walter russell mead peter berger lilia shevtsova adam garfinkle andrew a. michta
Published on: November 21, 2012
Sandy and the God Problem

JobOn All Saints Day in 1755 a powerful earthquake destroyed most of the city of Lisbon. The earthquake, which was followed by a huge tsunami, devastated large areas of Portugal, Spain and Morocco, claiming tens of thousands of lives. As such natural disorders always do, it raised religious questions in many minds—in supposedly Christian Europe these boiled down to one single question: How can God have allowed this terrible tragedy? There were Catholic sermons saying that God was punishing Portugal for tolerating some Protestants, and Protestant sermons in northern Europe saying that Portugal was punished for being Catholic. No doubt there must have been less dogmatic Christians who consoled themselves with the age-old thought that God’s ways are unknowable and that in the end all things will work out to the good. In terms of historic consequences, the Lisbon earthquake had a great influence on the Enlightenment. In 1756, just one year after the event, Voltaire published his Poem on the Disaster of Lisbon, a savage satire of the belief that a benign God was in charge of the world. Voltaire later developed this idea in the novel Candide. He did not reject the existence of God as such, but he certainly rejected the Christian God, substituting a rather vague deism that was supposed to inspire moral concern for human suffering. The Enlightenment thinkers, especially in France, continued Voltaire’s disdain of Christianity and particularly of the version propagated by the Catholic Church (which he called an “infamy” to be crushed).

Hurricane Sandy did not approximate the Lisbon earthquake in its human costs (for that one has to go to the catastrophies that have recently struck Asia). But the old religious questions are certainly still alive.

I have not undertaken an extensive research project on this, but a quick search on the Internet shows that preachers of all kinds have replicated what happened in Europe over three hundred years ago. Not surprisingly, there were radical Muslim sermons in the Middle East proclaiming God’s judgment of infidel America, the embodiment of Satan. I would think that some African-American preachers (of the”damn America” school) are telling their congregations that Sandy is punishment for racism, and that some equally demented white preachers are saying that God is punishing America for having elected a black president. Westboro Baptist Church in Topeka, Kansas, is famous for its hateful picketing of funerals of American soldiers killed overseas. Its website contains an item headed “Sandy—the Wrath of God”, unleashed against America for allowing homosexuality and other sins. There were also, as it were, secularized versions of judgmentalism—editorials that berate the nation for not taking climate change seriously enough: God presumably loves homosexuals, but he sure hates people who doubt that their “carbon footprint” helped cause Sandy. And of course there were other editorials eschewing all metaphysics, simply telling stories of communities pulling together, of individual resilience and courage. Most everyone, from the Middle East to Kansas, would like to blame somebody or something for the disaster. Frederick Neumann, a Protestant theologian I once knew, spoke of “the eternal return of the Stone Age”. Neolithic metaphysics did not include the notion of chance or random events—everything was caused by willful actions, by human or supernatural agents—an “eternal return” indeed. I imagine, though, that even in the Stone Age there were people who pushed aside the question of why these awful things were happening to them and who simply turned to rebuilding their lives.

History is not an ongoing philosophical or theological seminar. Thus it leads to a very distortive view of religion if one only looks at its most sophisticated expressions, which typically filter down to ordinary people, if at all, in very diluted forms. It is equally distortive if one assumes that each major religious tradition ever consisted, or consists now, of a unified body of beliefs and practices. This is an implicit invitation to distortion often extended to participants in interfaith or ecumenical dialogue: Would you now give a Buddhist (or Jewish, or Catholic, or Lutheran…) view of the issue being discussed. This is why such dialogues are frequently negotiations over the boundaries of empirically non-existent countries. There are terrible simplifications—but also useful simplifications. The latter occur when one tries to find one’s way through the near-infinite variety of human religion in order to find some central themes that characterize major traditions. I will engage in an exercise of this sort in what follows. [By the way, a  twentieth-century Swedish theological school had a name for this: “Motif research”. I like this term. It comes of course from music, where one can distinguish between motif and variations in a symphony. The best-known work coming out of that school is by Anders Nygren, Eros and Agape, an analysis of classical Greek and Biblical understandings of love.]

