Big thinkers to study…evil

If you read this blog, you know that I have been somewhat obsessed with digging up religious explanations for natural disasters — big shots of natural evil that devastate the innocent.

I even wrote a book about it.

In recent weeks, I’ve been sorting through religious perspectives on the earthquake in Haiti and now the quake in Chile.

So I was surprised to get a release today from the Templeton Foundation announcing a new, three-year study into the (listen for Orsen Wells’ voice here)…”problem of evil in modern and contemporary thought.”

headerTempleton (providing a $1.7 million grant) is teaming with the Center for Philosophy of Religion at Notre Dame to bring scholars together to hash out some very old, very difficult questions.

We’re talking fellowships, conferences, seminars, publications, public events — the best academia has to offer!

As the project’s website puts it:


The widespread and devastating effects of evils are often all too clear. The questions of how and why such evils exist in a world that, according to many, is created and sustained by a loving and powerful God have been collected under the name “the problem of evil.” In its most general form, the problem of evil concerns the relation between God and the broken world around us. If God is all-powerful and all-loving, whence evil?


A project overview notes that critics of religion often cite “natural evil” like the Haitian quake as proof that “the world is, after all, blind, pitiless, and indifferent.”

Things will start cooking this fall with a conference at Notre Dame (not likely to pull too many fans away from football) on Leibniz’s classic work, Theodicy. It will shape up like this:


Leibniz’s Theodicy: Context and Content, held on the occasion of the 300th anniversary of the publication of Leibniz’s Theodicy aims to explore this seminal work, the only book length treatise published by Leibniz in his lifetime. The conference will explore its contents, its fit within the Leibnizian corpus, its broader historical context, and its subsequent reception and impact. However, unlike typical conferences focused on a publication anniversary, this conference will also explore how the views expressed fit into the larger intellectual landscape of the period, standing as it does at crucial crossroads: the waning of the post-Reformation, the maturing of the Scientific Revolution, the dawning of the Enlightenment, and the maturing (or some might say implosion) of the rationalist philosophical framework introduced in the early seventeenth century. As a result, papers will focus both on Leibniz and the text of the Theodicy as well their relation to these broader themes.

A Salesian’s reflections on Haiti

My colleague Hannan Adely recently wrote about the Salesian Missions office in New Rochelle coordinating the Catholic order’s emergency response efforts in Haiti.

The Salesians have served some 25,000 young people in Port-au-Prince through schools, orphanages, and other programs.

More than 200 children died in one Salesian-run schools. Nine of the order’s buildings were destroyed, including their HQ for Haiti.

tjndc5-5gqfoacbvev1cfl40jg9_layoutThe worldwide leader of the Salesians, Father Pascual Chavez, visited Haiti last week to see the wreckage himself and offer his support (that’s him at the Marian Shrine Don Bosco Retreat Center in Stony Point in 2007). He’s written a letter about the experience, which includes this:


While I listened to the accounts of those who survived, especially those who managed to escape death after hours or days being trapped between floors, ceilings, and walls, and gradually as I looked at the buildings and homes destroyed, I tried to hear the voice of God which, like the blood of Abel, cried out with the voices of the thousands of the dead buried in mass graves or still under the rubble. I tried to listen to God, who was speaking through the dull sound of the thousands of people struggling to live under the tents, those distributed by the international organizations or those made of rags somehow put together. I tried to open my ears and heart to the cry of God, which could be heard in the anger and feelings of powerlessness of those who see everything that they had built up – either great or small – gone up in smoke, into nothing. It is estimated that the number without a roof over their heads is between 300,000 and 500,000.


I’ve been watching out for religious perspectives on the devastation in Haiti — or in Chile or other areas hit by the tsunami. Father Chavez, like many others, tries to hear God with the suffering.

He blames the devastation, though, squarely on human failings:


It is true that an earthquake of 7.5 degrees on the Richter scale produces a shock with a devastating, incalculable force, but it is also true that in this case the destruction and the deaths are even more enormous on account of poverty in every sense of the word. In this situation one cannot rebuild a life worthy of the name, nor even houses which are safer and more resistant in the face of this kind of violent eruption of nature. Therefore the challenge for today cannot be merely to reconstruct the walls of the buildings, the houses, and the churches destroyed, but it is rather to make Haiti rise again, building it on living conditions which really are human, where rights, all rights, are for everyone and not the privilege of some.

The almost total absence of any government leaves the people stunned by the suffering, submerged in anguish and overwhelmed by despair, wandering around the streets without goal or purpose. This constant walking of the people on a pilgrimage in the struggle for life makes quite an impression. But also at church level, the death of the archbishop, the vicar general, the chancellor, 18 seminarians, and 46 religious men and women, with the collapse of houses, schools, and help centers meant a tragic loss of pastors, so extremely necessary for this people.


