Human engineering prowess has long sought to protect people from the sorts of natural disasters that have struck the nation’s midsection over the last several weeks. Some survivors of these recent storms, however, see God’s hand–rather than successful building design or random luck–in their exemption from the devastation that struck down their neighbors. In Alabama, where almost 200 people were killed by tornadoes at the end of April, a Birmingham minister
spoke of the miracles of the disaster — the people who cheated death; the buildings, like his church, that somehow remained. He talked about trusting in God in times of trouble.
In Joplin, Missouri, hit by the deadliest twister of the season last week, some congregants at the Blendville Christian Church
spoke of their own miracles that kept them alive.
“How many of you have prayed this week?” asked Virgil Eubanks, 60, the pastor.
A chorus of hands shot up. “Oh yeah,” he continued. “If this didn’t catch you up on your prayer life there’s something wrong with you.”
One doesn’t want to deny survivors of cataclysm whatever emotional succor they can find during a period of undeserved loss. Still, it is always puzzling to me how believers can attribute their escape from calamity to God’s protection without feeling compelled to explain why God did not extend that protection to other people not clearly less deserving than themselves. If God was capable of working a “miracle” to prevent you from death by tornado in Missouri or Alabama, why didn’t he work that same miracle to save your neighbors? (We will leave aside the added puzzle of why God would allow the natural cataclysm to proceed in the first place and confine himself to piecemeal, after-the-fact efforts to mitigate its effects for a select number of survivors.) The implication of attributing one’s own good fortune amid a wave of misfortune to God is inescapable: God cared for me more than for the deceased victims. Yet only rarely does this implication seem to break through into a believer’s consciousness.
When it does cast a faint shadow of cognitive discomfort, there are two main strategies for responding. The first: “God works in mysterious ways. We cannot begin to fathom his judgments.” Oh, but you just claimed that you recognize his hand in your escape from natural disaster, so his ways are in fact not mysterious to you. These days, Catholic apologists in particular stress the rationality of religious faith. If faith is so consistent with rationality, it should be able to offer a cogent explanation for why God worked a “miracle” on this person’s behalf, but not on the next person’s behalf. I have yet to see such an explanation.
The second strategy for responding to the inconsistent application of “miracles” is less frequently essayed today: “God was showing his infinite love to the casualties of a disaster, because now they have entered heaven ahead of the queue and are enjoying his love face to face.” Perhaps when death mowed down children and young mothers on a routine basis, this “now they are in heaven” justification for premature and random death may have seemed more palatable, since so many innocents were enjoying this windfall. But now that medical science has fulfilled its promise of long delaying this allegedly gratifying early entry into heaven, and has made manifest how desperately we want to put off that heavenly entry, it becomes a bit harder to portray premature death as a boon.
The solipsism of faith truly knows no bounds. As the devastation from the March Japanese tsunami was grimly mounting, an Iowa pastor claimed that God helped unseat three Iowa state justices who had voted to allow same sex-marriage:
“God used David Lane [a born-again Christian organizer] and his sphere of influence to bring together all the elements” of the campaign to oust the justices, [pastor Jeffrey] Mullen said.
However important an Iowa judicial recall regarding gay marriage may be to God, you would think that saving over 10,000 Japanese innocents from death and hundreds of thousands of Japanese residents from total upheaval would also be worth a certain amount of attention. But if Pastor Mullen has ever considered why God stopped by in Iowa City but not in Fukushima, he doesn’t let on. And as the world was still taking in the magnitude of the Japanese destruction, a member of my family told me that she prays to God whenever a wild bird flies through an open door into her house and that God guides it back out. She also asks God to send his angels to hold up the back of her property against landslides. If we are made in God’s image, we obviously come by our inability to think outside of ourselves in a consistent, neutral fashion from a good source.