In Christian theology the problem of how to reconcile the existence of suffering and evil with belief in a God who is both omnipotent and benign has been given the name theodicy (loosely translated as the justice, or perhaps the justification, of God). The term has subsequently been adopted outside the Christian tradition. Max Weber, the classical German sociologist of religion, has turned theodicy into a general concept, applicable to any (not necessarily religious) attempt to make sense of suffering and evil. Without for a moment forgetting the enormous diversity within every religious tradition, I have long maintained that human religion in its more sophisticated (if you will, post-Neolithic) manifestations has pivoted around two centers—Jerusalem and Benares—respectively, the city where the Jewish temple stood, where Jesus was crucified and resurrected, and from where Muhammad began his voyage to heaven—and one of the holiest cities of Hinduism, near which the Buddha preached his first sermon. The problem of theodicy looks quite different from these two vantage points.

The problem is sharpest in the three Abrahamic traditions, each characterized by a radical monotheism: There is only one God, the creator and ruler of the world, who is also the God to whom human beings can look for comfort and redemption. As the religion of ancient Israel developed over several centuries, what I have called the persistent Neolithic tradition was at first only modified to the extent that only this one God (rather than a multitude of gods and other supernatural beings) administered punishment by way of this or that affliction. This punitive notion was classically rejected in the Book of Job of the Hebrew Bible: Job is presented as a morally upstanding individual, and the awful things that happened to him could not be understood as divine judgment. The problem of theodicy is not really solved here: The story ends with God revealing himself in all his majesty, before which Job can only stop questioning and submit in worship. In other words: God needs no justification and may not be questioned. [The happy ending in the canonical text, where Job’s fortune is fully restored, is very probably a later addition by some optimistic scribes.]

In later Judaism there were formulations of theodicy going far beyond the simple acceptance of God’s majesty, especially as the belief in resurrection and afterlife arose, first for the people of Israel, then for every faithful individual. Jewish mysticism produced one of the most sophisticated theodicies in the works of the so-called Safed school of kabbalah. The principal figure of this school was Isaac Luria, who taught the doctrine of tzimtzum (literally, contraction): In order to open up space for a world outside himself, God contracted, “drew himself into himself”, so that creation could occur. Luria wrote in the wake of one of the greatest tragedies in Jewish history, the expulsion from Spain in the last years of the 15th century—a cry for redemption out of the experience of exile. As a result of tzimtzum, God himself is in exile from his creation, and so are human beings in exile from him—and he and they can now engage in the repair of the world (tikkun olam), restoring it to the glory for which it was originally intended. I am not sure that I fully understand this line of thinking, but it seems to mean that God himself participates in the suffering of humanity and thus originates the process of redemption—a “justification” indeed. [I was intrigued when my Internet search for religious responses to Sandy led me to an article by Rachel Elior in the Jewish intellectual journal Sh’ma. Elior (who is a professor of Jewish philosophy at the Hebrew University) analyzes different versions of the doctrine of tzimtzum.]

The Christian theodicy is of course focused on the incarnation: God became flesh in the person of Jesus, fully participating in the suffering of the human condition and becoming a victim of evil. In his death Jesus took upon himself all the sins of the world (there are of course very different theological interpretations of this “atonement”—the reconciliation between God and humanity by Jesus’ death on the cross). And by his resurrection Jesus inaugurated the process of redemption, which will culminate in the resurrection of the dead and the day of judgment. There is (or so it seems to me) a curious analogy to tzimtzum in the Christian notion of God’s kenosis (literally, humiliation)—in Jesus God allowed himself to be humiliated—if you will, “contracted”—he has become one of us, and so we can no longer blame him for the pain and injustice in our lives. Be this as it may, there is an important common motif between the two testaments of the Christian Bible: man trying to understand, even struggling with, the one God who first revealed himself to Israel.

