The Acts of God? The Relationship between God and Nature:
Could Nature be Evil? Would God Create Suffering?
A Response to Pat Robertson and An Expanded Spiritual
Understanding of The Interdependent Impact of
Religion and Culture on Nature
The Rev. Peter E. Lanzillotta, Ph.D.
Hurricanes, tornadoes, volcanic eruptions, famines, floods, ice and frigid cold, and last week’s large earthquake in Haiti are among the most devastating natural events any person or nation has to endure. It seems as if “Nature in all her fury” has been unleashed on a hapless humanity, and you can hear pious and vengeful people desperately proclaim, “This must be the wrath of God!”
Natural disasters like this recent one, in which many people die, pose certain, tough theological questions and concerns for us. In our desperation, We ask: Are these the acts of a loving God? Could these catastrophes be some cruel punishment? Can Nature be evil?
Each person and each religious tradition has had to wrestle with these questions. Each has had to work out answers for what could cause these events to occur, and each person is compelled to ponder whether or not evil exists in the natural realm, in our world, and what, if anything, we can do about it.
My own personal and spiritual beliefs about this topic are not the common way most mainline Christians think or accept. It is closer to an Eastern spiritual outlook, closer to a Vedantic approach or more aligned to a Buddhist perspective. My conclusion maintains that evil can never originate in nature, but that label of human projections of evil owes its existence to human perceptions, ignorance, arrogance, and greed.
These various and pernicious pronouncements coming from harsh evangelical attitudes, are tragically and uncritically accepted by a poisonous accretion of culturally reinforced, skewed moral and religious outlooks.
Commonly, we hear people attest to the belief that natural disasters are “Acts of God”. This popular term might be adequate as a catch all escape clause or dubious insurance category that excludes your home from coverage. The “Acts of God” referred to in insurance policies are exemptions from coverage because there are certain kinds of events are seen as being beyond human control, therefore, beyond corporate claims of liability. However, it is quite insufficient for any mature theological evaluation.
In contrast, a more ecologically sensitive theology looks at these acts as stresses and physical outcomes of natural phenomena, as a part of God’s world- a natural world that includes within it patterns and designs, our need for adaptability to nature, and our recognition of the need for humility and responsibility for all that happens on the face of the earth. Religious teachings, when compassionately and scientifically understood, ask us to practice the humility needed to accept and respond as best we can to what we can control, and to take responsibility for lessening risks and providing for adequate safety. It is up to the religious leaders and their interpretations that brand a particular naturally occurring events as being good or evil to cease from delivering those uninformed moral judgments that speak of blessing and cursing, as if human actions could alter the natural patterns of weather, climate, and geological realities. Instead, these clergy can rightly encourage positive attitudes, negate prejudices, increase our respect for natural environment and teach in the ways that dispel our cultural and religious fears about nature, and the estrangement from nature that was prominently taught in prescientific versions of God and nature.
The idea that these admittedly terrible disasters are the acts of a vengeful, capricious God directly implies that we still believe in an Old Testament deity; an anthropocentric Lord, who acts like a critical, vengeful father. Such a God willfully inflicts abuse and divine wrath on an erring and sinful people. Nature then is seen as in conflict with humanity and therefore how nature is understood becomes an instrument of God’s pleasure or punishment!
A belief in an all omnipotent and omniscient paternal God has its roots, as I understand them, in the necessity to explain what science had not yet revealed, and when this power is considered psychologically, the whole concept of a powerful, vengeful God is a necessary belief until humanity as a whole matures and evolves in its beliefs and understanding. The necessity of having a God in control, or that doles out punishment through nature remains a useful concept only as long as we humans continue to act as if life doesn’t matter, and that all our rewards are to be found in heaven or in our next lives. If we truly practiced what all the great world faith advise- a universal human compassion- an outlook that, for example, takes socioeconomic justice as a foundational virtue. Until humankind chooses to develop a society and an economy that works valiantly against the human sin of greed, self, political power mongering, and other behaviors, we will need a scapegoat God that addresses the imbalances in human nature as punishment doled out for our sins, social imbalances, and our ignorance.
