In my flat I have a copy of a striking Crucifixion by the French artist Georges Roualt. A recent visitor stopped to study it. Then she turned away, repelled. "It is a man in pain", she said.
The pain and suffering, physical and mental, that are part of everyone's life are the strongest weapons in the armoury of the atheist thinkers who on both sides of the Atlantic are unleashing a denunciation of religious faith. They talk about the "virus" of belief and of themselves as "doctors". It is a dangerous metaphor that has been pressed into service in recent history with terrible results. One who does not talk in that way is the leading BBC presenter, John Humphrys, whose book In God We Doubt is subtitled "Confessions of a failed atheist". But for him also it was an unspeakable evil that spurred his enquiry into belief the horror that was unleashed on September 1 2004 when terrorists took over a school in Beslan in the north Caucasus region of the Russian Federation.
Around the world prayers were said for the safe release of the children, teachers and family members attending this first day of the school year more than a thousand of them. The prayers were not answered. Instead, after several explosions had occurred inside the school building, the Russian security services went in. By the time the slaughter had ended, more than 330 innocent people were dead, including more than 180 schoolchildren, with many more seriously injured.
After the firing stopped, John Humphrys telephoned the Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams. He asked him to come on the BBC's Today programme next morning to answer the question, "Where was God in that school?" The archbishop agreed.
Their dialogue was the spur to a series of radio programmes that followed, entitled Humphrys in Search of God. The response was huge. In half a century of journalism the BBC presenter had never received such a postbag.
Humphrys recalled the Beslan atrocity in his subsequent book. He writes: "Those men loaded their weapons and laid their explosives in the classrooms in the full, calculating knowledge that they might use them to murder children. Over the three days of the siege they must have come to know many of those children. They must have seen reflected in their frightened young faces the faces of their own children. And yet they butchered them.
Some horrors are on a scale so vast it is impossible to grasp them: the Holocaust, the purges of Stalin, the millions murdered by Mao Tse-tung. But not Beslan. We could grasp it only too well. How many of us imagined our own children in that school, facing that fear?
It is "understandable", Pope Benedict XVI acknowledges in his encyclical letter on Christian hope, Spe Salvi, that there should be protest against belief in God when the world is marked by so much "injustice, innocent suffering and cynicism of power". Here, the Pope believes, is the root of modem atheism. A God with responsibility for such a world, the protesters maintain, would not be a just God, much less a good God.
But if human beings make a total claim that they themselves can establish justice, they will not succeed. "It is no accident", the Pope argues, "that this idea has led to the greatest forms of cruelty... No one and nothing can answer for centuries of suffering. No one and nothing can guarantee that the cynicism of power...will cease to dominate the world.
Nor can any individual man or woman find anywhere a judge who will listen to the story of their life with full understanding of everything that happened the failings that were theirs and the pressures they were under, the cards they had to play as best they could. There can be no secular substitute for the Last Judgment. Indeed, Benedict writes: "I am convinced that the question of justice constitutes the essential argument, or in any case the strongest argument, in favour of faith in eternal life."
In the world, the Pope writes, "it is not by sidestepping or fleeing suffering that we are healed". He quotes from a letter written by a 19th-century Vietnamese martyr, Paul LeBao-Tinh. The Pope calls this "a letter from hell". In the concentration camp where the martyr is incarcerated, the oppressors add to the suffering they inflict by encouraging the outbreak of evil among the victims themselves, so as to enlarge the extent of their cruelty. Yet Paul testifies that he does not feel alone, for Christ is with him. He wants his readers, like him, to "give endless thanks in joy to God".
The "letter from hell" leads the Pope to consider the meaning of consolation. To console another is to share his or her solitude, which then ceases to be solitude.
Evil and suffering remain the strongest argument for atheism, powerfully advanced by Ivan in Fyodor Dostoevsky's novel, The Brothers Karamazov. The case he makes is examined by the Catholic writer John Cornwell in his riposte to Richard Dawkins entitled Darwin's Angel. The guardian seraph of the title maintains that in his book The God Delusion Dawkins has misread Dostoevsky's work. The atheist brother, Ivan, is not saying that if God does not exist, then everything is permitted, but that he knows God does not exist, and therefore everything is permitted. The proof, he holds, lies all around. In the novel, Ivan is less motivated by science and reason than by his awareness of the "human tears with which the earth is saturated, from its crust to its centre-. In particular, for him nothing including the burning of the perpetrators in hell could justify the existence of a God who allows crimes to be committed against children.
