Thursday, August 02, 2007

Questioning God's Benevolence in the Face of Tragedy

The images and stories of destruction and loss of human life as a result of yesterday’s tragic bridge collapse here in the Twin Cities, reminds me of a powerful reflection written by Edward Spence in response to the 2004 Southeast Asian tsunami disaster.

In his December 30, 2004 Sydney Morning Herald commentary, “Waves of Destruction Wash Away Belief in God’s Benevolence,” Spence grapples with what such destructive and tragic events tell us about God.

The question of human suffering is core to all the great religious traditions – and each offers various responses. For many, the crucial question is, “How can God be both all-powerful and all-loving in light of such disasters?”

For myself, I’ve come to the conclusion that I’d rather believe in and hold on to an all-loving God than an all-powerful God. Accordingly, I believe that the sacred force we commonly term “God” may not always be able to direct or alter our external, physical circumstances. Tragic and terrible things can happen to any one of us - and to those we love. Yet I also believe that if we open ourselves to God’s presence – in the depths of our own being, in those around us, in creation, and in the relationships we build with others – we can be transformed within; we can access and embody the strength and compassion to somehow get through the times of tragedy and heartache.

I also believe that it’s not the outward events – good or bad – of our life that define us, but how we choose to respond to such events.

Of course, such theological musings and pontifications are cold comfort for those grief-stricken by disaster and personal loss. In such raw and anguished moments, the showing of compassion, as Edward Spence notes, is “the best response.”


Waves of Destruction Wash Away
Belief in God’s Benevolence

By Edward Spence
Sydney Morning Herald
December 30, 2004

Compassion is the best response when humanity faces
the problem of evil, writes Edward Spence.

“Why did you do this to us, God? What did we do to upset you?” asked a woman in India this week, a heart-wrenching question asked in common these past few days by Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus and Christians. Nothing could have prepared us for what happened when the tsunami unleashed its terror. So we seek answers where answers are hard to come by, in either secular or sacred realms.

Traditionally, the Judeo-Christian God, considered the most supreme and perfect being in the universe, has been ascribed the following necessary attributes: omniscience (all-knowing), omnipresence (present everywhere at all times and at once), omnipotence (almighty and powerful) and benevolence (all good and caring).

How, then, did a God as powerful and benevolent as this allow such a thing to happen? If he is benevolent then he cannot also be omnipotent, for a God who has both these attributes would have wanted to, cared to and been able to prevent such a catastrophe.

Perhaps, though omnipotent, He is not benevolent. That might explain why, although it was within His power to stop the tsunami, He simply chose not to: God has His own reasons and we are not to ask why. However, this answer will not suffice since by definition God is perfect. Being perfect, He must of necessity not merely be omnipotent but benevolent as well.

A possible solution to this problem, traditionally known as the problem of evil, was offered by the heretical Manicheans, who believed not in one supreme being but two: one good God responsible for all the good things in life and another bad God, Satan, responsible for all the evil in the world.

St Augustine, a follower in his early 20s, became an ardent critic of this doctrine, thinking a weak God powerless to defeat Satan was not worth worshipping.

Philosophically, if God is perfect, then there can be only one perfect God, not two. In any case, evil is an imperfection and thus not a characteristic that can be attributed to God.

If the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune are at play and the deaths caused by the tsunami are a cosmic payback in the form of karma, does that offer a solution, albeit a philosophical one, to the problem of evil? I think not. For how can children, some as young as a few months, who had not yet lived their lives, deserve to be punished so cruelly for their past sins – especially when they have not been offered the promised divine opportunity to atone for those sins through another life?

Even if solutions are forthcoming to these philosophical conundrums, humanely speaking they make little sense. Perhaps that is why some people remain sceptical about the presence of any divine providence ruling over us.

A compromise solution, between secular scepticism and a psychological need for the sacred, was offered by the Greek philosopher Epicurus. Although believing in gods, he claimed these divine beings would not want to diminish their heavenly happiness by mingling in the sordid affairs of mortals. For Epicurus, the gods were not crazy but simply indifferent to both human joys and sorrows. When it comes to social or natural evils, we are all alone.

But if natural disasters are merely random events caused by the uncaring and blind forces of nature, does this offer us any comfort or meaning in the face of the apocalyptic events on Boxing Day?

Even if our heads offer us such solutions, our hearts refuse to follow. For the problem of evil is an existential problem that confronts our own individual mortality and vulnerability to unknown and unexpected disasters.

Ultimately, heartfelt tears shed in earnest and with compassion, with offerings of charity for those who have suffered, are more meaningful than any theological and philosophical treatise on the problem of evil. Especially at Christmas when, according to the gospels, love is the single core message.

Perhaps this is the essence, if the legend is true, of what God learnt from us when He walked and suffered as a man among us. Ultimately, the problem of evil confronts us not as a puzzle to be solved but as a mystery to be experienced. And as Jesus and Plato before him indicated, the meaning of the mystery of life can be found only by experiencing another great mystery – the mystery of love.

