Tuesday, December 28, 2004
Theodicy and Tsunamis
Here is an essay, "How Can Religious People Explain Something Like This?", in the Guardian, that tackles the question to which Rob and Susan have been speaking. The author, Martin Kettle, asks:
[I]t is hard to think of any event in modern times that requires a more serious explanation from the forces of religion than this week's earthquake. Voltaire's 18th-century question to Christians - why Lisbon? - ought to generate a whole series of 21st-century equivalents for all the religions of the world.
Certainly the giant waves generated by the quake made no attempt to differentiate between the religions of those whom it made its victims. Hindus were swept away in India, Muslims were carried off in Indonesia, Buddhists in Thailand. Visiting Christians and Jews received no special treatment either. This poses no problem for the scientific belief system. Here, it says, was a mindless natural event, which destroyed Muslim and Hindu alike.
A non-scientific belief system, especially one that is based on any kind of notion of a divine order, has some explaining to do, however. What God sanctions an earthquake? What God protects against it? Why does the quake strike these places and these peoples and not others? What kind of order is it that decrees that a person who went to sleep by the edge of the ocean on Christmas night should wake up the next morning engulfed by the waves, struggling for life?
From at least the time of Aristotle, intelligent people have struggled to make some sense of earthquakes. Earthquakes do not merely kill and destroy. They challenge human beings to explain the world order in which such apparently indiscriminate acts can occur. Europe in the 18th century had the intellectual curiosity and independence to ask and answer such questions. But can we say the same of 21st-century Europe? Or are we too cowed now to even ask if the God can exist that can do such things?
I agree with Kettle that we are all obligated to take seriously the challenges that real-world-facts present to even our most cherished beliefs. And, it would take an awfully uncurious Christian to pretend that death-dealing disasters like this week's tsunamis do not raise questions and even doubts. At the same time, it seems to fair to ask that those, like Mr. Kettle, who challenge Christians, on the occasion of such disasters, to re-examine their foundational beliefs in a benign, personal, providential God be no less willing to look critically at their own foundational premises, which might -- on examination -- prove no less vulnerable in the face of the hard "facts."
Update: Here is another take -- from a blogger who is "worr[ied]" about the MOJ bloggers -- writing in response to Rob's post.
Update: Amy Welborn also links to Rob's post, and there are lots of comments.