Why does God per­mit nat­u­ral dis­as­ters?

Starkville Daily News - - FORUM -

Like many

Amer­i­cans dur­ing the past three weeks, I’ve been bom­barded by news about the de­struc­tive power of Hur­ri­cane Har­vey in Texas and

Hur­ri­cane Irma in

Florida. The sto­ries are of mis­ery, death and de­struc­tion.

The mis­ery, death and de­struc­tion are acutely dif­fi­cult to ac­cept be­cause they have been vis­ited upon in­no­cents. I say that knowl­edge­able of the an­cient ar­gu­ment that our per­sonal and col­lec­tive sin­ful­ness has mer­ited our pain. Yet that raises this ques­tion: Does any­one re­ally de­serve per­sonal ru­ina­tion be­cause of per­sonal sin, par­tic­u­larly from a God whose Son said he came to call sin­ners and not the just?

Stated dif­fer­ently, why does an al­l­know­ing, all-lov­ing, all-pow­er­ful God per­mit in­no­cents to suf­fer in nat­u­ral dis­as­ters?

This ques­tion has oc­cu­pied philoso­phers for mil­len­nia. The nat­u­ral or­der of things has re­vealed that we all have free will, and we know from our ex­pe­ri­ences that we can eas­ily abuse that free will. The in­di­vid­ual will is so free that we can use it to do mag­nif­i­cent things or hor­rific things.

But a nat­u­ral dis­as­ter is not the hand­i­work of any­one’s free will. Could it re­ally be the hand­i­work of an an­gry God im­pa­tient with the man­ner in which we have abused free will? This ar­gu­ment is not a log­i­cal ex­ten­sion of Chris­tian teach­ing, un­less God is ter­ri­bly in­con­sis­tent with His im­pa­tience over hu­man fail­ures and er­rors and has some­how over­looked and not yet grown im­pa­tient with the world’s worst mon­sters.

Why the nat­u­ral dis­as­ters? We know from the ex­er­cise of our rea­son that the cur­va­ture of the Earth and its con­tin­u­ous move­ment through space set in mo­tion a se­ries of forces. Th­ese forces pro­tect the Earth and its in­hab­i­tants from the harm­ful rays of the sun and per­mit the in­tru­sion of the ben­e­fi­cial rays. All this comes at a price. The move­ment of the Earth ac­tu­ally pro­duces fric­tion, and that fric­tion in turn ig­nites en­ergy, and that en­ergy of­ten is drawn by the Earth’s grav­ity and finds an out­let in de­struc­tive forces on the planet.

Though th­ese forces — the linch­pin of which is the Earth’s grav­ity — can be avoided through the ex­er­cise of cre­ative rea­son (we can build shel­ters from them), they are of­ten, as with Har­vey and Irma, be­yond our abil­ity to har­ness or con­trol. All this is a thumb­nail sketch of ba­sic astro­physics, largely ac­quired through hu­man rea­son and be­yond se­ri­ous dis­pute.

But the dis­putable philo­soph­i­cal ques­tions re­main. What force set all this in mo­tion? What caused the big bang in the first place? What caused the Earth’s grav­ity? What tipped over the first domino that bil­lions of years later trig­gered the ex­plo­sions of en­ergy that even­tu­ally be­came Har­vey and Irma?

We know from rea­son that ev­ery ef­fect had a cause. You plant grass seed and wa­ter it and the ef­fect is blades of grass. The cause was the in­ter­ac­tion of the seeds and earth and rain and sun brought to­gether by the free will of the per­son who did the plant­ing. There are in­fi­nite ex­am­ples of this. Yet is there any cause that was un­caused? Yes. That is the all-know­ing, all-pow­er­ful, al­llov­ing un­caused cause, whom most of us call God the Fa­ther.

Now back to the ques­tion posed ear­lier. If God the Fa­ther cre­ated us and loves us, why does He per­mit nat­u­ral forces that He set in mo­tion to harm and even to de­vour us? A sim­i­lar ques­tion was ac­tu­ally ad­dressed by our Lord Him­self when he was ap­proached by bib­li­cal schol­ars who asked about a young man who was blind from birth. The ques­tion they put to Je­sus was: Whose sin­ning caused this man to be born blind? Was it the man him­self or his par­ents?

The ques­tion may have been an at­tempted trap. Yet Je­sus an­swered by say­ing es­sen­tially that no one’s sins caused the blind­ness. Rather, he was born blind so that the works of God could be made man­i­fest in him. In other words, he was born blind so that Je­sus could cure his blind­ness pub­licly — as he did — and thereby en­hance the faith and un­der­stand­ing of all who learned of this and be­lieved it.

Of course, not all who learned of the cure of the blind man be­lieved in Je­sus’ di­vin­ity. Some thought he was a char­la­tan per­form­ing tricks, and some thought the young man was never re­ally blind. Their skep­ti­cism and doubts caused G.K. Ch­ester­ton to re­mark that “the Chris­tian ideal has not been tried and found want­ing. It has been found dif­fi­cult; and left un­tried.”

Ch­ester­ton rec­og­nized that we are free to be­lieve or to re­ject be­lief. To those who be­lieve in the all-lov­ing God, we know that from time to time, He man­i­fests Him­self to give us a need to em­brace Him, just as He

did with the man born blind. That em­brace is the test of faith. It was man­i­fested in count­less un­seen

acts of gen­eros­ity and self­less­ness — from be­liev­ing stranger to be­liev­ing stranger — in Texas and in Florida.

I can hear the prayer of the faith­ful in pain. “O Lord, I prayed

that the hur­ri­cane would not de­stroy my home, yet it did. I still love you, Lord, be­cause my fam­ily was spared. I love you more now be­cause I need you more now. I don’t re­ject the truth. I em­brace it, no mat­ter

the cost — be­cause the truth will keep my free will set upon you.”

As pope, St. John Paul II called this ra­tio­nal be­lief. It is the essence of un­der­stand­ing. It is faith tem­pered by hu­man rea­son and hu­man rea­son in­formed

by faith. Faith with­out rea­son and rea­son with­out faith lead to fa­nati­cism. Only their in­formed jux­ta­po­si­tion will guide our free wills to do the right things and to have un­der­stand­ing when bad things hap­pen.

JUDGE AN­DREW P. NAPOLI­TANO SYN­DI­CATED COLUMNIST

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