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Sunday, March 13, 2011

When Bad Things Happen: The Japanese Earthquake and Tsunami

The Japanese earthquake, tsunami and subsequent meltdowns at more than one nuclear plant inevitably raises questions about where God is in all this or whether God exists at all. After all, if God is all good and all powerful, why would God let something like this happen? There are a number of answers that people give to this question, some more satisfying than others but none completely satisfying or irrefutable.

I actually wrote my thesis at Vanderbilt on this. Building on the work of theologian James Hopewell ("Congregation"), I found that most (not all) of the answers to this question can be sorted into four world views:
  1. Canonic: This is something of a tragic or sobering view of God and the world. It is a place where evil (e.g., natural disasters) happens, whether do to demonic forces or imperfections in the created world, so all we can do is place our faith in God, knowing that in the long run God is in charge and ultimate happiness lies in the next life. This is something of a traditional understanding of the problem of evil and theologians such as St. Augustine and C.S. Lewis ("The Problem of Pain"), would fall into this category.
  2. Empiric: This outlook sees the world as arbitrary and untrustworthy. To explain the problem of evil, this world view often places limits on God's power (i.e., God may not be all powerful) and sometimes God's goodness (e.g., C.S. Lewis's "A Grief Observed").  Most process theologians fall into this category. So does Rabbi Harold Kushner, the author of "When Bad Things Happen to Good People" (note that the title isn't "Why Bad Things Happen to Good People"), as do most agnostics and atheists. Empiricists often doubt the existence of heaven, so appeals to the next world carry little weight.
  3. Charismatic: Individuals holding this world view see the world as ultimately trustworthy, and see living in such a world as exciting because it provides opportunities to experience God's healing presence.  From this perspective evil happens because of demonic forces, but rather than being resigned to this fact, charismatics often see such events as opportunities to "do battle" with these forces, believing that in the end they and God will be victorious. An example of this can be found in the books by Frank Peretti (e.g., "This Present Darkness").
  4. Gnostic: Here are individuals who, rather than seeking a rational explanation evil (as the empiricists would do -- e.g., by limiting God's power), instead try to transcend it through the acquisition of some greater knowledge of the way things truly are.  Here, we might locate the pop-theologian, M. Scott Peck ("The Road Less Traveled") and the former Dominican priest, Matthew Fox ("Original Blessing").
To be sure, these world views don't exhaust all that people have to say about evil, and it is probably better to see these as resulting from two crosscutting dimensions: (1) the degree to which God is active in the world (i.e., the transcendence vs. immanence of God) and (2) whether the creation is ultimately good, spontaneous, or creative vs. whether it is evil, entropic or in a state of decay:

What the above graph illustrates is that some of us may be more "charismatic" than are others who drift "dangerously" close to the canonic, gnostic or empiric options. Similarly, some of us may be more or less "empiric" than our fellow worshipers, and so on. Who knows, some of us may be located in the cross-hairs of this graph and entirely confused about what we should believe (that's OK too.)!

Those of you who recall my earlier post on "America's Four Gods," might notice that there is some similarity between these world views and the ways in which Americans view God. 

1 comment:

  1. If honesty is our first consideration, then it seems to me that agnosticism is the best response to this question. Metaphysical question are, by definition, unknowable and those who claim otherwise are, it seems to me, engaging in wishful thinking. Although Freud was wrong about some things, I think he got it right on this issue.