Natural disasters are a field day for the faithful. They either explain why we deserved these “natural evils”, or desperately rationalize why they happened in a world supposedly supervised by a beneficent and omnipotent God. If that can’t provide a good explanation, they appeal to the inscrutability of God, or say that everything will be set right in the afterlife.
This, of course, gives atheists the chance to once again note that natural evils don’t comport with most people’s idea of God.
Hurricane Sandy has inspired an orgy of agonized self-examination at PuffHo this week. The biggest piece is by Jaweed Kaleem, “Hurricane Sandy presents complex questions about God for clergy and the faithful as victims cope.” (Kaleem should learn to write more concise titles.)
He notes that some clergy have already claimed that the hurricane was a punishment from God, but we needn’t detain ourselves with that kind of idiocy. Let’s look at the More Sophisticated Responses.
But many Christians and people of all faiths would ask why, if God is all-knowing and created the Earth and life, he would cause the kind of suffering a hurricane or any natural disaster is bound to create. It’s a question Rabbi Harold Kushner, the former head of Temple Israel in Natick, Mass., has spent decades exploring.
“How do you understand what is happening to you?” said Kushner, who wrote the book When Bad Things Happen to Good People after the death of his son from a premature aging disease. Speaking from his home, where the electricity had just gone out and more storm-related problems were likely to come, Kushner, 77, said he had come to understand “God as moral,” but “nature as not.”
But nature is a product of God’s will. It’s like saying that somebody kills you with an axe, and then excusing the incident by arguing that “the axe is not moral but the murderer is.”
“Nature is value-free,” said Kushner, a rabbi of the conservative Jewish tradition. “It can’t tell the role between the deserving the undeserving. God’s role is not to decide where the hurricane goes and how severe it is. God’s role is to motivate people to help neighbors and improve methods to predict hurricanes. God is found not in the problem, but in the resilience.”
I am so glad that Rabbi Kushner knows exactly what God is up to and where He is found, given that many other theologians claim that God is inscrutable. Sadly, the “resilience” entailed by forecasting hurricanes occurred only in the last few decades, after God had already killed lots of “unresilient” folks.
Kaleem gives other examples of Hurricane Apologetics:
Similar stories of difficulty and perseverance can be found in the Quran, said Yasir Qadhi, a Muslim cleric and dean of academic affairs at Houston-based AlMaghrib Institute.
“How does one explain evil? If God is all-knowing and all-just and merciful, why are there murders, rapes and typhoons? Philosophers and theologians of all stripes have grappled with this,” said Qadhi, who lives in Memphis, Tenn., and regularly teaches on the East Coast.
“In Islam, there’s no such thing as pure evil. Every action of God may be pure good or may have some good and negative, but there’s always a benefit to every action of Allah, whether we understand it immediately or not,” said Qadhi. “It is by combating evil that we show goodness. Were there no poor people, how could people show their mercy? Were there no hurricane, how could we come together to help each other and be neighbors?”
Were there no Auschwitz, then. . . what? If my cousin hadn’t gotten cancer and died at 14, then. . . what?
Qadhi’s argument that evils are there to give other people the chance to shine is reprehensible. He continues:
“Somebody might ask, ‘Why would God do that?’ Firstly, we cannot understand God’s wisdom. Allah tests us in this world to give us positions in the next. It is by answering those tests that we prove our faithfulness,” said Qadhi, who added that the Quran says “Allah never burdened the soul with more than it can bare [sic].”
This shows nothing about God, but something about the deviousness of the theological mind. Don’t ask questions—God forbid that we ask whether Allah might not exist—but shut up and suffer. The more you accept your lot, the more faithful you are. Can anybody with rationality and empathy buy such tripe?
In another PuffHo piece, “Where was God when Hurricane Sandy Struck?“, Rabbi Shmuley Boteach prefers to ignore the hard questions and spout some platitudes:
What was G-d thinking when he sent Hurricane Sandy and what could have been its purpose?
In truth, I don’t much care, because our role as humans is not to understand G-d’s plan in the face of horror and tragedy, but to challenge God and demand that human life always be protected and preserved. . .
The Bible in Deuteronomy is clear. “The hidden things are for G-d to understand, but the revealed things are for us and our children.” Why G-d allows good people to suffer is a secret known to him. But we human beings ought to have no interest in knowing the secret. What we want, what we demand, is that the suffering stop completely so that God and humanity can finally be reconciled, after a long history of human travail and agony, in a bright and blessed future, bereft of suffering, absent of tragedy, and filled with blessing.
Ours is not to reason why, but to watch folks die—and try not to comply.
But why are we supposed to challenge G-d’s unknowable plan? Presumably G-d knows better than we why good people suffer, so shouldn’t we go along with what He wants? Or does G-d want us to challenge him: that is, perhaps our suffering is part of an even more devious plan in which G-d tests us to see if we’re gutsy enough to stand up to his manifestly ridiculous actions?
The good rabbi, of course, doesn’t consider the more parsimonious alternative to the suffering of innocents: G-d doesn’t exist, and the suffering is simply what one expects when evolution creates creatures in an unstable world.
More evidence for that parsimonious hypothesis: also at PuffHo, Rev. James Martin, S. J.(a Catholic) offers “A Christian hurricane prayer,” part of which is this:
Creator God, we ask you to calm the wind and the waves of the approaching hurricane, and spare those in its path from harm. Help those who are in its way to reach safety. Open our hearts in generosity to all who need help in the coming days. In all things and in all times, help us to remember that even when life seems dark and stormy, you are in the boat with us, guiding us to safety. Amen.
The first part didn’t work, for God didn’t guide the hurricane away from the east coast of the U.S. or Caribbean islands. Our loving God has once again killed lots of people (132 by the last count). I suppose Sophisticated Theologians™ would explain hurricanes as the inevitable and unavoidable result of the salubrious way that God has arranged the weather, but couldn’t he have steered those winds in another direction? Was he really in our boat?
Not one of these theologians has suggested that the historical difficulty of explaining certain evils as part of God’s plan may suggest that God doesn’t exist at all.