Thursday, 14 January 2010

The Mystery of Suffering and the Mystery of Good: reflecting on the earthquake in Haiti

ZENIT carries a report today of the situation in Haiti, following the earthquake that happened two days ago. The Catholic News Agency carries a report here, which includes the call of Pope Benedict for prayers and practical assistance to the people of Haiti. As well as giving some indication of the situation of the people of Port-au-Prince and of the religious and seminarians, the reports say that the Archbishop of the diocese of Port-au-Prince is one of those who have been killed by the earthquake. The most recent BBC News website coverage is here.

The Today Programme - BBC Radio's flagship news/current affairs programme - this morning carried a package that asked the question: "Where is God in Haiti?". The package opens with an account of a testimony published in the Guardian newspaper, and there follows an interview with the Archbishop of York.

Archbishop Sentamu  answers this question by saying that, in the light of Christmas when God becomes man, we should say that God is with the people of Haiti, beside them at this time. He also points out that God is like Christ - who was broken and mutilated on the cross. In that sense, for the Christian, we can try to understand the experience of the people of Haiti as a sharing in the suffering experience of God himself. Quite rightly, Archbishop Sentamu rejects any suggestion that an event such as this is a punishment for wrong doing that can be attributed in any way, however remotely, to those who are suffering.

But, as Archbishop Sentamu was asked in the interview, why does an all powerful and merciful God allow such an event? [It is interesting that such a question can be asked of God as understood in Islam, as well as of God as understood in Christianity.] The first part of an academic answer to this question needs to recognise that what we learn about God from the events of the world around us, and what we learn about God from the sources of his revelation to us, cannot in principle be opposed. In a theological language, it is the same God who is both creator and saviour/redeemer.

The second step is to recognise the reality of the suffering (or, if one wants to use the term, the physical evil) that is shown in the consequences of an event such as the earthquake in Haiti. It is truly awful, horrible, indescribable - shocking to the extent that it really should disturb us. It represents in the fullest and deepest sense part of the mystery of suffering, a mystery that we are challenged to understand. Part of this mystery, expressed in the testimony quoted at the beginning of the BBC Today Programme package, is the question of why one person might survive when another does not, why an earthquake might devastate Haiti but not the London.

For the Christian, however, this mystery of suffering includes a "new" element. Through his suffering on the Cross, Jesus redeems this mystery of suffering and, without denying its reality as a mystery of suffering which it still remains, enables it to have an orientation towards a mystery of good. In the living of the Christian life, this is most fundamentally a matter of grace - God's freely given gift of himself to his people - and so it makes absolute sense for the Christian to engage with it in the realm of grace. This is why Christians pray for those who are suffering, pray for the relief of their suffering and the healing and welfare of the survivors; and they say that they are doing so as an act of solidarity that makes visible the solidarity existing in the realm of grace.

This mystery of good also has its physical expression in practical solidarity and aid being sent to the people of Haiti. The mystery of good is both individual and institutional - so the aid, both practical in terms of skilled personnel and equipment and material in the form of food, medicines etc, that come from the nations and aid agencies of the world are a participation in the mystery of good. And, of course, it is not only believers who take part in this mystery of good.

At this moment, in reflecting on a particularly awful and powerful manifestation of the mystery of suffering which is still part of our headline news, it is perhaps not appropriate to ask how that mystery of suffering comes to be part of our world. Such a question is for another time. But, for the moment, we can keep in mind that mystery of good which is a counterpart to the mystery of suffering. The new media - the internet and satellite telephone communication - enable us who are far from these events to have an experience of this that would not otherwise be possible.


Anonymous said...

tedious verbiage

there's no god and you know it

Francis said...

Fundamentally, this is a variation on the old 'problem of evil' question. How can God stand by and let people do evil things/bad things happen to people.

I'm surprised that Radio 4 wasted time on asking the question.

If you don't believe in God, then the question doesn't arise (he wasn't anywhere).

If you do believe in God, or are trying to embarrass believers, the Church has given its answer time and time again. You can easily look it up on t'internet.

Joe said...


I certainly found it quite interesting that the Today programme did choose to include the package that it did, and to include it in the way that they did. Does it say something about a (growing) place for religious belief in the (secular) world?

Francis said...

Perhaps you are in danger of being too Eurocentric, Joe. As far as I can tell it's the norm to believe in God in North and South America, in India and much of Asia. So it might say something about a growing place for religious belief in secular Europe.

