – is to be born, to grow, to break down and to die, to be limited in power, strength and knowledge, to be fragile and vulnerable . . . It is to have the freedom to think and imagine and to make choices, but also to make mistakes and to live with regret, and to build a life in families and communities, as well as to suffer the mistakes and regrets of others – and sometimes to be subject to horrible evil and unfathomable suffering.

Here is Clifton’s critique of the modern society.

One of the problems of modern society, with all of its medical and technological wonders, is the implicit demand that we should live forever in perfect health . . .  we worship a photo-shopped image of beauty, and in consequence, suffering, disability and fragility come as a complete and utter shock.

I think, we should listen to Clifton. I am no expert on the topic, but I think we his article provides insights that Dickson did not mention in his earlier article. I appreciate Dickson’s attempt to respond to Stephen Fry, but I think Clifton’s response is particularly valuable.

The dark side of the positivity myth

Shane Clifton wrote an insightful article on disability and the dark side of the positivity myth. Shane had a serious accident four years ago that left him a quadriplegic. We should all hear his reflections on the positivity myth.

I would suggest everyone to read the whole article. But here are some examples of his insights.

The positivity myth has found its way into every sector of Australian (and global) society. It is the standard fodder of the self-help industry, shapes political ideologies and informs our cultural values, and as such, it is celebrated in every medium of popular culture (television, film, music and the like).

The problem isn’t positivity per se, but its object. It’s one thing to make the effort to develop positive character traits and virtues (hopefulness, self-control, courage, patience, generosity), but another thing altogether to continue to propagate the lie that believing an impossible goal will necessarily bring it about – with its corollary implication: if you don’t succeed, you mustn’t have exercised sufficient faith and determination. Virtue, rather than positivity, should be our goal.

In its application to disability, the positivity myth is an attempt to tame and control the bodies and minds of people whose lives we don’t understand, and so fear. We celebrate only those who are able to transform themselves into our image – our normality – free from their disability. We want to believe that unyielding faith will cure cancer, determined effort will overcome the limits of cerebral palsy, strength of will can enable the quadriplegic to walk again, because we can’t imagine that it’s possible to live well in the midst of suffering, sickness and disability.

Source: Accessed on 18th September 2014

Dr Shane Clifton is Dean of Theology at Alphacrucis College.