christianity philosophy theology

tsunamis and life building

In a reflection that is most certainly to be categorised firmly on the side of what is understandably seen as the impersonal, cold, logic-chopping philosophical problem of evil (rather than more humane existential or pastoral problem of evil), it occurs to me that the feeling of unjustness we almost universally feel when, say, a massive tsunami wipes out thousands of poor ‘innocent’ people ((though a thoroughgoing Christian anthropology knows no such thing, mind you – we’re a mixed bag – wretched and radiant – always both – never just one…)) is almost entirely an affair of emotion rather than reason.

Notice that I said it was the feeling of unjustness, rather than the sense that we ought to have compassion on the victims, which was driven chiefly by emotion rather than reason.  For what just alternative do we imagine?  That earth should be free of tectonic activity and water – both of which are fundamentally necessary for the existence and flourishing of all life?

The complaint seems to be that God is somehow unjust for making a world where tsunamis happen, or for not intervening each time they are in places that wipe out thousands of people… or hundreds of people… or dozens of people… or any single human life… or animal life… yes, God should stop those tsunamis too… matter of fact, God should stop sudden gusts of wind that cause people to lose their balance, fall and hurt themselves…  God should intervene to stop my paper cut…

From the perspective of a Martian, all of these human dramas played out on our ‘pale blue dot’ are not so different.  Certainly the point at which the ratio of deaths-saved to degree-of-divine-interference becomes an offense ((by whose standards though?)) seems utterly arbitrary.  What’s more, Nature certainly doesn’t care for either tsunami or paper-cut victims.  Nature is neither grieved at evil nor glad at good, for the ‘dumb witch‘, needs not either of those adjectives – or any qualitative value-judgments.

Experience teaches us that when we build our house on a beach, we risk possible devastation by wind and waves.  Handle papers quickly and carelessly, and expect paper-cuts.  The ‘natural evil’ is worsened by the human evils of things like impatience and inattention (behind the paper-cut) and things like the greedy, indifferent and dehumanising failure to share knowledge and technology that would see the poor, vulnerable coastal communities having stronger buildings and better and faster tsunami warning systems.

The God-who-is-Love is not there to remove all pain and suffering, but to be trusted in the midst of, and to Love us into, through and out the other side of all pain and suffering – great and small.

It’s not the reality of tsunamis that raise hairy theological questions, but rather when people claim that God sent it on the homosexuals or the lone survivor claims God singled them out for survival over the others. ((I’m opposed to those who would rob such a survivor of their gratitude to God for their survival – it’s just that I’m also highly doubtful that it is appropriate or sensible for this gratitude to be accompanied by a sense that God didn’t want the others to survive  – or want them to survive as much…))

I’m not fond of the habit of attaching direct, one-for-one, tit-for-tat theological purpose and meaning to every single phenomena (i.e. this mouse made it to the mouse trap before that other mouse because it had been very, very naughty in the eyes of the Lord…).  Though equally, I’m committed to seeing all phenomena as known by and sustained by God, so God has at least something to do with literally everything that happens.

It does seem that we tend to thank God for pleasing events, but not critique God for unpleasant ones.  So, the simplistic complaint, ‘all of the credit, but none of the blame’, is very intuitive, but only to a point.  Despite that many Christians actually do only thank God for nice events and are not sure what to say of un-nice ones, the Christian faith relates to pain and suffering in a unique way.  One (certainly not the only) way it does is by taking everything from tsunamis to paper-cuts as an opportunity to be reminded that one must not put their trust in anything other than God, the Rock of Salvation.

Calling a Spirit such as God a ‘rock’ is both a delicious juxtaposition and an utterly appropriate metaphor, especially if God actually is who Christians (and monotheists) believe God to be – the very source and sustainer of all (created) being or existence.  The single, sole ‘capital-T-Thing-transcending-all-lower-case-t-things’, who does not change in essence, character or nature.  The lone Locus of faith that cannot be shaken.

24 ‘Everyone then who hears these words of mine and acts on them will be like a wise man who built his house on rock. 25The rain fell, the floods came, and the winds blew and beat on that house, but it did not fall, because it had been founded on rock. 26And everyone who hears these words of mine and does not act on them will be like a foolish man who built his house on sand. 27The rain fell, and the floods [even tsunamis!] came, and the winds blew and beat against that house, and it fell—and great was its fall!’ – Matthew 7:24-27

bible christianity philosophy theology

muslim at church

I preached my first sermon at my summer placement at Ponsonby Baptist today.  After the service, I met a young Muslim man from Bahrain.  He was in the country seeking asylum, and said he wanted to come to church because Christianity was similar to Islam.  I agreed – there is much that Islam and Christianity have in common (see previous post ‘god is like… pt 2‘).  I made sure he knew he was welcome.

