Broadcaster Mark Dowd considers why an all-powerful and good God permitted the devastating Asian tsunami
December 26,2004. Grindleford, a picturesque village in Derbyshire, the venue for my family Christmas. After a taxing six-mile hike. I returned to our rented cottage only to find my father looking traumatised. He was staring at the first television pictures of the tsunami carnage in the Indian ocean.
"What have those people done to deserve all that?" he asked. It . struck an almighty nerve. Within days I had suggested we tackle the huge "God and suffering" dilemma head-to-head with a two-hour Channel 4 documentary. How to reconcile the existence of God with evil (what philosophers call "theodicy")?
This was the question uppermost on my mind as I attended a conference at the Vatican Observatory on the subject of "Cosmology, God and Natural Evil". It was being run by the Centre for Theology and the Natural Sciences, a Berkeley-based outfit which has been gathering a cohort of around 15 scientists, philosophers and theologians together for sessions like this for more than a decade. A whole week on God and the laws of nature at Castel Gandolfo, set above the tranquil Lago Albano in the same complex as Pope Benedict's summer residence.
There's something comforting about being in the company of astronomers and experts on the second law of thermodynamics who claim belief in God. It's a sort of "faith by proxy" phenomenon: an existential proof that the perceived science/religion divide does not have to end in a world of rival camps yelling utterly intelligible noises back and forth at one another across two sides of an enormous canyon. But what of their attempts to make a convincing defence for God in the light of the turbulence in nature that has recently seen our television screens, once again, filled with images of dying children being treated outside hospitals in northem Pakistan that are too dangerous for medics to work in?
Before plausible defences can be erected, traditional models need rigorous scrutiny and my impression from this gathering was that too much has been invested in a crude "punishment for sin" model that is simply no longer credible. The rough edges and imperfections of nature have for centuries been explained by a single factor: the Fall. According to this way of thinking, the literal reading of Genesis 3 has death, disease and the erupting of thistles in the hitherto beautiful garden as a direct consequence of mankind's rebellion. Earthquakes, tornadoes and hurricanes are the consequence of moral flaws in our ancestors.
What Hind staggering is the extent to which I had absorbed this explanation almost enquestioningly since my youth until, that is, I had to dwell more seriously on such matters for the television programme Tsunami: Where was God?, which was broadcast in the peak-time viewing schedule on Christmas Day. The problem is that the downsides of nature's workings predate the arrival of evolved humanity by millions of years. As a theory it simply won't wash, a conclusion that many of the thinkers at the conference had arrived at
quite some time ago.
So where do we go when natural disasters are not construed as the direct "wages of sin"? Naneey Murphy, from Fuller Theological College in Pasadena, California, (the only woman in attendance) produced a most impressive paper which echoed a roughly consensual argument for the creativity defence for God. Rejected, by this theory, is the notion that we have seen historically in much the,odicy writing, that God allows suffering to occur in order to permit certain goods to follow. The argument is quite familiar "how can you have generosity and other virtues without suffering and deprivation?", and "God was present in the relief effort" (how many times have we heard that in the last 12 months?). It sounds attractive, but placed under closer scrutiny, it involves a deity in some guise or other as an instrumentalist who uses the suffering of innocents so that others may prove their worth. Morally and theologically it does little, if anything, to convince. In fact, its use as a defence has probably contributed more to the atheist cause than natural disasters themselves. D Z Phillips makes a fair point in his book The Problem of Evil and the Problem of God, when he asserts that, "it is easy for us, intellectuals, to add to the evil in the world by the ways in which we discuss it".
No, what Nancey Murphy and many others wanted to argue, was that of course God always wills the good and that the downsides of the processes associated with the laws of nature are simply unavoidable by-products of a created world which almost certainly has to be designed the way it is for autonomous, moral agents to have developed. Central to this approach is a fairly convincing depiction of a natural world in which goods and evils are utterly inseparable. Let me explain further.
Individuals who find themselves suffering the horrors of an event like the tsunami understandably view an immediate world in which, at the micro level, life has been ravaged by impersonal forces of unprecedented destruction. Your house has gone: so has half your family and the merchant tailor's at which you worked now lies flattened under rubble. Your employer is dead and his wife and children stare at you with faces that speak of nothing but vacuous torment. Not easy to see any benefits here. Yet talk to any serious geologist about seismology and earthquakes and he will tell you many things, perhaps the most important of which is that without them, human life would be unsustai nable. A moving crust on the earth's surface not only led to land being forced above the waters, but it contributes hugely to the planet's equilibrium. Murphy's sister is herself a geologist and so she was in a strong position to point out that the movement of tectonic plates can maintain the sea's chemical balance, replenish soils with vital minerals and, as she put it, "the recycling of the crust is what makes fishing and coastal farming lucrative". In general, what appears to be systemically good can have negative by-products for those whose misfortune it is to be in the wrong place at the wrong time.
