Monday, March 28, 2011

Making Sense of Catastrophes

This was my seminary post this week and captures the gist of my sermon yesterday.
If we were to survey the things various pastors have said from their pulpits about the recent tsunami in Japan, I suspect that we might find three types of comment: 1) those who see this event as God’s judgment on Japan for not believing, 2) those who see this event as part of the problem of evil, with God bringing peace and good news into the midst of the catastrophe, and 3) those who see God’s involvement in such events as somewhat of a mystery.

It is precisely in this sort of event when our theological questions cease being academic discussions and become either helpful or dangerous.  For example, if we believe that this event was God’s judgment on the Japanese, we will be less likely to try to help the survivors.  Or if we think giving help can only be motivated by the possibility of salvation, then our help may actually be counterproductive to its purpose.  Help purely in the service of a narrowly defined sense of evangelism is more likely to turn others away from the gospel in disgust than to draw them in.

It is also a time when imprecision in our biblical theology goes from innocent to dangerous.  For example, how do we reconcile 2 Samuel 24:1 with 1 Chronicles 21:1?  The first says that God tempted David to take a census, while the second says that the Satan tempted David to take this very same census.  Unless we want to allow for contradiction, the only solution I can think of is to see a development in theological precision between the earlier Samuel and the later Chronicles.  The New Testament confirms this trajectory of understanding when James 1:13 says that God does not tempt anyone.

It seems an inescapable conclusion that some of what the older parts of the Old Testament ascribe to God’s direct action (like sending an evil spirit on Saul–1 Sam. 16:14) are likely things that God allows rather than directly causes.  Similarly, many parts of the Old Testament–especially the historical books–have a very general sense of good and evil consequence:  those who do good receive prosperity in this life; those who do evil suffer in this life.  In the New Testament especially this view gains precision.  After all, the most righteous man of all–Jesus–dies on a cross.

So a more precise understanding is that God does not directly cause all the bad things that happen.  Further, both good things happen to bad people and bad things happen to good people.  The most accurate view is thus the third one, although with a bias toward the second.  That is to say, unless God gives you a special revelation about the Japan crisis, we must ultimately accept that his will in such events is a mystery.  We must also be confident that he is in control and does what is right.

I will also confess that I have remained with the Wesleyan-Arminian tradition because I cannot make sense of Christianity if God directly causes everything that happens in the world.  The notion that “God is love” seems to become meaningless.  If I have to try to explain how God can be love in a world where pedophiles rape and murder children, the only answer that makes any sense at all is that a world in which God has given us some degree of freedom is a better world than one in which we are slaves to his will.  But if God allows us the freedom to do evil, then some will do evil.

Romans 8:20 tells us that the creation is in the same boat with us.  I can only make sense of things if God has granted the creation some of this same freedom to continue on its course following its laws and the effect of Adam’s sin.  According to those laws, when tectonic plates build up enough pressure, massive earthquakes happen.  And when massive earthquakes happen under water, massive tsunamis happen.  And when people are living nearby, a lot of people are probably going to die.

Jesus warned his audience not to think that God was singling out the 18 who died when a tower fell on them.  ”Don’t think they are worse sinners than you,” he said (Luke 13:1-5).  And when Jesus’ disciples assumed a man was blind either because he or his parents had sinned, Jesus corrects them (John 9:1-3).

So how can we make theological sense of these sorts of events in the context of Christian faith?  First, while God’s intentions in relation to such events is ultimately a mystery, given God’s revealed nature it is far more likely that he allows them rather than directly causes them.  But even more importantly, our sense of his revealed nature will lead us to picture his Spirit reaching out to those who are suffering.

Is this not the picture of God we find in Romans 5:10 when it says that Jesus died for us when we were his enemies?  And Jesus did not die only for those who would believe.  He died for everyone, including those who ultimately reject him.  For this reason, we cannot legitimately restrict evangelism–preaching the good news–to saving people’s souls.  Nor can we legitimately distinguish between helping people’s souls and helping people’s bodies.  The good news is one good news, to body and soul, to those who believe and those who do not believe.


Angie Van De Merwe said...

I recognize that scientists are seeking to understand human alturism, cognition and neuroscience. But, the "is" does not necessitate an "ought".

"Love" is not a term that can be held with broad strokes, but in speicific strokes. One can only love an individual person, not humankind. So, love is irrelavant or puny when it comes to such monumental tasks as tsunamis, where human devastation is high. So, using theological terminology, only benefits "other ends", such large ends in Church lingo is "Kingdom of God" language. But, is nothing different than humanitarian aid.

Just because a problem exists doesn't morally obligate one to meet it. Such would be the political argument about our involvment in Lybia or Iran. Humanitarians might cry about those that loose their human rights, but don't give a "dime" about American lives. Practically, no one person nor any country can meet all the devestaion and human tragedy in the world.

