Natural disasters have been on my mind recently. Perhaps it’s because of the fury of Hurricane Ian a few weeks ago, devastating an area of Florida where my son and daughter-in-law lived for several years and where many of their friends lost everything in the storm. Perhaps it’s because a seminar on Enlightenment satire early in the semester got me to thinking about the devastating 1755 Lisbon earthquake described in Voltaire’s Candide. Perhaps it is because our seminar text in the same course last Monday was about a mid-19th century cholera plague in London, sparking a conversation about how my sophomore students were affected by Covid-19 in the last two years of their high school education (newflash: it wasn’t pretty).
All of this is causing me to think about one of my favorite courses that I’ll have the opportunity to teach for the fourth time a couple of semesters from now. My “Beauty and Violence” honors colloquium focuses on the problem of natural evil. Assuming for the sake of argument that a good and powerful creating God exists, how are we to understand the evils and destruction that happen to human beings that are not directly traceable to human choices? And that got me to thinking about another natural disaster that happened almost two decades ago.
On the day after Christmas 2004, the third strongest earthquake ever measured, deep under the Indian Ocean, caused a tsunami that resulted in the deaths of close to 250,000 people. The vast majority of those who lost their lives were among the poorest people on the planet, the very people who are often most vulnerable to natural disasters. Two months later, Ted Honey, a vicar in the Church of England with twenty years of experience as a priest, gave a Ted Talk that he introduced as follows:
On December 26th last year, just two months ago, that underwater earthquake triggered the tsunami. And two weeks later, Sunday morning, 9th of January, I found myself standing in front of my congregation — intelligent, well-meaning, mostly thoughtful Christian people — and I needed to express, on their behalf, our feelings and our questions. I had my own personal responses, but I also have a public role, and something needed to be said. And this is what I said.
Honey’s talk is one of the most honest—hence disturbing—attempts to grapple from a faith perspective with the problem of natural evil I’ve ever encountered. Among other things, he concludes that he can no longer believe in the sort of traditional God that he has been implicitly supporting and selling to others for most of his adult life. Belief in a good God who oversees the universe with power and love, the one that traditional Christian liturgies and hymns worship and praise, no longer seems possible in the face of disasters such as the tsunami. There are phrases we should no longer say and songs we should no longer sing.
Honey favorably quotes Ivan from Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov, who tells his brother Alyosha that in the face of human and natural evil his inclination is not to deny God’s existence. His inclination instead is to “respectfully return the ticket” of membership in this world of violence and suffering to the God who oversees such a world. Such a God is not worth believing in.
Toward the end of his talk, Honey speculates about alternative divine models, possibilities concerning God that both are compatible with suffering and violence and well outside the confines of conventional theism.
But what if God doesn’t act? What if God doesn’t do things at all? What if God is in things? The loving soul of the universe. An in-dwelling compassionate presence, underpinning and sustaining all things. What if God is in things? In the infinitely complex network of relationships and connections that make up life. In the natural cycle of life and death, the creation and destruction that must happen continuously. In the process of evolution.
How exactly would that work, one might ask. Honey provides the only possible, and perhaps the best, answer.
Is God just another name for the universe, with no independent existence at all? I don’t know. To what extent can we ascribe personality to God? I don’t know. In the end, we have to say, “I don’t know.” If we knew, God would not be God . . . When I stood up to speak to my people about God and the tsunami, I had no answers to offer them. No neat packages of faith, with Bible references to prove them. Only doubts and questioning and uncertainty. I had some suggestions to make — possible new ways of thinking about God. Ways that might allow us to go on, down a new and uncharted road. But in the end, the only thing I could say for sure was, “I don’t know,” and that just might be the most profoundly religious statement of all.
The last time I taught “Beauty and Violence” about three years ago, I showed Honey’s talk to my students. With half of the semester behind us, my students were used to grappling with these problems. Many (most) of them were from religious backgrounds, and found the colloquium both fascinating and disturbing. In a reflection in her intellectual notebook, one of my students—a biology major on her way to med school—described the impact Honey’s Ted Talk had on her own continuing questions and struggles. Without edit, here’s what she wrote:
The breath of fresh air this week was to finally hear a member of the church say “I don’t know” like Rev. Tom Honey did in his Ted Talk from this week. For my entire life, I have faced members of various religious institutions try to stifle my questions, to give me answers that left me unsatisfied, and instructed me to simply “trust in God.” Lemme tell you here first, “trust in God” has never floated my boat as a viable answer to religious questions. And to have a religious figure finally come forward and address the grievances of natural and human disasters, and not dismiss them or wrap an “everything happens for a reason” bow around them is unbelievably refreshing.
But also, it’s kind of concerning. If a man of the church doesn’t have confidence in his own teachings, how on earth am I supposed to ever get to that point? Suddenly, my hope to come out of this class with some slim part of my religious beliefs still firmly in tact seems to be withering away. Although I don’t think that is what Reverend Honey was going for, the feeling in my gut that religion is not my thing is only growing stronger.
I distinctly remember my confirmation into my church when I was younger. We had to write a series of essays which covered a series of topics from reciting various facts about the Lutheran church to affirming our undeniable devotion to the church. I remember my one essay, about my “all in attitude” I had about faith. I wrote it as this metaphor about how I was getting into a taxi cab, and I had no idea where I was going, but I had total faith in the driver that wherever the final destination was, it would be better than where I was now as long as I had total faith.
And the pair of moms who were my church leaders thought it was just wonderful, I was saying all the right things, I was “ready” to devote my life to my church. And there I was, fifteen years old, thinking to myself “this is a total lie.” I had my fingers mentally crossed the entire time. I wanted to just get the hell out of that “taxi” and run back to my house because the whole thing just felt so ridiculous. I had so much doubt, so many parts of my faith that I would think to myself “hm this doesn’t quite make sense”. But I squashed that down because it seemed like the right thing to do. I wanted to go to heaven, right?
I have always doubted so much about my religious background, especially as a science major, but resisted the urge to question because it “wasn’t okay” and, honestly, I wanted to keep my back covered in case the whole heaven thing panned out after all. But Honey called me out, just as our texts and conversations already have many times this semester. And this entire class has made me feel more comfortable than I have ever before in voicing these concerns and being able to say “no I don’t think that’s right.” That was something I never felt like I could do in that Lutheran church.
Will this young lady be able to keep any part of the faith she was handed as a child in tact as she continues to give herself permission to challenge and question? I don’t know. But this I do know—the best foundation for a real and vibrant faith is questioning, doubt, revision, and the courage to keep doing all three. Simone Weil once wrote in a letter to a priest friend that has come to be known as her “Spiritual Autobiography,”
One can never wrestle enough with God if one does so out of pure regard for the truth. Christ likes us to prefer truth to him because, before being Christ, he is truth. If one turns aside from him to go toward the truth, one will not go far before falling into his arms.