This archaic prescientific idea of deity, then, is depicted as a severe justice-maker who directs and designs a destructive, cleansing process through disasters and natural upheavals. This outlook makes purely natural events into God’s revenge or the righteous outcome of our human disobedience. Whether or not you agree, this attempt to discern the meaning of such natural phenomena is noble, at least on the surface- its motives are to try to teach how God corrects humanity, balance the divine scales of justice, and set the world straight. Yet, since we have had disasters since the time of Noah, we could rightly ask, when is humanity ever going to learn? And furthermore, these disasters occur with equal frequency among all the nations and peoples, all the beliefs and faiths around the world, so being a Christian is no better answer to avoiding the suffering that can occur. (a case could be made that it is happening MORE in Christian societies, or is it that its happening more in countries that consider themselves to be Christian, but, in reality are far from it?)
Whatever re-balancing the human ego or the modern society needs, it does not originate in the intelligence found in the natural world order; indeed, while it may be reflected symbolically in the various physical conditions and circumstances we encounter, like a mirror image. I am willing to speculate that human beings can create certain kinds of climates around them by their accumulated actions; whether that refers to emotional coldness or referring to the hazards of sanitation and pollution that change our atmosphere and create disturbances in , on, or above the earth.
Since many of our leading scientists such as Rupert Sheldrake consider the Gaia Hypothesis as viable, that the Earth as one whole, living, interdependent organism, that there is only one life balanced and shared between us, this approach can be worthy of serious consideration.
What is known is that the objective rules of the Cosmos, the laws of Nature, know nothing of divine punishment inflicted on humans. They act and respond to one another according to homeostasis-the desire for all things to achieve balance, harmony and grace. What a human being makes of how weather, storms, and eruptions etc.,affect them, is our personal and cultural concern, not nature’s intent to inflict some lesson.
I believe the ultimate source of the physical world is found in the spiritual or the metaphysical-just as Genesis states it: “God created the heavens and the earth….” This creation is not capricious, or whimsical, there is a reason and an order behind it, the wisdom and the Spirit of God. This creation of heaven and earth is based on impartial, divine, objective laws that govern the physics of mass, friction, motion and density and so forth…. As humanity learns about these scientific laws, and then abides by them, respecting their operation and outcomes, then we can build and coexist within its harmony. Another way of putting it is this: There are Holy Laws that govern all creation and existence. Our human task to find out how these laws function, and build our lives and our world in full accord with them.
What about the question, Is Nature or can Nature be evil? In the first priestly (P) Genesis account of the Creation, at its culmination, after all has be manifested and the world created, God pronounced all that God had made as being very good. (1:31) not just all right and acceptable but good, VERY GOOD! There is no mention of nature as being created evil, or that is to be used and abused in some inferior way.
The natural world is perfect, and complete unto itself. Only humanity arrogant actions and ongoing disrespect can upset its balance or disrupt its process of generation and change, its natural rhythms and cycles of life and death, decay and rebuilding. Thus, nature is not wicked, bad, corrupt or evil, nor does the world stand apart from the Creator God who made it.
God, then, is not a removed force and a distant entity as taught by classical Theism, but God is a panentheistic reality-a spiritual presence that is in the world, in creation, and is also before it, above it, and beyond it.
If God created the world and all that is in it as good, where did evil come from? Evil is not divinely authored, it is not original nor is it a part of the Creation story. Neither is evil equal to, or co-existent with God, thereby being an immortal force that is also eternal. To assert that physical matter has within it, some inherent good or evil, or that matter has a moral bias or basis within it, would be to claim that morality as we know it, is present in every cell or clod, that the apple knows that it is intrinctally good and the worm knows that it is evil in some way.
Instead, it seems to be to be more valid to state that the evaluation of anything as being good or evil rests within human thinking, religious theories, and not in clusters of particles or swirling electrons. Nature’s rules and laws exist and function totally outside human whim or control, and beyond the pious projections that would blame cultural conditions on some force that is beyond human responsibility or control. My conviction is that the laws of the natural order rest on divine principles, and therefore are oblivious to any human labeling as good or evil, just as nature operates according to its laws and totally disregards the human differences called race, class, economics, or convenience! However, we can and we do influence the patterns and responses of nature by how we conduct our civilization, and by how we create energy, use energy and how we treat the natural resources we have all around us.
Evil can be seen as the result of distorted intention and misdirected moral energy, that is created by selfish human beliefs and sustained through ignorance, greed, and fear. We get the climate or environment we deserve!
