Dialogue on “Natural Evil” (Diseases, Hurricanes, Drought, etc.)

Cyclone

Photograph of a cyclone by “Comfreak” (March 2017) [Pixabay / CC0 Creative Commons]

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(2-15-04)

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The words of Catholic Mark Kasper will be in blue.

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Compliments on your Romanticism discussion. Growing up on a midwestern farm, I never had much use for ‘nature-mysticism.’ Tornadoes, blizzards, -25 F nights, and +105 F days teach you quickly that nature is not a friendly force.

It’s not as if us city-folk haven’t experienced most of these phenomena. But your comment misses the point. Nothing I wrote (or what Keith wrote) would deny that nature has a brutal, not-so-pleasant side. Of course it does.

In the Bible, the vagaries of nature are discussed alongside the glorious aspects. I wrote about natural catastrophes and “natural evil” in my essay about the problem of evil (following a similar effort by C. S. Lewis: from whom I receive much of my Christian Romanticism). In some ways (ironically) you argue as an atheist would:

1. The natural world is brutal and evil and not always so nice.2. Therefore a good God is not reflected in it (the atheist goes further and says that it disproves either God’s existence or a good God).

This doesn’t follow, and that was the “problem” I dealt with in the above essay (among other things). We live in a fallen world, but it is also a world with much beauty that still represents an image of God’s glory, and heaven. The Bible teaches us that God is “declared” in His creation:

Romans 1:20 (RSV) Ever since the creation of the world his invisible nature, namely, his eternal power and deity, has been clearly perceived in the things that have been made. So they are without excuse.*

Job 12:7-9 But ask the beasts and they will teach you; the birds of the air and they will tell you; or the plants of the earth, and they will teach you; and the fish of the sea will declare to you. Who among all these does not know that the hand of the Lord has done this?

Psalm 19:1 The heavens are telling the glory of God; and the firmament proclaims his handiwork. (cf. 19:2-6; 50:6; 97:6)

Wisdom 13:5 For from the greatness and beauty of created things their original author, by analogy, is seen.

Are you seriously contending that the existence of hurricanes and blizzards (and droughts and avalanches and volcanoes and floods and lots of other “negatives”) somehow wipe out the import and meaning of the above verses?

I can admire a spring day, flowers and rainbows as much as any other person, but I do not see God’s presence in those any more than I see Him in lightning, forest fires, earthquakes, etc.

Then how do you explain the above verses, which directly contradict this?

The physical world is what it is, but let’s not mistake it for the revelation of God.

It’s not revelation; I agree, and I did not say it was. But it is natural theology, per the above Bible passages. Nature tells us something about God, and that is in His written revelation, so it isn’t merely a Romantic or “Armstrong” or “Catholic” thing.

Romanticism is related to mysticism, with which Catholicism has long had an uneasy relationship. The inability to define the mystical experience of God is problematic for Catholicism.

I don’t see how, as we have had a long line of mystics.

Our belief that Jesus Christ is the complete and final revelation of God seems at odds with the experiences of Catholic mystics. I personally find Catholic mysticism a very attractive attribute of Catholicism, something sorely lacking in other Christian sects.

Who is “our”? Again, I don’t follow your reasoning. You will have to elaborate. I don’t see any “odds” or “problems” here.

There is a great importance here on Earth that is not lost on the Romantic. This planet and the world of man are serious business. The blithe way that more and more of our fellow brothers and sisters skip through life without a sense of the value of the body, the value of their time here on earth, the importance of other human beings who will soon be lost to those of us who remain . . . it is disheartening.

I agree. Well-stated.

. . . your comment “May all Christians who do not yet comprehend this, be led to this realization by the Holy Spirit and through nature and life itself” and comments made by yourself in the same vicinity are not sentiments I can agree with.

I think it will be seen that you misunderstood them, then.

As I stated in my first post, if one believes that nature is all good, then there is a lot of explaining to do about the hideous things of nature.

