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God Squad: Humility in the face of Haiti's catastrophe

I've received so many letters and queries about God and evil after the earthquake in Haiti that I thought it best to address them all at once.

Our response must begin with helping meet the immediate needs of Haiti's suffering people. We can all do our small part. We must give money. Give only to established organizations. The other obvious response is for each of us to pray, not only for God to help the people of Haiti, but more importantly to give us the patient strength to help them ourselves. This will be particularly important when camera crews leave Haiti.

As for the big theological picture, here's what I know about the theology of catastrophe. (You could call it "catastrophology," although in the discipline of theology, reconciling God's goodness with the problem of suffering righteous people is called theodicy.)

Catastrophology Response No. 1: We know nothing about how God rules the world. This response was actually God's response to Job's suffering in the Bible. God came to Job and instead of explaining why Job was suffering, God instead spoke to Job out of the whirlwind, saying, "Where wast thou when I laid the foundations of the earth? Declare, if thou hast understanding." (Job 38:4). God's point seems clear enough: We know relatively nothing about how God has constructed the physical world, so how can we judge the way God has constructed the moral world? We know nothing about God's ways, and therefore our proper response ought to be humility. Sadly, the non-humble responses of some ignorant people of faith include the belief that catastrophes are punishment for sin, or perhaps a test of faith. Such ideas make no sense since they don't explain the suffering of children and other innocents, nor do they explain why an all-knowing God would need a test to know our hearts.

Punishment remarks are cruel and theologically absurd. They force suffering people to endure the double horror of their actual suffering and the misguided accusations that their torment is a punishment from God.

Philosopher Paul Ricoeur believed that trying to explain catastrophe only adds to the pain of the catastrophe. I agree to a point, but I don't believe we must remain mute or suspend all thought or questioning. There's much we can know, and what we know need not be cruel but can bring comfort.

Catastrophology Response No. 2: Natural evil is not "evil" at all. The earthquake, like all earthquakes and storms, reveals the natural laws of a living Earth. Aristotle was the first to distinguish between natural and moral evil. Moral evil is what we cause by our own bad choices, and natural evil is what is caused by the natural laws of the world. The earthquake was a morally neutral example of the natural breathing of a living Earth. The movement of the Earth's tectonic plates caused the quake. Such upheaval is simply a natural phenomenon.

Of course, such phenomena can lead to tragedy when we choose to live in fault zones, near active volcanoes, or on the banks of flood-prone rivers. However, these are our choices, not God's, and it's shameful to blame God for our disregard of predictable dangers. We must prepare for natural evil, not merely curse God when it breaks into our lives.

This Aristotelian idea of natural evil entered Judaism, and then Christianity and Islam, after the rabbis took over Judaism from the biblical priests following the Roman conquests of the first century.

Their revolutionary theological idea was that "The world is led by its own laws." This idea that God created the world with certain unchangeable laws limited the possibility of certain miracles but provided the foundation for a harmonization of science and religion.

The task of science was to discover the laws of the universe placed there by a God who made order out of chaos. In fact, the belief that the world is led by its own laws doesn't limit God's power. It actually increases our awe of a God who rules by law, not by caprice.

Catastrophology Response No. 3: Help 'em. A Jewish grandpa, who, as a boy in Poland during World War II, escaped the Holocaust by fleeing into the forest, was blessing his grandson in my synagogue on the occasion of his bar mitzvah. He looked at the boy and said quietly and tearfully, "In your life, you're going to meet people who need help. If you can help 'em, help 'em." That's all he said because that's all he needed to say.

To me, the true miracles of the catastrophe in Haiti are the responses of thousands of people of faith and of secular compassion who are giving their time, money, blood, sweat and tears to help people they could easily ignore. They, and the resilient Haitian people, are fixated on affirming humanity, not refuting God. Their goodness is the greatest proof that there's a force in the universe that brings light to the darkest hours. May we be worthy of joining our lights to theirs and joining the recurrent miracle of human compassion and love.

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