This risky world: Rowans Williams on Natural Disasters and God

In the past month, I have not lived through Harvey or Irma or any catastrophic weather or geological event. This time, San Diego was not involved. But the question is in the air in the U.S. : at the hospital and in homes when I visit with people, on the news, even in the New York times. Is God behind this? I return in seasons like this to the thoughts of a man much smarter than me, who gave me the first taste of a framework about such things that was even remotely satisfying. I share a long excerpt here. I hope it's helpful to someone else, too. I recommend the whole book, for that matter.

Tokens of Trust: An Introduction to Christian Belief by Rowan Williams

Published by Westminster John Knox Press, 2007. Pages 38-43.

Bold text mine.


“But that still leave the biggest problem of all -- the problem of evil. If the action of God is at the heart of everything, every object, every process, what does that imply about suffering and disaster, about cancers and tsunamis [and hurricanes and earthquakes]? We need to be clear from the start that we are not going to have an answer to this that allows us to sit back and stop worrying, as if we could say, in response to a tsunami or a landslip, ‘That’s all perfectly straightforward and no one need have any doubts or misgivings.’ If we got to such a stage, we should have become desensitized to the awful immediacy of pain and grief. We should be valuing human lives and human welfare less than we should. There’s something about the very anguish of the questioning that illustrates just how seriously we have learned to take human pain -- and that seriousness is the best witness to the difference that faith makes. No one is dispensable, no one’s suffering is insignificant, just a statistic.

So an explanation that even hinted that some lives were less important than others would be a betrayal of one of the basic insights of faith. But there are a few things that we can at least bear in mind before we decide that talking about God makes no sense at all in a world of terror and disaster. If God makes a world that is really different from him, a world of interaction and interconnection, this means a world that is capable of change. Different processes flow together, mesh together and make things happen. This is a world in which any event has what is practically an unmeasurable range of causes, factors that have made it fall out this way rather than that. If these processes were all programmed never to collide with each other in new and changing ways, the world would just be a set of self-contained little clusters of connected phenomena, guaranteed not to change more than a certain amount. And it’s a moot point whether such a world would really be as different from God as it needed to be to have some kind of integrity of its own, some kind of consistency overall as one system, a real universe. We have begun to think more seriously in recent years about how even the smallest phenomenon in the world can have a disproportionate and surprising effect… It’s hard to give a completely sensible account of a world consisting of lots of systems isolated from each other so that certain kinds of interaction never happen.

It looks as though the very notion of a coherent universe implies that the processes of change won’t always be smooth or gradual; there can be cataclysms, ‘violent’ moments when the interactions are explosive. At certain temperatures, earthquakes occur and volcanoes erupt; at certain temperatures, ice caps melt. If there were no human beings or other living things around, this would not be a problem. But part of the integrity, the interconnectedness, of the world is that its processes have brought life and intelligence into being. The world of natural processes also now includes beings who can think, plan and choose. It’s a world in which human beings have freedom about where they choose to live -- and they may opt to live where volcanoes erupt.

Is God to make it impossible for people to life in such places? Or should he always step in which a warning or a miracle when it becomes too dangerous? How bad does it have to be before God steps in? When we get to this point, we may begin to have an inkling that there’s something a bit strange about the questions. Would a world with a perpetual safety net really be a world at all, a place with its own integrity and regularity?

This does absolutely nothing to make it emotionally easier to face something like the Asian tsunami, nothing at all; it won’t stop us questioning God or protesting to God. But we have to try and keep our heads clear enough to recognize that natural disasters are just that, the laws of nature going ahead. It is unspeakably terrible that people and animals are caught in the flow, so to speak; but can we imagine a world where certain processes were always halted in their tracks by God if there were a risk to living creatures? If the world is not just a veil for God’s reality, not just a matter of appearances with no continuity in them, there is no quick way through this. And what makes it possible to find God credible even in this context will not be a knockdown argument explaining why evil occurs but -- once again -- the experience of how actual people find God real even in the middle of these terrors.

If someone right up against the worst of suffering finds it possible to live honestly with God, this is … a kind of witness, a testimony that God can be taken seriously; and we can’t just write off the whole thing as self-indulgent nonsense.

Does this mean that God makes a risky world? Clearly yes, as we see it; anything that is less than God is exposed to risk … And if, in the light of this creation, the universe we’re actually in, we are challenged to have confidence in its maker, it isn’t because he has guaranteed our safety but because he remains there, accessible and free to move things on, even in the most desperate situations.