But I don’t believe “nature is all good.” I believe that it reveals God, and contains traces of both Eden and heaven. Biblically speaking, however, even the more terrifying aspects of nature are said to represent God’s power and judgment and awesomeness and omnipotence. So. e.g., in Job 38:1, God speaks to Job “out of the whirlwind” (hurricanes). In the burning bush, God is also present, speaking to Moses (forest fires). In Job, chapters 37-39, this motif is expanded upon with many examples. God controls lighting (37:3,11; severe thunderstorms), thunder (37:4), snow and rain (37:6; blizzards), cold and wind (37:9), frozen waters (37:10; the dead of winter), snow and hail (38:22-23). And how are these sorts of things described?: “He seals up the hand of every man, that all men may know his work” (Job 37:7); “Whether for correction, or for his land, or for love, he causes it to happen” (37:13). In Job 39:13-17, we are told that God in some sense causes an ostrich to “deal cruelly with her young.” This is God’s Providence. He is in control of everything.

While I don’t want to bore you with a litany, here are just a few things that are, in fact, part of nature: cancer, AIDS, fire, floods, earthquakes, famine, drought, etc. I do not accuse you of believing that these are good, but I ask you to temper your enthusiasm for the appearance of God in nature.

It’s good to bring this up, and I am happy to be able to clarify my position. But I think I have answered adequately. It is you who have a far bigger problem with the biblical texts along these lines than we do. In fact, look what happened to Job. That was by God’s permission (Job 1:12). So was Paul’s thorn in the flesh (2 Cor 12:7-10) – which is called a “messenger of Satan” (12:7), yet it is by God’s design and part of His sovereign will (12:9a), so that Paul can have more of the “power of Christ” (12:9b).

When God judges, He uses all these calamities and dreadful happenings. They are part of His will. No one can be very familiar with the Bible and not know this. See, e.g., Leviticus 26 and the warnings God gives to the Jews if they don’t obey His law: He speaks in terms of “I will do this to you” (26:16), “I will chastise you again sevenfold for your sins” (26:18), “I will bring more plagues upon you” (26:21), “I myself will smite you” (26:24), “I will send pestilence” (26:25), etc., etc. Among the means God uses to do this are consumption and fever (v. 16), bad crops (v. 20), wild beasts among them (v. 22), starvation (v. 29), and ruined land (v. 32).

Another example is the plagues of Egypt, in order to let the Jews go: water turned to blood (Exodus 7:17-18), “I will plague all your country with frogs” (Ex 8:2); further judgments included the use of gnats (8:16), flies (8:21), plague among livestock (9:3), boils and sores (9:9), thunder, lightning, and hail (9:22-24), locusts (10:4-6), and darkness (10:21).

That doesn’t make all these natural calamities “good” in and of themselves. Buy they are tied in with God Himself and are “good” insofar as He is all good, and that includes His judgment (and justifiably condemning people to hell, for that matter, which isn’t a very pleasant or fun place, either).

Furthermore, God’s presence is persistently represented in Scripture (which isrevelation) by natural metaphors, such as the shekinah cloud (which looked like fire at night) that hovered over the tabernacle (Numbers 9:15-22), or “the Lord in the pillar of fire and of cloud” which followed the Israelites in the wilderness (Exodus 13:21-22; 14:19,24). God’s presence is described as a great light – another natural phenomenon (1 John 1:5, Rev 21:23, 22:5). That’s a lot of natural things which God chose to represent Himself: clouds, fire, and light. The frequent Davidic description of God as “my rock” might perhaps imply a mountain also. Hence, it would seem to follow that looking at these things might bring God to mind, since He Himself chose to use them to represent His presence.

God may choose to reveal Himself in nature, as he did in the burning bush to Moses, but not all fire is the appearance of God.

The point I would make, is that God is the God of nature. But it is a fallen world, so all is not happiness and bliss. That doesn’t mean, however, that God is not also revealed in nature. The Bible expressly says so, so no Christian who believes in inspiration can deny it.