Arguably the most complete expression of monotheistic theodicy by way of acceptance is found in Islam. The very word comes from the Arabic ‘aslama, which means submission. It is perfectly symbolized by the Muslim posture at prayer—a submissive prostration before God. Unless one finds the utmost acceptance of God’s inscrutable will in original Calvinism, with its doctrine of double predestination: From the beginning of time, God has decided who will be saved and who damned in eternity, regardless of what either does or fails to do in the time on earth. During the worst period of the persecution of Protestants in Catholic France an individual seeking membership in a Calvinist congregation had to swear that he would abide by the faith unto death and live a virtuous life—even if he were certain that he was among the damned. One may consider this radical Calvinism a perverse mutation of Christianity into a sort of metaphysical masochism (for the record, I do), but it is impossible not to have a reluctant respect for it. In all three Abrahamic traditions, the harsher versions were softened in popular piety and in mystical movements.

The two central motifs of the religious traditions that originated on the Indian subcontinent and from there spread into eastern Asia are samsara and karma—respectively, the endless cycle of reincarnations and the cosmic calculus which determines just how an individual will fare in the next life, depending on his actions in earlier lives. Both in Hinduism and in Buddhism these motifs have been elaborated in extremely sophisticated philosophical systems, but they are also expressed in popular piety. [The curious paradox that all Buddhist schools teach reincarnation while denying the reality of the self cannot concern us here. Let me only mention a great Buddhist text, The Questions of King Milinda, a quasi-Socratic dialogue between the monk Nagasena and a Hellenistic king (Milinda/Menander). Milinda asks about the above-mentioned paradox. Nagasena replies by a metaphor: Imagine a row of candles. Each candle lights the next candle, the fire travels down the row, yet no substance is passed from one candle to another.] Max Weber called the samsara/karma “the most rational theodicy”, because an individual’s fate is, as it were, mathematically determined by his own actions. Every “sentient being”—king or untouchable, god or man (or, for that matter, cockroach) is precisely where he—or she, or it—deserves to be: You have no one to blame but yourself.

There is an interesting theodicy that is both geographically and philosophically in between Jerusalem and Benares: the radical dualism that characterized pre-Islamic Iran (and which, according to some scholars, influenced some heretical movements in Iran even in Islamic times). Zoroaster (or Zarathustra), an Iranian prophet in the sixth century BCE, taught that the universe is the arena of a gigantic struggle between a good and an evil god, Ahura Mazda and Ahriman. The victory of the former is predetermined, but in the meantime only the latter is to be blamed for everything that has gone wrong. Zoroastrianism became for a while the official religion of the Persian empire, then influenced various later religious movements, notably Manichaeism (the faith inaugurated by Mani, another Iranian prophet) and different schools of Gnosticism, all the way down to the Albigensians, who dominated what is now southern France and who were brutally suppressed in a crusade called by Pope Innocent III and lasting from 1209 to 1255. This kind of dualism—let us call it the Persepolis pivot—avoids some of the problems of Jerusalem and Benares, while it creates its own problems (just why is Ahriman’s defeat predetermined?).

I must stop myself before this post degenerates into an overly long lecture in comparative religion, and before I make myself vulnerable to a host of specialists, who will criticize me for outrageous misinterpretations of everyone from Zoroaster to Calvin. But this post will have served a purpose if it has illustrated the enormous range of the religious mind as it confronts the disasters of the human condition.

show comments

  • Wayne Lusvardi

    Sociologist Max Weber borrowed the theological term theodicy and saw it as a social problem of meaning that holds a society together. There are theodicies of suffering and of success. Weber might have been receptive to the concept of a “de-theodicized” technological society that can’t seem to justify either poverty or prosperity.

    For example, in a rationalized, technological society it is possible to know ahead of time if a certain region is prone to an earthquake, a Tsunami or a flood or even a violent hurricane or windstorm. Such events were once viewed as “acts of god.” Now we have learned that even a major earthquake is survivable due to modern building codes. It is the building, not the quake that kills. Same with even the Tohoku Japan tsunami of 2011, which was due to a well-known and mapped subduction earthquake fault on the ocean floor in proximity to northern Japan. And certainly such risks as Hurricane Katrina and the resulting flooding that occurred in 2005 in New Orleans were knowable. A technological society takes the mask off the “acts of god” and reveals them to be a technological problem of lack of modern building codes, zoning flood and earthquake zones, and disaster planning. Was it hurricane Sandy that put out the electric grid along the East Coast of the U.S.; or was it lack of mandating enough back up generators in vulnerable places such as Long Island?

