Thursday, 31 March 2011

God of Natural Disasters?

According to a recent survey, 44 percent of Americans and 59 percent of American white evangelical Christians believe that natural disasters are or could be a sign or message from God.

So as a British evangelical(ish) Christian, what do I think?  I'm not entirely sure, so I thought if I tried to write about it I might be able to work something out!
First of all, I have to believe that God is love. This is fundamental to the Christian faith and to my own understanding of God and the Universe. I therefore find it hard to imagine God deliberately - and for no reason at all - willing destruction and misery on large numbers of people, e.g. the recent tsunami in Japan.

Thanks to modern science, we now have some knowledge of the processes that cause natural disasters - e.g. tectonic plate movements that cause earthquakes and tsunamis. This would seem to suggest that they are just blind natural processes that happen to occur in places we'd rather they didn't - e.g. where some of us have built our homes!

How can this be reconciled though, with the idea of a God who not only made everything, but also takes an active interest in His creation? Why would God make a world which was subject to these kinds of events and why would He allow them to occur, in spite of the death and suffering they cause? Is it because He doesn't care. Is He being deliberately malicious? Is it possible that He does actually cause some of these events in order to try and communicate through them in some way? Or is the real answer, "none of the above", or perhaps even a bit of a mixture?

The classic evangelical Christian response to all of this - at least in my experience - is that when God first made the world it was "perfect" so there wouldn't have been any natural disasters, but when Adam and Eve disobeyed God in the garden of Eden all that changed. "Sin" entered the world and a fundamental disconnect was created between man and God and also between God and His creation. The creation itself suffered as a result of man's disobedience and so natural disasters, along with all manner of other ills, entered the equation.

This is a nice story but it doesn't really fit with the scientific evidence, which suggests that the world has been in a pretty much constant state of flux since it first formed about 5 billion years ago. Also though, I can't see any direct claims in the Bible itself that natural disasters are a consequence of Adam and Eve's rebellion, or that they didn't exist before that point (whether or not the Adam and Eve story is meant to be taken literally, which is another question!).

I do think though, that human beings were created to be rulers and priests over God's creation (for more on this see my other post on this subject), and that this role involves acting as mediators between God and the world and bringing harmony to it through our wise stewardship. When we cannot perform this role effectively due to our own estrangement from God, then to some extent creation will suffer, but I can only really speculate as to what physical effects this might have.

I do quite like Father David Cloake's explanation of natural disasters here, which hinges on the idea that the world is alive and that life requires change and at times upheaval - both as a consequence and also as a prerequisite for growth and development. In the end, to be overly safe is to be suffocated by mundanity. No parent (i.e. God) wants their children to be hurt, but by protecting them from all danger you ultimately do them more harm than good because they can never truly learn or develop.

I was also struck by this spoof article on the Onion website, about the positive effect that disasters sometimes have on human nature. Suffering can make us bury our heads in the sand in despair, or it can call out everything that is good in us in response. Suffering presents all of us with both a challenge and an opportunity to be truly "human", in the best and most positive sense of that word.

I recognise that in discussing all these options, I haven't really answered the question, but this is what I think so far:
  • Did God make the world? - yes!
  • Does God love people? - yes!
  • Does He allow natural disasters to happen? - yes!
  • Could He prevent them? - yes!
  • Why doesn't He? - I've made some suggestions above but I'm sure there's more to it than this. I doubt if there's any simple "one size fits all" answer. It also seems entirely possible to me that He has done on occasion, though it would be hard to prove on the basis of something that didn't happen!
  • Does He ever cause them directly? - I don't know. There is some evidence in the Bible that He has done on occasion. I see no reason why He couldn't if He wanted to and I don't know what reasons He might have, but I'm personally willing to trust that He would only do so if they were very good ones!
  • Does God "speak" to us through natural disasters and if so, in what ways? - I think natural disasters speak to us in a number of ways, and as God made the world, so these could be seen as messages from our creator.
    • They encourage us to reach out to God, by reminding us of our mortality and the fragility of our lives.
    • By inspiring empathy in those not affected, they remind us of our shared humanity and challenge us to love one another.
    • They challenge us to learn and develop and adapt to changes in our environment.
    • They remind us of our dependence on the earth and our need to live in harmony with it.
    • It's also possible that in specific circumstances God may communicate through natural disasters in other ways but I think I've kind of run out of space to explore that properly here...

Thursday, 24 March 2011

Love in Action

I recently had my attention drawn to this article on the Guardian "Poverty Matters Blog", describing efforts being made in Mali by local NGO, AEDM, to help local farmers adapt to the effects of climate change.  Faced with shorter and heavier rainy seasons, AEDM have helped villagers develop better composting techniques, and build raised, flash-flood-proof vegetable plots.

