|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
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
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.'"
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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!
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