    The recent past national election seemed a contest of theodicies of suffering and of success. A former successful Wall Street fund manager and Mormon was pitted as challenger to an incumbent President. The President believed in bailouts, deficits and the theodicy of racial victimization via Liberation Theology. The Mortgage Bubble and Bank Panic of 2008 certainly fractured any theodicy of success for hedge fund managers and Wall Street moguls. That governments at both the federal and local levels originally devised such bubble policies was less apparent. An incumbent President offering bailouts and deficits and together with the victimization ideology of the Occupy Movement, offered a theodicy of suffering at the hands of “too big to fail” banks and prevailed at the elections. The Tea Party movement offered to cut the federal budget deficit in a sort of anti-theodicy that perhaps backfired. Swing voters did not believe the Mortgage Bubble and resulting managed Depression were “acts of god,” or an accident, or brought about by the welfare state that was there to save them. They apparently believed they were victims of large corporations over which they had no control. They saw the Mortgage Bubble and Depression as man –made. The irony is that the government policies that created such policies were not blamed because the same politicians that devised such policies also promised to save union jobs, pensions and local school district budgets.

    Which all goes to show that if one is going to be a success in politics one needs to reincarnate oneself as the world’s expert on what might be called “theodicy management” – an oxymoronic term that combines Weber’s rationalization concept with Leibniz’s theological understanding of the term.

  • Peter Jessen

    Berger has not only “illustrated the enormous range of the religious mind as it confronts the disasters of the human condition,” he has also illustrated the lengths people will go to in order to exonerate themselves of any blame in any situations (think politicians, legislators, bosses of all kinds, people of all kinds subservient to bosses, regulators, people in authority, parents, individuals in any relationship, etc.) for how they deal with those situations. The obvious exceptions are Buddhism and Hinduism where one’s karma (behavior, to which the gods are also subjected, determines one’s suffering.
    Lusvardi presents the delightful concept of a “ ‘de-theodicized’ technological society that can’t seem to justify either poverty or prosperity.” I’d adjust that to say “that can’t seem to agree on who to blame for poverty or give credit to for prosperity.”

    Today, political parties claim credit or give blame, depending on the issue or situation. In doing so we not only eliminate God as a potential cause, we leave it open to blame “man” if he doesn’t adequately utilize his science to mitigate or prevent natural events by not using his “knowing” accurately. But a de-theodicized technological society would become like Budhism and Hinduism, where individual karma is the source of evil. In doing so one cannot answer the transcendent question, the God hovering above or around or within question, nor does it allow for viewing the various statements of theodicy regarding disasters, natural and man made and individual responses to them from the standpoint of “signals of transcendence.”

    Are not both Berger and Lusvardi illustrating the bets people are willing to make to justify their own actions and remove them from the thought that their consequences could be evil (“unintended” consequences especially) as it relates to natural disasters like Sandy or Katrina both occuring and responses to them, individually and collectively, and how they do or do not enable getting out of poverty or cause people to be put into it?

    Can natural events also, then, be used to generate a process of prosperity for all (including disaster recovery jobs) or just for those who direct the recovery (crony contractors)? How do natural disasters influence people to lean to either democratic or autocratic solutions? Is not the “de-theodicized” technological society a “rational” society seemingly of a collective mind (either government regulations, corporate profit seeking, or a partnership of both?), placing its bets on external causes of evil (Leibniz’s concern), as if they could combine their concern re the origins of evil with Weber’s rationalization and achieve the wonderfully oxymoronic term Lusvardi calls “theodicy management,” in order to be able to believe that they can handle it, but if they can’t it is the blame of others? Hence, it is either individuals (a Republican or a Democratic President or millions of misguided voters on either side – pick one), or groups (government, corporations, unions, etc.). Notice we still haven’t answered the transcendent questions.

