On the problem of “natural evil”

Any attempt at theodicy will inevitably fall tragically short; this is my poor attempt to synthesize the problem of evil with the Christian conception of God.

When confronted with the problem of evil, the Christian tradition often makes recourse to a robust theory of free will.  From Augustine to Alvin Plantinga in our own time, the so-called “free will defense” has seen many incarnations with slight variations, but the basic idea is the same. Human beings, endowed by the Creator with free will, are capable of both a responsible and irresponsible use of freedom; from the gravest abuses of freedom arise the greatest tragedies of human history. God, who does not cause evil, nevertheless permits this type of evil for the sake of a greater good, namely, the possibility of man’s free response to the grace of God. In order that man’s love for God be a true act of love, man must willingly love God over and against the possibility of choosing not to love Him.

Frank Sheed, paraphrasing Aquinas, reminds us that “where every man seeks his rights, there is chaos” (Theology for Beginners, p. 51). In the confluence of varied human wills, the ebb and flow of competition and cooperation almost certainly guarantee the emergence of instances in which men turn against each other. Whether tangentially or directly, remotely or proximately, the element of human freedom weighs significantly on much of the evil and suffering in the world. Poverty, war, homelessness, corruption– these and so many other social evils have at their root an abuse of freedom whose effects last for generations. When Shakespeare’s Antony observed that

The evil that men do lives after them;
The good is oft interrèd with their bones

he did so correctly, knowing that the ills inherited from faults of our predecessors die stubbornly. We will return to the residual effects of human actions later.

The free will defense, while imperfect (no theodicy is ever perfect), nevertheless supplies a reasonable and formidable answer to the question of moral evil, that is, the evils which arise from human actions. Far more difficult, however, is the problem of natural evil.

As the world gazes in horror at the destruction unleashed by natural disasters, the forces of nature shake not only the earth but also the faith of even the most ardent believers. The phrase “acts of God,” often used to describe such disasters, surely indicate man’s eagerness to blame Him. When we look back at the 2010 Haitian earthquake, the 2004 tsunami, Hurricane Katrina, Typhoon Haiyan, and countless other calamities, we are hard pressed to see any shred of justice amidst the symphony of death. The sheer quantity of discarded human life, violently wrought in such a short amount of time, dwarfs the most wicked designs of history’s worst despots. It is thus understandable that in those moments of unfathomable suffering, when whole societies are razed by seemingly implacable non-human forces, man cannot help but point the accusatory finger at the heavens and ask God, “Where were you? How could you allow this?”

Eloi, Eloi, lama sabacthani?

Perhaps an answer to this problem of natural evil, like the answer to moral evil, can be summarized in one word: freedom.

After much reflection on God and creation, an eminent theologian once wrote that

the model from which creation must be understood is not the craftsman but the creative mind, creative thinking. At the same time it becomes evident that the idea of freedom is the characteristic mark the the Christian belief in God as opposed to any kind of monism. At the beginning of all being it puts not just some kind of consciousness but a creative freedom that creates further freedoms. To this extent one could very well describe Christianity as a philosophy of freedom. For Christianity, the explanation of reality as a whole is not an all-embracing consciousness or one single materiality; on the other hand, at the summit stands a freedom that thinks and, by thinking, creates freedoms, thus making freedom the structural form of all being. (Ratzinger, Introduction to Christianity, pp. 157-158)

Ratzinger is no deist. He knows that God is not like an engineer or clockmaker who sets an engine into motion which then operates according to rigid, unchanging laws. Rather, by a free act, God explodes the inertia of a merely material cosmos into something capable of its own freedom, which ultimately becomes a universe capable of life. As John Haught says in After Darwin: A Theology of Evolution, “God is far less concerned with imposing a plan or design on this process [of cosmic development] than providing it with opportunities to participate in its own creation.” Stars, galaxies, and planets all come in and out of existence, but from the chaotic death of celestial bodies, new conditions arise which give birth to new bodies and systems. All these operate within the freedom of their particular natural laws, which nonetheless exhibit some form of incalculable fecundity and incalculable destructiveness. Ratzinger continues:

