God of the Car-Crash, Cancer and Earthquake?

When I was at theological college, back when dinosaurs roamed the earth, we lily-livered Arminians shared many of our classes and spent most of our week with our Calvinist friends in the local Presbyterian Theological College, a relationship which has only recently been terminated to, I believe, the detriment of both denominations. While I was there many of my Presbyterian colleagues would have regarded Calvin himself as "unsound" they were so roundly reformed... This resulted in some (generally) good humoured banter, and with the exception of the annual football matches, relationships were fairly good. In Old and New Testament classes you could see that many of the Presbyterian students were more conservative, if not fundamentalist than we Methodists (but we had a few people in that grouping ourselves). In systematic theology I heard enough about Calvin and Barth to do me a lifetime... apparently Arminians never write theology! But it was in practical theology that you really began to notice the difference, with an extremely conservative approach to scripture and a firm sense of the sovereignty of God producing a degree of hardness in expressed opinions that I was uncomfortable with. But I told myself that when they found themselves out in the big bad world, things might not seem quite so black and white...

Then news broke of a road accident affecting one of the Presbyterian students, and that morning I joined them for morning worship, instead of rushing to get coffee and scones in the refectory as was my usual practice. But the student leading the service said in a prayer "We do not know why you caused this accident God, but you did and we pray that you will help those involved to learn the lessons that you want them to learn."

I came as close to walking out of that service as I have ever done. I didn't want to worship a car-crash causing God... A God who maims a beautiful young woman as a visual aid. But I stayed out of conformity and a sense of solidarity with my fellow student in his confusion and hurt. I realise now that I have never actually talked to the student directly involved as to how he felt about this prayer... he himself would have had a much more conservative outlook than I did at the time, so perhaps he was more comfortable with it, however, that experience has stayed vividly with me down through the years, and even now I wince where people talk too glibly about the purpose of God behind tragedies, be they personal, national or international. Don't get me wrong, I believe in a God who can work his purposes through the worst of situations... the cross, if nothing else, teaches that... But does God cause the cancer/train wreck/hurricane? As the first cause then perhaps the buck does stop with him, and this may be what Wesley was saying when he wrote:

"what is nature itself, but the art of God, or God’s method of acting in the material world? True philosophy therefore ascribes all to God…"

as quoted earlier in the week by Angela Shier-Jones in her conversation with God on the subject of the Haiti earthquake.

But does God specifically cause it, or permit it? To those outside (and many inside) the Christian faith, this may seem to be a very fine technical line... but for me it is a line which I'm not sure I want to see God crossing. These are largely undigested and unprocessed thoughts that others have dealt with at much greater length and depth. If you are looking for a place to start, Patrick Mitchel has recently offered some interesting reflections on this based on Chris Wright's book, "The God I Don't Understand".

However, at least that person praying in the Presbyterian College Chapel admitted that he didn't know why his sovereign God had caused the personal tragedy we were all reflecting on. If only preachers such as Pat Robertson would display such humility in the face of tragedy. I'm sure you're aware of his and other fellow-travellers revealling God's purposes behind natural and not so natural disasters, including 9/11, the Boxing day Tsunami and Hurrican Katrina, but his comments regarding the earthquake in Haiti have plumbed yet new depths, attributing it to a 19th century pact that the oppressed inhabitants of Haiti made with the devil in exchange for their liberty from France. I am endebtted to Scott Bailey flagging this blasphemy up. Like him I suspect that it is actually Robertson and his ilk who are in league with the devil, but he is much more vociferous in his condemnation than I ever could be (yes... he's that angry... Ruth Gledhill has posted a much more gracious response... much more gracious than he deserves, that is) but we come to the same conclusion. That in the face of such immense, raw human agony the last thing that those suffering need is anyone spouting pious rubbish about the purpose of their pain: what we should do is say nothing and do all that we can to help.

Here in the UK the Disasters Emergency Committee, representing the major world development NGOs, has swung into action. For Methodists here in Ireland donations to our emergency appeal can be made via cheques payable to ‘Methodist Missionary Society (Ireland)’ and sending to Mrs Audrey Dickson (Treasurer), 15a Mullaghboy Road, Islandmagee, Co. Antrim, BT40 3TT with an accompanying note specifying that the sum is for the Haiti Appeal, or online at the Just Giving webpage, through our partner the Methodist Church in Britain. For my American Methodist friends, go to UMCOR, and 100% of your giving will reach local Haitian partners.

ps. Other interesting/helpful comments from an Irish perspective have been made by Patrick Mitchel, Patrick Comerford and Gladys Ganiel.

PPs. Don't misunderstand me... I am not saying that Pat Robertson is a Calvinist, as I am assured by those who know these things that he is not, although some neo-calvinists such as John Piper have been almost as hubristic and equally as insensitive in the light of previous tragedies.


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