Well, if that's the PR case for earthquakes, what about God and bird flu, God and Aids? Hard to see the positive spin-offs here for the creativity defence (unless one is going to adopt a brutally Darwinian view that the human gene pool is being purified by the removal of its weaker members).
Yet the very process by which we have evolved, the chaotic and random transfer of genetic information over millions and millions of years, could only have come about in a way in which organisms, bacteria, microbes are free to pass unhindered. An evolutionary process involving DNA is inevitably going to carry the risk of these unwanted by-products occurring: diseases are due to the extraordinary adaptability of
retroviruses whose deadliness is down to their ability to share generic information with their hosts. But isolate and remove that aspect from the process the working of the natural world and you have driven a coach and horses through the very dynamic that allows us to explain the emergence of complex agents like ourselves over time.
This entangling of the positives of nature and its shadow side is perhaps understood in a story pointed out to me by one of the Vatican Observatory's resident Jesuits, Fr Chris Corbally. He quoted The Star by the writer Arthur C Clarke. "When a star comes to the end of its natural life, it goes supernova, that is, it undergoes a massive explosion which disperses many of the elements necessary for new life. So you can't have the possibilities for new life without the destruction and, as Arthur C Clarke pointed out, that is the dilemma."
In the making of the film on the tsunami we travelled, among many places, to Tamil Nadu in southern India, where thousands perished on the coastline in December 2004. The region is replete with temples devoted to the Hindu god Shiva. From what little understanding I had of Hindu deities, I had always assumed he was the god of destruction, but a closer study of a dance called the Tandava (allegedly performed by Lord Shiva) shows that his many arms denote the inter-linked processes of destruction, creation, grace and preservation.
In its own way, the colourful stories of this Hindu god make the same points as the creativity defence: the benefits of a material world cannot be fashioned without its rough edges and blind alleys. In Tamil Nadu, the individualistic "why me?" reaction of the victim seemed strangely absent among those who had been bereaved. There appeared be to a much greater awareness of how man fits into a wider cosmic system that cannot always run without the risk of pain and suffering.
There are other huge questions beyond the scope of this article, especially concerning God and intervention, matters that were directly addressed by the conference delegates. But the eminently plausible creativity defence left me with one final overarching question: if the downsides are inevitable in any creation narrative that has matter as its prime substance, why create at all? We are back to Ivan in Dostoyevsky's Brothers Karamazov, who argues
the toss with his devout brother Aloysha, asking him whether all of creation is worth it if it has to be bought at the expense of at least one innocent creature who suffers. Such an act would be morally reprehensible and unworthy of a loving God.
Ivan cannot go along with it, and in the author's famous phrase, "returns the ticket". In trying to grapple with this question we are brought up against our episteinic limits, since the overview and perspective we so desperately need to answer this question are denied to us as finite human beings with the tiniest of roles to play in the great scheme of things. We cannot inhabit a space and assess what the philosophers call Net Moral Valence (NMV): ie, the aggregate of all goods and evils in creation. No. This is the point where we simply hold our hands up and make that leap of faith or not.
At the end of the Book of Job, God speaks to his subject who has been demanding throughout that Yahweh explain himself to his suffering creatures: "Who is this obscuring ray designs with his empty-headed words?" says God. *Where were you when I laid the earth's foundations? Tell me, since you are so wellinformed!" At least Job has the
comfort of God's voice, but his vexed musings on God and suffering are never answered. God's simple message is that he does not have to explain his ways to mortal men.
And of course, God doesn't, at least in straightforward intellectual terms. But on the south bank of the Rio Tejo in Lisbon, a city devastated in 1755 by a huge earthquake, is a reminder, perhaps, that God sensed from outside all of time, the terrible mess his cherished human creatures would get into on this subject. The enormous outstretched arms of Christ the King dominate the skyline and offer us a simple message: no account of creation can be complete without the clinching act of redemption. As St Paul tells us in Romans 8: "from the beginning until now, the entire creation has been groaning in one great act of giving birth."
No attempt to pronounce on what God has made for us can be complete unless we take on board the eschatological figure of the eternal logos whose suffering and death give ultimate meaning to all of God's marvellous, but painfilled. creation.
Mark Dowd is a freelance journalist and broadcaster