Because a certain group of humans, on one, small, peculiar sport on the earth, in a small, solar system lit by a substandard runt of a sun/star, in a fringe galaxy, among millions of celestial and orbiting bodies in the entire universe, … Just because this small group of humans finds that the workings of those cosmic laws involved them in shifts, changes, storms, and other events of nature, and that those humans then decide that these changes are inhospitable, unfortunate, even disastrous, does not automatically make nature an evil, a villainous force, or some despicable adversary.
Over the centuries of our human existence, which is a mere blip in geological time, the progressions of human culture have commonly, and I believe falsely concluded, that various geological, meteorological and celestial events should be labeled as good or bad. This is a cosmic joke; for we religious humans have classified Nature in a cruel, arbitrary, and selfish way. The same rainstorm that wipes out the corn crop in one nation, then crosses latitude and longitude to become the life saving moisture in the next country.
To summarize Jesus: “It’s not fair, but the fact is the rain falls equally upon the just and the unjust”- not as punishment or reward, not as censure or gifts, but because it exists. We are the ones who decide whether or not these events and phenomena are good or evil; and like it or not, we have decided to make negative conclusions on the basis of fear, ignorance, and superstition rather than on the basis of science, and metaphysics.
But, looking back on recent occurances, you might exclaim, what about all the recent Midwest floods, Florida hurricanes, and earthquakes in California, not to exclude the Tsnami of 2006, or the most recent devastion in Haiti? Events where hundreds, even thousands of people die, and millions in property can be destroyed. Are not these kinds of misery and the horror of such occurrences sufficient to be called ‘ God’s curse or Nature’s death blows?” No; its not. Cursing or blessing is only an accurate assessment of the relative human value you place on the experience-depending on your personal involvement or investment-your particular risk.
It is neither good theology or objective science. What matters for most humans is the consequences of the natural events and how those events and experiences affect their lives, safety and security… Some things, like the eruption of Mt. St. Helen’s was considered disastrous for those who owned the forests, lumber mills, and building stocks. However, in the same state, for the apple growers, it was quite a beneficial boon. You see, the eruption effectively eradicated a severe locust infestation, and the ash from the explosion was an excellent fungicide, and a terrific fertilizer that created a bumper, quality crop! Now, it is wonderful to report, that new growth and animal life have returned and the cycle of life is renewing itself. Its all a matter of perception and judgment that determines how you see a natural event as good or evil.
Life, nature, and even the human body and the laws that govern every part, are continually trying to achieve balance or homeostasis. Equilibrium is the dynamic, ever active goal. It matters little to the vast universe if we measure this principle in barometric isobars, seismic Richter’s scales, or in factors of disease resistance. However humanity wants to measure the effects of the natural world ‘s attempts at achieving balance, whatever we want to call it, and however we choose to understand, it is only a human and cultural concern, with its particular consequences for each person and for the society they participate in or culture to which they belong. For example, if someone chooses to live along an active fault line, in a flood plain, on the side of a volcano that’s their choice… their risk, and their problem! (As a child, I lived on the highest point in my town; we had to have a special lightening rod installed on our roof to protect us… we were hit every few years, but our precautions made us safe… When I lived in Marshfield, MA, I was required by deed and by law to own flood insurance; I needed it only once in eight years-during the great Blizzard, and then I really needed it! As a scholarly professor of mine once put the risks of life , ” We all have free will, “Ya pays ya money, and ya takes ya pick!”)
At, first, my approach might seem cold and cavalier-it might offend your sense of empathy and caring about others, and what happens to them when a natural calamity hits… Let me assure you that compassion for the human dimension is not abandoned or dismissed. Of course I want to see the Red Cross and disaster relief being given, but I do not think that people who are living in a precarious place (particularly if they have the economic means to live elsewhere) should be given a blank check in economic and ecological responsibility particularly if they choose to rebuild to remain living in a danger or high risk zone, nor should insurance companies unduly be allowed to refuse coverage for people who are willing to pay for the additional risk premium.
