New York Times: Haiti and theodicy

January 24, 2010 • 7:07 pm

An op-ed in today’s New York Times by, of all people, our old friend James Wood,  discusses the problems with using natural disasters as a springboard for ruminating about God’s nature.  It’s pretty sensible, even flirting with atheism:

Terrible catastrophes inevitably encourage appeals to God. We who are, at present, unfairly luckier, whether believers or not, might reflect on the almost invariably uncharitable history of theodicy, and on the reality that in this context no invocation of God beyond a desperate appeal for help makes much theological sense. For either God is punitive and interventionist (the Robertson view), or as capricious as nature and so absent as to be effectively nonexistent (the Obama view). Unfortunately, the Bible, which frequently uses God’s power over earth and seas as the sign of his majesty and intervening power, supports the first view; and the history of humanity’s lonely suffering decisively suggests the second.

One plaint:  why does Wood think that an appeal to God makes “theological sense” if He is so uncaring/malevolent to allow an earthquake to occur in the first place? (Note that earlier in the piece he also says that “The only people who would seem to have the right to invoke God at the moment are the Haitians themselves, who beseech his help amidst dreadful pain.”)

18 thoughts on “New York Times: Haiti and theodicy

  1. It appears to me that Wood is saying that the Haitians have the right to respond in any manner that it seems fit to them. IOW, it would be cruel to tell them not to take comfort in “God” or religion if they may do so–and they are largely a religious

    I would not fault his saying so at all.

    Glen Davidson

  2. “why does Wood think that an appeal to God makes “theological sense””

    That’s easy. When you talk nonsense you can claim that anything makes sense in your nonsense world. Just look at just about any Calvin and Hobbes strip – and especially the Calvin Ball ones. It’s all very sensible once you accept the nonsense.

  3. To sum up this elevated specimen of NYT ruminations:
    “Either there is a God, or there isn’t; available evidence sustaining the second view.
    Anyhow, I feel your pain.”

    As one inspired commentator over at xkcd noted:
    “There was a second gunman on the grassy knoll, but he missed.”

    Let us hope that the success of the much-prophesied Apple tablet (aka iMessiah) is not predicated upon its use as a platform for NYT e-subscriptions: op-ed pieces of this calibre would sink it.

  4. For either God is punitive and interventionist (the Robertson view)

    There is no problem of theodicy… The answer is in the Bible… but Robertson certainly is a babbling idiot.

    Isaiah 45:6—7

    “I am the Lord, and there is none else. I form the light, and create darkness: I make peace and create evil: I the Lord do all these things.”

  5. Am I reading this wrong? In the section you quoted he says “in this context no invocation of God beyond a desperate appeal for help makes much theological sense.”

    It’s late and I haven’t read the whole thing, but I think you’re blasting him for something he didn’t say.

    1. I wouldn’t say Jerry’s blasting him. I read it that he is simply wondering why Woods thinks it is theologically sensible to appeal to God for help, given that he’s such an uncaring asshole.

  6. The words “beyond a desperate appeal for help” are there to soften it, I guess. I don’t think they were necessary, and the sentence (and the piece as a whole) would be stronger without them, but I can’t seriously blame him for that one bit of hedging. Really, this is a very good piece when you read the whole thing. There are some nice little insights there, and apart from the words quoted above it’s pretty uncompromising.

  7. I think the appeal to a God after the fact makes *less* theological sense than Robertson’s view. At least Robertson is self-consistent in his view of God. I mean, the facts seem to be consistent with a capricious and feckless deity. Its only the all-good crowd that struggle.

    I blogged about this yesterday: – If we were talking about a person here, we’d have no compulsion with calling out their sociopathy. For some reason vague notions of a deity get a free pass on the morality stakes.

  8. @mk: Yeah, I was using “blasting” in a very loose, casual-blog-comment-speak, sense here. And you’re probably right about Jerry’s meaning too.

    @Russell: I agree that it would have read better without “beyond…help.” And it is strange that he tacked that on at the end of such an “uncompromising” piece. Probably hedging as you say.

  9. Jerry asks:

    One plaint: why does Wood think that an appeal to God makes “theological sense” if He is so uncaring/malevolent to allow an earthquake to occur in the first place?

    I can see this making sense from one point of view. Imagine a shopkeeper who has just been approached by the Mob for protection money. His neighbour has just had his shop torched. Does he pay up? Of course he does.

    In the theological world, God smites Haiti and kills 200,000 people. All the survivors, and people in all the countries nearby, step up their prayers in the hope that God won’t smite them too. God, as we know, adores to be adored, praised, grovelled to, begged at, and above all feared. He basks in the energy of all the fervent supplication underlain with abject terror, even as He plans His next smiting.

    (And yes, there was a Star Trek original series episode that featured an energy-creature with motives and methods much like this God seems to exhibit.)

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