Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Acts of God?

There is a U. S. Christian missionary society that for years has flown its members back and forth to Haiti in a DC3 that stops here in Exuma to refuel. Once, a dozen years or so ago, the plane crashed in a driving rain storm into a hillside near our house. We arrived at the scene just as the passengers, all of whom survived, made their out of the bush to the road. "God was with us," they exclaimed.

I don't want to disparage good people who take themselves to a poor country to help those less fortunate than themselves. The missionaries are certainly less selfish than me. But I couldn't help wonder: If God let them all survive the crash, why did he let the plane crash in the first place? I would be inclined to give the credit for survival not to an interposing divinity, but to that sturdy little DC3 that banged into the hillside and held together.

This incident comes back to mind because the society's replacement DC3 has been making more frequent trips to Haiti in the aftermath of the devastating earthquake, part of a generous outpouring of support -- religious and secular -- for the Haitians. And everyone it seems, is talking about God. Pat Robertson's infamous attribution of God's wrath to a Haitian "pact to the devil." President Obama's "but for the grace of God, there go we." Haitian bishop Eric Toussaint's "What happened is the will of God." And any number of Haitian locals and visitors interviewed by the media who thanked God for their survival.

We are faced here with the problem of theodicy: If God is good, just, and all-powerful, why does he (he!) let bad things happen to good people? Why does he scourge some and favor others?

After millennia of struggling with this question, theologians are no closer to an answer than ever. The best they can do is ascribe inscrutable motives to the divinity; only God knows what he has in mind but it's surely all for the best. Writing in the New York Times, James Woods draws the logical conclusion: If God's actions are as capricious as nature, then he is effectively nonexistent.