Here is yet another example of the ‘both/and’ of both similarities and differences between any two religions or even sects (or even worldviews).  People who use religious disagreement to argue against the existence of a God (the argument from contradictory revelations) over emphasize difference at the expense of very real agreement.  And people who use religious agreement to justify a casual approach to belief (‘…ah, they’re all basically the same…’) over-emphasize sameness at the expense of the very real disagreement.

It’s not “watering down” Christianity to recognise that both it and Islam are within the category of creational, ethical (and eschatological) monotheism any more than it is watering down Pentecostalism to recognise that it and Methodism both exist within the Protestant wing of the Church.

christianity philosophy theology


I’m happy to be accused of ‘middle-ism’ ((Painting two extremes and arguing that the middle is best or most correct)), but with regard to the question of inherent meaning in/to any things or events ((In a sense, things are events??)), it seems that meaningfulness is between the extreme on one hand of seeing too little – or no – meaning (nihilism) ((from Latin nihil – ‘nothing’)), and the extreme on the other of seeing too much meaning (superstition) ((from Latin superstitio – ‘over-standing’)).

The spectrum seems an honest one.

Nihilism is as far as you can go in the direction of denying any/all kinds of meaning, purpose or value.  Superstition is as far as you can go in the direction of affirming any/all kinds of meaning, purpose or value.  Judaeo-Christian monotheism opposes both.

In opposition to nihilism, monotheism says that there is inherent meaning, purpose and value to things/events ((Interestingly, however, Solomon, the author of Ecclesiastes, thought that – at some level of experience – ‘everything is meaningless’.)).  Life is seen to have at least some kind of purpose, meaning and value – even if non-omniscient humans cannot omnisciently know the content of them ((Stop and ask, however: Isn’t our utter inability to know everything one of the first things we can truly know?  And doesn’t this overturn full-on agnosticism?)).  Life (from amoeba to anthropos) is seen as the result of a purpose, desire/will, intent – and not a meaningless accident with no purpose.

In opposition to superstition, monotheism resists falsely attributed meaning to things like cats walking under ladders, mirrors breaking, crystals, idols, necklaces (yes, even cross-shaped ones).  It is not that ladders, necklaces, cats, crystals and mirrors have no meaning or value, but that meaning/value is falsely attributed to them.  Ladders evidence human tool-making, and necklaces their art; cats and crystals show the creativity of the Creator (and the natural processes employed), and broken mirrors point to anything from carelessness to human art/illustration ((I shattered a mirror in a camp talk making the point about how sin shatters human nature which like a mirror reflects God into the world.)).

There are other points on the spectrum on both sides of monotheism that (in both directions) gradually approach nihilism and superstition.  Something like this gradient seems accurate: nihilism (atheism), pantheism, panentheism, deism, monotheism, henotheism, polytheism, animism, voodoo/spiritism.

Pantheism (I like to say) is characterised by a rejection of all particular beliefs, whilst affirming the general notion of some kind of universal ‘energy’ that can be appreciated, sensed, or ‘felt’ etc.  Even ‘prayed to’; there are degrees within pantheism, too ((I’ve heard people talk of putting thoughts ‘out into the universe’ which will return, etc.)).  Pantheism ((Atheism and pantheism are mere millimetres apart.)) is very tolerable and acceptable as it allows people to identify as ‘spiritual’, without having to bother with ‘doctrine’.  It prefers general over the particular.

Polytheism, however, has a myriad of gods whose action is attributed to all manner of things/events.  The sun god brings out the sun, the corn king provides corn, etc. ad infinitum.

To the nihilst/atheist, all other positions (including monotheism) are superstition.  To the polytheist, monotheism is a kind of nihilism/atheism.  The early Christians, for example, were called atheists – for they were ‘atheists’ about the Roman idol gods ((Ah, but ‘some of us just go one God further’ is the Dawkinsesque line.  But as we’ve seen, the spectrum is not like that – killing off all meaning is a bit harder than killing off extreme superstition.)).