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Natural disasters and God’s self-restraint  

Traditionally, religions offer a God who is omnipotent, all-powerful, almighty, the cosmic sovereign in control of everything.   He/she/it is also said to be all-knowing, omniscient, so he knows not only what he is doing but what everybody and everything else is going to do, and will do, from beginning to end.  This is brave belief of what God is.   But is this the sort of God we observe today?  

It is often thought that modern science and common sense raise doubts.   Would religious leaders be on firmer ground to put more emphasis on what God appears not to do?   

Despite the beauty and wonder in nature, our painful world produces little evidence of a rescuing God who intervenes to stop suffering.  Is that because the God who is believed to be omnipotent, has chosen to be self-restricting, to limit the use of his own power to achieve a greater long-term good that is obtainable only by the surrender of some power and control? 

In John’s gospel, Jesus tells a Samaritan woman that “God is spirit”, 4:24.  I take that to mean God is not a material object in one place, but immaterial, primal Energy everywhere.  Not a being but Being itself, eternally present, before matter existed.   “In the beginning God” used his inexhaustible energy to spark the Big Bang, within the framework of his already conceived laws, finely tuned in their maths.  Sufficient of his energy transformed into matter, the immaterial  giving birth to the material universe.  

Starting from ‘simple’ singularity, matter has been creative, by growing complexity in stellar, chemical and biological developments.  Matter appears to be self-organising and regulating, obeying its own instruction manual.  

To the deist the universe’s apparent independence shows that God, having set the ball rolling, has let go, devolving all power to nature to do as it pleases.  But theists like myself can say that this apparent autonomy cannot prove that there is no hidden Spirit God interacting with, and influencing its progress, especially at key moments of evolutionary history.   

An unbeliever may agree that life is mysteriously wonderful, whereas the believer goes further, in identifying that life force as Mindful God who, having invested in the universe some of his energetic self at the start, would surely want to continue to  have a hand in its future, prefiguring – for the Christian –  a more amazing later investment of himself on solid ground through Jesus.   

The complexity in the natural world that astonishes us today did not appear instantaneously.  Nor could it have been sudden, even for an Almighty Immaterial God. The material process necessarily entailed vast time.  

Genesis reveals not a literal diary of events but metaphorical truths of God’s fundamental role in both initiating and supporting creative processes.  That role appears in Job, the Psalms, and “by faith we understand that the universe was formed by God’s command so that the visible came forth from the invisible”, Heb. 11:3. 

Presumably, the Immaterial Creator of a creative ‘other’  realm 13.7 billion years ago, knew the risks he was taking in launching otherness.   Because the product – our material world – is paradoxical, combining  both regularity and irregularity, either by God’s unrestrained choice, or by necessity if all possible physical universes entail these two ‘opposite’ features.   

At the microscopic level there are some irregular, random processes like radioactive decay, where there is uncertainty about the behaviour of tiny individual particles.   But these unknowns can be averaged out at the macroscopic level, to give greater global reliability.  [Aside from the natural world, the insurance industry  works on similar lines: car insurance is possible because, though actuaries cannot predict when an individual will have an accident, they know statistical probabilities en masse, so it is profitable for their companies to risk taking  on that individual.]  

General weather systems exist side by side with chaotic sudden rainfall in Colombia that killed many in mudslides April 2017 –  suddenness so unlike the regular and predictable movements of the planets.   

DNA has both order and disorder: in the literature it is common to read how successful living organisms resolve their seemingly contradictory make-up,  both randomness in gene expression and structured determinism.

Hence creation includes both the predictable and unpredictable, structure and flexibility.   It is through a dynamic and turbulent universe, on the border of order and disorder, that new things can emerge.  The world’s spontaneity maximises the opportunities for a fruitful diversity.   Not least in plant and animal life where, in general, natural selection is not random luck but beneficial adaptation to the environment, resulting in greater complexity and biodiversity.  

But sometimes particular changes may be random: a radioactive particle emitted in a random decay process can cause a biological mutation which may be harmful or helpful.    Without those biological mutations that were advantageous for survival, new creatures and we humans would not have arrived.  

The gradualism of God’s inventive process of incremental improvement and adaptation, produces not only the successful survival of the fittest, but the failures and waste of trial and error, when some mutations prove to be detrimental, unfortunate dead ends.                   

We might digress into the gradualism of civilisation.  The clock of human progress ticks slowly, usually; only recently have medical and technological advances accelerated.   History is littered with sailors’ bones on rocks, as ship captains sailed without safe knowledge of their longitude.  But despite the British government’s big Longitude Prize, it was not until 1759 that John Harrison, after forty years of clock-making, felt he had ‘perfected’ his winning fourth chronometer.           

