Faith & Reason: If God is the creator, He is not necessarily the governor

Just as the clock works without the intervention of the clockmaker, so the tsunami disaster need not have been an act of God

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It was a Talmudic rabbi who said, "I speak that I might find relief." If I return to the subject of the tsunami disaster, it is because a natural tragedy of this magnitude leaves us groping for words and searching inadequately for answers. Unusually for our secular age, people have been couching their questions in theological terms. The newspapers have wheeled out all the usual suspects, headed, inevitably, by Professor Richard Dawkins, to ask how a loving God can permit such terrible things to happen. Even the Archbishop of Canterbury, whom one might assume would offer a robust defence of traditional faith, was sufficiently opaque in his reply to invite the headline that the disaster had caused him to question God's existence.

It was a Talmudic rabbi who said, "I speak that I might find relief." If I return to the subject of the tsunami disaster, it is because a natural tragedy of this magnitude leaves us groping for words and searching inadequately for answers. Unusually for our secular age, people have been couching their questions in theological terms. The newspapers have wheeled out all the usual suspects, headed, inevitably, by Professor Richard Dawkins, to ask how a loving God can permit such terrible things to happen. Even the Archbishop of Canterbury, whom one might assume would offer a robust defence of traditional faith, was sufficiently opaque in his reply to invite the headline that the disaster had caused him to question God's existence.

Most of the columnists I read concluded triumphantly that the tsunami "proves" God does not exist, as though never before had belief been tested by the myriad examples in history of human evil or Nature red in tooth and claw. In my admittedly selective choice of newspaper reading, only three writers made mention of the Lisbon disaster of 250 years ago, when an earthquake, followed by a tidal wave, caused the deaths of up to 20,000 inhabitants. As a consequence, Voltaire wrote Candide, with its satirical demolition of the Panglossian view that "all is for the best in the best of all possible worlds', and the scale of the tragedy provided ammunition for the Enlightenment philosophes in their advocacy of Reason against dogmatic faith.

The problem for a modern would-be believer is the unambiguous manner in which God's attributes are enumerated and affirmed in our ancient, sacred texts. It is a rare theologian, even nowadays, who flatly rejects the postulates of revealed scripture and the powers ascribed therein to God. For the monotheistic faiths of Judaism and Christianity (and Islam), God is the Creator of the world and the guiding force behind the universe in its entirety. Whatever happens in this world happens by God's will. "Does evil befall a city, unless the Lord has done it?" asks the prophet Amos. Unlimited by time and space, transcendent and immanent, it is God who, in the words of Isaiah, forms light and creates darkness, makes peace and creates evil. Given such an uncompromising assertion of divine omnipotence, Judaism, Christianity and Islam cannot evade the reality of evil in a world created by a benevolent God by blaming it on an external source. To do so would be a denial of monotheism.

We deal with the moral or man-made evils such as crime, war, oppression, persecution, torture, genocide, by no longer putting them down, as did biblical authors, to God's retributive justice. Instead, the doctrine of free will lets us off the hook of trying to explain why an all-powerful, all-good God is unwilling or unable to prevent human evil. Human free will to choose how we lead our lives is so sacrosanct that God puts it beyond even divine intervention.

Natural evils, those still quaintly categorised in insurance policies as "acts of God", pose a different problem for the theist. Flood, famine, earthquake and disease do not necessarily negate the benevolence of the Creator, since accidents are unavoidable in any logically possible world that is governed by universal laws of nature. We know, in a way that our biblical ancestors did not, about tectonic plates moving below the sea's surface. Thus the 150,000 people killed by the tsunami and the millions rendered homeless were not singled out by divine decree, but were the victims of an unfortunate conglomeration of circumstances within a system of certain immutable laws, the so-called Laws of Nature.

But such an explanation for suffering on such a scale is so paltry and apologetic that no wonder theists are faintly embarrassed by it. It would be intellectually more plausible to reject altogether the scriptural belief in a God who rules the raging seas and stills the waves, and adopt instead the deist position that God created all things but does not govern them. God implanted the Laws of Nature, which act per se, as a clock acts without the intervention of the clockmaker. One day, with scientific progress, we may be able to control, or at least subdue, these powerful natural forces. The evil of the Indian Ocean disaster may achieve the one good purpose of speeding our search for solutions, stimulated by the guilty knowledge that suffering always falls disproportionately on the deprived and disadvantaged of the Third World.

That is scant consolation for the grieving. But for those of us who cling, however tenuously, to belief, it acquits God of complicity. It deprives Him too, of His transcendent biblical powers. That is a price worth paying in order to affirm an ethical God who is the power that makes for human goodness.

David J. Goldberg is Rabbi Emeritus, Liberal Jewish Synagogue, London

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