Observing nature, it is very difficult to conclude precisely what God is trying to tell us.

I agree. That’s why Romans 1:20 limits what we can know to “power” and “deity.” That’s why St. Thomas Aquinas and Catholic theology proper hold that some aspects of God can be known through natural theology, but by no means all, up to and including the Holy Trinity.

What can we learn about God from the speed of light, Planck’s constant or the structure of DNA?

That He is a marvelous creator of natural wonders.

What is God trying to tell us about Himself or about the way He wants us to live?

Not much in those things. The moral sense, however, is ingrained as part of our nature (Romans 2:12-16).

I think we overestimate our deductive powers when we conclude attributes of God from nature. In the early 1700’s, the theological movement of Deism preached a ‘Christianity as Old as Creation’. It was claimed that Nature itself reveals God.

You mean like Romans 1:20? So far, deism is correct (i.e., your last sentence above). It was its presumption that this “god” was simply an impersonal designer who was not sovereign over his creation, which departed from theism and Christianity.

Deism, although it was defeated by Joseph Butler’s The Analogy of Religion and William Law’s The Case of Reason, has never really disappeared. It is still with us today.

Of course; like all errors.

Please don’t misunderstand me. I enjoy playing outside with my family on a sunny spring day. I like swimming and picnics. I like snowmen, sunsets, rainbows, thunder, and shores. I love my wife. I love my children. They are part of this physical world. But the physical world is not God, and despite it being His creation, we cannot assume to interpret it as His revelation.

I never said the physical world was God. I’m not a pantheist or deist or panentheist. I am a theist (of the Catholic Christian variety). So this complaint has no bearing on my position. And I also think that nature can only teach us so much about God, without His written revelation (as explained). So where do we disagree now? I don’t see it, if you are a trinitarian, biblical Christian as I am, and as Keith (also Catholic) is.

Thanks for your polite reply, despite your disagreement with my post.

And thanks to you for the same reason.

I am a cradle Catholic, and I must admit some bewilderment at the barrage of scripture quotations you used. I am familiar with the texts and quotations you used, but it has not been part of my catechetical training (which might be lacking since I grew up in the 60’s) to employ scriptural verses and quotations in argument.

I think this is where Catholics have been shortchanged in the last 40-50 years. This was not always the case. The Fathers used primarily Scripture for their arguments, and then appealed to the Church’s teaching as their final authority over against the heretics. Catholic apologists have always used plenty of Scripture; so does the Catechism and Vatican II. Quoting Scripture is not intrinsically a “Protestant” thing. It is also a “Catholic thing.” Hence my article in the February issue of This Rock, entitled “Catholics Need to Read Their Bibles.”

As a wise priest once told me, “Don’t go toe-to-toe on scriptural verses with someone with an evangelical background. We Catholics will always lose.”

That is a scandal. I have devoted my apostolate towards showing that Catholics will “win” against contra-Catholic arguments from Scripture, if they study it enough. I was blessed to have an evangelical background which taught me to love and study Holy Scripture. That’s how things seem to be today, generally, but it doesn’t follow that Protestants own the Bible. I’m not trying to lecture you (please don’t misunderstand); just making a general point.

Perhaps the numerous evangelical converts to the Catholic Church will prove this priest wrong.

I hope so. But my hope and dream is to see that not only converts are Bible-centered in their apologia for Catholicism. Vatican II urges us to explain our faith in terms that people can understand. So with Protestants, that means heavy use of Scripture. It’s not optional.

I will allude to one or two scriptures of my own to support myself. Luke 13:4 “Or those eighteen people who were killed when the tower of Siloam fell on them – do you think they were more guilty than everyone else who lived in Jerusalem? By no means!” John 9:2 “His disciples asked him, ‘Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?’ Jesus answered, ‘Neither he nor his parents sinned.'”

