On Wednesday 22nd February, Sion College was delighted to welcome The Rt Revd Lord Harries of Pentregarth, retired Bishop of Oxford, and former Dean of King’s College, London, to a seminar lunch held at the Punch Tavern in Fleet Street. The theme of his presentation, based on his recent book of the same title, was ‘The Beauty and the Horror’. It was a courageous exploration of a central and perplexing paradox at the heart of the Christian faith: given the astonishing wonder and beauty of creation and existence, set against the universal and devastating reality of gratuitous suffering and unspeakable horror in human life, what does faith have to say? In the context of apparent meaninglessness, what can it mean to have faith in a loving God?
Lord Harries rejects two of the traditional theological answers to this conundrum as unacceptable: the notions that God is punishing those who suffer, or that God is testing their faith that they might grow in character. He highlighted the importance of engaging with the full horrific reality of lived experience, resisting the desire to ‘posit an ideal’. Our speaker’s exploration ranged widely, drawing upon literature, art, history, science, and lived experience. The writers he cited ranged from the Orkney poet Edwin Muir, to Simone Weil. He highlighted the fact that, properly understood, the Christian faith takes suffering with full seriousness - neither denying it, nor succumbing to the temptation to glorify it – but retains the capacity to speak of hope by looking beyond tragedy, and maintaining the capacity to affirm what it means to live, even in a world full of horror.
It was a challenging and thought-provoking presentation, which was timely as a preparation for Lent – and it was warmly appreciated by those who participated.