Nothing on Earth is perfect and safe from danger, error, and bad luck. Murphy’s Law – a popular version of the second law of thermodynamics indicating increasing disorder and eventual decay – says if a thing can go wrong, it will.  

Genes occasionally fail to copy perfectly; healthy bodies go downhill, by accident, disease or old age; and “the young lions roar for prey and seek their food from God”, Ps 104:21.  Such killing may look cruel to us but it is a necessary food chain, amoral, without moral choice.  Predation was built into the system from the start of complex cells if – as is thought – a single archaeal cell swallowed a single bacterial cell that led eventually to the formation of mitochondria which power the 100 trillion cells in an adult human body.   We can choose to view all such processes as routine natural behaviour and/or the marvel of ‘natural miracles’.                  

Einstein was quoted to say: “There are two ways to live your life.   One is as though nothing is a miracle.   The other is as though everything is a miracle” (Des MacHale: Wisdom, The Mercier Press, Sept. 2002).                                                      

But natural ‘miracles’ are not always welcome – indeed, bittersweet.  There is unavoidable ambiguity of joy and woe.  Glory and grief are the opposite sides of the same rolling coin of dynamic change.  Volcanoes and earthquakes are presumably part of what Genesis says the Creator saw each day as “good”, meaning well intentioned and fit for purpose.

But even God cannot have the good of volcanoes, quakes, and dust storms, without their negative effects, the plus and minus, heads and tails.  A newborn baby can be a joyful natural miracle for the great majority of parents but heartbreaking for relatively few.   

For every thousand healthy children, maybe one will be a natural disaster with a genetic disorder so severe as to be beyond hope of one day of ‘normal’ human life, unable to do  what comes naturally, like walk, talk, think and feed themselves.  

The wonder of new baby rats and fleas might result in spreading the plague.                                                                                                                                                          

Mishaps are unavoidable in the evolutionary process to which God appears to be  committed, in his gift of freedom to every part of his creation package to make itself.  A knowing God could not foresee each precise outcome, nor predict the decay  of each unpredictable particle in the quantum world.   Nor could he constantly intervene to rescue, and to tinker with improvements to the laws of nature and their consequences, without being untrustworthy in his commitment to a largely independent creation package.   

A generally rational and reliable universe and a typically non-intervening God are both necessary to enable scientific, medical and technical progress. 

Suffering is the price of that independence and freedom.  Especially if we include disastrous human errors and evil – which are not my subject here – by farming too close to fertile volcanoes, erecting flimsy buildings in quake zones, or selfishly contributing to climate change.   

So where is God’s sovereignty?  It is one of purposeful love.  A love that, before time began, was willing to surrender some power over something else.  Immaterial God conceived and ‘mothered’ a future ‘solid’ material universe with its own integrity and potentiality to be itself and ‘do its own thing’.   

Human mothers and fathers are not completely different: when they ‘make love’ they show biological power to house another human being.  But that weak baby soon ‘turns the tables’ and becomes wilfully  independent, so parents are forced to learn that true love sets free.  No longer controllers, the best parents can still have influence.   

Jesus wept when his friend Lazarus died, and then acted.  But no Almighty God intervened to stop Roman power, urged by Jewish leaders, from crucifying his own Jesus, or stop him feeling abandoned by his Father.  On the third day he did act, achieving the unthinkable. 

By raising Jesus from the dead, God signalled an unknown future when natural mortality and Murphy’s Law will no longer reign, but all his creatures will be whole and reach all the potential he wishes for them.  His unique victory over death – that continues to encourage and influence lives –  reveals a God in Christ who suffers with the sufferers, knowing their shattered hopes coincide with his own as yet unfulfilled longing for universal wellbeing.  

Today, God’s uncontrolling love still chooses to give sufficient independence to natural processes and their creatures, so that all resultant life forms may, in their own prolific diversity, revel in their environment, and in their own ‘language’ tweet their presence and joy of being alive.  Robotic machined life lacks that spontaneity and its ‘virtues’ would only be what were programmed into it, unlike the virtues that free people choose to practise.  

If God’s good purpose is to create the best possible habitat for all creatures, especially humankind, his natural processes cannot guarantee an outcome that is equitable for all its individual inhabitants.   

Some unfairness, with winners and losers, is the inevitable result.   Might we say that a severely disabled minority are disadvantaged and suffer vicariously to benefit the luckier, relatively healthier majority?  

Faith gives God the benefit of the doubt when his love appears harsh or absent.  It dares to look to an eternal dimension, beyond present space-time, with unending possibilities for the wellbeing of all creatures in God’s mysteriously transformed cosmos.  Therein lies enduring hope.   

This article was published in the Church of England Newspaper, Friday 05 May, 2017  FEATURE


Dr John Morris’s new book is Suffering: if God exists, why doesn’t he stop it? £5.99 in Waterstones.

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