I feel deeply for the pain experienced by people in those afflicted places around the world- and I cannot help but reflect on the fact that except for a certain twist and turn of events in my life, I would be living near LA, the minister of a church in the California that wouldbe right in the middle of the forest fire and quake zone! If disater struck me, would I arrogantly rebuild or would callously blame nature, when the real cause of the calamity might have been humans literally playing with fire?
To return to theology, the question remains how, if you believe in an all loving God, would such a God permit or allow such death, grief, and destruction? I can only begin to answer that question because Theodicy or the problem of evil is the hardest question in all religion and theology to answer. My attempt at a satisfactory reply has to be found in the concepts of free will, ignorance, and human self-interest. Only though greater education, through greater spiritual and community responsibility can systemic approach to ethics and corporate responsibility be applied, and with that awareness, the impact of human choices can be better understood.
Because God made us upright and free, we are also given dominion over the natural world by way of our reason and our compassion. Dominion, however, is not domination. All too often, the anthropocentric religious view places humanity in control, whereas the accurate translation of this Genesis charge is to place humanity in cooperation, so that we wisely and fairly govern the use of the land, water and sky resources and living conditions. Only when we realize our human part in preserving balance and harmony can many of these disasters be diminished, and when they do happen, to respond to them openly, that is, without blaming God, or believing in curses.
Regrettably, the modern world and its decision-makers are still fast asleep. Ignorance still prevails in poor land management, in bad city planning, and inadequate storm protection systems. Much of the disaster can be traced to faulty architecture, and other tragic oversights. As a part of a Newsweek magazine article puts it: “Terrifying as they are, earthquakes kill and injure people mainly because buildings fall on them; an earthquake at its bottom, is a man-made disaster.” (Japanese E-zone building codes, designs etc. vs. LA.)
As it states many places and in many Scriptures, God, through these laws of action and opposite reactions, cannot be mocked. Whether you are aware of these homeostatic self balancing laws governing health, agriculture, energy, or shifts in the earth’s crust is secondary- they are ever active, and it is up to us to align our lives in accord with the lessons they teach. If the principle of balance and self-correction is operating, then it is up to humanity to learn from its insights and blessings, and also to cope as best we can with its tragedies and terrors…
God, as I understand and as I believe in its divine reality, is dynamically natural and compassionately neutral. God has infused this world with an wise and meaningful design that often transcends our human awareness, and that often successfully defies any attempt to completely and logically categorize God’s will or divine actions into some neatly codified religion or dogma.
However, it is in the very holy paradox that is God- found on one hand in the awe-inspiring grandeur of nature and the transcendent beauty we can find, and on the other hand, there is the intimacy, comfort and solace we receive from intuitive affirmations, prayers, and other assurances that also attests to the importance of believing in the reality of God, cannot be reduced or diminished because we cannot fit God into some neat and tidy scientific theorem, or dogmatic creed.
Putting it as plainly as I can, it is ignorance of human safety, and the unwillingness to provide for proper education and environmental preventions, becomes and will sustain our greatest human tragedies, whether it concerns health care, AIDS, violence to our children, or volcanoes.
Spiritually understood, we have been created capable, reasonable by God, and we can aspire to work, to build and to live harmoniously with nature, respecting its natural rhythms and laws. My hope is that out of each natural disturbance, we will increasingly learn how to respond by changing policies, establish better safety codes, more efficient travel, and ways that honor the earth and create better cooperative structure for human society. As awareness of our stewardship of nature increases, responsibility for our behavior increases. As the advancement of society continues, the creation of safe, healthy living standards, working environments, will be more readily established, so that we , too, correspond to natural laws, and will dispel arrogance and selfishness concerning nature and our blessed natural world.
Most of us here willingly acknowledge that we make choices where we will live, and we make provisions for our choices as best we can. Each of us has admitted that no life situation is completely without risk, completely safe, nor can we remain safe and healthy without some cooperation from our families, friends, and neighborhoods. It makes sense, environmentally and
personally, to live according to our possibilities and up to our responsibilities. Disasters, especially the parts that are directly contributed to by human err and ignorance can be lessened. If we remain stubborn or unaware of what needs to be changed or provided for, we will remain more prone to calamities and travesty.
I believe that each person, neighborhood and country has to first work concertedly to overcome denial and convenience, and pay more attention to the choices we face, the choices we have to make.
