In the 18th century, the genre of “earthquake sermon” was good business. Two small shocks in London, in 1750, sent the preachers to their pulpits and pamphlets. The bishop of London blamed Londoners’ lewd behavior; the bishop of Oxford argued that God had woven into his grand design certain incidents to alarm us and shake us out of our sin. In Bloomsbury, the Rev. Dr. William Stukeley preached that earthquakes are favored by God as the ultimate sign of his wrathful intervention.
Five years later, when Lisbon was all but demolished by an enormous earthquake, the unholy refrain was heard again — one preacher even argued that the people of Lisbon had been relatively fortunate, for God had spared more people than he had killed. It was the Lisbon earthquake that prompted Voltaire to attack Leibniz’s metaphysical optimism, in which all is for the best in the best of all possible worlds. Theodicy, which is the justification of God’s good government of the world in the face of evil and pain, was suddenly harder to practice. But the preachers kept at it. “There is no divine visitation which is likely to have so general an influence upon sinners as an earthquake,” wrote the founder of Methodism, John Wesley, in 1777.
Have we made much of an advance on this appalling discourse? Our own earthquake-sermonizer, the evangelist Pat Robertson, delivered an instantly notorious defense of the calamity in Haiti. This was classic theodicy. First, good comes out of such suffering. This event, said Mr. Robertson, is “a blessing in disguise,” because it might generate a huge rebuilding program. Second, the Haitians deserve the suffering. According to Mr. Robertson, when the Haitians were throwing off the tyranny of the French, they “swore a pact to the devil. They said ‘we will serve you if you will get us free from the French’ … so the Devil said ‘O.K., it’s a deal.’ and they kicked the French out. The Haitians revolted and got themselves free but ever since they have been cursed by one thing after the other.” The Dominican Republic, he said, had done quite well, and had lots of tourist resorts, and that kind of thing. But not Haiti.
This repellent cruelty manages the extraordinary trick of combining hellfire evangelism with neo-colonialist complacency, in which the Haitians are blamed not only for their sinfulness but also for the hubris of their political rebellion. Eighteenth-century preachers at least tended to include themselves in the charge of general sinfulness and God’s inevitable reckoning; Mr. Robertson sounds rather pleased with his own outwitting of such reckoning, as if the convenient blessing of being a God-fearing American has saved him from such pestilence. He is presumably on the other side of the sin-line, safe in some Dominican resort.
We should expect nothing less from the man who blamed legal abortion for Hurricane Katrina. But even when intentions are the opposite of Mr. Robertson’s, and in a completely secular context, theological language has a way of hanging around earthquakes. In his speech after the catastrophe, President Obama movingly invoked “our common humanity,” and said that “we stand in solidarity with our neighbors to the south, knowing that but for the grace of God, there we go.” And there was God once again. Awkwardly, the literal meaning of Mr. Obama’s phrase is not so far from Pat Robertson’s hatefulness. Who, after all, would want to worship the kind of God whose “grace” protects Americans from Haitian horrors?
The president was merely uttering an idiomatic version of the kind of thing you hear from survivors whenever a disaster strikes: “God must have been watching out for me; it’s a miracle I survived,” whereby those who died were presumably not being “watched out for.” That President Obama did not really mean this — he clearly did not — is telling, insofar as it suggests how the theological language of punishment and mercy lives on unconsciously, well after the actual theology has been discarded.
Or has it? If the president simply meant that most of us have been — so far — luckier than Haitians, why didn’t he say that? Perhaps because, as a Christian, he does not want to believe that he subscribes to such a nonprovidential category as luck, or to the turn of fate’s wheel, which is really a pagan notion. Besides, to talk of luck, or fortune, in the face of a disaster seems flippant, and belittling to those who have been savaged by such bad luck. A toothache is bad luck; an earthquake is somehow theological.
The only people who would seem to have the right to invoke God at the moment are the Haitians themselves, who beseech his help amidst dreadful pain. They, too, alas, appear to wander the wasteland of theodicy. News reports have described some Haitians giving voice to a worldview uncomfortably close to Pat Robertson’s, in which a vengeful God has been meting out justified retribution: “I blame man. God gave us nature, and we Haitians, and our governments, abused the land. You cannot get away without consequences,” one man told The Times last week.
Others sound like a more frankly theological President Obama: a 27-year-old survivor, Mondésir Raymone, was quoted thus: “We have survived by the grace of God.” Bishop Éric Toussaint, standing near his damaged cathedral, said something similar: “Why give thanks to God? Because we are here. What happened is the will of God. We are in the hands of God now.” A survivor’s gratitude is combined with theological fatalism. This response is entirely understandable, uttered in a ruined landscape beyond the experience of most of us, and a likely source of pastoral comfort to the bishop’s desperate flock. But that should not obscure the fact that it is little more than a piece of helpless mystification, a contradictory cry of optimistic despair.
Terrible catastrophes inevitably encourage appeals to God. We who are, at present, unfairly luckier, whether believers or not, might reflect on the almost invariably uncharitable history of theodicy, and on the reality that in this context no invocation of God beyond a desperate appeal for help makes much theological sense. For either God is punitive and interventionist (the Robertson view), or as capricious as nature and so absent as to be effectively nonexistent (the Obama view). Unfortunately, the Bible, which frequently uses God’s power over earth and seas as the sign of his majesty and intervening power, supports the first view; and the history of humanity’s lonely suffering decisively suggests the second.
James Wood, staff writer at The New Yorker and the author of the novel The Book Against God.