Natural Disasters: Coincidence or Act of God?

Keynote address given at an inter-faith gathering in Surrey on January 20, 2014

I am very grateful to have been invited to this event, although somewhat daunted by the prospect of speaking to such an issue.  This is not exactly one of the lighter topics to consider, but certainly deals with a question that deeply affects anyone who thinks about human life in religious terms.

Certainly one immediate insight is that there is a very indiscriminate aspect to these large-scale disasters, and the result of cataclysmic events like tsunamis and earthquakes is that Hindus, Muslims, Sikhs, Christians and Jews end up lying side by side, indistinguishable in terms of belief, yet united in human suffering and death.

An early theologian of the Christian Church, the apostle James said,  “be slow to speak …”    And yet, in the wake of any major catastrophe, there are always  various religious authorities who are quick  to grab the spotlight, to weigh in and express what they believe is God’s definitive place in the event:

Evangelical preacher Pat Robertson commented on a destructive hurricane by saying: “This is God’s judgement on the United States.”

In the wake of the terrible tsunami in the Indian Ocean that killed thousands in 2004, the Dean of the Anglican Cathedral in Sydney Australia said it was the will of God and a warning about coming judgement.  

Leaders of other faiths were also quick to pronounce judgement on behalf of God.

Completely ignoring the profound, widespread and complicated issues of suffering and loss, in situations in which thousands have been killed or rendered homeless, some religious leaders feel the need to proclaim to all who will listen that they know this to be God’s will.

And with the aid of modern media, if you manage to get your opinion on a major network, millions of people will hear your particular take on an event.

Beyond being presumptuous, sometimes the claims become absolutely ridiculous and very obviously say more about the person making the comments than about God.   The Judeo-Christian tradition is full of warnings about false prophets and false images of God, which is called idolatry (“Woe to those who speak falsely in the name of the Lord”).   In a statement attributed directly to Jesus, the New Testament says, “You shall not judge.”  Yet it’s amazing how many clerics seem not to have read this particular passage.

It’s a rather primitive and limited view of God to imagine God “up there” somewhere, snoring or having tantrums and hurling down the occasional lightning bolt or deluge of water, which insurance companies persist in calling “acts of God.”  A certain theology arises from that limited vision of God, expressed in a Church sign:  “Don’t make me come down there!”  We speak of storms as being of “biblical proportion,” meaning huge, but all of these perceptions point to a concept of God that is anthropomorphic, petty, and even cruel.  As it has been said, “God created us in his own image and we returned the favour.”

The various religious traditions of the world for the most part claim that there is a being called God or Brahman or Allah, but our conceptions of how much can be known about the nature and purpose of this being vary quite a lot.  I have been guided in preparing this talk by a comment that St Augustine made some 1500 years ago: “If you think you have understood God, then it’s not God.”

There is no single official Christian position about this question.  Every religious tradition would no doubt produce thousands of different opinions about this theological problem, and even within specific Christian traditions like the Anglican Church, you would find it very difficult to locate one official position.  You could go from one bishop to another and one theologian to another, and find different interpretations about whatever might be happening.  So this is not THE Christian response but A response — I am just one priest, and I follow the lead of a very illustrious Christian theologian in saying “I speak as a fool” (2 Corinthians 11: 17ff).

It’s not as though Christianity has no sense of moral consequence or that it expresses the idea that our choices and actions don’t mean anything, but there is less of that sense of “or else”  running through it – less of that sense that God is all about punishment.  You can always choose to see or emphasize certain themes in the venerated writings (Bible, Qur’an, etc.), and there are various views expressed in the Bible, but I like to think that the Christian message, rooted in the life and witness of Jesus, is primarily a message that God is a God of love and that God is willing to forgive almost any human failing, and go to almost any length to redeem us (as passages like Luke 15: 11—32, and certainly the Crucifixion, make very clear).

One way to understand or come at this question from a Christian point of view would be to look at some of the ways the New Testament defines our relationship  with  God and God’s intention toward us.  So we look to passages like “God loved the world so much that he gave his only-begotten son…” (John 3:16) or  “Christ came that we might have life and have it abundantly” (John 10: 10) –  or passages that suggest that  God is not only understood as being loving, but is love itself (“God is love,” as 1John 4: 7—8 says).  At Christmas we remind ourselves that in Jesus is Emmanuel, which means “God with us” (Matthew 1:23) – with us, not just in the sense of being present and among us, but also in the sense of being on our side or “for us.”

