Last December, as the world tried to grapple with the devastating scope of the tsunami that hit South Asia -- at last count, the death toll stood at nearly 300,000 -- the tragedy became fodder for fatuous religious discussions, focusing on an ancient question: How can a just, good, all-powerful, all-loving God allow evil to happen and innocents to suffer?
"Very hard to square with an involved deity," John Derbyshire wrote on National Review's Web log, The Corner. "I can't do it myself, yet I am constitutionally unable to not believe in that deity. I think I'll go lie down for a while."
Perhaps due to a different constitution, I can't really relate to his dilemma. My own agnostic view is that if there is a deity, he, she or it probably isn't a hands-on manager of the world's day-to-day operations; this spares me the need to grapple with Derbyshire's paradox. Which is not to say that the post-tsunami God debate hasn't been enlightening.
For one thing, it should -- but won't -- lay to rest the notion that the mainstream media treat faith and its adherents with scorn, and that talk of God is somehow marginalized in our secular public square. In fact, in the aftermath of the tsunami, religion held a distinctly privileged place in America's public discourse. Numerous papers around the country ran stories on post-disaster soul searching about evil, suffering and the meaning of life that usually gave only passing mention to nonreligious philosophies.
On the op-ed pages and on the airwaves, there were plenty of voices representing various faiths, with little if any input from humanists, agnostics or other secularists. On CNN, Larry King convened a panel composed of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary President Albert Mohler Jr., left-wing Rabbi Michael Lerner, best-selling guru Deepak Chopra, a Catholic priest, an adviser to the Muslim Public Affairs Council and a Buddhist monk. On MSNBC's "Scarborough Country," a similarly ecumenical gathering generously included a token atheist who could barely get a word in.
What did all this faith-based commentary offer to -- as Milton put it -- "justify the ways of God to man?" Most of it amounted to well-worn banalities: God's ways are mysterious and cannot be fathomed by the human mind; we know God loves us, because he told us so in the Bible. There were a few half-veiled suggestions that the tsunamis were a punishment from God.
Evangelist Anne Graham Lotz, daughter of the Rev. Billy Graham, made a more startling (and more original) claim on the Fox News show, "The Heartland": "Maybe in the Muslim world ... people would see that Americans are not, perhaps, what the wicked propagandists would say, but they were good people and a caring people, and we're going to help them. So God, you know, He has a greater purpose."
God committed mass slaughter just to give America an opportunity to improve its image abroad?
Some Jewish writers offered more thoughtful answers to the question of God and evil. Jeff Jacoby of The Boston Globe and Rabbi Shmuley Boteach, writing in The Jerusalem Post, noted that in the Jewish tradition, it is entirely acceptable and even righteous for human beings to challenge and argue against God's injustice, as Abraham, Moses and Job did in the Bible. (Boteach, the sometimes-smarmy author of "Kosher Sex" and spiritual adviser to celebrities, emerged as one of the sanest and most dignified figures in this particular debate.)
I wanted to cheer when, on "Scarborough Country," he ripped into a panelist who had talked of God's wrath against sinners. "God," the rabbi said, "is not a terrorist."
But it's not entirely clear what such an approach means in practical terms, in a world where people don't routinely converse with the Supreme Being -- unless you count Heather McDonald's satiric suggestion in Slate that people should stop donating to religious institutions and attending services in order to show their displeasure to the man upstairs.
In any case, it really shouldn't take a mass catastrophe to raise all these hard questions about God's power and mercy. Even leaving aside human-perpetrated evils that can be said to reflect free will, untold numbers of innocents around the world, including children, die from disease and accidents every year.
When God is thanked for answering a prayer with a miraculous deliverance, it raises the inevitable skeptical question: What about all those who likewise prayed but perished nonetheless? Is the idea of a deity cherry-picking those who will survive a deadly disaster really comforting?
After Sept. 11, some credited God with ensuring that there were far fewer people than usual both in the hijacked planes and in the targeted buildings. You'd think that God could have simply tipped off the FBI.
Yet in a supposedly secularist culture where conservatives gripe that you're not allowed to talk about God anymore, mainstream public discourse rarely questions boilerplate rhetoric about God's higher purpose and the mystery of His ways.
When an American soldier serving in Iraq was killed in a helicopter crash while flying home for his mother's funeral after her sudden death from an aneurysm, newspaper accounts reverentially repeated a minister's assertion at the double service that God surely had a plan for mother and son.
Of course, when you think of the things people want to hear at a time of great tragedy, "we live in a cold and indifferent universe, and then it kills us" isn't very high on list. A great tragedy like last December's tsunami might not be a good time for any kind of philosophizing, religious or secular -- particularly philosophizing by safe and well-fed people about a disaster that doesn't touch their own lives. All we can do, as human beings, is help victims and try to prevent future catastrophes.
In his Jerusalem Post opinion piece, Boteach wrote, "The human imperative is not to reckon with God's secrets but to promote those values which He conveyed as being supreme, leading with the defense of human life." That's one message both the religious and the secularists should be able to embrace.
Maybe, when we work to make the world better, it's the spirit of God working through us; and maybe it's the spirit of humanity. In the end, does it make a difference?
Cathy Young is a contributing editor at Reason magazine and a columnist at The Boston Globe.
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