Ivan tells his believing brother Alyosha that he has put together "a fine collection" of anecdotes from newspapers and books. Among the savagery he recounts is the story of a girl of five whose parents shut her up all night in a freezing outside lavatory because she wet the bed, and whose mother as a punishment smeared her face and filled her mouth with excrement; or of the serf boy aged eight who threw a stone in play and by accident hit the paw of a favourite hound belonging to a Russian general, whereupon the general in retribution had the boy stripped and made to run, and then set the whole pack of hounds upon him, to tear him in pieces. Nothing, says Ivan nothing can justify the idea of a God who could create human beings with the freedom to do such things.
Dostoevsky does not advance "an answer" to Ivan's arguments. There is no "Christian answer" to suffering. But there is a Christian way of using it. In the novel, Alyosha, the believer who is a monk novice under the saintly Fr Zossima's direction before he goes out into the world, identifies with suffering children and shares with them. At one point Ivan notices Alyosha's distress over his "fine collection" of anecdotes. "I am making you suffer, Alyosha, you are not yourself," he remarks. "I'll leave off if you like." Alyosha mutters: "Never mind. I want to suffer too."
He had learnt from Fr Zossirna, Darwin's angel comments in John Cornwell's book, "non-judgmental, communal love". Alyosha follows in the steps of Jesus, "the only human being", in the angel's words, "who has suffered and lost everything for the sake of others". Hence, the angel declares, "only Christ can forgive everything even those who have tortured and murdered children".
Nevertheless, in his encyclical letter Pope Benedict voices a "terrifying thought". He warns us that "there can be people who have totally destroyed their desire for truth and readiness to love". In them "the destruction of good would be irrevocable". But most men and women are not at such risk. For they retain "in the depths of their being an ultimate interior openness to truth, to love, to God-. Before Christ, the Judge who is also their Advocate, they will encounter "the fire which both burns and saves".
In the light of such a scenario, every human being must feel compassion for every other. A society which cannot share its sufferings "is a cruel and inhuman society", the Pope declares. But, he immediately continues, there is a prerequisite. "Society cannot accept its suffering members and support them in their trials unless individuals are capable of doing so themselves." And, Benedict specifies, an individual cannot accept another's suffering unless he or she personally "is able to find meaning in suffering, a path of purification and growth in maturity, a journey of hope".
Easier to say than to do. When I read this passage, I thought immediately of my late friend and colleague Donald Nicholl, who died from an inoperable cancer after a year's illness in 1997 at the age of 73.
Donald was a working-class intellectual, a breed which English Catholicism has fostered, born in a Yorkshire mining village. As a boy he would travel to his school by bus, alarming the schoolgirls in their mid teens who were going the same way by talking about Dostoevsky. One of them, Dorothy, was as petrified as the rest, but refused to be daunted. She went to the local public library and read every book by or about Dostoevsky she could get her hands on. Then she sat beside Donald as the bus took her to her own school, which was further on than his, and pretended that the work of the Russian novelist was familiar to her. She became Donald's wife, and they had a son andfour daughters.
Donald won a scholarship to Balliol, where he took first class honours in History. He taught for more than 20 years at Keele, and became a professor. He was a political and social radical who never lost touch with his working-class roots.
When he contracted his final illness, I visited him at his home in the village of Betley near Crewe, and we kept in touch by telephone and letter. He told his friends at this time that he had decided that thinking was a consequence of the Fall, and that he therefore proposed to give it up from now on and just to gaze. His close friend and spiritual adviser, the Jesuit Gerard W Hughes, was therefore somewhat disconcerted when Donald presented him with a 24-page typescript about death and dying. But Donald merely said, unabashed, that these reflections were the fruit of gazing.
Meanwhile, he was recording on tape his experience in this last stage of his life. When a hospital consultant told him at last that there was no reason for them to see each other any more, he said to himself that now his sails were set for the journey home. He remembered Jesus's words when he said farewell to his disciples: "I go to prepare a place for you." And that, he thought, was what the final journey meant going to the place prepared for you. His wife Dorothy transcribed those tapes for him, as she was accustomed to do, and I published them after his death in The Tablet, for which he had written more than 100 articles, under the title "My Last Voyage".
He was often in great pain as the cancer ravaged him. "Are you all right?" I asked him in April 1997 when I rang. "No," he replied. Earlier he had told me that he and Dorothy had decided to tell enquirers: "Donald is a bag of bones with his heart in the right place." He was glad, he told me on another occasion, that the Christian faith promises a new creation. "That's good, because the bit of a body I have left is not much." "When he looked in the mirror, he said, he got a shock. "I never had much flesh but now!"
