Theology and Tsunamis

It’s been said that theology is “faith seeking understanding.” How, then, can theology address the seemingly senseless loss of life in the southeast Asian tsunamis?

Not long after the waters hit, Beliefnet.com had an online poll asking: “What role does God play in natural disasters like the Indian Ocean tsunami?” Respondents were given five options: 1) God is punishing us; 2) God is testing us; 3) the earthquake and tsunami were sent by God, but we don’t know what the purpose was; 4) although I believe in God, the supernatural had nothing to do with this tragedy; 5) God doesn’t exist; disasters like this are just forces of nature.

I would choose “none of the above” since none of the answers is entirely satisfactory. What occurred was the result of a physical evil, and God cannot be the cause of evil, whether moral or physical. This is, indeed, a mystery, as the Catechism acknowledges — while also offering some helpful clarifying comments.

“But why did God not create a world so perfect that no evil could exist in it? With infinite power, God could always create something better,” the Catechism says (No. 310). “But with infinite wisdom and goodness God freely willed to create a world ‘in a state of journeying’ toward its ultimate perfection. In God’s plan this process of becoming involves the appearance of certain beings and the disappearance of others, the existence of the more perfect alongside the less perfect, both constructive and destructive forces of nature. With physical good there exists also physical evil as long as creation has not reached perfection.”

So, while God does not cause evil, he does allow it. Since creation has been affected by man’s sin — something easily forgotten in an age dominated by an individualistic, “God and me” mentality — there is a supernatural element at work. St. Paul explains that “the creation itself also will be set free from its slavery to corruption into the freedom of the glory of the children of God. For we know that the whole creation groans and suffers the pains of childbirth together until now” (Romans 8:21-22). This expresses a vivid truth: Man’s sin has upset and corrupted the natural world in some way — and physical evil results.

It’s tempting to say that such events indicate there is no God. St. Thomas masterfully exposes one of the problems with this attitude by noting that, instead of just asking, “If there is a God, how comes evil?”, we should understand that, “if there is evil, there is a God.” He writes, “For there would be no evil, if the order of goodness were taken away, the privation of which is evil; and this order would not be, if God were not.”

Put another way, if there is no God, there is no good and, thus, no evil. If there is no God, then ultimately — once we cut through the sentimentality and irrationality — there is no reason to lament the death of innocents and the existence of evil. It is in an imperfect world that we have freedom. And this freedom’s existence means that evil, both moral and physical, also exists and we must grapple with it.

The death of the innocent, whether due to moral or physical evil, is a reminder of our own mortality. All of us will die. Have we practiced and lived true theology, which is not just head knowledge, but faith seeking understanding? Have we embraced the author of truth and the giver of grace? Anything less is truly senseless.

Carl E. Olson is editor of

IgnatiusInsight.com.

The Earth is Not Our Mother

“The main point of Christianity was this: that Nature is not our mother: Nature is our sister. We can be proud of her beauty, since we have the same father; but she has no authority over us; we have to admire, but not to imitate.”—G.K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy