Posts tagged: theodicy

Earthquakes: theodicy and theological idiocy

By , 15 January 2010 7:33 pm

Naturally enough I have had a considerable interest in the dreadful Haiti earthquake.  In Lebanon I worked and published on precisely the same type of tectonic boundary that gave us such tragic losses this week, and most of my classes cover earthquakes at some point.  Interestingly, the quality of material being pasted on Google Earth is now so good that I was able to overlay photographs of the devastation within 30 hours for my classes to look at. It is slightly unnerving (or ought to be) to look down at a wrecked building knowing that certainly the dead and possibly the living are underneath.

Anyway any unease about my use of the data pales into insignificance compared with Pat Robertson’s monumental monstrosity of a statement to the effect the Haitians are to blame for the earthquake because they made a pact with the devil long ago. As it was fortunately not extensively covered in the UK I need to repeat what he said in a radio interview:  “[S]omething happened a long time ago in Haiti and people might not want to talk about it. They were under the heel of the French. Napoleon the Third and whatever. And they got together and swore a pact to the devil. They said, ‘We will serve you if you get us free from the prince.’ True story. And so the devil said, ‘OK, it’s a deal.’ They kicked the French out, the Haitians revolted and got themselves free. But ever since, they have been cursed by one thing after the other, desperately poor. That island of Hispaniola is one island. It’s cut down the middle, on the one side is Haiti, on the other side is the Dominican Republic. The Dominican Republic is prosperous, healthy, full of resorts, etc. Haiti is in desperate poverty. Same island.”

Now Pat’s comments have been leapt on and rejected by almost everybody for all sorts of reasons. (For a start his geography and history is completely and utterly wrong.) Had he talked about the fact that apparently up to 50% of the population practice Voodoo, I might have had more sympathy. But sometimes erroneous comments can actually make you think. Let me make several observations.

1) It is always terribly tempting to try and justify God’s workings in catastrophic natural events. This is a form of what is called theodicy.  To do this has several benefits. One benefit is that you have the opportunity to do what all humans like to do, which is to find meaning in the apparently meaningless. And one reason why many of us would like to be prophets (come on now admit it!) is we would like to be those who wield the power to unlock mysteries. I’m sure we would love to hear people say ‘Thank you pastor/preacher/writer/my friend, I now understand what is going on in the Balkans/with Israel/with the money markets etc.”

2) There is no more attractive form of shedding light on a natural disaster by explaining it in terms of God’s judgement.  Something as seemingly random as an earthquake raises an obvious theological problem; why does God slay the apparently innocent? Explaining this in terms of judgement on sin is a neat trick. It doesn’t simply remove the problem of God causing pain on the guiltless; it turns a vice into a virtue by making the disaster a just judgement.

3) Another advantage of pontificating on disasters is that it subtly set you up as being privy to the mind of the Almighty. You alone have been able to eavesdrop at the door of the chamber of heaven where decisions are made.

4) I can’t help but think that Pat fell into the old trap of talking the Devil up; always a good way to get your audience’s attention. The notion of an entire nation cursed with generations of disaster as a result of a satanic pact has the makings of a wonderful novel; a heady mixture of Stephen King and dodgy theology.

5) One or two people have made the comment that Pat clearly can’t distinguish an act of God from an act of plate tectonics. This of course conveys very poor understanding of theology; there is no inherent problem for Calvinists at least, with God acting through his own mechanism of plate tectonics.

6) One of the things that puzzles me most is that this seems to represent a very Old Testament view of things. There Israel was told that failure to keep the covenant would result in natural disasters. (Mind you even in the Old Testament earthquakes can get treated as natural events without any attempt to invest them with moral or judgemental significance.) Yet I can think of no such teaching on cause-and-effect in the New Testament. The nearest I can come to it is Paul’s comment in 1 Corinthians 11 that individuals who have treated communion frivolously have died. Certainly Jewish culture in Jesus day believed in a very tightly linkage between sin and disaster.  In Luke 13:1-5 we read: ‘Now there were some present at that time who told Jesus about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mixed with their sacrifices. Jesus answered, “Do you think that these Galileans were worse sinners than all the other Galileans because they suffered this way? I tell you, no! But unless you repent, you too will all perish. Or those eighteen who died when the tower in Siloam fell on them — do you think they were more guilty than all the others living in Jerusalem? I tell you, no! But unless you repent, you too will all perish.”’  Or John 9:1-4: ‘As he went along, he saw a man blind from birth. His disciples asked him, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” “Neither this man nor his parents sinned,” said Jesus, “but this happened so that the work of God might be displayed in his life.”’  A parallel example are famines which are mentioned frequently in the Bible but sometimes with no reference whatsoever to them being an act of judgement (for example Genesis 12:10; 26:1; Acts 11:28).

No; I’m afraid we must resort to the uncomfortable truth that on many matters God keeps his own counsel and resist the temptation to explain. We tend to consider the book of Job as being about individual suffering; but its lessons also apply to universal suffering. At times we simply do not know why these events happen and all we can do is keep our mouths closed (and our wallets open).

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