John Schofield is a former Chair of St Mark’s CRC, and past Principal of an Anglican Ministry Training Scheme.
In the wake of any disaster, whether so-called ‘natural’ or whether the result of human activity, this question rises like a howl: why? And often, both in the religious and in the non-religious mind, it takes a religious sheen: ‘Why does God allow this?’
It's a question we cannot avoid.
Let’s begin by recognising that what we call natural disasters fall into two categories. And also, by distinguishing them from other sorts of emergency. Some great emergencies, though affecting millions of people, are of a different order from, for instance, the tsunami disaster that struck on Boxing Day 2004. These are disasters which are mainly caused by us. No, not you and me personally, but humanity in general and specific tribes, politicians and histories in particular.
This can also be true of some of the natural – or what I called earlier the so-called natural – disasters. Take the situation in the Ganges Delta, for instance. Regular flooding is a normal, almost essential, part of the way things are there. The people of Bangladesh, who inhabit vast tracts of the delta, had learned not only to live with it, but to harness it. Until, that is, events elsewhere impacted on them. The increasing severity of the problem there has been caused elsewhere, by the changing balance of nature because of the deforestation of too much of the Himalayas.
We’ve seen the same thing this century in Indonesia, where the government is moving to ban illegal logging (from which we in the west may benefit, of course, when purchasing, say, garden furniture that is not made from sustainable forests).
And therein lies the clue. We contribute to many natural disasters – even cause some of them. And the lesson is clear: we have to think about what we do, and be prepared to change what we do, because what we do affects other people.
Again, this may not affect you and me personally. On the other hand, it may. I had on my desk one year a calendar which highlighted an ecological concern every week. Did you know that each year more than 50,000 trees worth of Christmas wrapping paper is used in the UK? And every bit of sticky tape used adds to the waste problem, as sticky tape is not biodegradable, whereas string is. It may seem small beer compared to what we have been seeing. But in an interdependent world, every little counts.
The tsunami was an altogether different kind of disaster.
The spacious firmament on high
With all the blue ethereal sky
And spangled heaven, a shining frame,
Their great original proclaim …
I don’t know how often this hymn is sung these days. It reflects the high point of 18th century optimism, and ends with these lines, which, when sung to the melodious tune composed specially for it, can still sound superb
In reason’s ear they all rejoice,
And utter forth a glorious voice,
For ever singing as they shine,
‘The hand that made us is divine’.
God’s in his heaven, all’s well with the earth. Tell that to the people of Aceh or Sri Lanka; or of Mozambique or any other cyclone devastated place.
But once it was what people thought. Enlightenment Christianity thought reason can confidently explain every natural phenomenon. God, the Great Original, the Deity, the Clock Maker, was sitting back and watching the whole process take its course, while his greatest creature – Man – with his all sufficient reason was progressing to a state of ever greater happiness. We can all too easily fall back into that way of thinking – or into a subtle twenty first century version of it, which is to do with humanity’s assumed capacity to harness and control nature. This is a triumphalism not far removed from Swinburne’s, 130 or so years ago
Glory to man in the highest,
For man is the master of things.
In that sort of mood, the problem of disasters, whether natural or moral, is easily forgotten. And despite having lived in that most morally bankrupt of centuries, the twentieth, we still prefer the easy way of optimism. We’ve become inured by overexposure to human misery. The cynic might even say that relief and development have become a sideshow of rock stars and other dubious celebrities. Unless, of course, we’re faced with something utterly catastrophic.
One of the greatest catastrophes of the last century was the first world war. Not a natural disaster, I agree. But one which in the long run shattered many complacencies (Sunday Morning Matins died in the mud of the trenches). And into that situation a great English theologian, P T Forsythe, spoke these words – as clear for us today as they were in 1917
You have grown up in an age that has not yet got over the delight of having discovered in evolution the key to creation. You saw the long expanding series broadening into the perfect day, you saw it foreshortened in the long perspective, peak rising on peak, each successively catching the rising sun. The dark valley, and desert horrible, you did not see…The roaring rivers and thunders…the awful conflicts latent in nature’s ascent and man’s – you could pass these over in the sweep of your glance…But now you have been flung into one of the awful valleys…You are in bloody, monstrous, and deadly dark…The air is as red as the rains of hell. The rocks you stood on fall on you.
There is no easy answer. Earthquakes, tsunamis, volcanoes, hurricanes – these are all a necessary part of the process. These are part of the conditions, the cooling and crust forming process of our planet, that made the emergence of human beings possible. In a sense God is the Great Original, the One who created a universe with an anthropic 1. principle enshrined in it – a universe in which men and women emerged as free and responsible agents in relation to the Creator. And while, on the one hand, we have to assert, with Genesis, that the world, creation itself, is intrinsically good, we also have to recognise that it is ambiguous. The very forces which are creative can also be destructive; the creation which reveals God can also veil him.
Jonathan Sacks, writing The Times, once said
‘The religious question is not: ‘Why did this happen?’ but ‘What shall we do?’’.
Prayer and giving are part of his answer, as well as the hope that
‘in our collective grief we [can] renew the covenant of human solidarity. Having seen how small and vulnerable humanity is in the face of nature, might we not also see how small are the things that divide us, and how tragic to add grief to grief.’
A noble response. He also says
‘We cannot understand God, but we can strive to imitate his love and care.’
No Christian would take issue with that last sentiment. But while, at one level, I have to agree about the understanding bit, at a different level I want to go a little further than the former Chief Rabbi.
We do not always live in the immediate and continuous consciousness of the presence of God – at least, very few people do, and I certainly don’t. We do live in a situation in which we can, if we will, freely respond to God.
God took a risk in creation – the risk that though the conditions were right, things might go other ways, including the possibility that we might not freely respond. The risk is mirrored in our lives – it is the risk of having to live with the conditions that made our life and our free response possible. This is inherent in human living.
Yet though creation is ambiguous, capable of both hiding and revealing God, God is not so far removed from creation as we may sometimes think, as we want to make him when we cry ‘Why does God allow this?’. God became part of creation himself. The creator becomes creature, subject to the same limitations and conditions as the rest of us. This answer puts the creator not just in the animals’ feeding trough but also on the cross.
I may not see the answer. But on the altar of creation I do see the Answerer.
1. I am not alluding to any specific version of the anthropic principle – a disputed matter, when all’s said and done, but making a general point about the conditions for the emergence of humanity within creation.