In the Middle of the Tsunami: A Pre-emptive Theodicy

As I sit down to write this, the tsunami has started, but has not ended.  The world is in the middle of the tsunami.  This means that we have no idea, at this point, how destructive the tsunami will be (though it looks to be incredibly destructive, predicted to affect over fifty nations).  But even without knowing the details, we know a few things.

First, with or without a tsunami or other natural disaster, today would be an incredibly destructive day. Infants would (and will) die in NICU, people would (and will) lose their battles with cancer, cars would (and will) wreck, and on and on.

Second, we can reasonably expect an outpouring of world support, as world leaders make a show of contributing to the rebuilding of hard-hit areas, hundreds of thousands of Americans and Europeans make donations through Red Cross, and church youth groups make impromptu mission trips to impacted areas.

And third, we can already imagine the old debate flaring back up.  Skeptics will hold images of the tsunami before us and ask, “How can a good god permit this kind of suffering? this kind of tragedy?”  And some Christians will say that God caused the tsunami, but for reasons best known only to him (probably to punish sinners, though), while others will vehemently disagree and say that God has no choice but to allow such evils, because of a prior commitment to “free will.”

For a number of reasons, I think these lines of defense, whether or not they are inaccurate in themselves, are misguided from the start.  They are playing off our field, so to speak, asking Christians to justify the God of deism.  So without trying to play such explanatory games, I offer this passage from David Bentley Hart’s 2007 reflection on the Indian Ocean tsunami:

To see the world as it should have been, and so to see the true glory of God reflected in it, requires the cultivation of charity, of an eye rendered limpid by love… What Christians should see, then, is not simply one reality: neither the elaborate, benign, elegantly calibrated machine of the deist, smoothly and efficiently accomplishing whatever goods a beneficent  God an intractable potentialities of finitude can produce between them; nor a sacred and divine commerce between life and death; nor certainly “nature” in the modern, mechanistic acceptation of that word.  Rather, the Christian should see two realities at once, one world (as it were) within another: one the world as we all know it, in all its beauty and terror, grandeur and dreariness, delight and anguish; and the other the world in its first and ultimate truth, not simply “nature” but “creation,” an endless sea of glory, radiant with the beauty of God in every part, innocent of all violence. To see in this way is to rejoice and mourn at once, to regard the world as a mirror of infinite beauty, but as glimpsed through the veil of death; it is to see creation in chains, but beautiful as the beginning of days.

To cultivate this way of seeing is to abandon theodical categories.  It is to take seriously the narrative of scripture and not merely the philosophical necessities of “holding a position.”  It is to take seriously (perhaps more seriously than the skeptical interlocutor) the real suffering present in the world.  And it is to recognize that the god the skeptic doubts is not one that Christians worship in the first place.

This is not a theodicy, but (hopefully) a pre-emptive theodicy, or a pre-emption of theodicy.  This is the word before the first word.  Perhaps let us consider this worldview and the charity of our own hearts before we begin the rhetorical arguments for and against a god of logical necessity.


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