Saturday, March 19, 2011

Natural Disasters and God

It is perhaps the ultimate faith question. Books have been written about it, sermons preached about it, and endless debates have surrounded the issue. It has been expressed in many ways, some of which are very general and perhaps even too general to adequately address. Some years ago, Rabbi Harold Kushner wrote a very interesting book entitled, Why do Bad Things Happen to Good People. While I think his book is very good, it is probably too general a question to be able to provide a satisfactory answer.

With the recent 9.0 earthquake in Japan, the ensuing tsunami, and now the ongoing nuclear disaster at the Fukushima nuclear power plant, the most pertinent spiritual question might be stated something like this: "Why does God allow earthquakes and other natural disasters to happen?" I say this is the most pertinent question because it was not one, but two natural disasters that has created the nuclear crisis.

When we ask about God's involvement with natural disasters, we are asking the wrong "person" the wrong question. Earthquakes, and for that matter hurricanes and tornadoes, occur because pressures build up in our planet and atmosphere that need to be released. When those pressures occur in subterranean tectonic plates, the plates slip across one another causing what we call earthquakes. Earthquakes, when a number of other factors including tides are right, cause tsunamis.

I was asked recently why the planet was "designed" in this way. While I am most definitely not a scientist, my understanding is that all planets are designed in this way. This may be the only possible design that would work, given the truth that our planet is subjected to gravitational forces that hold it in orbit around the sun. To a certain extent these questions, while they may make interesting fodder for discussion, are irrelevant because the planet we have is the one we are stuck with!

What, then, is the role of God? The responsible, progressive Christian view is that we have learned through Jesus that our God is a God who journeys with us - and suffers with us as necessary. It is a simplistic perversion of the Christian story to say that God is an interventionist who sends disaster and then rescues some, but not all, from the very disasters God sent. While it certainly is true that there are parts of the Hebrew Scriptures that do so, it is nothing but anthropomorphism to attribute to God human misbehavior such as rages and revenge to Divinity. We cannot at the same time say that God is a God of love and also claim that God is a God of vengeance and eternal torture.

In short, the disaster is Japan - at least as pertains to the earthquake and tsunami - is the result of living on this planet. There were no misdeeds that brought it on, no punishment that lies behind it, no Divine action involved in the disaster. There 
is Divine presence in many places in the recovery, however. Since God lives and acts in us, through us, and as us, God is present in the form of the recovery workers, those who care for the displaced and the injured - and also in the victims of this horrible event. The God of Love and Compassion is always present in human experiences, loving us back to wholeness. We are seeing the truth of this in Japan in a special way right now, but the truth is that the love and compassion of God in and through other human beings is present in every place, every day!

(Reprinted, from the Facebook site of Craig Berglund, a colleague from Wisconsin)

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