James Wood has a terrific op-ed in the NY Times today with the above title about theodicy and responses to the Haiti earthquake. One of my favorite things about the piece is how Wood gets at the ugliness behind the notion that earthquakes (and by extension, any natural disaster) are examples of divine wrath. After addressing Pat Robertson's comments, Wood moves on to someone you might not expect: President Obama.
In his speech after the catastrophe, President Obama movingly invoked “our common humanity,” and said that “we stand in solidarity with our neighbors to the south, knowing that but for the grace of God, there we go.” And there was God once again. Awkwardly, the literal meaning of Mr. Obama’s phrase is not so far from Pat Robertson’s hatefulness. Who, after all, would want to worship the kind of God whose “grace” protects Americans from Haitian horrors?Well, I can think of a few prominent people who worship said God, and they've got some followers who would agree, but Wood's point is a good one, because it illustrates that most people don't actually think about what they're saying when it comes to religious truisms. They mouth the platitudes and then go on with their lives, because if they actually looked at what they were saying, they might be horrified by themselves. Wood continues with this:
If the president simply meant that most of us have been — so far — luckier than Haitians, why didn’t he say that? Perhaps because, as a Christian, he does not want to believe that he subscribes to such a nonprovidential category as luck, or to the turn of fate’s wheel, which is really a pagan notion. Besides, to talk of luck, or fortune, in the face of a disaster seems flippant, and belittling to those who have been savaged by such bad luck. A toothache is bad luck; an earthquake is somehow theological.I disagree that to talk of luck in such a situation is flippant or belittling--blaming God, or worse, people who have refused to serve God in the manner he apparently demands seems far more belittling to me, because of the way it makes God look. If I were a believer, I think I would be angry at people who cast my deity in such a horrible light, as the kind of god who would punish innocent and guilty alike and without distinction.
This was something that always bothered me when I was a believer, but it's gotten more pronounced in the last few years, the reconciliation of the notion of a just God with natural disasters and human suffering. Wood sums up this conflict nicely in the conclusion to his piece:
Terrible catastrophes inevitably encourage appeals to God. We who are, at present, unfairly luckier, whether believers or not, might reflect on the almost invariably uncharitable history of theodicy, and on the reality that in this context no invocation of God beyond a desperate appeal for help makes much theological sense. For either God is punitive and interventionist (the Robertson view), or as capricious as nature and so absent as to be effectively nonexistent (the Obama view). Unfortunately, the Bible, which frequently uses God’s power over earth and seas as the sign of his majesty and intervening power, supports the first view; and the history of humanity’s lonely suffering decisively suggests the second.And I would only add that to worship the former would make me an accessory to that cruelty, and to worship the latter would be useless. There are more important things to worry about.