The Catholic Thing
Job and the Haitians Print E-mail
By Robert Royal   
Sunday, 24 January 2010

The images coming out of Haiti are enough to render anyone speechless. I just saw a black boy on television, maybe three-years-old, lying semi-conscious with eyes half-open on a blanket in one of the improvised hospitals. He has bad head trauma and severe neurological damage. Doctors say death is a matter of time. How many more are there just like him – and how many, even now, still linger on, trapped horribly beneath the wreckage? Such suffering is hard to think about for long. It’s a rare human moment when you can say that those who died right away – in this case maybe 200,000 – were lucky. The dead, many of them children, seem to us victims of a pitiless fate. If they had died by an act of man rather than an act of God, we would consider it monstrous. And several non-believers have argued, as they usually do on such occasions, that there is no God, at least not a loving one. Nature is merely a machine and indifferent to our plans and very lives.

The Haitians themselves in surprising numbers have shown a very different, very Christian response. What can you say of a people who gather together in the evenings to sing hymns after such a disaster, except that they are far more faith-filled than most of us? We Christians of the developed world – at least those of us who do not believe the presumptuous nonsense of people like Pat Robertson and Haiti’s alleged “pact with the Devil” – haven’t the heart to face a reality like this without turning away in search of “explanations.” Maybe we should just stop that. Orthodox Christians often criticize extreme environmentalists for their nature worship. How many of us do something similar when we assume that nature would be a perfect and benign order, if only we weren’t always messing it up?

We do mess it up, but often have good reasons. Our ancestors had to scratch out a living from a tough environment. They would remind us, if they were still alive, of what it took to get us to the point of luxury from which we indulge in environmental illusions. The fact is that nature shows a double face to us. It is the Creation, the good gift from God. Genesis affirms this early on and is right to, because that truth is not as self-evident as centuries of Judaism and Christianity have taught us to believe. Philosophies like Platonism and Stoicism, using purely rational analysis, viewed the world as basically something to be transcended or endured. There are also plenty of religions, and always have been, that flee the world and even the human body. Augustine’s Manichees and the medieval Albigensians were just the most notorious of many in the West. And it’s clear that Eastern religions such as Hinduism and Buddhism seek release from life, gently and with a real dignity it should be said. Authentic Biblical faith is almost unique in affirming the goodness of this world.

Even for a Christian, when we perceive the “sublimity” of nature, we should recall that nature itself is not sublime. Rather, on occasion, it powerfully conveys a sense, as the Psalmist and St. Paul tell us, of its Maker. Some of the sillier segments of our popular culture, films like Avatar and the environmental extremists, take this otherwise perfectly sound truth, exaggerate it, and try to make anyone who notices other, inconvenient truths about reality appear obtuse or simply greedy.

But in addition to its divine face, the world mostly obeys certain physical laws that are indifferent to us, and were even prior to the Fall. The earth’s crust is made up of tectonic plates, which float on molten rock. Those plates push against each other and in the process create mountains and other geological features over long periods – as well as the abrupt shifts we call earthquakes. We do not know how unfallen human nature would have reacted to Earth’s rumblings, but we should be clear that they are built into the very fabric of the planet God made for us, which raises some important religious questions.

In 1755, there was a massive earthquake in Lisbon which killed tens of thousands including many gathered in the Lisbon cathedral. Thinkers all over the world tried to understand the event. As usual, silly explanations arose, including some by Pat-Robertson-like Catholic clergy who opined that the Portuguese must have been especially wicked and deserved the wrath of God. The event also gave a new spur to theodicy – the attempt to justify God’s allowing such things to happen – as over against the Pollyannaish notion that we live “in the best of all possible worlds.” As you may have noticed, despite much ingenious effort, there still aren’t very good explanations for why God permits such things to happen.

The Bible itself recognizes this. What is the Book of Job if not a frank admission of the ills of the world and, standing above and beyond them like the hymns of the Haitians, a trust that the one who made the world knows what it should be? And that we don’t. Without that faith, the world would often enough look very bleak indeed. There’s an understandable human tendency to want an answer to this hardest, perhaps, of all questions, what Augustine called the mysterium iniquitatis, the mystery of evil. Jesus himself did not answer directly when asked about people killed in the fall of a tower, and denied that a man was crippled because of his or his parents’sins. The mystery of evil like the mystery of God is something we can contemplate. But it is not a problem we can solve. It appears God thought it better that way.

And better to say with Job and the Haitians, it seems, though He slay me, yet will I trust in Him.


Robert Royal is editor-in-chief of The Catholic Thing, and president of the Faith & Reason Institute in Washington, D.C. His most recent book is The God That Did Not Fail: How Religion Built and Sustains the West

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Comments (7)Add Comment
Job and Haitians
written by Joseph, January 25, 2010
The difference is that in the end Job got back everything, doubled, while the vast majority of surviving Haitians are facing hell on earth for the rest of their lives. Did God allow Satan to remove the hedge around these poor pitiful people? What hedge? Well, I see no parallels between a man who begins with everything and winds up with everything, and a people who have nothing winding up with nothing. They are worlds apart.
Nature herself may not but evil, but she is one mean Mother.
The Problem of Evil
written by Willie, January 25, 2010
Professor, one must wonder if the geological conditions allowing natural disasters existed before the fall. Man seems to have no control of these evil happenings. What a slap in the face to man in this age whereby man is like a god, so advanced himself in scientific achievement and environmental control! Could it just be that the Creator allows these disasters to remind man of his damnable hubris. If there is any good that comes out of these disasters it has to be the human charity elicited.
my 7.1 earthquake
written by debby, January 25, 2010
my prayer is that when the earth quakes in my life,
when the mountains fall and the hills turn to dust,
that i might be found like those faith-filled brothers
and sisters of mine in Haiti, singing hymns to God.
at the end of the day, or life, there is only one question.
do i REALLY embrace Him back-no matter what?
The End is Not Written
written by Deacon Sean Smith, January 25, 2010
If we only read half of the Book of Job, it appears like Job lost everything, too, with no recompense. The truth is, we are not even halfway through the story of Haiti. The end has not yet been written. There is still great opportunity that in spite of their loss, that Haiti as a nation and as a people will be the stronger for it. How our story intersects with theirs will go a long way to writing the end of both of our stories.
written by Liz, January 25, 2010
Joseph you have missed the point - it has nothing to do with what we wind up with in this world - it is still only stuff. It is how we get through it that matters. God gives us the strength we need to get through anything - we just have to ask.
written by Joseph, January 25, 2010
Liz, I know many who have asked and never received, many who have sought and never found, and knocked and found nothing beyond the door. Perhaps, Calvin was right and God predetermines who will be saved and who will be lost. Did the Pharaoh or the blind man have any free will or were they merely props to serve God's purpose? The potter makes the clay, and the clay has no choice how it is molded. If faith is a gift, as it is said to be, then not all receive. Prayers go unanswered for many.
TO Joseph
written by Achilles, January 26, 2010
Dear Joseph, we have 3 kinds of eyes, the ones in our head, our minds eye, intellect, and our heart's eye- Life looked at through any combinitation of the first two and all is confusion, but looked at by the heart, clarity. I pray for your peace, please pray for me too!
P.S. Soren Kierkegaard has some interesting thoughts in the first 2 chapters of his Philosophical Fragments on the birth of the spirit, maybe it will illuminate.

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