As I write this morning, images of the destruction in the Philippines are streaming around the world. They are incomprehensibly tragic and graphic—bodies thrown up into trees, dwellings washed away, and infrastructures devastated. It is hard to fathom how such loss—at least 10,000 lives—can be absorbed in the national psyche, as well as in the Filipino/Felipina diaspora.
Natural disaster of this epic proportion—maybe the largest such typhoon ever—requires theological reflection. Finding rational explanations eludes us when suffering is so great, and we should be cautious in our pronouncements. In the aftermath of the 2004 tsunami in the Indian Ocean, David Bentley Hart wrote:
It is difficult to tell sometimes in the wake of a great disaster, whether those who hasten to announce whatever greater significance they find in the event are moved more by an urgent moral need to sow light in the midst of darkness or by a kind of emotional and rhetorical opportunism, which takes the torments of others as an occasion for the reiteration of one or another set of personal convictions. (The Doors of the Sea: Where was God in the Tsunami?)
Hart answers his own question about divine presence in this catastrophe by saying God was present, but the freedom of creation can produce what God does not will.
Like many of you, I have interceded for the people in the pathway of Typhoon Haiyan. Not to pray would have demonstrated callous indifference; yet our praying did not have the desired outcome. Nonetheless, it is important to maintain that God never wills grievous harm to beloved creatures even if the dynamics of an unfinished creation mean that things can go horribly wrong. As Paul Fiddes observes, “In making a free world which dwells in time, God has thus freely limited God’s own self . . . in a world of nature which has for millennia been slipping away from God’s purposes.” (Participating in God)
The lectionary reading for this coming Sunday is from the section of Isaiah that promises restoration to God’s troubled creation. After experiences of exile, during which their homeland city was decimated, the prophet offers a fresh word:
For I am about to create new heavens and a new earth; the former things shall not be remembered or come to mind. But be glad and rejoice forever in what I am creating; for I am about to create Jerusalem as a joy and its people as a delight. (Isaiah 65:17-18).
As Christians we live in hope that God will make all things new. We also trust that in God’s mercy those things which have made us nearly inconsolable in this life will be gathered into a larger purpose.
Molly T. Marshall
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