James Wood on Faith and Earthquakers: Between God and a Hard Place
The only people who would seem to have the right to invoke God at the moment are the Haitians themselves, who beseech his help amidst dreadful pain. They, too, alas, appear to wander the wasteland of theodicy. News reports have described some Haitians giving voice to a worldview uncomfortably close to Pat Robertson’s, in which a vengeful God has been meting out justified retribution: “I blame man. God gave us nature, and we Haitians, and our governments, abused the land. You cannot get away without consequences,” one man told The Times last week.
Others sound like a more frankly theological President Obama: a 27-year-old survivor, Mondésir Raymone, was quoted thus: “We have survived by the grace of God.” Bishop Éric Toussaint, standing near his damaged cathedral, said something similar: “Why give thanks to God? Because we are here. What happened is the will of God. We are in the hands of God now.” A survivor’s gratitude is combined with theological fatalism. This response is entirely understandable, uttered in a ruined landscape beyond the experience of most of us, and a likely source of pastoral comfort to the bishop’s desperate flock. But that should not obscure the fact that it is little more than a piece of helpless mystification, a contradictory cry of optimistic despair.
Terrible catastrophes inevitably encourage appeals to God. We who are, at present, unfairly luckier, whether believers or not, might reflect on the almost invariably uncharitable history of theodicy, and on the reality that in this context no invocation of God beyond a desperate appeal for help makes much theological sense. For either God is punitive and interventionist (the Robertson view), or as capricious as nature and so absent as to be effectively nonexistent (the Obama view). Unfortunately, the Bible, which frequently uses God’s power over earth and seas as the sign of his majesty and intervening power, supports the first view; and the history of humanity’s lonely suffering decisively suggests the second.
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Posted January 25, 2010 at 7:00 am
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1. Bart Hall (Kansas, USA) wrote:
Not only is the movement and interaction of tectonic plates—which generates earthquakes—not “God’s punishment,” they are also not some sort of “rebellion of nature” (due to the Fall) because they’ve been part of God’s plan for creation since the very beginning. Without them, Earth would not be a suitable home for humans. Here’s why.
The interaction of tectonic plates pushes up mountains, including volcanoes. By this action the land is renewed and nourishing minerals are released into the soil as those mountains erode. Without tectonic regeneration our soils would be impoverished at best and eventually wash into the sea, never to be recovered. The fertile earth on which we depend completely for life ... is itself dependent on tectonic renewal.
Similarly, the atmosphere must mix with the seasons, and the weather conditions occasionally giving rise to hurricanes and tornadoes are essential if Earth’s climate is to be temperate and if there is to be rain to water the good soil. We could not live without it, and by design some places are more prone to such conditions than others because that’s where the essential energy transfer takes place.
Earthquakes, volcanoes, hurricanes, blizzards, tornadoes and all those things are natural results of God’s perfect design for Earth. Haiti has got our attention because of the immense devastation and shocking death toll, but that isn’t really the essential question.
Devout Christian fathers can have their entire family swept away in a flash flood. A falling tree limb crushes a woman walking with her daughter in the woods. A tornado wipes out a town, or a trailer park, or a single farmhouse. The scale of devastation is different in these examples, but the theological issue is not.
As I understand Scripture it seems that God cannot turn aside the forces of nature for one person or one group of people, not because He’s incapable, but because to do so would raise vastly more troubling questions as to why He would save this evil person and let that good one die, or for that matter save one good person and allow another good person to die. It would be even more thorny than some of the “double pre-destination” interpretations occasionally extracted from Romans 9.
The Fall did indeed give rise to the tragedy in Haiti, but only because of human greed and rebellion, rather than any rebellion of nature. Consequently our longstanding efforts to serve the Haitians and care for them is the best way we can attempt to mitigate the Fall whilst awaiting Christ’s return and the setting right of all that is so horribly broken.
Our call there—now much more than before—is to heal the wounded, comfort the despairing, care for the widows and orphans, promote justice, and to help Haitians re-build vastly better than before so that the next earthquake is not nearly so devastating. And if there’s never another earthquake before Christ’s return we will nevertheless have heeded his call to care for the least and the lost, and to feed his sheep.
January 25, 8:54 am | [comment link]
2. Frances S Scott wrote:
Well said, Bart Hall! Frances Scott
January 25, 12:01 pm | [comment link]
3. magnolia wrote:
this might be the first time i have ever agreed with you, hear hear bart hall.
January 25, 12:50 pm | [comment link]
4. Tamsf wrote:
Great disasters like the earthquake or the tsunami always seem to bring forth these exercises in theodicy. (I just looked up the official definition of this on dictionary.com and it was “A vindication of God’s goodness and justice in the face of the existence of evil.) But from a philosophical perspective I don’t see how the earthquake is any harder to explain than a single case of incurable cancer.
I do have strong reservations on Bart Hall’s comment, especially the paragraph starting with “As I understand Scripture it seems that God cannot…” I don’t think that scripture makes that point at all. After all, He stopped the sun so Joshua(?) could finish his battle. He also repeatedly used droughts and plagues and storms to further His purposes. In John 9 Jesus says that a man was born blind, not randomly, but because God wanted to display His works. There are many many examples like this in scripture.
But one thing He does make clear in scripture is that only a true prophet can make the connection between a disaster and a message from God to His people. Elijah could draw the connection between the drought of his time and Ahab’s sin. But Jesus himself told us not to try to draw such connections ourselves in Luke 13.
It is a very serious thing to falsly claim the mantle of a prophet and announce that a particular disaster represents a particular message from God. But that is far from saying that “God cannot” speak in that manner.
January 25, 3:04 pm | [comment link]
5. John A. wrote:
While I agree with you about the various benefits of natural processes I doubt that God chooses his actions to avoid confusing a few philosophers. Jesus answer about this sort of thing is much less comforting than yours:
Or those eighteen who were killed when the tower in Siloam fell on them, do you think they were worse offenders than all the others who live in Jerusalem? No, I tell you! But unless you repent you will all perish as well!” Luke 13:4,5
Jesus calmed the storm. He healed a few but left many others. When he healed people he said “Your sins are forgiven.” Mostly he seemed to indicate that people’s disease was not “their fault” but there were times he equated healing with forgiving people their sins.
I think the truth is that a huge amount of suffering is the direct or indirect result (at least partially) of someone’s sin, of things done and left undone, and the mission of the Church is to deal with sin at the source.
January 25, 10:35 pm | [comment link]
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