From there, we can ask: if that in any way gives us an inkling about God, if not a substantial impression, does it make sense, based on that conception of God, and the kind of relationship suggested by it, that God would be likely to arbitrarily kill innocent children by the thousand?

People who believe God is behind such tragedies sometimes point to the fact that the churches are often full after such events, as though a kind of  terrorism on the part of God is good if it results in people resuming the position of subservience and supplication, a divine strategy, as it were, to root out any vestiges of evil or human freedom or resistance, the goal being a totally compliant and uniform humanity – God’s will be done.  And yet the scriptures suggest that human beings are made in the image or character of God and if so, then surely freedom or autonomy must be key aspects of that image.  Also, “The end justifies the means” is always a dubious approach and method.

At certain times we tell people they must love God because God is good, or they must love God because God is just, but in times of disaster the message seems to be:  love God or God will smite you and everything around you.  Or worse, we can be seen to be saying, “I told you so” or “Too bad for you” at a time when we should be offering pastoral care and practical help, not theological speculation or gloating.

Especially when these natural disasters knock down cathedrals or children’s hospitals or kill thousands of innocent children, they confuse us and challenge our conventional understandings of God’s involvement in things.  If God did this, then our response is either to cower before God and seek ways to appease this tyrannical being, or to hate God and withdraw as far as possible.  Either way, love of God is not the result.

Many of the typical comments about judgment are really judgments on ourselves, rather than any objective truth about God — expressing the sense that somehow we deserve this and that God is only too willing to dispense the means to punish us.

The reality is that this approach  pushes most people away from God – it is repugnant and offensive, and contradicts any claim we might make about the love of God, or the idea of God AS love.  And how we see God is how we see ourselves.  So this kind of view of a violent, vengeful patriarch can tend to justify and encourage corresponding behaviours and attitudes among people.

In ancient times, people had no scientific or rational explanation for phenomena like thunder and lightning, earthquakes and floods, and so they attributed these disasters to the power of God simply because they didn’t know any better.  And so you got these fanciful images of God up in heaven bowling when there was a thunderstorm or breathing heavily and thereby causing tornados.

And so people thought up all kinds of theological rationales for why these things happened – what came to be called theodicy.  Yet even from ancient times there was a tendency to break through those arguments and raise questions about the nature of God – questions that imply that perhaps the reality of God does not necessarily match up with our existing perceptions, projections and dogmas.

One of the distinctive elements of the Christian tradition is the concept of being able to become more familiar with God and yet the one person who most promoted that possibility, at the end of his life hangs on a cross – an instrument of execution — and among his last words is a question: “My God, why have you forsaken me?”  The idea that anyone can always understand the will of God is thereby dismissed by the Christian tradition.

One of my favourite books of the Bible comes from the Hebrew Scriptures – the Book of Job – which parallels a time in the life of the people of Israel when they were obliged to re-think their relationship with and understanding of God.

It is the story of a man described as having done nothing wrong – in the fact quite the opposite, Job is introduced as “blameless.”  And the story proceeds to relate how Job’s life is suddenly destroyed by one disaster after another.

The book is meant to raise questions and to deal with questions which were specific to Israel’s situation at the time, but it has become a book capable of speaking beyond its own time and place, as it deals with questions like the one we are facing today.

Job does not bear his suffering patiently or even very heroically.  Throughout this profound book, he persists in raising troubling questions and demands more satisfactory answers than the conventional ones his theologically-minded friends are imposing upon him.

Job endures his friends’ attempts to explain or assign blame,, and eventually gets his audience with God, but to his surprise he  gets 60 or so more questions – and no answers whatsoever. 

To attempt to attach blame or moral culpability in a situation in which perhaps hundreds of thousands have been killed and millions affected, would require a capacity to analyze and assess light years beyond the capacity of the kind of people who usually like to spout off. And in a case like the tsunami of 2004, in which over 200,000 people from 14 different countries died, it would be extremely difficult to figure out whom God was punishing: Men? Women?  Children?  Indians? Sri Lankans? Indonesians? People on holiday?  Sikhs? Muslims? Christians? And what were they being punished for?  Being near the ocean?  With the mindset of blame and punishment, about the only message you could take from such a massive event would be that God must hate all people, or maybe that God just loves the occasional act of random violence.  In short, people who presume to understand and interpret God’s role in such events  are putting themselves in the place of God – which for a human being is a rather precarious place to be.

