In the Opinion section of Sunday’s New York Times, literary critic James Wood (who I mentioned a few months back was at the n+1 panel on Evangelicals and Intellectuals and subsequently mentioned in my opinion piece on that subject) contributed an essay entitled “Between God and a Hard Place.”
The essay explores two ways that God has been attributed to the earthquake in Haiti and offers a bit of historical perspective to the genre of preaching he refers to as the “earthquake sermon.” In the span of two paragraphs we travel with Wood through London and Lisbon, hear the voices of Leibniz, Voltaire and even John Wesley before landing on our very own “earthquake-sermonizer,” Pat Robertson.
In mentioning Leibniz, Wood obviously directs the reader to the concept of “theodicy.” For those not familiar with the term it is essentially the continued belief in the goodness of God in the face of evil. Robertson’s response, Wood explains, is “classic theodicy.”
It seems that James Wood is not the only writer considering this idea around the events in Haiti. Leon Wieseltier, literary editor at the New Republic (where Wood worked before moving to The New Yorker) offers a critique of theodicy on similar grounds as Voltaire’s original critique depicting it as an unfounded optimism. After offering quotes from former Presidents Clinton and Bush as well as Ban Ki-Moon and Bernard Kouchner in which the common threads are hope and optimism, Wieseltier concludes, “What else were they going to say? But something is amiss with this notion of policy as theodicy. For it may well be that anything is not possible.”
Wood’s reflection continues beyond the theodicy of Pat Robertson onto the reflection of President Obama on the Haiti disaster and decides that though “the literal meaning of Mr. Obama’s phrase is not so far from Pat Robertson’s hatefulness,” that the President was actually using language in which “punishment and mercy lives on unconsciously, well after the actual theology has been discarded.”
These terms set, Wood’s essay comes to the conclusion that “either God is punitive and interventionist, or as capricious as nature and so absent as to be effectively non-existent.”
But, of course, there’s a third option (and probably fourth, fifth and sixth options as well) that, though perhaps marred in contemporary parlance, may in some way be even more theologically accurate. That is, frankly, “Shit happens.”
Certainly God is sovereign. It is a great mystery that perplexes everyone from children in Sunday school to the most learned theologians; God gives us free will and yet knows what will happen. God created the world, gave it laws of nature, set it in motion and knows how it will end.
There are certainly examples of God using natural disasters in the Bible, particularly in the Old Testament, as a means of carrying out his will on earth. But as John Mark Reynolds points out at Evangel, a passage in Luke addresses the question of “whether natural disaster are because the victims are somehow worse than others.”
Apparently, a tower fell and killed eighteen people and Jesus says quite explicitly, “do you think that they were worse offenders than all the others who lived in Jerusalem? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish.”
Human nature seems to always trend toward the extremes. Either God causes earthquakes and therefore is mean or God doesn’t exist. Many of us, however, live out our lives in the middle. Content to grasp at the mystery, constantly trying to illuminate the dark glass through which we now see. In light of this, the hope that rises from a disaster like the earthquake in Haiti is founded in a belief that though we can’t always understand God, we believe God is good. We are not left to the extremes of evil or non-existent, we are content that God is better, smarter and more loving than us and, ultimately, somehow, in control.
Jonathan D. Fitzgerald
Jonathan D. Fitzgerald is editor of Patrol and author of Not Your Mother's Morals: How the New Sincerity is Changing Pop Culture for the Better. Follow Fitz on Twitter.
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