Of all the immediate responses to the enormous tragedy of the Southeast Asian tsunami catastrophe, the two most misguided were (1) the silly allegations that the U. S. was not responsive enough in timing or financial commitment, and (2) the continuing questions, “where was God?” or “why would God allow this to happen?”. To the first of these, suffice to say that any critics of American response should now have been entirely silenced, if not embarrassed, by the now obvious fact that the U. S. is totally dominating the relief and recovery effort, and, in fact, has shown that its logistical capabilities to do so effectively dwarf all other humanitarian relief capabilities, most conspicuously those of the U. N. And, incidentally, where is the Islamic world in this effort? The last time I noticed, the Arab countries were virtual “no shows” in relief of this devastation, which was primarily centered on Muslim populations. So much for Islamic solidarity.
As to the question of God’s role, this is probably one of the most enduring mysteries of faith, entangled as it is with the issue of theodicy, or the problem of evil in a world created by a benevolent, loving Creator. Although it is human to wonder why bad things happen to innocent people and what sort of God would let a thing like this happen, our postmodern intellectual climate has damaged our capacity to respond. To this question, two Jewish Rabbis had the best responses I have seen. Jonathan Sacks recalled the teaching of Maimonides that natural disasters have no explanation other than that God, by placing us in a physical world, set life within the parameters of the physical. Nature is not benign in this world—sometimes innocents die—and we are called upon to be “partners in the work of creation”. Daniel Lapin reminds us that God runs this world with as little supernaturalism as possible, and gave us the intelligence and commanded us to make ourselves less vulnerable to nature. And, while the casualties cannot be blamed on human actions, many of them can be blamed on human inactions, such as failure to provide warning systems or, I would add, the failure to allow countries like Sri Lanka to participate fully in the global trading system by eliminating tariffs and other impediments so that they and other developing nations can have an opportunity to build better infrastructure and fend for themselves against nature.
There is in these questions, I sense, an element of what the ancient Greeks called acedia, the fear of things spiritual, or, in more current terms, fear of a transcendence that our all-seeing and all-powerful science cannot and will not ever fully explain. In this world, there are no guarantees.