    The Soviets and Chinese Communists (think Lenin/Stalin and Mao) bet on their ideology regarding history as theodicy: inevitable end of history with the “last stages of capitalism,” collapse of the West, all going socialist, they coming in as leaders of the final stage, the Alinsky wish for communism. Natural disasters were ignored unless they could be blamed on Capitalism as the evil. Socialism would be the deus ex machina to end all evil.

    We are also confronted with another duality: conservative science or liberal science. That is not as strange as it sounds, as seen in these recent headlines, “China’s new leadership marked by social science and humanities degrees, not science and engineering,” and Blue Science And Red Science,” as these too will impact on policy for dealing with natural disasters.

    So whose bet for theodicy blame will win, the Alinsky grassroots party from the left or the Tea Party grassroots from the right, or some work to achieving a middle ground as the next stage in the evolution of policy and policy conseqences? Will it be the theodicy route of demonizing the other, or forego theodicy and work to find a middle position relative to a substantive discussion on what is the best economic development model for the United States?

    I recommend the new movie “Lincoln” as an excellent example of clashing theodicies (both North and South but also within the North for how to handle the vexing question of slavery). The fillm portrays Lincoln’s solution to ensure the passage of the 13th amendment (ending slavery, by two votes) by using unsavory “means “normally detested in order to achieve a much desired savory “end,” eliminating slavery for all time in the U.S.
    Which leaves us with this question: what theodicy enables a morality tale about an evil that answers the question, “are you sure your end is so savory (meets the “calculi of meaning” and “calculi of pain,“ that you’re willing to use undesired unsavory means to achieve the desired savory ends that satisfactorily “confronta the disasters of the human condition?”

  • Wayne Lusvardi

    Reply to Peter Jessen:

    The question you pose at the end of your comment is the same that the 15th century political thinker Niccolo Machiavelli posed: is it sometimes necessary to do something seemingly bad to result in good consequences for the whole society?

    Machiavelli didn’t mean that you are permitted to do bad and justify it with a theodicy as good. What he meant was that doing good more often ends up the opposite of what was intended. Anybody who has studied social policy should be able to understand that good policies have a tendency to end up bad (as sociologist and U.S. Senator Daniel P. Moynihan pointed out in his book “Maximum Feasible Misunderstanding” about poverty programs).

    I would refer you to an iconoclastic book by Erica Benner titled Machiavelli’s Ethics (Princeton University, 2009). Yes, Machiavelli — mistaken as an unscrupulous thinker who believed in deceptive political manipulation — had an ethical system. His ethics was not based on individual morality but rather “institutional ethics.” He believed it better to have a good law than a good person. On the other hand he believed that a strong ruler who was willing to sacrifice his political career for the betterment of his city was necessary. The sociologist Max Weber borrowed Machiavelli’s ethical approach in his “Ethic of Responsibility.”

    As for the movie on “Lincoln” by Stephen Stielberg released at election time to portray Pres. Obama as the prototype Lincoln, I would point out that Machiavelli”s chief aim was not how to produce deceptive political appearances and rhetoric, but how to see through them.

  • Gary Novak

    Could we say that the Stone Age is a finite province of meaning? It eternally returns because the idea that we are under judgment is a perennial relevance structure in human experience. However much our science allows us to de-theodicize the world, the mystery of being itself leaves us creatures “absolutely dependent” on something outside ourselves. When existence itself is miraculous, it seems perfectly reasonable to view “acts of God” as acts of God. Idiocy arises only at the point where we view the event as God’s answer to the question, “Would you now give the God position on homosexuality?” The numinous itself is the “message.” And the lesson is what Berger describes as “the age-old thought that God’s ways are unknowable and that in the end all things will work out to the good.” In the meantime, we can move into the bulldozer province of meaning and start fixing things. To recognize multiple realities in not to be schizophrenic but to express our faith that this is, indeed, the best of all possible worlds even as we see through a glass, darkly.


    Dear Mr. Berger,

    Thank you for a lovely survey of the range of theodicy from which we may draw inspiration.