I remember telephoning him one evening some months before he died when he was in great distress, sobbing and gasping for breath. "I manage it from minute to minute," he said. "I will be faithful to the end."
When he passed the crucifix in his house, he would put his hands into the nail holes in Jesus's feet and recall the words of Blaise Pascal: "Jesus is in agony until the end of the world."
Yet even in this extremity, his wry, searching humour did not desert him. Towards the end of March 1997, he told me one day that he had had a revelation in a dream during the night that there was no Tablet in heaven. "Does that make you feel better?"
But how did he know, I asked. "God in heaven sees everything, including the Tablet, doesn't he?"
No, he had seen a notice on the heavenly billboards. he assured me. announcing "No Tablet here. Official".
"There are a lot of things that won't be there in heaven" I remarked..
"Oh yes. No priests" (with great relief).
He was always fighting against exhaustion: "People understand pain", he confided, "but not weariness and powerlessness. when you don't have any energy whatever. Sometimes,! think: well, I won't get up today, and by the evening I feel utterly spent." Yet, he reflected, "just before I settle down for the night I have always so far been able to look back and say: 'Today I have been able to say a word to someone which has helped them".
He was adamant that he wanted no such inscription on his grave as, May he rest in peace. He had no intention of doing that. He wanted to accompany others making the same voyage, if that was permitted to the dead. He offered to do that for me. There wouldn't be any exterior signs of it, he thought. "You don't need them if you dwell in each other.
On the tapes he dictated, he recalled how he had been tested for cancer some 20 years before. There had been a discussion of whether they would find it was benign or malignant. He had not liked that language. "I remember saying at the time: I would not describe any cancer which was to afflict me as malignant, because this gives the impression that somehow there is a malignant force in the universe which is attacking one."
True, he acknowledged, a phenomenon like cancer is a sign that something has gone "deeply wrongwith all life on earth and in the human family. Nevertheless, in the last resort the universe is not hostile to us. On the contrary, "the centre of the universe is a loving heart and we are responses to that creative, loving heart. Which means that the .last word is not with corruption and death and nothingness."
He used often to talk of the risk the Creator took when he put spirit into carbon and created human beings out of stardust. Now on the tapes he dwelt on that thought. "I think of the cancer which is in me at the moment as a part of that whole risk which is inseparable from life. Part of my job is to accept all that that involves."
He had told me on the telephone that he wanted his death to be connected with the suffering of the poor people of the world. "The human family" was a reality to him. "I wouldn't want my destiny to be separated from them," he said. On those final tapes he told how he wanted his last days to be "part of a process of joining my suffering with the suffering of people throughout the earth; and if we accept it ia that way, instead of its being malign there can be a redemptive quality about it."
ope Benedict XVI, as he brings his thoughts to a close in his encyclical, remarks inn the sure hope of the resurrection which is central to the Christian faith. He ends with a clarification: "Our hope is always essentially also hope for others; only thus is it truly hope for me too. As Christians we should never limit ourselves to asking: how can I save myself? We should also ask: what can I do in order that others may be saved and that for them too the star of hope may rise? Then I will have done my utmost for my o Nvn personal salvation as well."
Donald passed that test. Even in his final weeks he could still write to me full of concern about the conflict in Palestine, which he had studied for many years and experienced at length as rector of the ecumenical institute at Tantur, near Bethlehem.
As he looked back at his life, he found it transformed by gratitude. He gave thanks for his wife and family, and the other communities that had nurtured him: the village and the school and the Church and the Army in which he served in wartime and after which he became a Catholic, and the university. There was no room for bitterness or recrimination against anyone, be said on the tapes as his dictation neared its end. He felt these were his last words recorded in the Tablet article "so full of gratitude—.
The existence of suffering and evil perplexes all of us as muci-s as it perplexes Richard Dawkins and angers him against the God he does not believe in. But when I think of Donald Nicholl, I see that as with Fyodor Dostoevsky's novel The Broth.ers Karamazov, there are different levels on which one can view the ills that flesh is heir to. On Donald's level, one follows a Guide who, in the words of the English Puritan Richard Baxter, "...leads me through no darker rooms / Than he went through before: And on that lmvel one's fmal thought, despite the evil and suffering and sin that every life is subject to, can b.e one of hope and gratitude.
John Wilkins wats editor of The Tablet frora 1982 to 2003.A longer version oft/us article originally appeczred in Commonweal magazine 02008 Commor-zweal Foundation, reprinted with permission . For subscriptions, visit wiinv.commonw.ealmagazine .org