Armchair theodicy

When I was writing my forthcoming (promises, promises) book, God’s Good Earth, I added a disclaimer in the introduction that I was not going to attempt the kind of theodicy (following Leibniz) that is so often used to argue that the world itself must be evil through human sin, or through the autonomy granted by God to a demiurgic Nature.

I noted that it seemed that most theistic evolutionists, specifically, who rail against the cruelty of nature were either laboratory or library based academics, as opposed to field naturalists who actually see it, and I quoted Kenneth Surin, who has critiqued modern theodicy, and who wrote about theodicies:

The tasks. . . are perhaps best undertaken in the tranquility of the theodicist’s study (a perusal of the writings of the theodicists will tend invariably to confirm the suspicion that the study is very much the theodicist’s domain).

I’ve just read a fascinating paper, published by the Kirby Laing Institute for Christian Ethics, by Dr Roger Abbott, who works for the Faraday Institute here in the UK (a kind of Brit BioLogos) as their Research Associate in Natural Disasters. I bet you didn’t even know that job existed. I was interested to see that he drew a similar distinction between those who question God’s allowing natural disasters from afar (TV news presenters may be relied upon for this) and those who actually experience them.

Abbott himself has been deeply immersed as a trauma-practitioner (as well as a practical theologian) in four such disasters over just the last five years: the Haiti earthquake, the Philippines super-typhoon, the New Orleans hurricane and flood, and the flooding of the Somerset levels here in England.

In his article he admits that survivors of such events may well ask, “Why does a loving God allow suffering?”, but adds that:

from the hundreds of survivors who I have interviewed from some catastrophic disasters, I have never heard a single participant voice that question to me. Nevertheless, theologians and moral philosophers wring their hands and spill gallons of ink hypothesising over that topic.

That “never” is quite astonishing, given the centrality of suffering to theological questions about God – or come to that, to allowing God a direct role in the creation of the species, lest it include parasites and predators. Those caught up in the stress of disasters speak from the heart, rather than from logical reflection – so it must be significant if the suffering heart so seldom finds room for blaming the God of creation for its upheavals.

Abbott goes on to discuss a theology of disasters, and our proper response to them, based on the examples Jesus gives of the tower of Siloam and the people murdered over their sacrifices by Pilate, and concludes that we should beware of the temptation to blame either the victims, or anyone else, for that matter – but to see, as Jesus did, that our solidarity with those who suffer is a solidarity with the darkness in our own hearts:

Of course, there are specific parties who need to be held to account for their direct role in causing disasters: e.g. Pontius Pilate, Siloam Tower builder/maintenance teams, etc. However this fact does not permit the remainder of us to feel relieved of responsibility, innocent, and satisfied by our humanitarian responsiveness.

The title of his paper is “Why Do Humans allow suffering?” and his striking experience is that what turns a force of nature into a human disaster is, overwhelmingly, when human agencies fail or sin in their response:

My work with disasters has convinced me there is no such thing, actually, as a natural disaster. Every one of them is man-made. There are of course natural events, earthquakes, volcanoes, floods, hurricanes, wildfires. However, these, in and of themselves, are not bad events. They can be spectacular events. They are the events that have helped create the physical world that we love to visit and take photographs of and which sometimes actually reduce us to tears of awe and wonder (Job 42: 1-6). Such natural hazards only become disasters when something very human and wrong happens. In all four locations where I have worked closely with survivors, it is fascinating that not one person has said to me yet, “I blame God for this”. Not one. They have all said to me of the disaster, “This is not God’s work. This is man’s work!” When I draw together the science, whether the natural or human sciences, and my role as a pastor and theologian, I conclude they are right.

I’m no natural disasters researcher, but though I’m sure he would allow for exceptions, I don’t argue with that. When my pastor friend in Sri Lanka reported on the aftermath of the tsunami there, he told me that the lasting harm was less the result of drowning, loss of homes and so on, but the trafficking of orphaned or displaced children for sexual exploitation by those purporting to help them. Recent news stories have even exposed cases of charitable aid workers making help conditional upon sexual favours. And which is worse – to have your home destroyed by a tornado, or to have what remains looted by your supposed neighbours?

My daughter told me how the poor Catholic family she stayed with in Guatemala, to learn Spanish, impressed her with their reliance on God as helper in the face of natural adversity. But even in the recent eruption in Hawaii, I noted how a presumably secular householder, grateful for getting away in the nick of time but uncertain he would ever return home, said, “But it’s only a house.” It was as if the loss of his home had impressed on him a lesson on the value of people.

And so it seems that those caught up in disasters are less troubled by God’s part in them than those who write about them from afar. Even some of our most sophisticated theology has as its purpose to implicate God in the “evils” of nature (as well as the causes of sin, one might add) whilst exonerating ourselves. I wonder where that started?

The man said, “The woman you put here with me – she gave me some fruit from the tree, and I ate it.” (Gen 3:12)

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About Jon Garvey

Training in medicine (which was my career), social psychology and theology. Interests in most things, but especially the science-faith interface. The rest of my time, though, is spent writing, playing and recording music.
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2 Responses to Armchair theodicy

  1. GBrooks12 says:


    Why do you find this theme relevant? When a tsunami slams into the beaches of Indonesia… are you saying that it is humanity’s fault that they like to go to the beach? Is there something necessary about the tsunami, and humans are just in the way? I’m not following this line of reasoning very well.

    • Avatar photo Jon Garvey says:

      Hi George

      It’s relevant because (a) the blog is about the theology of creation and (b) one of my major themes (like, the one that led to a book) is on the goodness of creation after the Fall, the biggest objection to which is theodicy, or rather the anti-theodicy that there is “too much natural evil in the world.”

      I thought it would be interesting to draw from someone whose day job is natural disasters, as represented in brief by the article. The two points most relavant seem to be (a) that the people he’s met actually hit by natural disasters don’t seem to have a problem with God because of them and (b) that in his experience what turns “natural events” into “disasters” usually turns out to be human faults before and after the event – I suppose he’s thinking about pushing the poor to risky areas, failure to us existing knowledge in prevention or mitigation, inadequate and self-interested reliefe efforts and so on.

      A surprise to me – though I have used examples myself of disasters used to blame God turning out to be blessings – such as the Armenian earthquake 0f 1988, which is widely acknowledged there to have brought both political and spiritual national revival there. But worth reflecting in ones armchair on what those actually in the field say, don’t you think?

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