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Making Sense of Suffering

Looking for God Amid the World's Disasters

WASHINGTON, D.C., DEC. 12, 2005 (Zenit) - Nearly a year after the Dec. 26 tsunami, many of the hard-hit communities in Asia are still struggling to return to normality. A special report in the Dec. 8 issue of the Chronicle of Philanthropy noted that the devastating tidal wave sparked one of the largest charitable efforts ever seen.

"Yet signs of progress remain rare as the calamity's one-year anniversary approaches," an article in the Washington-based publication said. Causes of this slow recovery include a lack of coordination among charities and government agencies, and the loss of legal records detailing land ownership.

Another problem is the very quantity of the aid being given. In some cases it has disrupted the normal functioning of the local economies, leading many tsunami survivors to become dependent on relief programs.

The tsunami also posed spiritual questions as well. This theme was addressed in a recent book, "The Doors of the Sea: Where Was God in the Tsunami?" (Eerdmans Publishing). The slim volume was written by David Bentley Hart, an Eastern Orthodox theologian who has taught in a number of American universities.

In the opening pages Hart observes that the initial rush of reactions claiming to find some meaning, or meaninglessness, behind the tsunami "is both cruel and presumptuous at such times."

Discerning the motives of those who rush out with judgments on catastrophes is not easy. Hart says that it is difficult to tell if they are moved by a moral need to shed light on events, or by a rhetorical opportunism. The theologian finds it hard not to suspect callousness on the part of triumphalistic atheists who proclaim the vindication of their ideas in the wake of disasters.

Weak thought

Hart sees superficiality in many of the media commentaries published right after the tsunami. They confidently proclaimed the supposed absurdity of religious beliefs, yet they made little effort to ascertain the content of the creeds they were consigning to the dustbin. It is almost as if they imagined that during the last 2,000 years Christians had never responded to the questions posed by evil and suffering, Hart adds.

Many of the commentaries stemmed from a materialistic outlook, Hart contends. In the face of unjust suffering, a materialist concludes that in the absence of any immediate visible moral order, nothing transcendent exists. This can seem a superficial way to proceed, Hart notes. But behind this facile dismissal of God there can also be an "authentic moral horror" in the face of misery and "a kind of rage for justice." Ironically, these sentiments owe a lot to the way our culture has been shaped by Christianity, he concludes.

The starting point for many modern discussions about disasters and the role of God, Hart explains, is the reaction of French philosopher Voltaire to the massive earthquake that struck Lisbon in 1755. Tens of thousands died in the All Saints' Day quake and subsequent fires.

In his poem written about the tragedy, Voltaire did not attack the idea of God as creator. But he did strongly criticize the attitude of theological optimism that, inspired by the German philosopher Leibniz, considered this to be "the best of all possible worlds."

Hart doubts that Voltaire correctly understood Leibniz's ideas. But the French thinker did clearly distinguish between the idea of belief in a providential order in history (a view he did not doubt) and the concept of a God who designed the world as some kind of perpetual machine run by eternal laws that determine even the will of God (a view he did criticize).

Valid questions

According to Hart, Voltaire's poem is no threat to Christians, as its real target is a sort of ethical deism. It does, however, raise valid questions that Christianity needs to answer. The faith, after all, proclaims a God of infinite goodness and infinite love. And the nonbeliever who, faced with suffering, argues against a benevolent God, needs to be answered.

The answers given by Christians to last year's tsunami are varied and reflect widely differing theological positions, Hart notes. Common among them is a desire to believe there is some kind of divine plan in the seeming randomness of nature's violence, which could give meaning to the instances of suffering and pain. Finding such an explanation is indeed difficult, he notes.

Christians affirm that there is a transcendent providence that will bring God's good ends out of the darkness of history, Hart explains. Yet, one has to avoid the error of asserting that every finite act is solely the effect of a single will, thus ignoring the role of human freedom. Taken to its extreme, such a position reduces God to a mere expression of will, which is then impressed upon creatures by means both good and evil, Hart says.

Another reaction is to see in suffering and death some kind of punishment for human sin, doled out in a way to balance accounts. Christ, in fact, ruled out the idea of a strict proportion between misfortune and culpability, Hart points out.

Before giving his answer to the question of suffering, Hart takes a step back and considers what is meant by nature or the natural world. Nature is generally considered, apart from those who profess paganism, as something neutral and material. Modern technological mastery also enables nature to be considered as something benign -- until a disease or disaster strikes, shocking people with its power and indifference.

Love in creation

But the Christian view of God and nature is different. The believer is encouraged to see the glory of God in the created world, a glory that elevates a nature that has been redeemed. Moreover, Christianity, both in the Orthodox and Catholic theologies, encourages mankind to find the love and goodness of God in the created order.

This vision does not, however, lead to a sort of facile optimism about nature and the economy of life and death. The Christian, Hart exhorts, should contemplate the world with eyes informed by love. This vision goes further than the elaborate machine of the deists or the mechanistic vision of modernity. A Christian sees the world in its beauty and terror, and in its first and ultimate truth: not just nature, but creation.

As for evil and suffering, Christian thought gives another dimension to these events. God can make them occasions for accomplishing his good ends, Hart argues, even though they are not in themselves moral goods. In addition, the Gospel teaches that God cannot be defeated and that the victory over evil and death has already been won, the theologian states. But it is a victory that has not reached its fulfillment; we must wait until the final coming of God.

For Christians who really have faith in this promise, the reality of death and suffering should not present an insurmountable obstacle. It is, in fact, more of a stumbling block for a superficial optimism or pagan fatalism. Christian believers, instead, embrace hope in the final victory of God.

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Keywords

Suffering, God, Disasters, Tsuanmi

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