But if the logos of all being, the being that upholds and encompasses everything, is consciousness, freedom, and love, then it follows automatically that the supreme factor in the world is not cosmic necessity but freedom. The implications of this are very extensive. For this leads to the conclusion that freedom is evidently the necessary structure of the world, as it were, and this again means that one can only comprehend the world as incomprehensible, that it must be incomprehensibility. For if the world’s design is a freedom that upholds, wills, knows, and loves the whole world as freedom, then this means that together with freedom the incalculability implicit in it is an essential part of the world. Incalculability is an implication of freedom; the world can never– if this is the position– be completely reduced to mathematical logic. With the boldness and greatness of a world defined by the structure of freedom there comes also the somber mystery of the demonic, which emerges from it to meet us. A world created and willed on the risk of freedom and love is no longer just mathematics. As the arena of love it is also the playground of freedom and also incurs the risk of evil. It accepts the mystery of darkness for the sake of the greater light constituted by freedom and love. (Introduction, pp. 159-160)

The shifting of tectonic plates, the movement of the jet stream, the fluctuations in atmospheric temperature, and many other characteristics of our natural world fall into that realm of the “incalculable”. Scientists can only predict certain meteorological and geological events with mitigated accuracy, and some occurrences escape prediction altogether. Often, human freedom and and nature’s freedom coincide in a salutary manner; indeed, much of the earth’s natural processes create conditions for the possibility of life. Other times, man and nature run adversarially, the evidence of which is seared into our collective memory. Here too, freedom is at work; while nature operates within its proper laws, it does so not with rigid absoluteness. Rather, since God is, in Haught’s terms, “the disturbing wellspring of novelty”, the unfolding of nature remains open to a vast array of possible outcomes that, in the final analysis, shatter the deist conception of a clockwork universe.

Where do natural disasters fit in this scheme? Or rather, if natural events are but expressions of freedom in nature, what makes them “disasters”? For generations, epistemology has struggled with the age-old question, “If a tree falls in the middle of a forest and nobody is around to hear it, does it make a sound?” For our purposes, we might reappropriate the question and ask, for example, “If an avalanche runs down an uninhabited mountain face and nobody is affected, is it a ‘disaster’?” Or, “if an earthquake strikes the middle of the Sahara and nobody feels it, is it an ‘evil’?”

Are not such cataclysmic events “disastrous” only if humans are in some wise negatively affected?

haiyanHere we begin to recognize the residual effects of human choices. For wherever and whenever human life coincides with a natural event, the element of human freedom is present. A series of human decisions across the span of history have led, in part, brought civilizations into the path of nature’s destructive power. Furthermore, if all being is marked by incalculable freedom, then the possibility of such tragic events must exist.

A disaster is so called only when it encounters human civilization; and yet, deliberate choices by men led to the rise of civilizations in places where future disasters may strike. A Telegraph article rightly noted that a coincidence of factors such as “unlucky geography, poverty, poor government, and widespread gun use have exacerbated the effects of Typhoon Haiyan,” and thus we see that, while the typhoon was an unpreventable event, the fullness of its damage to the people of the Philippines cannot be attributed to purely natural occurrences. The same is true of every natural disaster in human history. Indeed, to every case of a natural disaster the element of human freedom is deeply bound; while the natural event itself causes much upheaval, man is not entirely absolved of responsibility in the suffering and destruction which follows.

Where does this leave the question of “natural evil”?

Perhaps the same God who allows his creatures to turn against Him and against each other is the same God who allows human freedom and nature’s freedom to collide. Just as moral evil is permitted for the good of true freedom, so too are cataclysmic events permitted in order that human freedom be a true freedom, and not an artificial freedom protected arbitrarily from bad consequences. If “incalculability is an implication of freedom,” then so too must the natural world remain incalculable, both in its fecundity and in its lethality.  In light of this, then, it would seem inapt to characterize certain natural occurrences (typhoons, earthquakes, electrical storms, etc.) as a malum in se, for these are merely the free and natural processes proper to the world.

This hermeneutics of freedom has the effect of relativizing these natural occurrences. What we call “natural disasters” are not “evils” in the absolute sense, but are only perceived as evil in relation to their effect on man. Certainly, I do not mean to diminish the profound anguish of those affected by the forces of nature, but only to contextualize suffering against the backdrop of cosmic and human freedom. This theoretical relativization of suffering and destruction is made concrete and revealed to men through the Cross.

Unavoidable, then, for the Christian is the Christological interpretation. Jesus Christ, at whose death “the earth shook and rocks split”, remains the ultimate sign that worldly suffering is not absolute. By a free act, the Son entered into the anguish of mortal existence and robs suffering and death of its “sting”. Thus, even when man encounters the brute strength of nature in the most unfortunate circumstances, Christ is already in the abyss with arms outstretched toward the man who suffers.

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