One of the messages that this great spiritual story of Job tells us is that it is not just that we don’t know, but that we can’t know.  It is virtually impossible, even for a godly man like Job, to know with much precision what God is about or why God does things.

Interestingly this is also at the heart of the Adam and Eve story.  As Adam and Eve are warned away from the symbolic Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, many things are implied (and many interpretations are possible), but one thing that seems to be strongly suggested is the impossibility of human beings knowing on the level that God knows, and the folly of trying to grasp for that kind of power and control.  “My ways are higher than your ways,” as the prophet Isaiah proclaims on behalf of God.

This wisdom is ultimately at the heart of the Christian story, expressed most plaintively in the lament of Jesus from the cross, as he hangs there, another good and blameless man suffering an unjust death, quoting from the Jewish scriptures which shaped his life, saying “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”

As the Psalms suggest to us over and over again, the question of where God is in times of disaster makes faith both difficult and disappointing.  “Where are you?” is a common question/lament, and that is the question we continue to ask:  Where is God in this?

Mother Teresa, revered by people of all faiths, swamped by the magnitude of the suffering she saw around her, struggled to maintain her faith in God as questions and doubts assailed her.

Elie Wiesel, a German Jewish thinker, writer (and I would say, theologian), essentially abandoned the idea of God in the midst of his experience of the Holocaust (a man-made disaster) in which God’s chosen people died by the million, with no apparent intervention or even concern on the part of God.

In the 1960’s, numerous Christian writers began to express the “Death of God” theology, as a way of saying that our old concepts of God were inadequate and outmoded and in need of drastic revision.  

This was not new.  In one way or another, prophetic voices from ancient times have been telling us to be prepared to re-examine our definitions and our ways of relating to the Divine.  Just because in one particular era or place certain people understood God to be primarily a war god, or a rain god, or a god of fertility, it does not mean that we are restricted to such a limited vision of God.

In our time, I think we also need to re-examine the tendency to want to be able to tell people that a disaster represents some specific communication from God.   Think about it:

  • Is it really a good a way to give glory to God?
  • Is it meant to inspire (or re-inspire) fear and trembling in people?
  • Or is it so that we appear to be all-knowing, able to state with confidence that we above all others know what the ultimate mystery is all about?

In the modern era, we have grown accustomed to applying formulas to things, confident in our ability to measure and grasp and analyze and define.  Faith comes up against this insatiable desire to have certainty.

As the tabloid reminds us, “Inquiring minds want to know.” In fact, we demand to know, and we have a hard time living with the unknown, with the mysterious, with what we cannot control or manipulate.  But faith is a realm in which certainty sounds a lot worse than uncertainty.

Even for this address I found myself trying to analyze and explain, as if there is some adequate answer, some definitive response to such events – as if God may be talked about like an object.

One Christian mystic, by the name of Johannes Eckhart (known as Meister Eckhart) said: “God is being beyond being . . . Therefore St. Augustine says: ‘The finest thing that we can say of God is to be silent concerning him from the wisdom of inner riches.’ Be silent therefore, and do not chatter about God, for by chattering about him, you tell lies and commit a sin. If you wish to be perfect and without sin, then do not prattle about God . . . God is beyond all understanding. A master says: If I had a God that I could understand, I would not regard him as God . . .  Do not pretend that you understand anything of the ineffable God.”

Rabbi Harold Kushner, whose book When Bad Things Happen to Good People was partly based on the insights of the Book of Job, is quite prone to say  “I don’t know,” which I find quite liberating and probably a lot more faithful than claiming we know the mind of God, which false prophets are very prone to do.  

So I ask — what makes us so reluctant to say “I don’t know”?  Is it the need to be seen as experts in the manner that climate-change scientists and sociologists are?  Do we wish to exalt ourselves in importance before people, taking advantage of moments when people are confused and vulnerable?   

Good theology leaves a lot of room for mystery – what one Christian mystic described as “the Cloud of Unknowing.”  Good theology does not try to put God in a box and attempt to provide glib explanations and formulas for everything, as if we can say with certainty that we know what God’s intentions are. We don’t.  People in the midst of disasters often ask derisively, “Where is God?” and the most honest answer is “I don’t know.”

