Why didn’t God stop Katrina? Why didn’t God create a perfect world in the first place? If God isn’t in charge who or what is? Is life just a random, chaotic set of events with no distinguishable pattern or plan? And if God is in charge why didn’t God answer our prayers for safety?
I recently saw some photos of the storm clouds in Hurricane Katrina. For me those pictures were insights into the power of God because God is greater than any storm. But why then does God allow such destruction in nature? One answer I heard recently from Catholic theologian John Haught was as follows (my paraphrase):
If God had created the world perfect then the world would have been part of God and God would have been alone, because there can only be one Absolute Perfection. But God, whose very nature is Love, wanted there to be someone to love. So God had to create a world that was separate and distinct from God’s nature and God’s perfection. In order for God to eventually be known and loved by an intelligent, self-aware being — the human — the natural world and all its life forms had to grow and change and develop as separate and distinct from God. In order for there to be Lover and Beloved there had to be BOTH Perfection and Imperfection, BOTH the I and the THOU that constitute our relationship with God.
Haught has an interesting way of looking at creation and at God. He understands God as still “becoming” rather than as unchanging; he doesn’t view Perfection as necessitating immutability. If God loves us, is truly engaged in a relationship with us, and all monotheists believe that is so, then God must continue to change in response to us as we change and our needs change. An interesting concept: God is changed by our love just as we are changed by God’s. So every time we exercise our free will God has to adapt because every time nature throws us a curve ball God waits to see how we respond. This is a very dynamic way of understanding God. Of course philosophically God is understood to be outside of time and so to say God changes doesn’t mean that God is lacking anything or adding anything at any point; God simply is. But the mode of God existence, God’s “isness” if you like, is dynamic not static. (OK isness is not really a word, I made it up. But it works.)
My view of God’s role in our suffering is compatible with Haught’s view. Our planet is a living organism with all kinds of intertwining forces at play. It is constantly changing and its patterns of change have nothing to do with good or evil, sin or punishment. Nature behaves as nature behaves; there is nothing personal about natural disasters, diseases, or death. Nature is not controlled by a moral code. I don’t believe, therefore, that God chooses who will get cancer and die in pain and who will pass gently on in their sleep. I don’t believe that God chooses where hurricanes will go based on the sins or prayers of the people in its path. I believe that what matters is not why we are suffering but what do we choose to do with it, what kind of person we become as a result of our experience. As I have said before, Katrina wasn’t a personal attack on any of us or on our state or nation; there are no reasons why, we just have to deal with it. But how we deal with it will say volumes about who we are and about who God is for us.
Harold Kushner, author of When Bad Things happen to Good People, is a rabbi who has dealt with the personal tragedy of a child who dies of an incurable condition: Progeria, the aging disease. This tragedy caused him to rethink everything he had once believed so securely about suffering, prayer, and God. His view of prayer is now that prayer doesn’t change God, it changes us, a sentiment C.S. Lewis also expressed. When asked about petitionary prayer and miracles Kushner responded that he believes in miracles, but there are rare, and he believes that God does indeed answer our prayers but the answer may be that God is not going to do what we want. Kushner explained that he prayed for years that a cure could be found for his son’s disease before he died. But no such cure presented itself. Yet after his son’s death in his very early teens Kushner did indeed experience a miracle, although one he only recognized in retrospect: against all odds his marriage to his wife survived the death of their son and even grew stronger as a result. Kushner acknowledged God’s presence in this small miracle in his life and encourages others to look for signs of such miracles in theirs.
This seems like an appropriate time of the year to examine our lives for small miracles and give thanks. I think if we take the time we will discover God at work in our lives in many small and perhaps not so small ways: in the generosity of strangers, the hospitality of friends, the love and support of family. I, personally, have found God’s presence in our community in many ways. I know that God has loved me through the compassionate concern of so many of you; I know that in your hugs I have been experiencing God’s embrace. And for that I will always be thankful.