But of course, I have no disagreement with this. I already wrote that natural events are not good in and of themselves; only that God uses the bad things in His Providence, and that He is the God of nature. I used similar arguments way back in 1982 as a Protestant, in order to argue against the notion in some charismatic circles that God always heals and that people need only “claim” some thing from God. It doesn’t work that way.

Man’s conclusions about the events of the natural world and his understanding of the divine nature is always questionable. I believe it is wiser for us to trust in God’s explicit revelation, than for us to divine for ourselves what God is telling us in the events and appearance in the physical world.

Well, ironically, this is precisely why I quoted so much Scripture, since you keep appealing to this “explicit revelation,” and I was trying to demonstrate that when we do that, nothing can be found that is contrary to my expressed opinions on Romanticism and God-as-revealed-in-nature. I haven’t claimed anything more for God in this sense than the Bible does. I didn’t argue that nature was always this benevolent force. Nature was also subject to the Fall. The original Romantic argument was simply saying that God’s grandeur is seen in His creation, and that nature can sometimes be a foretaste of the longing for heaven. These are fairly minimal claims, and not at all contrary to biblical teaching.

I fail to see what the claim that “God reveals Himself in nature” means to those whose homes have been leveled by an F5 tornado. What is God revealing about Himself? That He is powerful? We know that from creation itself.

But creation is nature, so I fail to see the point. Catastrophes of this sort do lead – at least in some sense, for the man of faith – to a realization of God’s sovereignty and Providence, even in suffering. Hence Job said, when his great suffering began:

Job 1:21 Naked I came from my mother’s womb, and naked shall I return; the Lord gave, and the Lord has taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord.

Then after more suffering, he cursed the day of his birth (3:1). The whole book then proceeds in making its point that God is sovereign, and that man must accept what God brings. The friends of Job do not get this, and so are rebuked at the end of the book (42:7-9), whereas Job (even after all his tremendous suffering) submits to God’s often-inscrutable sovereignty (42:1-6) and is blessed and “comforted” for “all the evil that the Lord had brought upon him” (42:11). This is the biblical theology of suffering.

What is God telling us about ourselves? What should I conclude from the event?

That God is sovereign.

The good and the bad of nature must equally be God’s revelation of Himself. I could agree with you that there is some form of revelation present in nature, but it is not insulting to you or myself to say that I do not think human deductions of that revelation have any particular value.

But again, I am not quoting Scripture to prove that my ideas are merely “human deductions” from the raw data of nature, disconnected from objective revelation. I am doing biblical theology, which is presupposed in my “Romantic” feelings about nature. I’m not separating the two at all. This was part of my original argument, too: that Christianity alone gives ground and meaning to Romantic longings and aspirations. And Christianity is a propositional, revelational religion, based on history and Scripture. All these aspects must be kept together.

I am certain that you, just as I, have had friends stricken and die from cancer.

My only brother died of leukemia in 1998.

I imagine that we have both heard well-intentioned but misguided folks make statements such as “It is God’s will.”

It is and it isn’t. There are two levels to that. The biblical theology of suffering and sovereignty is an exceedingly complex topic. As a bad thing, which causes misery and suffering, things like cancer are obviously not God’s perfect will. But as part of His providence, they are manifestations of His permissive will, and are used for a good purpose, however inscrutable (Romans 8:28). I showed this already, with several examples (Job, Paul’s thorn, etc.).

I think such statements are false. What does the death of a father of four children at the age of 36 reveal about God? What are the wife and children to conclude from this tragedy? That human life is fragile and God is more powerful than man?