You may be right. I think I'd rather people believed in Christianity, Judaism, Islam than the healing power of crystals. The odd thing about many secualrists is that they reject religion only to embrace utter nonsense!

Joe said...


I had been sitting on what now appears as the first comment to this post, wondering how and whether or not to post it. The presumption it shows about my own views made me hesitate to post it - I don't feel I should post ad hominem remarks; but, I thought, should I post it with a suggestion that the original commenter add an explanation of what sense he/she makes of events like those in Haiti.

I think your last observation sets them the challenge!

Joe said...

See also this post at Communio, which is part of an interview with Cardinal Josef Cordes:

Francis said...

It may reflect a gap in my edication but I had never come across the term ad hominem until I started reading comments on blogs. Since then I come across the term frequently...which tells us lots about what happens on blogs.

I suspect the reason why people reject religion but embrace New Age beliefs (BTW, have you noticed that New Agers are always in need of healing? Another theme is that they use authentic, ancient if this was a recommendation. The last thing I would want is for my doctor to be treating me with medieval simples!)
is that there is a deep human need for the reassurance religion offers. I think if you reject the idea of god (as I do) then be grown up about it and accept the consequences/implications. I see no logic in scoffing at, say, god speaking to St. Joseph in a dream and then making a dream catcher for your bedroom window.

As for the first comment, I agree with you that by and large it is pointless posting name-calling. In fact, it's often a sign that somebody is afraid of joining a debate. Or that they are so uitterly ignorant they are unable to participate.

Joe said...

I tried to word my original post so that, even if someone did not believe in God, they might be able to see something in the idea of a certain level of good that is reflected in, for example, the response of the international community to the suffering that has arisen in Haiti - though that does not make the suffering itself in any sense good. [I think that accidentally contributed to the perception of "tedious verbiage".] Even if someone does not accept the articulation of that in the context of Christian faith, is there not some possibility of seeing in it, just at a human level, a degree of meaning in the events in Haiti?

Francis said...

In answer to your final question: yes. I think looking for meaning is inbuilt into human consciousness. So,even without supposing the existence of a God, we can find meaning in the suffering of the people of Haiti, just as we can find meaning in the suffering of people closer to home.

Anonymous said...

I think I'm inclined to agree with the first comment. You can dress this up in the Emperor's clothes all you like but fundamentally it doesn't come down to a question of whether God is suffering the consequences alongside the Haitians or of whether humanity finds some kind of meaning or redemption in the act of trying to sort out the mess after the event.

All that stuff is irrelevant unless you're suggesting that the purpose of the earthquake was to set the scene to allow these things to happen. I sincerely hope that's not what you're suggesting because that would be simply monstrous.

What it actually comes down to is the fact that God caused tens of thousands of innocent victims to die for no discernable reason. This is the crux of the matter and is a point you seem to have failed to address. John Humphreys repeatedly asked this question of John Sentamu and he received no reply either.

Joe said...


Thank you for your comment.

I have carefully emphasised in my reflections that I do not intend to in any way compromise the idea that an event like the earthquake in Haiti is an evil, a real suffering. So the idea that the earthquake occured just to set the scene for "the positive" is as abhorrent to me as it is to you.

If someone is not a Christian, then the question of (God's) causality of an event like the earthquake is perhaps the only question - which is likely to be answered by saying that God does not exist. But, not just in the context of Haiti, there is an apparent good in the world, as well as the evil. So, as well as exploring more fully what is intended by the word "cause" in this context, a full account will also look at the phenomenon of the good as well as that of evil.

Anonymous said...

...which is likely to be answered by saying that God does not exist.

Agreed. But I think anyone who has taken the time to think about it will agree that it says nothing of the sort. That's one option but I think it's reasonable to draw one of two conclusions from God's actions in Haiti. Either he doesn't exist or he doesn't exist in the form defined by Christian doctrine.

So, as well as exploring more fully what is intended by the word "cause" in this context, a full account will also look at the phenomenon of the good as well as that of evil.

It seems to me you're trying to separate the two aspects (good and evil) without justification. Rather, it seems sensible to perform a 'cost/benefit analysis' on the event and come to the conclusion that it had a net evil effect. You seem to be suggesting that smashing the window of an electrical store and stealing a TV has an upside in the sense that at least someone gets paid to fix the window.