My answer to this question is not a callous one, just a realistic one. I am concerned our egotistic propensities will keep us from working effectively together to eliminate any and all suffering that is avoidable. I remain hopeful that either through suffering or disillusionment with religious teachings that separate us from nature, that we will willingly abandon them in favor of through compassion, knowledge and meaningful change.
Here is my foundational premise: That a God worth knowing is one that is worth listening to, as a presence in our lives that offers us guidance and wisdom. As a presence, it functions best as a source for compassionate initiatives, ethical interactions, wise counsel, and that fosters both discretion and discernment when faced with the results and actions of the natural laws, cosmic energies, dynamic tensions, and all the undulating and awesome rhythms of life on earth.
Concerning nature, it cannot be evil; for these acts of God are the manifestations of a natural, supernal grace- a grace, a gift, but these gifts do not offer an escape clause for human and personal accountability. God and nature are good. God’s laws serve us easily and well. As we learn to abide by them respect them, harmony reigns. The earth and it environs will always be in a state of change and response to change. Changes, for human beings always contain risks; and possible dangers seek solutions and the best options have to be provided for and chosen.
In God’s world, evil has no place, and with positive human caring and compassion, we can enjoy a life that is relatively free of natural disasters. We have been given dominion, which is the privilege of living interdependently with all of nature. It is in the force of our reason and by our choice to live unselfishly that we will set envionmental standards that will sustain life for all citizens and all creatures. In God’s world, evil has no power, if positive human caring prevents it from occurring. As we claim our awareness and our responsibility, as we develop wisdom and empower greater preventative measures, our world will become as God created it: harmonious and good.
As I see it and believe it, my life bears witness to the reality of an Incarnational God, a power and a presence that infused in all nature, and present within each person and that is active and dynamic in everyone of us.
As it pertains to coping with disasters and tragedies, whenever I find the presence of an energy, a consciousness, a caring that is beyond the norm or the expected, for me, God is there. In this regard, Altruism, for me, is the most convincing quality of God’s presence in humanity. I state this as a part of my personal faith. And I say this in full admission that it can be convincingly argued that humankind has an innate secular, philosophical, and unconditional regard for one another that doesn’t necessitate a belief in a God to be active or realized. But I prefer to see unconditional, altruistic love as the apotheosis of humanity- our Godlike qualities revealed and expressed; that we, as responsible, caring human beings act as if we understand that we were, according to many Scriptures, born in the image and likeness of the Divine, and it is through acts of compassion and altruism that image becomes polished, and is seen in its clearest reflection….
Now I know, that such an Incarnational Theology may seem strange or unrealistic for many of you… After all, there is ample evidence of human cruelty, selfishness, and disregard for nature and much of the rest of humanity… It is easy then to see how some religions have championed the belief in sin, punishment and damnation for our human vices, and have cried out in dismay at our regular penchant for acting so demeaning, and exploitatively toward one another…
I prefer to agree with the formative Unitarian theologian, Theodore Parker, when he said that he believed, that despite whatever evidence to the contrary we might put forth, that the universe, through God, is bent toward justice, and as the tradition of the mystical church East and West has always held: Ubi Caritus, Deus Ubi Est: Wherever there is love, there is God.
So then, where is God to be found in the midst of human suffering, wide spread destruction, and tragic, sudden death? My answer: Very nearby!
God, as the heartfelt impulse and compassionate, responsive relational presence of universal good is found in all that we can offer to one another: God is found in every spoonful of milk, every crust of bread, every live saving medical supply, every piece of lumber that rebuilds homes; God is found in every hug, every sigh of empathy, every tear of empathy, every prayer of hope and promise of condolence we genuinely feel or can give…
As last words, God is found in the quality and depth of our caring; and it is sustained as belief and reality in every way that honors, respects, protects, and loves our sisters and brothers… We are children of one great love-we are all kin, in the family of God. AMEN
Benediction: Psalm 24: Eccleisastes 9
Who then, are of God? Those whose strength is in their compassion, and those who let God’s love shine through their hearts and hands….
Eccleisastes 9: [” Since the same fate befalls us all, the evil and the good, the pious and the profane.. For the race does not belong to the swift, nor battle to the strong, nor riches to the brightest, but time and chance happen to us all.”] Therefore, be wise, be loving, be unselfish- live well, work well, and care for one another. So Be It!