    Remarkably, with the growing conscilience of theology and science, we find examination of these sophisticated concepts as nearly often from quantum physics-trained philosophers as from pure theologians: Polkinghorne and kenosis; Gerald Schroeder and tsimtsum and so forth.

    The book of Job is a perfect focus for the difficulty of the subject. None may ever fully extract its wisdom, though Tillich’s exposition in “The New Being” satisfies me like none other – that righteousness alone is never enough for atonement.

    For more than a century, it seemed that a thinking man had to choose between faith or science, yet now that chapter appears to be evolving into a period of mature reconciliation. The human race passing through an initial stage of received knowledge unquestioned following an adolescent period of nearly total existential doubt, resolving into a mature synthesis of advanced science with deeper penetration into the scriptures might parallel the individuals wisdom journey so well described by Twain,
    “When I was a boy of 14, my father was so ignorant I could hardly stand to have the old man around. But when I got to be 21, I was astonished at how much the old man had learned in seven years.”

    Highest regards,


  • R.C.

    Gotta say, the idea that Job’s final status is meant by the original authors to be taken as a “happy ending” seems a hop, skip, and jump away from the ancient Semitic humor evidenced throughout the rest of the book. I think it is a misreading.

    An adult reader is supposed to view this as wry or ironical: Job’s material and familial wealth is restored afterward, but does the author intend the reader to conclude, “This means Job lived happily ever after and was completely unfazed by what happened to him?” I am quite sure a clever rabbi would read it in that tone-of-voice; but he would do so precisely in order to provoke the spluttering “Hey, waitadamnminute!” response that such a suggestion should provoke.

    It should provoke it because it comes from the suggestion that material wealth is a sign of God’s favor and means that a person is righteous and deserves to be blissful; and, conversely, that tragedy and poverty are signs of God’s disfavor and that the person has gravely sinned and deserves to be miserable.

    Which of course is precisely the attitude that the book of Job is intended to undermine: No, ill-fortune doesn’t mean the person sinned (or, even is unhappy); and, no, good-fortune doesn’t mean the person is righteous (or, even is happy).

    So the book of Job ends brilliantly, and in perfect accord with the whole of the rest: It is jarring because it is meant to be jarring: It is playing “shave and a haircut, two bits” on a kazoo at the end of a war requiem precisely to get the audience shouting at the inappropriateness of it…which puts them all loudly championing the very point the original author was making.

  • teapartydoc

    Theodicy is only a “problem” for academic theologians. Living in a fallen world is what we do and what we are.

  • Peter Jessen

    Reply to Wayne Lusvardi (see #4 above). Lisvardi provides another unique way of dealing with the key question of Berger’s piece, which is also a question of whether those dealing in policy development and execution are prepared for dealing with unintended consequences (that always occur). Lusvardi’s Machiavelli question is timely, especially in both personal and institutional responses to disasters: “is it sometimes necessary to do something seemingly bad to result in good consequences for the whole society?” The perennial question is at what level of responsibility should action be taken, national or local, or a blend? This brings us back to what none are immune, whether religious or secular: “unintended consequences.” They are unavoidable due to the imperfect nature of the human condition.

    My sense is that the unique aspect of “checks and balances” institutionalized in America’s constitution, is a way to minimize the Machiavellian soul-selling decision to do bad to achieve good. It would be interesting to see how Machiavelli would have framed his ethics had he the American constitutional system of democracy blending the personal and social, the individual and institutional, and how he would have dealt with the “dialectic of correction” (Weber’s dialectic as “reciprocal causation of reality”) in decisions that have to be made between the times citizens go to the polls to vote, making it much easier to deal with competing opinions and facts about the common good and the scheme of “obligations” (government and/or individual), that must be exercised, especially in times of such major disasters, by national or local authorities or both.

    Needless to say this applies to any policy deliberations to correct this or that perceived ill confronting the citizens or the country or the earth or whatever / whoever, especially when seen as the unintended consequences of policy in dealing with disasters, as the mind (religious or secular) simultaneously confronts “the disasters of the human condition” in play while dealing with any kind of disaster, natural or man-made, and their impacts on both the individual and the individual’s institutions (religious or secular, governmental or corporate, community or family).

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