Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Shaky Theodocies

A photo of the devastation caused by the recent earthquake in China, juxtaposed with a photo of a mother lying grieving beside her stiff dead child, sharply challenge loose thinking about the role of God in human life.

How can God preside over the killing of tens of thousands of people in the Irrawaddy delta through cyclone and in China through earthquake … and the even larger number in the Tsunami of 2005? And, if tempted for even a moment to think God is slightly less committed to care for (mostly) non-Christian populations, think of the Lisbon earthquake of 1755 which struck Christian Portugal when people were in church and many were killed as churches collapsed onto their worshippers.

Answers to this question - theodicies - include God being uninterested (the Deist Creator who then has nothing to do with creation), destructive (King Lear’s “as flies to wanton boys so are we to the gods”), determinative (some are predestined to death, some to life), disciplinarian (either sin must be punished, its surprising we are not all dead; or those people must have been really bad) or dead (there never was a God, says the atheist, and its time the idea of God died).

I happened upon Isaiah 24 this morning which is a prophecy about judgement for the whole earth, including through earthquake (‘he will twist its surface’, v. 1), and one can imagine its sharp relevance as the whole earth heads towards total ecological catastrophe for which (arguably) we are all to blame. But our question here concerns discriminate destruction of a portion of the earth and its population. Is God wanton? Are some people worse sinners than others? Is there no God (or gods) yet nature is itself a power over us, and a randomly acting one at that?

For Christians these question are provocative of our belief in a gracious and loving God. We believe in this God precisely because God intervened in the affairs of our world through the Incarnation. We do not believe in an uninterested or destructive or dead God. We have some beliefs about the action of God which force us to wrestle with questions of the will and discipline of God (see e.g. Ephesians 1 and Hebrews 12). And even if we conclude that great earthquakes have nothing to do with God’s will or discipline, we are still left with urgent questions about the power of God (is it limited?) and the love of God (is it of spiritual effectiveness alone?). And we can scarcely escape wondering whether the force of evil in this world is in fact a serious rival to God.

Curiously, if we look to Jesus himself as theodicist here, we find something interesting. In Luke 13:1-5 Jesus talks of two incidents of terrible suffering. In one some Galileans have been killed by the Roman ruler Pilate, in the other eighteen people were killed by a falling tower in Siloam. Jesus asks the question whether in each instance those killed were worse sinners than others around them. He answers in each case, ‘No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish.’ Our point of interest is Jesus’ lack of interest in theodicy. No attempt to explain why the people died, or what purpose their deaths served, or the reason for God’s inaction. I am not sure that another passage, John 9:1-7 (which also features ‘Siloam’) takes us much further. Except perhaps that putting both passages together we could conclude the following. (a) Jesus acknowledges that bad things happen both at the hand of man and through the agency of nature. (b) The most important response to tragedy is not theodicy but repentance. (c) Where possible Jesus works the work of God which is to save people from bad things.

Well there is more to say but I am tired. So here is a fine substitute paper to ponder! It’s called Tsunami and Theodicy by David B. Hart, an Eastern Orthodox theologian. Shaky theodicies are dispatched and a Dostoevskian flavoured one advanced. But has Hart correctly discerned the heart of theodicy?

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