27 January 2010: Haiti: Nature’s Course

An unjust God, or just nature’s course?

It was just over five years ago a tsunami hit lands adjacent to the Indian Ocean and killed more than 200,000 people. In my Jan. 12, 2005, column, I addressed that disaster from the perspective of it not being an “act of God,” but the result of shifting tectonic plates.

On Jan. 12, 2010, a magnitude-7 quake that has killed an estimated 200,000 people in Haiti was, likewise, a consequence of natural forces, but that hasn’t stopped the Rev. Pat Robertson from proclaiming the Haitian cataclysm a punishment from God for a pact with the devil in 1791 to gain independence from the French.

One supposes that waiting 219 years to send his wrath, it was God’s turn to exhibit the patience of Job, the guy he put through the wringer in biblical myth. As Kurt Vonnegut would’ve said, “So it goes.”

So, it was with rolling eyes that said “Here we go again” that I read Lisa Miller’s article in Newsweek that delved into the concept of theodicy: the question religious thinkers pose about the conflict between an all-good God and innocents suffering.

University of North Carolina professor Bart Ehrman, author of “Misquoting Jesus,” tells Miller, “It’s a very old problem, and there are a lot of answers, but I don’t think any of them work.”

Perhaps the reason none of them work is that it is a false problem. Theodicy, the etymology of which stems from the French “théodicée,” which in turn comes from the Greek “theos” (God) and “dike” (judgment), brings into the equation two assumptions: God is good, and God intervenes in world events.

Perhaps, though, God is neither good nor bad, and just is or isn’t. And, perhaps, that non-judgmental God is not a world player.

Rabbi Harold Kushner states to Miller, “I think that it’s supreme hubris to think you can read God’s mind” but then goes on to read his mind by proclaiming, “The will of God is not to send us the disaster, but to send us the disaster to overcome.”

With all due respect to the rabbi, wouldn’t it be easier to defend the existence of a good God by pointing out the obvious: Our planet he created is still undergoing evolutionary throes and will be until it is destroyed from without? As such, living on an unstable piece of real estate, as those living in a flood plain and along the San Andreas Fault understand, is fraught with risk and chance.

Ironically then, not being a believer in the Judaic-Christian-Islamic version of God, I am here to defend Him before those who believe that their God, who has an entire universe to manage, had the time and small-mindedness to teach one of the poorest nations on Earth a lesson by snapping his fingers and causing the tectonic plates to shift. As Miller observes, that thinking is “unkind and self-righteous.”

In the same issue, David Rothkopf suggests the damage was predictable, with seismologists warning two years ago the country was at risk.

“Haiti,” he writes, “is also the latest in a string of nearly annual mega-disasters extending back through the past decade, calamities claiming tens of thousands of lives more because poverty and the forces of nature met with foreseeably tragic consequences.”

And he goes on to argue that mega-disasters will become more likely due to “current trends” from “rising seas” to “poorly planned urbanization in the developing people.”

It comes down to this: too many people, often poor, living in risk-prone areas.

Rothkopf offers suggestions including “establishing and effectively promoting best practices for building, safety inspection, and remedial construction that can work in impoverished settings” to buffer against future calamities.

Locals Jack and Carmen Barker — see last week’s Courant article “Dumont firm helping Haitian relief effort” — are part of the solution. Their Sunspring purification system is exactly the type of innovative and practical technologies needed, not only in Haiti now but across the planet.

In her note on their website, www.sunspringwater.com, Carmen notes: “A single donation of $25 will provide drinking water for a family of 5 for a year.” Put that in perspective of an annual donation to the town of Georgetown for drinking water for a year for a family of 1 is $450 — food, or water, for thought.

Erman states that he “got to the point where (he) couldn’t explain how something like this could happen if there’s a powerful and loving God in charge of the world.” That conflict seems to have caused him to lose his faith.

There are innumerable reasons to doubt the existence of God, or at least the God of the Christian-Islamic-Judaic mold, but a cataclysm such as what struck Haiti isn’t one of them.

It comes down to this: We need to separate our mythologies from the practical, observable, predictable and unpredictable world of substance in which we live and take steps to live in balance and harmony with it in a sustainable manner. Until then, get accustomed to the norm of earth-shaking, Katrina-like events.

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