Tuesday, May 20, 2008

This article appeared in the Springfield News Leader under the title, "Don’t Blame the Destructive Forces of Nature on God." Click here to review the article and comments online.

Mother Nature and Modern Religion

Read/Post Comments (5)

       In the Irra Waddy Delta of Myranmar 78,000 people were killed and 56,000 reported missing from a May cyclone. On May 12 an earthquake in China’s Sichuan Province killed 41,000 with 32,000 missing and massive destruction of property. Many natural disasters occur around the world every day—such as the severe storm through Newton County in Southwest Missouri on May 12 leaving thirteen confirmed dead. The death toll and property loss is staggering. No matter how one considers these tragedies they are meaningless in terms of some overarching higher purpose. Not that the loss of one’s home and loved ones are not significant. The loss of even one life from the human family is significant, and it is multiplied if the loss is personal. In the long sweep of history, however, such events are insignificant. They have temporary significance due to the loss of life and property, but in long term they make little impact on those not directly involved. Massive natural disasters eventually become artifacts of our ancient past, like the eruption of Vesuvius in A. D. 79, which buried the Roman cities of Pompeii, Herculaneum, and Stabiae. They were only rediscovered in the early 1700s. Business resumes as usual and memories fade.

       Some tragic events do have lasting significance, however—for instance a soldier’s self sacrifice in combat is commemorated by a nation—like the battle of Thermopylae in 480 B. C. The Spartan general, Leonidas, and his 300 soldiers died defending Athens against an overwhelming force of Persians. Such acts of personal heroism are remembered because they remind us that human beings can overcome the instinct for survival for values cherished higher than life itself. But loss of life due to the blind force of nature cannot be so easily rationalized into some higher purpose—such as the will of God, for example. China, Myranmar, and Newton County remind us that we are not masters of our environment. We are always at risk in a capricious world that we cannot control, whether by prayer, religious devotion, or science.

       Other tragedies we cause ourselves. Although some dark human reason may lie behind them, in the light of day such “purposes” appear irrational. Terrorist bombings and unnecessary wars fit this category. Can any political purpose justify such senseless taking of human life? Consider the recent discovery of mass graves in South Korea containing thousands of skeletons. Early in the war, when the North Korean army pushed south, the South Korean army and police “emptied South Korean prisons” and slaughtered the detainees. It was an action by the “U.S. backed regime,” but “U.S. military officers were sometimes present.” It is estimated that as many as 100,000 died in the blood bath. Such an inhumane act clearly warranted more space in the newspaper (News-Leader, 5/19/08, 9A)! This event does have meaning, however; it reminds us that normally civilized human beings possess the capacity for incredibly cruel acts! Such tragedies we wish to forget—hence the short report in the newspaper.

       Looking for a rationale to fit natural disasters and depraved human conduct into some overarching divine plan is a futile exercise, since they challenge God’s benevolence—no matter the rationale. They make the saying “God’s in his Heaven and all’s right with the world” less than trite. God may be in his heaven, but clearly things are not right in God’s world. The single theological issue of the twenty-first century is how to distance the concept of a benevolent God from the capriciousness of nature without having Mother Nature’s ethical blindness stick to God.

       Natural disasters are not caused or permitted by God, and our inhumanity to our fellows in the human family should not be dignified by appealing to God’s permissive will. The fact is we live in a world controlled by nature’s blind force, along with the best and worst of our species, and are always at risk from one or the other.

Charles W. Hedrick
Professor Emeritus
Missouri State University

Posted by Charles Hedrick at 11:58am

I believe that we live in a natural world governed by natural forces. I also believe that as human beings each of us has the capacity to commit great evil as well as great good. I cannot believe that God "plans" everything for some greater purpose. I also do not believe that we can educate our way to goodness. In a recent article in Newsweek, when speaking of the slaughter in Rwanda, Rakiya Omaar, director of African Rights, states that "Education is no cure. Doctors, politicians and teachers were as brutally complicit as everyone else. Those who shielded their neighbors from violence—at huge personal risk—were 'almost universally peasants … It was very shocking to me that education isn't, in the way you want it to be, the answer.'"

So, am I a pessimist? I don't think so. Most of us who live in this century in the US live very good lives, but it isn't because we are better or more deserving, just lucky enough to live in a powerful nation with a stable political and economic system.

The difference between the natural disaster and the human-engineered disaster is crucial: the difference is "choice." For whatever reason, we humans have the power of choice to do good or to do evil. We can choose on some scale to be Adolf Hitler or Mother Teresa. No fair making our enemy the "other," or Satan. To paraphrase Pogo, "He is us."

So, I guess I'm just saying that I agree with you, Charlie. Thanks for always sharing your thoughts with us.

Marcia Morriset
Academic Advisor-Recruiter
Honors College
Missouri State University
Springfield MO 65897
Phone: 417-836-6370 Fax: 417-836-6372

Posted by Marcia Morriset, 5/20/2008 at 3:56pm.

Greetings. I hope that this email finds you in good health and spirits! What an awesome website and blog! Please subscribe me.