Chavez also adds this about the response of the Haitian people: “Certainly to be admired is the religious sentiment that leads the Haitian people to gather together in prayer, a sentiment which is now being greatly exploited by the evangelical sects; and in a similar way, one is amazed at the efforts to return to normality when basically everything has changed.”

Still searching for perspectives on the suffering in Haiti

I noted yesterday that several New Orleans Saints were crediting God with their Super Bowl victory — while no Indianapolis Colts (that I’m aware of) said a peep about God favoring the opposition.

The phenomenon of people crediting God when things go right but not mentioning God when things go poorly got me thinking — again — of the religious responses we’ve heard to the suffering in Haiti.

As I’ve written over the past few weeks, numerous religious leaders have contended that God is present with the survivors and the rescue workers and that God expects all of us to help rebuild Haiti with our donations and prayers.

But few religious leaders address the dark and tenuous question (yes, the subject of my book) of where God was when the earthquake struck and thousands of people, young and old, good and bad, got crushed.

I can’t help it. I’m drawn to theodicy — attempts to reconcile God’s presence with the presence of evil.

So I went back and re-read a homily by a Catholic priest that came to my attention. Father Rees Doughty, pastor of St. Ann’s Church in Nyack, addresses the questions at hand quite directly.

I was going to quote a few sections of his homily, but I’ve decided to reprint the whole thing.

In short, he blames Original Sin for humankind’s fractured relationship with Creation. He says that until the created world finds peace in the fulfillment of “Jesus’ Kingdom,” God has rendered himself “helpless.” And he compares this state of helplessness to God’s position when Jesus Christ died on the cross.

Obviously, this is a Christian explanation that may not soothe those of other faiths. But it is an explanation that is worth reading, particularly if you, like me, admire religious leaders who don’t duck the tough ones:


Our helpless God

When the human race suffers any natural disaster as catastrophic as the recent earthquake in Haiti, believers almost by nature turn to God not only in prayer but in bewilderment.  (Even non-believers appear to wonder.  The saying, “There are no atheists in foxholes” comes to mind.)  What was God thinking?  How could He have allowed something like this to happen? Where was He? Continue reading

‘We ask not about the reason for evil and its purpose…’

“We believe God is near to the Haitian people who have endured such terrible loss and devastation.”

This line comes from a new statement about Haiti from the Faith and Public Policy Roundtable, a group of “non-fundamentalist” Catholic, Protestant and Jewish leaders. I got the statement from Fordham, since Father Patrick Ryan, Fordham’s Laurence J. McGinley Professor of Religion and Society, is on the Roundtable steering committee.

The statement, predictably, repudiates claims from some religious readers — i.e., Pat Robertson — that the quake was “divine
punishment of the Haitian people” and a call for “repentance for some aggravating sin.”

The Roundtable, instead, focuses on the goodness of God and humankind’s responsibility for healing and justice:


Human temptation finds the judgment of a vicious God in natural disaster. Contrary to that impulse, people of faith put their hope in a God who loves and worries for humanity. It is up to us: men and women of flesh and blood created in the Divine image, holding in our hands the redemptive power of our human responsibility, to provide direction in reaching for God’s nearness. As Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik wrote regarding the worst of human suffering, ultimately “We ask not about the reason for evil and its purpose, but rather about its rectification and uplifting.”


But what about when people do ask about the reason for the evil — and the earthquake. People do ask.

As I’ve written in the past, when I was working on my book, “Can God Intervene: How Religion Explains Natural Disasters,” I tried to get dozens of religious authorities to address the question of where was God in the tsunami. Not after the tsunami, but during the period when innocent people were drowning or being smashed against the objects of daily life.

It’s among the most difficult of questions, of course.

But it seems that Christopher Hitchens and other non-believers are the only ones who want to try to answer it (other than Pat Robertson).

Does the Roundtable’s statement even begin to address the question of where God was when the tectonic plates began to slip beneath Haiti? Here’s the statement:



Statement on the Crisis in Haiti
January 26, 2010

The earthquake in Haiti has not merely hurled the people of Haiti into
profound pain and loss. It has placed in bold relief the unrelenting plight
endured by the people of this poverty-stricken nation. Such disaster begs a
question of the gravest sort: where is God in Haiti’s desolation and grief?

Continue reading

A sad ending

So I had an article yesterday about the theological questions that inevitably come up when a natural disaster — an “act of God” — causes mind-bending destruction.

tjndc5-5sqlrcib5wx1d1bv2orn_layoutI quoted the Rev. Suzanne Rabb of Hawthorne, a United Methodist minister, whose husband, a Methodist missionary, had just been pulled from the rubble in Haiti after 55 hours of being trapped. I didn’t actually speak to Rabb, but my colleague Dwight Worley did and he shared some of her thoughts with me.

