The floods in Pakistan are too enormous to comprehend. The equivalent of 85% of the Australian population has been made homeless in just a couple of weeks. The death toll is not yet known. The nation has been turned upside down.
These events made it hard even to take seriously the news reports this week on the ‘floods’ in the Sydney suburbs of Paddington and Carlingford, in which residents lost sports cars and Sex Pistols memorabilia.
There are tragedies, and there are tragedies.
But any kind of tragedy arouses feelings of unfairness, exasperation and human inadequacy: Why me? Who made this happen? Couldn’t someone have stopped it? Isn’t someone in control? Of all tragedy, natural disasters seem the least comprehensible of all.
When such things happen, atheists have a simple response: we are simply witnessing indifferent, impersonal nature at work. The disaster is, as the term suggests, natural; it’s cause and effect, chance and necessity. End of explanation.
But for most human beings, this is an inadequate way of understanding natural disaster. It explains very little. Our sense of sadness, injustice and fury requires something more satisfying than ‘(sh)it happens’. We long for explanation, or a context within which we can place these events, or some hope that it is not mere accident. We look for intention and purpose.
Overflowing rivers of ink are spilled on attempts to ‘justify the ways of God to man’, as Milton described our efforts to explain what goes on in the world by those who believe in a loving and powerful God. Pretty much all of these ‘theodicies’ fail in some significant ways, but they also sometimes succeed in helping us understand aspects of this most perplexing of issues. So here goes.
There are perhaps three ‘non-natural’ ways of looking at disaster such as the Pakistan floods: 1. God did it. 2. Someone evil did it. 3. We don’t know whom to blame, but we know it’s bad.
Explanation 1 finds support in many religions, with God bringing judgement on a wicked world by some form of natural terror. It is an explanation with some satisfaction, except that it condemns the people who are suffering, because it suggests they must have displeased God. Or it suggests that God killed ‘them’ to teach ‘us’ a lesson and call us into line, which brings into question God’s attitude to ‘them’.
Sometimes Christian leaders ‘borrow’ the Great Flood story from Genesis to suggest that one natural disaster or another is a sign of God’s condemnation of a nation or people. I haven’t yet heard anyone making such claims about Pakistan, thank goodness, because it is a wrong-headed way of thinking and a terrible misuse of Scripture. The true parallel with this ancient account of God’s judgement is the account of God’s final judgement, recorded at the other end of the Bible in Revelation, not any particular flood in any part of the world at any particular time in history.
Explanation 2 looks to another agent, whether human wickedness (e.g. the Pakistan floods were caused by human-generated climate change) or an evil spiritual reality (e.g. Satan caused it). This, too, offers some degree of satisfaction, because it locates the agent of suffering, but it also runs the risk of making God look a bit diminished. If God is powerful and good, why couldn’t he intervene and overrule human or devilish wickedness?
Explanation 3 appeals most to me. It involves an anguished cry of the heart; a profound expression of the wrongness of human tragedy. It doesn’t identify the cause, but it does acknowledge the effects of disaster. It says that this state of affairs, where young children drown and grandmothers starve to death in front of their families is deeply, painfully wrong and should not be so. “This shouldn’t happen,” is as far as the explanation reaches.
One recent theological effort to talk about suffering has struck a chord with me. David Bentley Hart, an Eastern Orthodox theologian, wrote a short book following the 2004 Asian tsunami in which he outlined a response to it from a Christian standpoint. In summary, he viewed the whole thing as a terrible waste. A waste of life, a waste of potential, a waste of goodness. He thinks God would see it that way, too. A wicked waste.
This seems to me the best way to think about natural disasters. They are a sign that the world is cursed with waste. Wasted opportunities; wasted potential; wasted lives. Although we can only speculate about the physical, moral or spiritual causes of the Pakistani floods, can we not say with certainty that they are a terrible waste, a wrong and horrendous state of affairs, and something we deeply regret, long to come to an end, and wish to put right whatever the cost?
Unless you believe only in nature, in which case you can only say “it just happened”.
Dr Greg Clarke is a Director of the Centre for Public Christianity
This article first appeared at The Punch under the title 'Blaming God for the Pakistani Floods'.