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 CNS Story:

TSUNAMI-QUESTIONS Jan-7-2005 (770 words) Backgrounder. With photos. xxxi

When disaster strikes, people ask: Why does God allow suffering?

By Deborah Gyapong
Catholic News Service

OTTAWA (CNS) -- If God is all-powerful and all-good, why does he permit suffering on the scale of the tsunamis that devastated South and Southeast Asia?

Any time tragedy strikes, theological questions arise about how one can defend the goodness and sovereignty of God, a branch of theology called theodicy.

In the news media and on Internet blogs, or Web logs, theologians and journalists are weighing in with their arguments and explanations after the Dec. 26 Indian Ocean disaster.

Anglican Archbishop Rowan Williams of Canterbury, England, created controversy with a column published in the British newspaper The Sunday Telegraph. The headline was: "Of course this makes us doubt God's existence."

Archbishop Williams later objected to the headline, but he wrote in his column: "Every single random, accidental death is something that should upset a faith bound up with comfort and ready answers. Faced with the paralyzing magnitude of a disaster like this, we naturally feel more deeply outraged -- and also more deeply helpless.

"The question 'How can you believe in a God who permits suffering on this scale?' is therefore very much around at the moment, and it would be surprising if it weren't -- indeed it would be wrong if it weren't," he wrote.

In a Jan. 3 blog at www.crosswalk.com/news/weblogs/mohler, the president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, the Rev. Albert Mohler, described Archbishop Williams' column as "how not to give a Christian answer."

Rev. Mohler wrote that he agreed with remarks made by the Anglican dean of Sydney, Australia, the Rev. Phillip Jensen, who described the natural disaster as a warning of the coming of God's judgment.

On Jan. 3, LifeSite News posted a news story culled from various international sources that quoted Bishop Aleixo das Neves Dias of Port Blair, India, as saying, "I believe that the tsunami is a warning, a warning from God to reflect deeply on the way we lead our lives."

Montreal Cardinal Jean-Claude Turcotte told the French-language newspaper Le Devoir that he categorically rejected any notion of a vengeful God and pointed out that it is normal and sane to ask questions in the face of a catastrophe.

In a Jan. 5 article, Cardinal Turcotte said that people always have been in revolt against the Creator and that God is not a puppeteer controlling events. He said people should not pray for a magical healing or for a supernatural intervention, but for the strength and courage to pass through a trial or ordeal in the way that Jesus did.

The director of the theology secretariat at the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops, Father Richard Cote, said he has been following the debate with great interest.

In a Jan. 5 interview, Father Cote, said, "There is a deep connivance between the good news and bad news" and that Jesus would not have come if it were not for the bad news of fallen humanity.

In an e-mail interview Jan. 6, Bishop Frederick Henry of Calgary, Alberta, echoed this thought.

"The crib and the cross are part of the one mystery of the Incarnation, and there really isn't much distance between Bethlehem and Calvary," Bishop Henry said. "Reading this more in the light of the various pre-Christmas idyllic prophecies of Isaiah and about all the nations coming together, I am filled with a spirit of wonder and awe at how all peoples are coming together to respond to the needs of Christ suffering in his people.

"As to why did this happen? I have been responding by saying 'Ask the scientists,'" he added.

Father Cote, too, said that the earthquake was a "purely seismic natural phenomenon."

He said that God made a material world, with laws of gravity, and that he is not an interventionist.

"God suffers when we suffer," he said. "He does not force his love on us like a tidal wave.

"The Christian God is a God of vulnerability," he said. "The biggest risk God takes is to love us unconditionally. God is forever taking risks.

"He's in our shoes. God has stepped into our shoes in solidarity with us in all things," Father Cote said. "He shared in our humanity to show that he did not make a mistake when he created you and me."

Father Cote said that questioning, doubting and ambiguity are "not contrary to faith properly understood."

He said he thinks it is good to question, that it "takes us out of our complacency" as people struggle to interpret the answer to the question that Jesus poses to every age: "Who do people say I am?"


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