“And after the earthquake a fire; but the LORD was not in the fire: and after the fire a still small voice.”
— I Kings 19:12 (KJV)
Recently, I’ve answered many questions from readers about God and evil. Many people wanted to know how a good and powerful God could be reconciled with the profound and proliferating instances of evil in the world. Now, the earthquake and tsunami in Japan has sent shudders across our planet — and our lives — putting a bloody edge to such agonizing questions about God and goodness.
I’ve tried to help questioners understand that most of the evil we face is our own fault. Free will is the most common cause of our moral blindness. Our indifference to evil is usually the main reason for the spread of evil and consequent suffering.
I’ve tried to explain that this freedom to choose good or evil is both a blessing and a curse, whether God exists or not. Whether we’re alone in the universe or the beloved creations of a loving God, we can’t escape our responsibility to make the world a better place.
We can’t shift the burdens of our moral lives to a God who’ll magically protect us from our own venality and brokenness. The work of goodness in the world is ours, not God’s. For those of us who are religious, we can take both comfort and guidance from a God who’s set forth a path of life and blessing to guide us. For those who are not religious, the work of goodness still claims and challenges us to make a difference in this wounded world.
However, the disaster in Japan reminds us of the terrifying truth that natural evil — evil not caused by our moral failures — is still and always will be a threat. This evil is on God.
Yes, we can say — and I’ve said this myself — that even natural evil is not really evil because it’s just the natural consequence of living on top of the crust of a living planet. If the Earth were a dead rock, it would not belch fire, as it’s now doing in Hawaii. If the Earth were dead, its tectonic plates would not shift, causing earthquakes and tsunamis, as just occurred in Japan. However, if the Earth were dead, we’d also be dead.
Without the protective buffer of our atmosphere, for example — made up in part of nitrogen and other gases spewed by volcanoes — we’d be unprotected from meteors and other threats. We live in a dangerous but living, breathing planet and any other option would mean death for all life.
I’ve used this defense of God for natural evil many times and still believe it’s true and theologically valid, but theology is not comforting in the face of the massive destruction and death in Japan and around the North Pacific basin.
It’s simply foolish to say that we could have done more to predict and protect the people of northern Japan. True protection would mean evacuating all of Japan, all of California, large swaths of Latin America. Central and Southern Asia, and a thousand other places where the Earth could suddenly twitch. Some natural evils we simply can’t escape.
Now, my soul energies are not focused on defending God, but rather on a deeper contemplation of our arrogance and vulnerability before nature.
Because we can escape into warm homes, we’ve foolishly come to believe we’ve mastered the cold. Because we enjoy our beaches, we’ve come to believe we’re stronger than the waves. Because we can build up to the sky and calculate stresses and loads, we’ve come to believe our buildings can survive all of Earth’s tremors.
Such beliefs are part of a thin fabric of illusion that we can reach the sky through our own efforts and never be struck down by the power of the Earth’s natural forces.
To say this simply, we are very small animals. Our only gift is that we’ve been given minds and souls to understand our place in the universe. We’re weak, but we are aware. That awareness must always temper our pride and calm our arrogance before the overwhelming majesty and unconquerable power of what Jefferson called “Nature and Nature’s God.”
We must embrace the paradox of our physical weakness and our spiritual audacity. If God had made us invulnerable to nature, we’d be gods. If God had taken away our divine souls, we’d be dumbfounded before the power of nature, as are all other animals on the planet. Instead, God has made us as we are, just “a little lower than the angels,” yet capable of comprehending God’s power and majesty in the world.
The best biblical reference I know that relates to all of this is Psalm 8, which reminds us of the paradox that we are both great and vulnerable at the same time. The Psalmist makes clear that our dominion on the earth is real but modest:
“When I consider thy heavens, the work of thy fingers, the moon and the stars, which thou hast ordained; what is man, that thou art mindful of him? and the son of man, that thou visitest him? For thou hast made him a little lower than the angels, and hast crowned him with glory and honor. Thou madest him to have dominion over the works of thy hands; thou hast put all things under his feet: all sheep and oxen, yea, and the beasts of the field; the fowl of the air, and the fish of the sea, and whatsoever passeth through the paths of the seas. O Lord our Lord, how excellent is thy name in all the earth!”
— Psalm 8: 3-9 (KJV)
Finally, let us pray that our brothers and sisters in Japan will soon find their way out of despair into hope.
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