Tuesday, January 04, 2005

How Could God Allow This?

That is the question that always comes up when natural catastrophes like the one in the Indian Ocean occur. One Indian woman's anguished cry was widely quoted in the press: "Why did you do this to us, God? What did we do to upset you?" Politics and religion are uniquely human phenomena; so if politics explains war and other forms of human cruelty, does religion explain things like earthquakes and giant waves, which are not under human control?

Martin Kettle in the (UK) Guardian finds that it's much easier to explain human destructiveness theologically than it is to explain destructiveness that comes from nature. And it's understandable that we don't want to confront such questions as why a God that is both loving and all-powerful could permit such massive loss of life to occur. But we must -- if we are to "explain the world order in which such apparently indiscriminate acts can occur."

One answer to the Why? If God Exists? question is that God does not unleash destructive forces and is not responsible for making them happen, but God IS a source of help that we can turn to when we are drowning in grief. This is the modern rebuke to the traditional religious view that "This [the tsunami] is an expression of God's great ire with the world."

A more contemporary understanding of God is that yes, God created the natural world -- but having created nature, with all its complex and interrelated laws, God cannot then interfere with that natural system. If God could, or would, do that, then what would be the inherent value or beauty of Creation? “This is not something that God has done. The world has certain imperfections built into the natural order, and we have to live with them. The issue isn’t ‘Why did God do this to us?’ but ‘How do we human beings care for one another?’ ”

That's the view of a rabbi at an egalitarian Conservative congregation in Portland, Oregon. But the idea he has expressed is compatible with Christian understandings of God as well. In every religion, I'm betting, there are those who would tell another person experiencing enormous emotional pain that "This is God's will. It is not for us to understand it." But that point of view is not specifically Christian or Jewish or Muslim or anything else. It's simply callous, and callous people can be found in every religious tradition. For sheer elegance and grace of heart that lifts the soul, I have found nothing better than this, written by David B. Hart, an Eastern Orthodox theologian.

When confronted by the sheer savage immensity of worldly suffering--when we see the entire littoral rim of the Indian Ocean strewn with tens of thousands of corpses, a third of them children's--no Christian is licensed to utter odious banalities about God's inscrutable counsels or blasphemous suggestions that all this mysteriously serves God's good ends. We are permitted only to hate death and waste and the imbecile forces of chance that shatter living souls, to believe that creation is in agony in its bonds, to see this world as divided between two kingdoms--knowing all the while that it is only charity that can sustain us against "fate," and that must do so until the end of days.

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