On 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.