The National Catholic Review
Daniel J. Harrington

In their frequency, severity and devastation, natural disasters (floods, wildfires and earthquakes) and human disasters (suicide bombings, drone airstrikes and gigantic oil spills) have become all too frequent in recent times. Their frequency tends to muffle the hard philosophical and theological questions that these events should bring to the public forum: Where is God in these disasters? Why do innocent persons suffer in them? Can anything good come out of these tragic events?

Here is a book by a veteran biblical theologian that bravely takes on these difficult questions in the context of the God and the world we meet in the Old Testament. Fretheim, professor of Old Testament at Luther Seminary in Minneapolis, considers how we might speak of God’s relationship to natural disasters and the suffering and death related to them both in biblical times and now. Writing as an exegete and biblical theologian, he deals with the biblical texts as they stand in the Bible, though he is thoroughly conversant with the debates regarding their historicity. He insists that in dealing with natural disasters and suffering we not let God off the hook. After all, it is God’s creation that we are talking about.

In treating the biblical creation narratives in Genesis 1–2, Fretheim contends that God created the world as good but not perfect (in the sense of a finished product, wrapped up with a big red bow and handed over to creatures to keep it exactly as it was created). While God did bring order out of chaos in the act of creating, the creation God gave us still has elements of “messiness” about it. That is because God has given a certain amount of freedom not only to us humans but also to all the forces in creation. The God revealed in Genesis 1–2 uses already existing creatures as material for creating new creatures, invites nonhuman creatures and the divine assembly to participate in creation and gives to humans an important role in further creating activities. Natural disasters happen when those factors collide and produce further “messiness.” Nevertheless, natural disasters may also then be an integral part in God’s way of bringing an ever new creation into being.

The account of Noah and the flood in Genesis 6–9 raises the issue of the role of human sin in natural disasters. Here again Fretheim is primarily concerned with the characterization of the God who has entered into genuine relationship with the world and uses natural agents (like flood waters) to carry out his acts of judgment. This God is also deeply and personally moved by these events, regrets what has happened with humankind in resisting God’s will for creation, changes his strategy and charts new directions for dealing with the problem of sin and evil. He observes that the flood story shows that though human wickedness can make natural disasters worse, such disasters and suffering may come simply because God’s world is quite dynamic and sometimes unpredictable, random and wild.

We often skip over the fact that many of the causes of suffering for Job and his family are natural disasters like windstorms, lightning and fires, and disease. When looked at through the lens of natural disasters and communal suffering, the book of Job deals with human suffering in the context of the complex natural order that God has created. This is the fundamental point of God’s speeches from the whirlwind in Chapters 38–41. They emphasize that humans are finite, that God has created a dynamic (and sometimes turbulent and unruly) world and that God uses natural agents in creating the world. These speeches force Job to revise his legal, retributive justice-oriented view of God’s creation and to rethink how God works in and through the world.

The textual analyses of Genesis 1–2 and 6–9, as well as the book of Job, lead into more general considerations of suffering and the God of the Old Testament. Here Fretheim insists on the importance of suffering people asking the “Why?” question and explains several biblical responses to it: Suffering is part of God’s good creation; the consequence of sin and evil; the tragic effect of sin over time; and/or the effect of vocational choice (the Suffering Servant of Second Isaiah and Jesus of Nazareth).

In the final chapter, devoted to faith and prayer, Fretheim argues that in the context of natural disasters and human suffering prayer may be considered an aspect of the gift of the relationship that God has established with humankind, whereby God and humans can meaningfully interact with one another. He maintains that this relationship is fundamental to thinking about the God of the Bible and the association of God and the world. In this context, prayer (especially lament and intercession) has an effect on the one who prays, on the relationship between the one who prays and God, on God and on persons or situations for which one is praying.

In dealing with the serious questions that emerge from natural and human disasters, Fretheim resists the temptation to find a single and/or easy answer. Rather, he forces us to rethink (like Job) who God is and how God relates to us and our world. For him, relationship, interdependence and freedom are the ways in which the God of the Bible shares his creative activity with his creatures, human and otherwise. He concludes that God has not created a world free of vulnerability and has chosen not to manage the world so that no one gets hurt. Indeed, the potential for suffering, he says, on the part of humans and animals is the cost of living in such a creative place.

While creation is ultimately in God’s hands, in the meantime we are called to genuine engagement with God and the world in the conviction that the decisions we take will have significant implications for the future of this untamed creation and even for the nature of God’s future.

Daniel J. Harrington S.J., is professor of New Testament at Boston College School of Theology and Ministry, and editor of New Testament Abstracts.

