How do we think theologically about hurricane Sandy?
I haven’t seen one yet, but I know they are out there—declarations by self-appointed prophets of God declaring that hurricane Sandy was God’s judgment upon the people devastated by the storm. Every time a natural disaster occurs, Pat Robertson or some other preacher declares God sent the storm to punish homosexuals, feminists, Democrats or anybody else he disagrees with. Rather than ceding the floor to such idiotic thoughts, I’m wondering is there a way to think theologically about a disaster like this with more care? It seems to me that there are at least a few ways to think about God’s role or lack of role in a natural disaster.
Determinism—Everything is God’s will and God is the cause of everything, so a natural disaster must have been caused by God. Setting aside the enormous issue of free will, this view has some other real problems—biggest of all is the character of God. What kind of God sends such destruction on all kinds of innocent people? Listening to the survivors on TV causes compassion to stir from me and every other human being who is at least mildly empathetic, so I choose to believe a compassionate God would also care for these people. A God who indiscriminately kills people and destroys the lives of thousands is not a loving God.
Deism—Another way to approach such disasters is to say that God created the natural order and within that order there are disasters. Although this view removes the problem of a non-loving God wreaking havoc on helpless humanity, it raises other problems. It moves God outside the realm of the natural. God is not present in the acts of nature; not even in the noble acts of human rescuers and aid workers. Also, do we really have enough information to say unequivocally that there were no acts of providence in the midst of the chaos? A view that separates God completely from the natural order resolves things a little too neatly; there is no room left for mystery or wonder.
Mystery—If we choose not to understand God’s relationship to natural disasters in terms of either one extreme or the other, what middle ground is available to us? One way people of faith have understood God to be present in the face of disaster is in the heroic acts of rescuers or in the way strangers come together to offer aid to one another. When the best of humanity appears is there not something divine also present? Theologians and religious thinkers have also understood God’s activity in the midst of disaster in terms of glimpses of grace amid the chaos. According to this view, God works in certain circumstances within the natural order only when certain conditions or variables are right. The factors which “allow” God to act are known to God but unknown to us. A problem with this point of view is how to determine whether an event is an act of God’s care or just the result of random chance. This view allows for the freedom of God and for mystery, but it is subjective and uncertain--neither quality is particularly comforting in the face of suffering.
When it comes to God, if I am going to be wrong, I would rather err on the side of mystery. I would rather allow for the possibility of God’s actions in the midst of what I cannot explain and trust that God is somehow present in the relief of suffering than believe God is the cause of everything or nothing. This mushy middle ground is often unsatisfying and sometimes offers little comfort, but I would rather live with the ambiguity than live believing in a God who caused mass destruction or left us to our own devices in the midst of it.
So, in the aftermath of disasters like hurricane Sandy, I pray, I give and if possible I lend a hand. I pray for wise decisions by leaders, for the courage of first responders, for the safety of friends and the generosity of strangers. I give out of my blessings to church disaster responses through our denomination and Church World Service and to agencies like the Red Cross. If possible, I volunteer to offer whatever assistance I can offer. I trust that God is at work in my efforts and the efforts of thousands of others. I hope and believe that God is also at work in the lives of each person touched by such a disaster in ways that are spiritual and may not be visible to our limited perceptions. Most of all, I am silent when I need to be, and I guard my tongue so that I don’t make the suffering of others worse by spouting bad theology.
Grace and Peace,
P.S.--A minister friend of mind, Jeremy Rutledge at Circular Congregational Church, United Church of Christ in Charleston, SC, who is more thoughtful and well-read than I am, has an excellent theological response to natural disaster on his blog.