In the face of tragedies like the tsunamis, many people not only reject God but feel obliged to hate God.  It is not God they hate, merely a conception of God, a conception that may well be wrong.  Eckhart said:  “You should not imagine that your reason can evolve to the extent of understanding God,” and suggested that we need to let go of all our concepts of God in order to even begin to relate to God as God is. 

Eckhart, while warning against the tendency to want to name or define God, did say that if you want to call God something, call God “compassion.”

Elie Wiesel, in the face of one particularly traumatic incident in the concentration camp, in which the guards hanged a 13 year old boy for no apparent reason, had something of a revelation.  The prisoners were obliged to line up and watch, and as the boy struggled and very slowly died at the end of the rope, one of the inmates asked derisively “Where is God?”   And Wiesel found himself saying “He is there – hanging on that gallows.”

For many Christians, a way of dealing with suffering and injustice is found in the Cross of Christ.  In the light of the reality of the Crucifixion, St Paul struggled with his own personal suffering and was eventually able to see that God became more real to him through suffering – that through suffering he realized more solidarity not only with Jesus but with other human beings as well.

Indeed, the word compassion means to suffer with, or to suffer alongside, as if to say that such an important human quality cannot develop without the presence and experience of suffering.

St. Paul virtually rejoiced in suffering, “knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us,” as he said in Romans 5.  It is as if to say that our hearts open to deeper levels of relating only through the experience of suffering

Jesus acknowledged that bad things can happen to apparently innocent people.  In the event of a tower collapsing on a crowd of people, he was asked if they deserved it in some way.  Jesus said No, but that lessons can always be learned from situations like that.  That is a lot different than blaming it on God or on the victims (and Christians do like to think that Jesus had more than an inkling about God’s true nature).

To people who insist this should not be happening to them, the Gospel says, well, this happened even to the Son of God.  No one is exempt from the possibility of suffering and of death.

We can’t say one way or the other about any disaster, either that God definitively caused it, or that God didn’t.  We can say what we believe about the nature of God, from our point of view, but we must say it in humility, acknowledging how limited and provisional our ideas of God are.  Whether or not God directly causes suffering, according to the Christian Gospel, suffering is not necessarily meaningless – it depends on the way in which we choose to interpret and respond to it.

There are painful reminders in the various disasters we confront that this world is not permanent – it is not absolutely trustworthy. Jesus warned on more than one occasion about the danger of applying human analogies to God and assuming God must operate according to the same cause-and-effect rules that we do.  It can be good to keep in mind that this world is provisional, and, from the Christian point of view, we seek a more permanent city – a new creation – we seek the ultimacy of the kingdom of God.  Natural disasters can serve to show us that we cannot put absolute trust in provisional entities.

I do not picture God throwing cataclysmic fits out of anger or vengeance or in order to teach us a good lesson, because I think God is above the pettiness of emotion and is not a reactionary who responds to human failings with earth-shaking rage.  God has created a world in which chance, risk, uncertainty, and infinite possibilities are at play – a world in which human beings are given incredible scope to explore and learn.  We believe God has created a world in which danger and pain and death are part of the cost of our freedom.

According to the philosopher/poet Rainer Maria Rilke and in the spirit of Job, it is not a matter of having all the answers, but of “living the questions,” not that answers are not important but that answers suggest an end-point – a state of having arrived – a state of certainty, which is not possible when dealing with questions about God.

We can barely comprehend the physical dynamics of a tsunami or earthquake.  To assume we can comment on the spiritual dynamics of such events is presumptuous.  We are not capable of knowing God’s intentions and purposes in every event.  We are asked to trust in the ultimate goodness of God whether we see it or not, in faith to accept and understand things which are beyond the scope of our comprehension.  When we are too quick to apply interpretations to any tragic event, we run the risk of adding to people’s suffering, confusion and alienation.

I believe we have much to learn from each other as we wrestle with the complex and challenging questions of faith, and I am most grateful and hopeful that in events like this we have opportunity to come together to increase our understanding and to grow in mutual respect as we listen to each other, and learn to support each other by reflecting faithfully on life’s deepest questions, so that we may respond compassionately in the face of life’s deepest needs.

The Venerable Grant Rodgers+
Chair, Ecumenical and Multi-Faith Unit
Anglican Diocese of New Westminster