The author of the article seems full of praise for the scheme, but finishes by noting that, "the challenge to get funds down to this kind of micro level is daunting", and that, "the simplest, cheapest small-scale solutions are often the last to get the funding they need".

The author doesn't explain however, how AEDM are funded at the moment, or in fact, who AEDM actually are!  I've only recently heard of them myself and don't know where all their funding comes from, but I do know that "AEDM" stands for "Agence Evangélique de Développement du Mali" - the Mali Evangelical Development Agency - and that they are at least partially funded by various world-wide partnerships including one with UK Christian development charity, Tearfund, which my wife and I support.  I know how Tearfund are funded because their annual report is available here.  Of the £61 million income they had last year, £40 million came from supporter donations and £28 million of this was from individuals such as my wife and myself, most of whom are likely to be British Christians of an evangelical persuasion (since this is Tearfund's primary supporter base).

Religion often gets a bad press for being a source of oppression and/or conflict, but for me this is a prime example of the church doing what it does best, where the "church" in this case consists not of an institution, but of various, otherwise unconnected Christian groups that have 2 things in common:
  1. They love Jesus.
  2. They want to demonstrate that love in action by doing something practical to help make the world a better place.
Tearfund (among others) does a brilliant job of exploiting this "network".  Their strategy is to partner with and support local organisations like AEDM who have a similar or compatible vision, and are on the ground and understand the local situation - often working through local churches, which provide instant access to a pool of volunteers who are well integrated into the community.  The AEDM project and many others like them work by empowering local people to take control of their situation, rather than making them dependent on handouts.

Christians don't always get much recognition for this sort of thing - the Guardian article about AEDM referenced at the start of this post doesn't even mention the word "Christian" and avoids explaining what AEDM actually stands for! - but it is nevertheless a big part of the way the Christian faith is lived out, every day by ordinary believers all over the world, and perhaps provides some proof that at some level at least, Jesus Christ is actually making a difference!

Sunday, 20 March 2011

St George's Day

The Archbishop of York, John Sentamu, has recently called (again) for St. George's Day to be celebrated as an English national holiday.

Personally I've never paid a great deal of attention to saint's days - I guess mainly because I wasn't raised as an Anglican or a Catholic, or born in Wales or Ireland where people generally seem to have a stronger national affinity to their patron saints.  I didn't even know St. George's Day was on the 23rd April - I had to ask my Welsh wife!

As I've written elsewhere, I have an uneasy relationship with the traditional Christian (or at least Catholic) concept of "sainthood", although I do think it's good to remember and celebrate past Christians who have set a particularly good example by their character and conduct and whose lives we can still learn from.

I also like the idea of having a specifically English holiday and I do think our English national identity should be celebrated.  It seems a terrible shame that our national flag - the St George's Cross - is so often associated with racism and the BNP.  Englishness should not be something to be ashamed of - instead, like any nationality or culture it should be celebrated: not in competition with others, or at their expense, but as one culture among many which is special to us because its ours!  This kind of nationalism is secure in itself and can also celebrate, appreciate and welcome others.  To my mind this is the best antidote to the arrogant and insecure nationalism of the BNP and others, which feels so threatened by "foreigners", at least in part because it is so unsure of itself.

So what about St. George's Day then?  Who was St. George and what are we celebrating?  Most people know of him as the dragon-slayer, who killed the dragon to rescue the princess in typical fairy-tale fashion.  In less typical fairy-tale fashion, the citizens of the town which was being terrorised by this dragon consequently converted to Christianity in gratitude for St. George's brave act of heroism.  This story of course is shrouded in myth, but the true story of St. George (if it is true - it seems a little hard to tell!) may be no less interesting:

St. George was a Christian and a soldier in the Roman army who advanced to the rank of Tribunus, before the Emperor Diocletian ordered all Christians in the army to convert to paganism.  George refused, despite being offered various bribes and inducements, and remained outspoken in his devotion to Christ.  After exhausting all other avenues, Diocletian had him heavily tortured and then executed by decapitation.  Before being executed, George took the opportunity to give all his wealth to the poor.

Apart from his martyrdom, part of George's appeal as a patron saint was undoubtedly due to his military connections, and visions of him were said to have appeared to various troops during various military campaigns, particularly during the Crusades.  He is unfortunately now heavily associated with the Crusades, especially since his flag was worn by the English Crusaders (who had adopted it some years previously).  For this reason, I would happily replace St. George as English patron saint - if there were someone obvious to replace him with.  Since this is not the case however, and in any case we would be extremely unlikely to get universal agreement about this, it seems to me that the best option is to continue to celebrate what is good about St. George, but with humility regarding our past mistakes.