She said: “I believe that God is a loving presence, that God is a creator, not a destroyer. What we always need to remember is that even in the depths of despair and rubble, that God is there. God’s presence never leaves. It’s just that things happen.”

And if her husband had perished?

“I would know that there is a presence of God that will sustain me and that Clint is sustained, too, whatever happened to his soul,” she said.

022_100047_234The United Methodist News Service also wrote about Rabb’s amazing survival.

My article ran in Sunday’s Journal News. Little did I know that Clinton Rabb died from his injuries on Sunday morning at a Florida hospital.

His wife and several of his children were with him.

His stepson Daniel Payne told my colleague Aman Ali: “He had a respirator and he could not speak because his body was paralyzed with sedation medicine. My mom said to him, ‘Clinton, we’re all here and we love you.’ He was able to open his eyes bigger and acknowledge her. As she talked to him, he had tears in his eyes, and she knew he was crying.”

All around the world, people who heard about Clinton Rabb’s ordeal are thinking about him and praying for him today.

Another tragedy, another Pat Robertson puzzler

Pat Robertson’s bizarre ramblings about Haiti don’t deserve much reflection, do they?

And yet, at least 10 people have already asked me today if I heard what he said.


APTOPIX Haiti EarthquakeSo I listened. He said this about the Haitian people:


They were under the heel of the French…They got together and swore a pact to the devil. They said, ‘We will serve you if you will get us free from the French.’ It’s a true story. The devil said ‘Okay, it’s a deal.’ Ever since, they have been cursed one by one thing after another.


So there you go. The devil said “Okay, it’s a deal.” I wonder if they linked pinky fingers.

Anyway, I am reviving the theme from my book, Can God Intervene?, and talking to people about the theological questions raised by the earthquake.

I was hesitant to revisit the most difficult questions raised by an “act of God.” But several colleagues said I ought to since, you know, people keep asking WHY? How could this happen?

My article should be on LoHud/Journal News in a day or two…

(AP Photo/United Nations, Logan Abassi)

Still asking, ‘Why?’

In the end, I did speak to a few clergy from the area where the horrific accident happened on the Taconic.

When I called Rev. Paul Egensteiner, pastor of Emanuel Evangelical Lutheran Church in Pleasantville, I had no idea that he had been at the scene, serving as a fire department chaplain.

He was reluctant to talk about it, but took his best shot during what must have been a very difficult day for him.

He told me that he prayed over each of the victims at the scene.

As I wrote on, he told me: “Being there, there is just no way to make sense of it. You can’t. It was an accident. If the question becomes ‘How could God let this happen,’ I say ‘It happened.’ I prayed with each of the victims. I felt God’s presence with them. That was never a question for me.”

I was also able to reach Rabbi Mark Sameth of Pleasantville Community Synagogue, who told me that “Tragedy is no time for theology.”

He said: “One needn’t – I would go so far as to say, shouldn’t – look for meaning in horrific and violent death. This is when we need to reach out and to comfort, to be, so to speak, God’s presence in the world.”

I also got this comment on my blog from a Rev. Patt Kauffman, who I don’t know but apparently served locally at some point:

“I have been asked also how this could happen; is it God’s will that these lives be taken so tragically?  I confess a God that always loves, and that never desires ill for creation. When I was serving a congregation in Yorktown Heights, I remember the confusing, entrances and exits, the winding and narrow roadway, and the traffic that travelled much too fast that is the Taconic.  In my short tenure, I saw many close calls, and cars off the roadway.  This was an accident bound to happen.

“Our task as people of faith is to assure the survivors of God’s love and mercy, even as they (and we) struggle with the horror and the doubt.  Healing will come, through the work of a loving and caring community of skilled professionals, thoughtful and insightful clergy, and family and friends, all of whom God can and does work.”

Do you have a handle on evil?

Don’t feel so bad.

I just got back from Manhattanville College, where the Westchester Inter-religious Clergy Network was talking about evil.

And they don’t get it either.

Not that they weren’t trying. Thirteen rabbis, ministers and priests talked about their religious upbringings and what they were told about the existence of evil. In most cases, it amounted to “not much.”

So they learned about evil the way we all do – by encountering it, mostly in small doses, and by watching evil run amok in history books and on the evening news.

There was a lot of talk about how goodness or evil can be “contagious” within a person’s character or within a community, and about the responsibility that people have to promote the spread of goodness and to discourage, when possible, the spread of badness.

Did God create evil? Why did God do so? Does God have the full and complete power to stop evil?

All complicated questions that the clergy tossed about and analyzed, often without a clear conclusion.

So if you don’t have a handle on evil in the world — what causes it; what to do about it — don’t feel so bad.

Even people who spend their lives trying to make sense of our lives struggle to come to terms with the great darkness.


I’ll write more about this, maybe in Saturday’s FaithBeat column.