John F. Kavanaugh

A great weight was settling on me during Christmas week. There were deaths among friends, Jesuit brothers and family, but the most haunting face of death came with an ocean of destruction called the tsunami. In a matter of hours, it killed over 150,000 people, most of them children. At noon on Jan. 5, people in the capitals of Europe stood silent in the streets for three minutes. They heard church bells ringing, a vestige of belief long forgotten by many, somehow still capable of moving them. I wondered whether they were standing in silent grief over humanity itself. After all, how many humans die unnoticed each day? Perhaps it takes a tsunami to remind us of the harsh reality of our condition.

Annie Dillard, in her splendid meditation on human contingency, For the Time Being, reminded us that half of those who have ever died were children and infants. Dead humans outnumber the living by a ratio of 14 to 1, maybe more. The dead will always outnumber the living. All the rest will die as well.

The death caused by moral evilwars, genocide, mass murdersis at least partially comprehensible as the price of human freedom, although as the brilliant presentation on the PBS program Frontline, Faith and Doubt at Ground Zero, made painfully clear some years ago, the evil wrought by terrorists is irrational and monstrous enough to make even the most religious of us question God. Job was neither the first nor last to ask why.

It is the sheer uncontrollable and unwilled vastness of physical evilplagues, mudslides, volcanic eruptions, tornados, tsunamisthat seems most challenging to any belief in an all-powerful and all-loving God. Why would God not intervene?

It is strange that some believers, in their attempts to answer this question, echo the reasoning of many atheists. Certain that there must be some direct act of God’s will to cause catastrophe, there are people of faith who think that this is a judgment of a displeased God, a wrathful response to our evil ways (although this does not make much sense, since most of the sufferers are innocent).

Some atheists are quite at home with such categories. They suppose that we believers must subscribe to the proposition that every particular moral act or physical event is directly willed by God. And if God directly willed the tsunami of 2005, how could God ever be called loving, good or just?

I am a believer who is not sure of the truth of that proposition. I believe that God indeed created the cosmos, this earth and its humanity. I believe that creation is held in existence only through God’s sustaining will and affirmation, which is to say, God’s love. As a Christian I also believe that the primary intervention of God in time is the eternal Word made flesh, Jesus Christ, who reveals God in ways that philosophers and even poets never imagined.

Among the things that Jesus revealed is the possibility that our merely earthly notions of power and love are often misguided. Even though he performed miracles (as many others apparently have done as well), surely his purpose never was to eliminate illness or even death. Those he healed not only became ill once again; they died. Even he himself died. The earthly wounds of pain and death were not banished by him. They were transformed, made glorious by his love and promise. What, after all, is true power and love for a God who is most fully represented by a man broken on a cross?

The world God willed into existence, the world in which God became incarnate, is a mystery of beauty and terror. In terms of this life alone, it is also a world of massive inequity. It is a world of suffering caused by human choice and by the great groaning of a developing creation.

Could God have created a different world? I suppose so. I’m not saying that God had to create this world, but that this is the world God created. Our question is: can we ratify it? Can we embrace this world?

If we do not want tidal waves or volcanoes, I guess we cannot want this earth, its atmosphere, its eruptions, its churning tectonic plates, its generative gasses, its mighty mountains and oceans, so awesome and dreadful. If we do not want children of flesh and blood, who can so suddenly and shockingly lose a hand or who have lungs that choke in water, I wonder whether we could even have a human body, its caresses charged with tenderness or its lungs to breathe and sing. I don’t know. But I believe this is the world God made, terrible and awesome, so lovely and lethal.

This does not console the legions of anguished children and desperate parents. We may go to them or help them, but we cannot remove the great wound without removing ourselves. But in faith we can believe that all wounds will be glorified and the most harrowing death transformed by God’s love.

In the end, we Christians believe we are pilgrims on this earth. Our ways of power and love are not the only ways, surely not the eternal ways. And if we do believe in eternal life, it will be only there that the inequity and losses of this world are ultimately healed. Our problem, I suspect, is really with death, our bodies, our life itself. Our problem is the created earth, the only place in the universe that seems to have fostered life such as ours, moved by forces that sometimes threaten the very lives it fosters.

We ask God, Why did you create us so? We might ask ourselves, however, whether we can accept creation. Still more, can we accept ourselves as part of it?.

John F. Kavanaugh, S.J., is a professor of philosophy at St. Louis University in St. Louis, Mo.