Tuesday, 15 March 2011

Aid to Pakistan

Cardinal Keith O'Brien, the leader of the Roman Catholic Church in Scotland, has called on the government to seek commitments to human rights and religious freedom in exchange for aid money given to Pakistan - going so far as to brand present foreign policy "anti-Christian" because these guarantees are not in place.

According to a report published by Vatican-approved agency, "Aid to the Church in Need", 75% of religious persecution around the world is directed against Christians and 100 million people are affected. The Pakistani minority affairs minister Shahbaz Bhatti - the only Christian member of the Pakistani cabinet - was assassinated in Pakistan at the start of March by Islamic fundamentalists. Despite being warned in advance of the assassination attempt by security agencies, the Pakistani government failed to give him any extra protection.

Shahbaz Bhatti's death was a tragedy, not just for his family and friends but for the whole of Pakistan, which desperately needs liberal voices to stop it from becoming an oppressive hardline Islamic state. Having said that though, I nevertheless have to disagree with the Cardinal's comments...

Religious persecution - any persecution - is a terrible thing, and we should be doing everything we can to discourage and prevent it, but the Cardinal's words seem to me to contradict the words of Jesus himself, who told us to love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us. This ought to be a key distinctive of the Christian faith - that we repay evil with kindness and show love unconditionally. This most emphatically was not done during the most dark and shameful period of church history - the Crusades - for which many Muslims worldwide still have not forgiven us. We should be doing everything possible to live in the opposite spirit to those terrible days.

I am horrified by the spirit I see manifested behind Islamic fundamentalism in places like Pakistan, but Christians are nevertheless called to love all Muslims - fundamentalist, extremist or otherwise - as we are to love anyone else. Aid should never be given with conditions attached, except for the condition that it goes to whoever needs it the most. In no sense can this be called "anti-Christian" - it's actually about as Christian as it gets!

Sunday, 13 March 2011

Thinking 'til it Hurts!

I like to think quite a bit!

I have a fairly academic brain. I always did well at school. I enjoy maths and problem solving. I am a computer programmer, so logic is a big part of my job. I also enjoy the "softer" side of logic - philosophy, discussion and debate, weighing up arguments and counter-arguments, recognising the connections between things and considering the implications of an opinion or system of beliefs.

As a Christian, one of the things I think a lot about is my faith, which at times comes under significant attack from other thinkers and intellectuals. I think it's important to think about things, to ask honest questions and try to be honest with yourself about what you discover. I think there are some good, honest, rational reasons for believing in God, but although in my opinion there is a lot of evidence, there is no universally accessible and logically indisputable proof.

Sometimes though, I get tired of thinking! I can try to work everything out until I'm black and blue in the face (or feel that way anyway), but I don't have access to all knowledge, all wisdom, all intellect. My own logic is necessarily flawed in many places because I am only a finite, limited human being, and am influenced by all sorts of external and internal forces that I don't understand and cannot fully control.

Sometimes logic is just not enough and I need something else to fall back on. In the end, just thinking about God doesn't satisfy. At its core, the Christian faith is not about logic, its about an encounter, and this is where faith comes in - or at least where it starts. Faith - at least to begin with - is about reaching out into the unknown and daring to believe that something (or someone) might at least be there. There's plenty of information in the Bible, recorded by people who have had encounters in the past, that can inspire us to reach out and help us to make sense of what we might find. The church community exists - at least in part - so these experiences can be shared, interpreted and applied.

In the end though, the only way to know God is to reach out to Him for yourself. All the logic and reason in the world will never get you there! Those who can do this genuinely, in humility of heart, not expecting to understand everything they find, are usually those who discover that God has actually been reaching out to them the whole time.

Sunday, 6 March 2011


I've set myself a target of writing one article per week for this blog, which I usually do over the weekend since it's when I generally have the most time free to spend on it.

This weekend though, I'm struggling.  There's a few things I could write about, but they all require considerable mental effort and to be honest, I don't really feel like I've got it in me right now.

So for this week I thought I'd abandon the logical discussion approach and just put down a few simple thoughts and feelings about God.  They seem to have come out in the form of a very simple poem, so here it is - I've called it, "Trinity":

Almighty God
Creator of All That Is
Maker of My Fragile Frame

Life Fresh Breath
Illuminating Me

Compassionate Lover
Life's Path Trod
Death Brought Life
To Me