Love looks puney and powerless in such light. So, there are no theological answers that can make sense. Humanists claim that human tragedy calls for a moral obligation. But, does it really? It does only for those that are called to humanitarian purposes. Others might find their call more closely alligned with national security issues...or numerous other conflicting interests.

Ken Schenck said...

I found this comment more on task than many you make Angie. It has several good questions.

1. Can one love generally or is love always connected to a specific target. I tend to agree with you than love is not best understood as some generic feeling but as a disposition to act toward specific targets. I disagree, however, that the target cannot be a collection of individuals.

2. You raise the fact/value problem and the nature of obligation. My post assumed Christian faith, which could assume some form of divine command theory (as in your post). Interestingly, most Christian ethicists do not like DCT. Ironically, I am more sympathetic to a version of it than most.

There are of course some non-theistic ways to justify altruism. Some are phenomenological. Some have to do with game theory or evolutionary sociology. Most ethicists of all stripes hold that not to do good when one can is wrongdoing (e.g., the Kitty Genovese incident). It becomes more complicated on the level of nations. National altruism sometimes does not meet a utilitarian standard because it does not bring more benefit than cost. I personally believe that it is probably in our best interest from a utilitarian perspective to take action in Libya and to help in Japan. One has to look beyond the immediate cost.

3. The question of whether the "libertarian" account of evil makes sense is a valid one. I would only remind you that the alternative is not more meaning but meaninglessness beyond human sentiment.

Angie Van De Merwe said...

"I would only remind you that the alternative is not more meaning but meaninglessness beyond human sentiment."

I don't know what you mean by this statement. Unless, you refer to the State demanding moral obligation, which we know goes in a way most of us would not value.

Man's meaning is "made" by the individual in America, not defined by outside sources. This is what makes America "free". Such meaning is made through personal goals, relational connections, and accomplishments.

You suggest that "Christian ethicists" disagree with Divine Command Theory. Doesn't this mean that the Church, just as the State, should not demand moral obligation? Or is this the Church's obligation to "train society"? It is according to Cathlicism but not according to Protestantism. The faith/works question raises its ugly head, again!

Motivation is not forthcoming from humans in Statist societies, is it? But, perahps, the Church can give out the teaching such as yours Sunday to placate those that are suffering under the Church's authoritatian hands! The Church can justify their actions by utilitarian ends, or "God's Commands".

Aren't humans more motivated by their own self-interests? There must be some perceived benefit for individuals to cooperate in the first place, with goals or plans of others in a given community. And those goals or plans must be inclusive of all individuals, for all indivdiuals to comply.

As to "loving groups", no, that isn't possible, either. Humans are individuals, and to love, means you know the particular human, not some "idealized" category.

Scott F said...

To hold that God's intention in allowing natural tragedy is a mystery and yet that God's intentions are ultimately for the good strikes me as problematic.

Perhaps my problem is that I don't start from a Christian outlook but holding this position stretches the meaning of the word "good" (or "right" or "love") to the breaking point. Does not the first override the second? If God's intentions are mysterious, then defining them as good without having any idea what they ultimately are is difficult to say the least.

On the one hand we have the word Mystery - meaning "we can't understand" - and on the other we have the word Good - which I would define as "in the best interests of". The mystery here would be the fact that we don't know whose interest a tsunami serves? Is it Japan's? The Church's? Yours? Mine? God's? A utilitarian might argue that the sum benefit to others must out weigh the loss of the victims but how often is this the case in any demonstrable way?

This is all old hat in the Theodicy Wars. I guess I will just chime in on behalf of the non-believers and state that I find the suggestion that God is righteous, in control and allows tsunamis to expunge thousands of souls unsatisfactory. The choice between such a deity and none at all is a stark but necessary one. Meaninglessness vs incoherence? I guess we have cast out lots.

Non-Boilerplate Summary:
I have very few blogs in my RSS feed but yours is one of them. I really appreciate how you face these current issues head on. Thanks.

Ken Schenck said...

Thanks Scott... This is, in my mind, the main objection one might make to Christianity. I don't think it disproves it, but it is its most problematic objection.

As for mystery, I didn't mean necessarily beyond understanding in this instance but unknown.

Angie Van De Merwe said...

Post Traumatic Stress Disorder has been proven as a result of constant "mystery" over time!

Are you suggesting that "Christians" should submit to "mystery", in "hope" OF WHAT? MORE PSTD????

Our brains do try to construct an order, or cause to the universe, but is such a study so important that it devalues the humans that are useful for those ends? Many military commit suicide, because of the personality challenges in overcoming PSTD!

Is this what is useful to "form character"?????