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When Disaster Strikes

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In the wake of last weekend's catastrophic typhoon that plowed through the Philippine Islands, taking perhaps, according to one BBC report, up to 10,000 lives, one can only wonder how God, if there is one, can be considered to be good.

In fact, as a theologian, I had long been puzzled by the problem of evil in the world. "When Bad Things Happen To Good People", as Rabbi Harold Kuschner titled his best selling book, must it not be that maybe God isn't as good as we think? Or might it not be that God is not as all-powerful as we once thought?

After I began reading, back in the late 1950s, the works of the French Jesuit paleontologist, Pierre Teilhard de Chardin (1881-1955), who devoted his life to reconciling evolution with Christian beliefs, one of the things that struck me most about the theory of evolution is that it gives us an "out" that takes God "off the hook", so to speak, when it comes to the dilemma stated above. How can this be? So back around 1978 I began working on a book I called Evil and Evolution that was first published in 1984, then updated for a paperback edition in 2004.

As I reasoned and summarized it in an article I wrote in 2000, if God saw it fit that humans evolved from "lower" forms of life, then it must be that the same laws of nature that produced these other forms are also at work in us. But we know that evolution works on the basis of two principles: first, random mutation, and second, the principle of natural selection or "survival of the fittest". While lately most of the argument has been over the latter principle (fittest individuals, fittest species, or fittest genes?) it is the first principle that is most important in regard to my thesis. Although it has been our large brains and capacity for reasoning that has enabled the human species to not only survive and to advance beyond the other animals, it has been the randomness, the "chanciness" that is built into the process that seems to be the key to our capacity for free will. For one, without the working of chance producing endless variety in the universe, what would be left to choose?

Yet there is a lot more to it than that. Just as our distinct ability for reflective awareness (to not only know, but "to know that we know" as Teilhard often put it) depends on the sensory awareness that we share with the animal world, so too our ability to make firm decisions (free will properly speaking) depends on our ability to be reflectively aware of all the implications of what would be otherwise simply instinctive choice. In other words, unless the Creator had given chance a role in creation, we would have all turned out to be robots!

Does this mean that God couldn't have created things differently -- another possible world with purely angelic beings also capable of free will? Perhaps: but we are talking about the real world, "the only possible world" as C. S. Lewis called it, a world where not only earthquakes and floods, plagues and famines, failures and tragedies have all occurred and are likely to continue to occur. As I see it, these possibility for such disasters are the prerequisite for the emergence of truly free creatures who can not only know but "know that they know", and in so doing, not only choose whatever attracts them, but rising above mere instinct, truly will and love.

Looking back on what I first wrote thirty-some years ago, and surveying all the natural disasters that have happened since then, including earthquakes, tsunamis, devastating hurricanes, typhoons and the like -- even apart from the atrocities committed by humans against each other -- do I still think there is a good God? I have to admit that my argument does not really prove that there is a God. Instead, today, in the face of all these tragedies I'm inclined to believe in God all the more because without the hope of something better coming out of all of this, nothing, in the end, makes much sense.