It was a fine Easter Sunday morning, but my Sunday School class was focused on disaster. A week earlier, during Palm Sunday services, a church in neighboring Alabama had been hit by a tornado. A number of church members were killed, including the pastor’s four year old daughter. The expected questions were flying around the table. “Couldn’t God protect his church?” “Why would God allow such a thing to happen?” Nobody in the room thought is was a judgment of God, but some were certain they had neighbors who would wonder what sin the congregation had committed to merit such punishment.
When people see acts of God and miracles, they say, “God is active. God is showing his power.” When there are few such acts, they perceive God as distant or inactive. “Why doesn’t God do something?” they ask.
But such acts, in most people’s view, need explanations. Why would God intervene in one case and not in another? Shouldn’t God always intervene to accomplish the good? Why do we hear about so many minor interventions (at least apparent ones) but we can’t find major interventions in many cases in which we think they should occur, such as for the victims of Hitler or Stalin?
I think there is a fundamental problem with this view of God and the universe. If God is involved in the universe at all, I would suspect he is always involved. Perhaps some time I will write an essay on why I believe this to be true, but right now let me just say that I think that the whole notion of God I have described above seems intensely limiting, demeaning, and anthropomorphic. As a human being, I sort tasks much as I described above. I might set my compiler to compiling, and work in another window writing code. The first I have automated (or rather purchased the means for automation), and it can run on its own; the second is beyond my capability to automate. I note this morning that my wife has put in a load of washing, and has then gone to her computer to work on her book. The one is set up to operate automatically, or with minimum intervention; the latter only she can do.
I believe we have divided God’s activities along that same line. God is limited in our minds, and divides and prioritizes his tasks just like we do. If God can’t save the lives of every child in the children’s hospital, how can he get involved in trivial affairs as people claim every day—from finding a parking place to arranging a raise? Believe me, I have felt inclined, when my son was in the hospital, to ask these very questions, even though I don’t accept the premise on which they are based. It’s a very human thing to do.
I have an illustration I use in class to generate questions on this issue. I begin dropping my pen repeated on the desk or podium. When someone asks me why I’m doing that, I ask, “Why does the pen fall?” Inevitably the answer will be something like, “because things fall” or “gravity.” “No,” I say, “It falls because God wants it to.”
Why does God care about something so trivial as the falling of my pen? Well, he does and he doesn’t. God wants my pen to fall. That “want” is expressed in the law of gravity. God wants things to behave in that particular way. To divide it into a general law of gravity or a specific desire to influence the actions of my pen is to look at it from a distinctly human, finite perspective.
Does God like bacteria or doesn’t he? We see this question most commonly from the perspective of someone who is sick. I have a cold right now. Did God want me to have a cold? Well, by the analogy of my falling pen he certainly did. That “want” was expressed in the form of various aspects of the cycle of life, including bacteria and viruses, which have vital roles to play in our every day lives. Again, dividing that want into the specific desire for me to have a cold, versus the broader desire to have life work in a particular way, is the fundamentally human way of looking at it. I have the cold, so I’m tempted to think of it that way! (If you think the analogy is not fully accurate, consider that the same “want” that causes my pen to fall would participate in causing my death should I fall from a high cliff.)
How does that relate to hurricanes and tornados? Well, there are particular natural causes which bring about these weather events, and there are benefits as well as costs involved in their passing. We tend to think of them solely in terms of the danger, but nature is renewed through the passing of such storms. We get in the way, and our lives are inconvenienced, tragically altered or even terminated. But do we expect an alteration in the course of nature simply for the purpose of making our lives more pleasant? God didn’t sneak the weather up on us by surprise. I knew, for example, when I moved to the Florida gulf coast that I might experience hurricanes. When a hurricane duly showed up, I could curse at God. An atheist could curse nature or circumstances. We’d both be equally silly. What did we expect? Nobody snuck up in the middle of the night, moved the Atlantic ocean and the Gulf of Mexico out there and then invented hurricanes!
I suspect that building quality, normal weather patterns and good or bad sense had much more to do with the incidents that I described at the beginning of this essay than any particular plan. To look at it from the human point of view God didn’t specifically desire that a community in Louisiana be homeless but still have a church, or that a congregation in Alabama have members killed during Palm Sunday services. But it did happen within his will, and according to his rules.
I believe that this idea of constant, consistent interaction is much closer to an accurate description of how the universe operates than the natural-supernatural dichotomy I described above. The reason is simply that this is what we observe. We would be unable to do science if God intervened on a regular, individually tailored basis. No laws could be stated for gravity, because we would have to know God’s attitude toward the particular circumstances.
So everything is an act of God, and everything is natural.
Can God intervene in a special way? Does this question make sense? I save those questions for a future essay.
The Hand of God – Miracles
In this essay I continue my discussion of God’s action in the world and how it relates to miracles, providence and prayer. Are God’s actions limited to priorities like ours are?
The Hand of God – Prayer
The third and final essay in my series on how God interacts with the world. This essay focusses on prayer and whether we can change God’s actions or will through our prayers. Do we move God by means of our prayers?
(This was first published April 4, 2003.)