Comments

MaryAnn O'Donnell | 9/29/2010 - 10:08pm

Not too long ago when I attended mass daily and it was a part of my life I also subscribed to America. Now I don't go to mass regularly, I do pray, and I do know God exists and made me and our world. Tonight I was restless and for some reason decided to try America again. Then came upon this review about a book about suffering.
The world being what it is how can you not think about suffering? OK, years ago I actually had a spiritual experience. (I don't talk about this at all generally, it makes people roll their eyes.) I say this because since that day there is no way I can deny God. OK?
Now suffering, we all do this off and on, but pain, loss, loneliness, despair, what is this in my basically comfortable world? A loved 20 year old granddaughter will be deployed to Afghanistan in January and sometimes I pray about this and I cry. Now in Afghanistan there is suffering by people that don't want it and can't understand it except it's a way of life. Also in Iraq, Iran, Pakistan, India and Greece and parts of Europe where good people are hungry and worry too. When I can I send money, I live a very simple life with not many needs and helping makes it worthwhile. God wants all of us to care, but we don't all care and we don't understand why not except some people just are not like that. In the middle of the night you realize there is someone (there are many, but you can't handle them all at once),  there is a mother holding a starving child. Your stomach is comfortable. You can't reach her. You ask God to help her, please. You don't blame Him, you blame the people that should keep this from happening and you pray they will change, or the war will stop or the rains and floods or the economy will change. You let the tears flow because you think that will help too.  Torture, yes, there are people dying in unspeakable ways, what would you say to them?  "hey, God didn't make the world perfect, we're supposed to do that and maybe some day we will."
My night-time worries, and they happen during the day too, make me aware that some place some one knows suffering as I have never known it. I know bad evil things hurt God too and He doesn't send disasters to show us what He can do.
I better quit. I guess I am thinking this book review left me empty, like last Sundays mass where we were entertained by 78 men home from an ACTS retreat standing arm in arm singing us a hymn (somewhat off key) I know they all do, or will, or have suffered. I said a prayer for them, but I guess I won't lose sleep over this. Your author seems to say we should ask God why we suffer. I quit that, but I feel I'm sitting with Him. 


 

6466379 | 9/27/2010 - 4:40pm
I read with huge interest the review by Jesuit priest, Professor Daniel J. Harrington, of T.E. Fretheim's "Creation Untamed" and now must get the book! In the meantime I venture the following commentary.

Theologian Fretheim points out that, God deals (as if in a game of Cards?) relative to the work of his hands with interdependence that's also relational and free. This makes sense to me realizing that the Deity of Scripture is Trinitarian and as such is interdependent, relational and perfectly free.

This Triune Conglomerate of Being, defines God without which love is not possible. We are told "God is love." I think its safe to say that, all creation has evolved one thing from the other, imprinted with identifying fingerprints of the Triune Deity who proceeds, evolution-like, one from the other, Father, Son, Spirit, an Evolutionary Being I would say we called "Blessed." Therefrom all creation is blessed, or "good" as God's Word says.

Theologian Fretheim suggests that creation can result in "messiness" giving rise to natural and human disasters, including suffering. Now here's a big hypothetical leap maybe smack into a stone wall of the preposterous, asking if this thing called "suffering" which shares connective tissue to all human and natural disasters, is the result of an evolutionary mistake, a misstep in evolution's primordial dance, a zig rather than a zag, the other way around resulting in something altogether "other" maybe a reality devoid of suffering and disaster of every kind? Would this exonerate God from any direct connection to suffering and all calamitous events?

This may be true, but we also know that God used suffering and calamity to achieve Redemption, making this whole thing practically unfathonable!

Theologian Fretheim also asserts that God has given a certain amount of freedom to all the forces of creation. This seems to validate another assertion, one by Jesuit priest William J. O'Malley (12/10/07 AMERICA) where we discover that, "Given evolution's ability to adapt, to innovate, to test and experiment, that sooner or later it would have given to the Creator exactly what he was looking for." Fretheim's "messiness" a part of the whole. This because, "Divine wizardy is in the power and fecundity of the universe itself" again quoting Fr. O'Malley and spotlighting it seems to me, "Creation Untamed"  because "God gave the universe its own creativity, its own dynamism and he works with the universe rather than dominating it" this according to priest-scientist and astromoner, George V' Coyne, S.J. Everything nicely synthesized by P.T. de Chardin in his masterpiece, "The Phenomenon Of Man," where he said, "God makes things make themselves!"

What an impressive display by Fretheim, Harringtom, O'Malley, Coyne, de Chardin, baton-holders all, in the symphonic orchestration of God's creation music!

There's so much more that needs to be said but it would take reams of posting space to say it all. In closing I'd like to say how consoling that Theologian Fretheim recommends that in suffering et al, people should freely ask, "Why?"It seems so inhuman not to ask! Maybe that's why on the Cross Jesus didn't shy away stoically from asking his Father, "Why?"Does this mean that even God in the person of Jesus, who is "One with the Father" shook his head in disbelief at suffering, effectively agonizing with his son's words, now rendered, "Maybe I shouldn't have let things get so messey!"

I'm especially thankful to Theologian Fretheim for insisting on the supremacy of prayer in coming to grips with the messed-up, yet beautiful  room in which we live. In prayer we glimpse the happy ending of the story where we discover that "For those who love God( the Creator) all things work together unto good." To which St. Augustine added, "even sin" That's something he knew a lot about, not to mention as well Adam and Eve, chosen from the human gene pool to be First Parents of the First Family of God, spiralling to the Mystical Body of Christ, the Church, the most perfect Family of God, not biologically but through Grace!