No; again, that God is sovereign, and that His ways are higher than our ways. I knew Fr. John A. Hardon, S.J., one of the leading Catholic catechists of our time, and advisor to both Pope Paul VI and Mother Teresa. He talked quite a bit about God’s providence (this concept is not owned by Protestants anymore than the Bible is). He would say, “Everything that happens – absolutely EVERYTHING – has a reason and a purpose.” This is good Catholic theology. Suffering and pain has a place in God’s overall plan, just as everything else does. Is it difficult to understand? Absolutely; you bet. Does that mean we accept profound tragedies and agonies with a goofy, self-delusional smile? No, not at all. But faith allows us to accept the terrible things with the knowledge that God has not abandoned us or the loved ones who endure these things.

Humans have long fought against nature and they correctly understood that the events of nature do not represent the will of God. My great-grandmother died of diphtheria in 1922. My mother suffered, yet survived polio in the early 1940s. Vaccines against smallpox, polio, diphtheria, whooping cough, etc. have been Godly advances in man’s struggle against nature.

We don’t disagree on this. These things are not God’s perfect will, and they result from the fall, which was man’s rebellion.

I don’t want to go further in this line of discussion, because it is not my intention to browbeat you over this. I will contend, not from scriptural quotations, but from the 2nd great commandment, that the natural world, as it stands, does not represent the will of God.

I agree, because it is a fallen world. Yet God uses it, just like He uses Satan to accomplish His purposes. We don’t so much disagree, as we are looking at this differently. You seem to be looking at it mostly from the human standpoint, whereas I am trying to go one step deeper and analyze it from what we know about God from Scripture: from God’s perspective.

Do not forget that those who divine the revelation of God from nature are now using it against the Church in their push for homosexuality.

They are wrong. Nature does not help their case. Again, I made an argument from Scripture against homosexuality, by using Scripture (the same methodology I use now, even citing the same primary passage: Romans 1):

“St. Paul’s Argument From Nature Against Homosexuality (Romans 1)””Do Homosexual Animals Prove That Human Homosexuality is ‘Normal’?”

I wanted to ease your mind over my post. I am not an atheist.

I didn’t say you were. I only said that you argued somewhat like an atheist would, in one respect. I figured you were a Christian of some sort.

I am a Roman Catholic in communion with the Holy Father John Paul II. I believe in the Holy Trinity and the Apostle’s Creed. However, I do not believe in the God of Nature. I believe in Yahweh, the God of Abraham and Isaac, the Triune God of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

So do I. It is rather disconcerting to think that you think we disagree on this. I am only saying that Yahweh is the God of Nature. That is not a separate, pantheistic-type entity. God uses nature, to judge, and to sometimes represent or reveal things about Himself, as I have shown.

Nothing in the Apostle’s Creed, which is the Roman Catholic profession of the faith, could be ascertained from a walk in the woods or taking a telescope to the cosmos.

I disagree. One can discern the first line: “I believe in God, the Father Almighty, Creator of heaven and earth.” We know this from Scripture itself (the passages I listed above).

If you want to make an argument against that, feel free. Even deistic philosophers like David Hume could see this. He believed that nature proved that there was a designer of the universe, and this was strictly a philosophical argument. Concerning the rest of the Creed, you are right: one learns nothing about Jesus, or the Virgin Birth, or the Passion of our Lord, or the crucial historical events of Christianity, or the rest of it. I already stated similarly, so this is nothing new. All the central aspects of Christianity must be derived from God’s written revelation. We can only know from nature that God exists, is powerful, and is the creator (and these propositions are in the Bible, too, so nothing here is purely speculative).

You can feel free to respond to me again if you want since it is not my goal to have the last word,

Nor mine. My goal in all my dialogues is to work together with the other person to arrive at a fuller understanding of Christian truth. I felt there were misunderstandings here and more things to clarify, so I replied.

but I don’t think we’ll end up in agreement.

Nothing I have told you is at all contrary to biblical or Catholic theology, at least as far as I know. Anyone is welcome to try to demonstrate otherwise.

Since our exchange has not been that constructive, I won’t bother you on this topic again.

I think it has been very constructive. I was challenged to go deeper into this; I did, and I have learned quite a bit as a result (I hope you and others have, too); therefore it was eminently constructive.

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