Dr Edward Spence is a philosopher at the Centre for Applied Philosophy and Public Ethics, Charles Sturt University.

Image 1: Vehicles are scattered along the broken remains of the Interstate 35W bridge, which stretches between Minneapolis and St. Paul, after it collapsed into the Mississippi River during evening rush hour Wednesday, August 1, 2007, sending vehicles, tons of concrete and twisted metal crashing into the water. (AP Photo/The Minnesota Daily, Stacy Bengs)

Image 2: Emergency personnel on the scene after a sudden collapse of the Minneapolis, MN I-35W bridge on August 1 killed at least 7 people and plunged 30-50 cars into the Mississippi River. (Photo by R. Mat Remillard)

See also the previous Wild Reed post: Tragedy in Minneapolis

Recommended Off-site Links:
On Bridge, Thin Line Between Life, Death
Four Victims Identified; Eight Still Missing, Presumed Dead
Many Hands, Hearts Reach Out at Bridge
“Something of a Miracle”: Minnesota Bridge Toll Far Less Than Feared


Jeff said...


Please let me offer my condolences to your whole community. What a tragedy, and such a cruel and fickle way in which it struck! This must be a road that you yourself have travelled many times, as well as your friends, and perhaps loved ones. My prayers go out to all those who perished and to those who are anxiously awaiting word on the missing.

I’ve come to the conclusion that I’d rather believe in and hold on to an all-loving God than an all-powerful God.

Yes, that's right. I tend to believe that too, at least as far as power is applied to events like these. I've never been one much for calvinistic views of predestination that would crush people under earthquakes as as a form of "chastisement". Augustine rejected Manicheanism because he didn't think that a weak God powerless to defeat Satan was worth worshipping? What about a cruel and indifferent God? Is that God worth worshipping in order to make a point about his supreme and ultimate sovereignty? No, I think that for similar reasons as to why he remains visually and audibly hidden from us by his own choice and counsel, our response to events are what matter, as you say.

I think there is a difference between Determinism and Divine Providence. I've always liked this reflection on Divine Providence from Fr. Ron Rolheiser in his article Reading the Signs of the Times.

We see [in the Jewish Scriptures] that, for Israel, there were no pure accidents, no purely secular events. God's finger was everywhere, in every event, in every blessing, in every defeat, in every victory, in every drought, in every rainfall, in every death, in every birth. If Israel was defeated in battle, it wasn't the Assyrians who defeated her. God defeated her. If she reaped a bountiful harvest, it wasn't simple luck, God was blessing her. Nothing was ever purely secular or simply accidental.

Israel wasn't so naive or fundamentalistic, of course, as to believe that God was actually the efficient cause of these events or that, in the case of death and disaster, God even intended those events. But, nonetheless, in her view of things, God still spoke through those events. The finger of God and the voice of God were seen in the conspiracy of accidents that made up the outer events of her life. To discern the finger of God in the everyday events of life was, for Israel, a very important form of prayer.

My parents and my many of their generation understood this well. Reading the signs of the times was a spontaneous practice for them. They believed in something they called "divine providence" and, for them, like Israel, the finger of God was everywhere, in every event, good and bad. There was no such thing as pure accident or simple good luck. God was in charge, somehow behind everything. Sometimes they took this too far, believing that God actually started wars, burned-down houses, caused someone to get sick, or broke somebody's leg to teach a lesson. But, generally, they weren't that naive. Despite the language ("God did this to us!") they believed only that God spoke through the event, not that God caused the event.

Michael J. Bayly said...


Thank you for your condolences. My prayers too are with all who were caught up in this tragedy and have been personally impacted by it.

Thank you also for sharing Rolheiser’s thoughts on Divine Providence. I must admit I have a hard time agreeing with the idea that “God speaks through” every type of event. I’m more inclined to say that God is capable of speaking through the ways in which I choose to respond to any and every type of event – good or bad.

I guess my problem with this particular understanding of Divine Providence stems, in part, from an experience of a friend of mine. She and her partner were residents of a small Midwestern town destroyed by a tornado. They were in their home when the tornado struck. She says that the worst part of this experience was the sound of the tornado. It was absolutely terrifying because, she insists, “there was nothing of God in that sound.”

Where she did experience God in this event, however, was in the many and varied ways the townspeople (and others) helped one another in the aftermath of this disaster.

Anyway, Jeff, thanks again for visiting and for leaving such an informed and thought-provoking comment.



crystal said...

This kind of situation is the hardest for me to understand from a faith pov. As Jef siad, prayers for those affected. When the tsunami struck, another article that I found helpful was one by David Bently Hart - Tsunami and Theodicy at First Things. I can't find it now, but I have some excerpts in an old post here.