Monday, January 25, 2010

Asking the WHY? question after the Haitian Earthquake

When asked by reporters to respond to the earthquake, the Archbishop of York John Sentamu said he had “nothing to say to make sense of this horror.” It’s good advice on one level—why spend time debating the role of God when we could be helping the survivors—but many of us cannot help but immediately jump to the Why? question: “why would God allow such suffering, especially of an already ravaged nation?” Even atheists can’t help but jump into the debate. The discussion is of pressing interest to both believers and skeptics, even though they come to radically different conclusions.

Pat Robertson brought up the Why? question up in the most awkward way possible. The televangelist made some truly callous remarks on his network when he suggested that God was punishing Haiti for some supposed “deal with the devil” to win freedom from slavery 200 years ago. You would think from Robertson’s odd remark that God was against justice and for slavery.

But I wasn’t satisfied with how the Why? question was framed and answered by the media either. The BBC online magazine featured philosopher David Bain who put it this way: why would a good God allow natural disasters? Bain then listed the different philosophical responses to disasters and suffering that believers and skeptics have given over the years. But having faith is not the same as holding a philosophical position so I always feel dissatisfied by these kinds of discussions. They just don’t capture what it means to have faith, or to lose it for that matter. Perhaps that’s what Archbishop Sentamu is getting at in his remarks.

Perhaps we need to distinguish between how people wrestle philosophically with disaster as opposed to wrestling with disaster through their faith. As a Christian, I ask “Where is God in the disaster?,” not “Why did God allow it?” Because of the Fall, humanity and nature are in rebellion against God’s good intentions making disasters and death our constant companions. As I understand the Christian faith, the Fall explains why there is so much suffering in the world. Others of course, take a different position. Some hold that the world is the way it should be and if you are suffering you must be under some kind of divine punishment. Still others expect that if God is the great watchmaker who created a perfect world, there should be no suffering. But from my perspective, a belief in the Fall means severe problems already exist in the world but such problems are not created by God. Suffering is my starting point, but it is not my ending point. God did not originally create a world of disaster, but actually is moving through us and history to heal us from disaster. That’s why I find Pat Robertson’s remarks so disturbing, they imply that God actually crushes the world and people.

No, God is in the rescue business. He is in the middle of our suffering. And when we help others who are suffering we are doing his will.

(To be con’t)

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