God and the tsunami, part II

Here, in VFR’s final blog entry of 2004, is a continuation of the dialog with a correspondent about God and natural disasters. When she posed this question, I told her I would have to think about it for a while before I answered.

Correspondent to LA:

My only point is: if you give God credit for the bounties of life, he deserves blame for the disasters as well. In my observation, however, he gets a free pass when tragedy strikes, but receives thanks if the baby is pulled from a well safely.

LA to Correspondent:

Your whole complaint proceeds from the assumption that if there is a God, everything that happens is his direct will. But you havenít replied to my earlier statements and have kept returning to that one idea. For example, you ignored my point that Godís will is not ordinarily done on earth. So let me try once more, trying to address your question more directly, as best I can.

God is perfect being, is perfectly good, and is the source of all being and all good. God has nothing to do with evil. But the beings created by God are not God and only share partially in Godís being. As Augustine says, there is a hierarchy of being. For example, animals only have a certain ďmeasure of being,Ē not having been created for eternal life. Man is created for eternal life but lost it through rebellion.

I supposed we could say that the same hierarchical idea applies to nature. The earth is not God, it is not perfect and timeless, it is changeable, dynamic, has earthquakes and accidents. Some Christian theologians say that natural disasters, earthquakes, etc. are themselves the result of manís Fall. Either way (whether the earth is that way because itís a lesser order of being, or the earth is that way through the Fall), God does not will an earthquake. He does not will disease. God wills only good.

As Augustine says, there is no such thing as evil as an independent principle. Evil is an absence of the good. Disease is an absence or defect of health. Just as evil is a turning away of the soul from the good, and disease is a turning away of the body from health, an earthquake could be seen as the turning away of nature from the perfect harmony that created the earth (which is just one way of seeing it, as explained above).

God never intervenes for evil, though there is plenty of evidence of God intervening for good. If people suffer undeserved ills and disasters, that is simply the nature of this world. Thatís what Jesus meant when he talked about the eighteen who died in the fall of the tower. He said, you are ALL going to die this way, unless you repent. Meaningless, undeserved death by accident, illness, or whatever is EVERYONEíS fate. Thatís the ordinary course of things that Jesus wanted to rescue mankind from by getting them to turn back to God.

When someone is healed of a disease through prayer when the doctors had all given up on him, that comes from that person getting connected with Godís will which became manifest in his life. ďThy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.Ē When the woman who had had internal bleeding for many years, touched Jesusí garment from behind without his knowledge, she was healed. Jesus did not consciously heal that woman. When she told him what had happened, he said, ďYour faith has made you whole.Ē

When we pray, itís not that the infinite God comes down and answers our little petitions. Itís that we bring ourselves into contact with God, and that changes us. So the idea that if some prayers are answered and others arenít, that proves that God is some capricious character, is a complete misconception of God.

Anyone who had your notion of what God is supposed to be, a direct intervenor in everything that happens, a cosmic busy-body, would have to be an atheist. No intelligent Christian or Jew believes that God is directly intervening in every event the way you describe. Having conceived such an incorrect notion of God, naturally you come to the conclusion that God doesnít exist or that God is a malevolent trickster, and so you end up resenting the very idea of God.

Finally, there is no surer way to become a non-believer, than to pray to God demanding that he reply to the prayer on our terms. We will inevitably be disappointed, and then turn away from God.

Correspondent to LA:

Well, itís certainly a whole lot more coherent than the totally confused Houses of Worship coumn in the WSJ today. I am going to repeat myself, sorry for the repetition!

I am starting from the premise that an admirable God is a consistent god, who works with a concept of justice that we would all understand: treat like cases alike, if two people are equally qualified, their rewards should be the same, not radically different. Believers are constantly crediting God with the power of intervention for the good in human affairs: John Ashcroft says that God prevented another 9/11 attack since 9/11 because he loves America so much, but Ashcroft does not blame him for allowing 9/11 to happen in the first place; Elizabeth Smasrtís father says God saved his daughter.

So, according to this thesis, God can intervene if he chooses to do so. It must therefore have taken a superhuman power of restraint for God to stay his hand as the tsunami was appropaching the coast lines. We certainly cannot possibly understand why he would choose not to intervene. You say: thatís because heís God, and unfathomable. I say: OK, thatís for sure. Utterly unfathomable. But in a human, that failure to intervene when doing so would cost him absolutely nothing would be seen as despicable and callous and hardly worthy of respect or praise. So I donít understand why one would worship such a God who capriciously decides to intervene in sometimes trivial cases, and not in others of such horrific devastating power. Or how such behavior should earn one the title of the God of Love. A parent who decided to allow a huge portion of his innocent children to die when he could intervene would not be regarded as a loving parent. If you tell me he is a pagan God, who laughs at our misery and loves to torment us, who needs bribes in the form of sacrifices, fine, that I can understand. Not the idea of a loving God who acts in such arbitrary and cruel a fashion.

LA to Correspondent:

Ok, you feel justified in repeatedly returning to the very point which Iíve said is an incorrect point, because you keep hearing various believers make that point, i.e., one personís daughter is saved, and he says God did it, but another personís daughter is not saved, and he doesnít blame God for that.

It is natural for people to thank God for blessings, such as there being no repetition of 9/11, such as a daughter being saved. On one level itís true. All good does come from God, all good is a reflection of God. So if something good happens, itís natural for people to thank God. But it is certainly bad theology if they express this in the ordinary human language that makes it sound as though God is some kind of string-puller and he allows this disaster and not that, allows this person to be murdered and not that. And Americans seem particularly prone to this sentimentalization of God. In earlier generations, when there was much more religious formation, you woudnít have heard this kind of sloppy language from ordinary or educated Americans. This to a large extent is the result of the contemporary religion of the self. Since my self and my needs are the most important thing in the universe, if something good happens to me, it must be God doing it.

Ashcroft might have an answer, he might say, we were more in sin as a nation prior to 9/11, and that sin removed Godís protection from us, which allowed 9/11 to happen. But weíve reformed ourselves enough since then so that God is protecting us again. But still, itís a foolish thing for him to say, because there could be another 9/11 next week, and how would Ashcroft explain that? That last week we were not in sin, but this week we are?

So, first rule: Do not take the ordinary statements of ordinary contemporary believers, including the Attorney General, as authoritative statements about God. Questions of God are difficult questions. The ordinary language that people use is not theology. For you to bounce off the statement of Elizabeth Smartís father, and take that as the standard of religion which you are then criticizing, is not an useful way to approach this. You need to look for the truth yourself, not just react to other peopleís half-baked (though humanly understandable) statements.

[The discussion concludes at ďGod and the Tsunami, Part III.Ē]

Posted by Lawrence Auster at December 31, 2004 04:18 PM | Send

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