Stephen Fry said recently that you can't believe in a God who allows parasites to eat the eyes of African children. It's an imagination failure really. People find it very hard to imagine a thing, a being, an essence (words fail us) who inhales bad and breathes out good. Someonething so amazing that their very existence encompasses all that is evil and redeems it.
It is amazing that some of these people with such a limited imagination are actors.
Almost fifty years since we moved beyond the god-of-the-gaps idea - that God is what you have left when science has reached its limit - still there are people who carry the idea of a too-small God around with them in case they have to do some emergency debunking.
The faith community can live with this. We laugh at it. We know that it is better debating style to select the strongest expression of your opponent's case to argue against. At least, some of us do.
We do not all recognise the God the atheists hate.
But we also chuckle at the way some people, who pronounce themselves members of the faith community, actually have put their trust in something they think they've proved. They believe in God on the basis of evidence, the balance of probabilities. That's not faith my friends. But sadly, neither is it science. It's pseudo-science and it deserves to be ridiculed. Even the very sad expression 'intelligent design' suggests that other human theories, by comparison, are unintelligent. This is, on the one hand plain rude, and on the other placing far too much infinite value on the earthly word 'intelligent'. Don't ascribe human characteristics to God. That way lies a barren land of omni-this and all-that. Take your shoes and socks off instead.
Faith is acting as if something is true because in doing so it becomes real for you and makes sense of your story. It provides a meta-narrative (and I know we are a bit suspicious of meta-narratives these days) which guides, points and helps. Neither a crutch, nor proving it but simply a theory of everything. Now where have I heard that expression before?
We all prefer to live in hope. My missing child will return. My cancer will be cured. I will find a job. And no, putting those three things in the same paragraph is not to confer equal seriousness upon them. So living, in what the Church of England funeral service describes as the sure and certain hope of the resurrection to eternal life, is not counter-intuitive at all. It helps us live.
And so from this standpoint we observe the scientific community describing the universe as we know it beginning at a Big Bang, then refining the theory to suggest a series of bangs and crunches ad infinitum backwards and forwards (whatever that means in a multiverse we may have to now know as eternal). And as we observe we posit the existence of the infinite, the ultimate, the beyond-our-ken, the logos, the ground of our being, God. And for some of us it nourishes and sustains us to hope there is more than this, to live as people of faith that this life is not the only one on the market.
Not that we can tell with certainty if our atoms are to be redistributed around the universe or if there is to be a general resurrection. Most thinking Christians have jettisoned the whole damned-to-an-eternity-in-torment thing.
Wise guy once suggested this was the equivalent of seeing through a glass darkly, stealing an idea from Plato. And same guy suggested that in Jesus of Nazareth there were more clues to the other-world than in anyone else.
Which means that many great human stories and metaphors were told to try and get the truth of this man (somehow human and yet divine) taped. God's son? The lamb of God? The son of man? All make a point yet all fall short. No construct of words will ever get anywhere nearer than shoes and socks off time.
Trying to make sense of his death - some call the attempts 'theories of the atonement' - has led to all sorts of forms of words. Christus victor? Substitutionary atonement? Victory over death, sin, the world, the flesh, the devil?
For the evangelical community substitutionary atonement has become more than a model. It was, they say, what actually happened. Christ died in our place. So any member, or former member, of that community in all its breadth, is ostracised for daring to suggest that this might not be the whole truth.
I made this point in a Twitter conversation a few months back and the great Richard Dawkins said something along the lines of 'You mean God sent his son to die for the sake of a metaphor. That's worse.' Meaning that it was worse than all the other theories of the atonement with which people were wrestling and he was disagreeing. I love Dawkins. He writes well. He has helped me understand complex science. And he has had the humility to pull back from his rather aggressive stance against people of faith. He now acknowledges that friendly conversation works better. Respect.
I promised to write a bit more about it and it has taken until today to say this. Believe in God or not. It is entirely up to you. But make sure, if you don't believe, that the God you don't believe in isn't too small for anyone to believe in. Any creed, metaphor or historical account that is raised beyond the level of faith to actual, real, historical truth about the one we hope and trust is the creator and sustainer of the universe has become an idol. And we don't do idols in the Christian community.
Christ did not die for the sake of a metaphor. But metaphors are all we have to describe the sake he did die for.