Many thanks for your kind words recommending our book, Introduction to the Gospels and Acts, to our Eerdmans customers! The collaboration on the book worked well for us and it made it more-balanced with broader appeal. Thanks again for making us look so good. We hope that our book meets the high expectations generated by your generous and expert recommendation!

Blessings to you and your work!
Chuck Puskas

P.S.: Are you still jogging? On June 14, I run a half-marathon with our pastor and a friend (not intending to win any prizes!)

Posted by Chuck Puskas on 6/4/2008 at 2:33pm

I'm pleased to subscribe to your blog site. I've read through everything posted there to date and find myself, as expected, comfortable with the sound reasoning of your opinions.

The thing that probably impressed me more than anything else, however, was your "I'm really just a curious fellow who wonders "why". That will take you to a lot of places, as it certainly has me. I'm sure that the "why" is short for that litany of questions---who, when, what, where, why and how---that we lawyers use to pester witnesses to bring out what is hopefully the truth of the matter. Since we are both persons who have seen a lot of snows, I like to think that at least some of the deeper wisdom has made its way into our being.

Your friendship over these last ten years has meant a lot to me, but I must tell you that your having been a part of the scholarly group that gave us the Nag Hammadi Library puts you in a special category to me in addition to your helpful friendship.

If I may express only one reservation re the blog, it has to do with your first two entries, “Mother Nature...” and “Is Human Suffering...” You have certainly responded to the way we so often hear folks talk about God and “his responsibility” and the like. I buy into the high gods of the Trinity and the spiritual hierarchies below them, which seem to be grouped into one simple “God” designation by most folk. Your responses address that, and I totally agree with you in absolving “God” of responsibility for the acts of nature or other human suffering. To me, however, the responsibility is on the other end, namely, with humanity, the highest of “God’s” creation, but one that is on a long journey. I cannot absolve humanity (certainly myself included) for responsibility for at least most of these misfortunes, at least not totally (and I’m not just talking about global warming). It would take more space than I have here to elaborate, but I did want to share this idea with you for perhaps some future coffee talk.

I look forward to the further flow of dialogue on your site.

Edward R. Smith
Lubbock, TX

Posted by Edward Smith on 6/20/2008 at 3:11pm

Charlie! Love this article! I don't credit/blame God for all these tragedies, even the deaths that come to us all as we grow weaker and face that final part of Life. This particular world is not at all what God meant it to be, and "the fall" (forgive me for such an archaic and old fashioned term, I am sure there is an updated one that can mean anything to anybody, but I like that one), brought all these freaks of nature to a perfect world...not actually God's, as He is present for His children, but watching from a distance what the "world" does under Satan's rule. He has the veto. And I think He uses it. But, I know God could cook up a real good tsunami if He wanted to, I just doubt that He does. I believe every word of Job, though, and I know that God watched over him while his afflictions were going on. The book even mentions weather: God keeps the snow in warehouses! I love that!

Storms were so feared, and the sea, in scripture...Jesus stilled them all, didn't He?

You always make us think...you are wonderful instigator of spiritual digging into the mind...do I believe what he just wrote? If I don't, what do I believe about this? I believe my baby sister, Marian Carol, said that another way, but said it just the same and better...about causing us to stop and say, Hey, what DO I believe about that?

Keep on Wry One. I delight in your thoughts put on paper!

Love you from way back...

Posted by Grace Menhel on 6/23/2008 at 7:49pm

Charlie, I always enjoy your thoughts and am stimulated by them. But I wonder whether in absolving God of blame for "natural" calamities, you are not driven to the conclusion that God (if God exists) is basically impotent, or at least that whatever "God" might be, He/She/It is not what we have usually made God out to be. Maybe a theology of the cross, which does not focus on how we are "saved" but on what the cross means and tells us about God, would be worth thinking about. Holocaust theologians have also wrestled with this problem, and I don't think they have found an answer that satisfies. The notion that everything that happens is somehow God's doing is a dangerous and oppressive idea, especially when, for example, a mother is told that the reason her little child died of cancer was that God wanted his little cherub to be with him. What a terrible thing to say, though not an entirely surprising thing when you begin with the assumption that God has to be behind every event, good or bad. We need to think of God in a very different way, though I'm not sure what that way would be. Maybe the Gnostics were onto something! Arland Jacobson

Posted by Arland Jacobson on 6/25/2008 at 3:15pm

I agree, Arland. Logic leaves me with only three choices where the weather is concerned. 1. God does not exist for God as we currently conceive God, could not be responsible for the terrible injustices of natural disasters. 2. God does exist, but because of the terrible injustices of natural disasters I must rethink God’s character and nature. 3. Stick my head in the sand, ignore logic, and continue believing in the Grand Old Man in the sky and that “all is right with the world” (as Robert Browning puts it). I find myself in the second option, because as Garry Trudeau says: “Reason’s a bully” and will not allow me to ignore logic. There will be more on this idea of changing ideas of God in a book I edited that will appear toward the end of the year: “When Faith Meets Reason. Religion Scholars Reflect on their Spiritual Journeys” (Polebridge Press).
Posted by Charles Hedrick on 6/26/2008 at 8:44am