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Short Description: When we see horrendous natural disasters, the question always arises, Where was God?
  
 
Dwight Nelson:

If you were in charge of this planet, what would it be like? Would you allow war, crime, hatred? Or would you run a peaceful world where everybody got along? What about disease and famines and floods? Would there be earthquakes, volcanoes, and tsunamis, those events our insurance companies call "acts of God"?

But, of course, you're not in charge here. Sometimes it seems that nobody's in charge, that things are totally out of control. But where is God in all of this? If He really exists, why can't He run things differently? Why doesn't He prevent the disasters that cause so much suffering and death?

These are questions that trouble many people of faith and we're about to look at some answers.

I'm Dwight Nelson. Welcome to The Evidence.
[Music]

Dr. Christopher Heard is professor of religion at Pepperdine University in Malibu, California. He's here to help us deal with what theologians call "natural evil". Welcome, Dr. Heard. Great to have you on The Evidence.

Dr. Christopher Heard:

Thank you, Dwight. It's good to be here.

Dwight Nelson:

But let's just cut to the core. If God is a God of love, how can we possibly correlate these massive human catastrophes, thousands, tens of thousands, sometime even millions of human deaths?

Dr. Christopher Heard:

That's a big question, Dwight, and put that way, I'm not sure it's entirely fair. That is to say, I think that question assumes a lot of things that we probably need to think out before we try to attempt an answer.

Dwight Nelson:

What does it assume?

Dr. Christopher Heard:

Well, for example, it seems to assume, or the objection seems to assume that preventing such natural disasters would be more lovely than allowing them to occur. Or, it's a very human-centered question. That is to say, an earthquake, a wildfire, a tsunami only becomes a disaster or a catastrophe when people get involved in some way.

Dwight Nelson:

Yeah, but I, I'm still hung up on your earlier premise here, preventing--why wouldn't preventing human death be a more loving response than allowing massive human destruction?

Dr. Christopher Heard:

Well, let's ask about what the alternatives would be.

Dwight Nelson:

Okay.

Dr. Christopher Heard:

What alternatives would God have when there's an earthquake under water other than allowing a tsunami?

Dwight Nelson:

Why not prevent the earthquake?

Dr. Christopher Heard:

Because the way tectonic plates work. If God fixes the tectonic plates under our oceans, what would be the implications of that? Not being a scientist, a geophysicist, I don't actually know, but suppose that water, you know, water doesn't propagate in a wave. Suppose that water doesn't flow. Well, then how do I get it out of my Aquafina bottle later on? How do I get it out of a drinking fountain later on? If God continually overrides the way in which the world works, what we might call--if you call it the laws of physics--

Dwight Nelson:

Um-hum.

Dr. Christopher Heard:

If you call it in biblical terminology, God's covenant with the earth, God's covenant with the night and the day, if God overrides these things in particular instances, the possibility is that instead of learning that God is a God of love, what we learn is that God is a God of caprice who sometimes doesn't follow the rules that God himself has set up in creation.

Dwight Nelson:

So, natural disasters are--are simply that, they're just natural.

Dr. Christopher Heard:

[nodding]

Dwight Nelson:

Easy come, easy go. It's just the price you pay for living on this planet.

Dr. Christopher Heard:

I wouldn't say, necessarily, easy come, easy go, but in a sense, as cold as it may sound, yes, it is the price we pay for living on this planet, and if we object to the way that the planet works, then it's incumbent on us -- in some way -- to suggest what God's alternatives might have been. Is there a better world that God could have created? But, essentially, it becomes God's fault. In a sense, the buck stops with God.

Dwight Nelson:

Um-hum.

Dr. Christopher Heard:

For everything that happens in the world. If for no other reason than that we credit God with creating the world in this particular way.

Dwight Nelson:

Um-hum.

Dr. Christopher Heard:

I think we have to live with that, yes. And if that creates a world, or if that means that we live in a world that we don't like as well as some other world we might imagine, I think we have to come to grips with that,too.

Dwight Nelson:

Then why do you theologians call it natural evil? Why is it evil? It's just a natural event.

Dr. Christopher Heard:

Yeah, the term evil is used in a broad sense here. Um, anything that, uh, harms people is, in some sense,an evil, a misfortune.

Dwight Nelson:

Um-hum.

Dr. Christopher Heard:

That(s why we call them natural--again, we call them natural disasters, not when they occur out in the middle of nowhere and nobody's affected, but when people are affected.

Dwight Nelson:

Scriptures, the Bible, do they speak to natural disasters at all?

Dr. Christopher Heard:

In some ways, yes. Um, I think, for example, of an incident in the life of Jesus when He makes reference, it's really just a kind of a casual side reference, but to a tower that fell down, okay. He asks His disciples, do you think the people who were in that tower were any worse than anybody else, implying the answer, no, they're just normal people. But for some reason, whether it' a structural fault in the tower, I don't know if an earthquake was involved. Something happened, tower fell down, people died. We're sad about that, yes, but we don't blame those people for that. By the same token, should we blame God for a poorly built tower or for a tower built over a--

Dwight Nelson:

Um-hum.

Dr. Christopher Heard:

Geologic faults?

Dwight Nelson:

Yeah.

Dr. Christopher Heard:

If you don't know there's a fault there, okay, maybe you can't blame the builders either, but there are certain risks and certain things that happen in our world which do cause people to suffer.

Dwight Nelson:

I'm going to hold on that blame God thought, because I'd like to return to that in just a moment and bring another guest to the table here.

Is God really in control of the natural world? Obviously, you have an opinion, I have an opinion, but in a moment I want to bring Rabbi Harold Schulwise to sit around the table here and to hear his ruminations on this. He's our guest next when we continue with more of The Evidence.

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Dwight Nelson:

With us on this edition of The Evidence is Dr. Christopher Heard from Pepperdine University. Now I want to welcome Dr. Harold Schulweis prolific author, rabbi. Doctor, I have one of your books here, For Those Who Can't Believe, Overcoming the Obstacles to Faith.

Dr. Harold Schulweis:

Good title.

Dwight Nelson:

Great, yeah, great title and great entry into this discussion about God and natural disasters. What, in your understanding of life, is the relationship between God and these catastrophes on earth?

Dr. Harold Schulweis:

I think the first thing one has to do is differentiate that the Bible actually uses two terms for God. One term used is Elohim, which we translate as God, and the other is Adonai, which we translate as Lord. As you know,in the first chapter of Genesis, it is only used--only one term is used in that term -- God. God creates everything,bacteria, lions, lambs, everything in the world.

Dwight Nelson:

The entire natural world--

Dr. Harold Schulweis:

The whole--

Dwight Nelson:

Comes from His hands.

Dr. Harold Schulweis:

Natural world and there's no question of judgment here.

Dwight Nelson:

Hmmm.

Dr. Harold Schulweis:

One cannot say, uh, the lion is worse than the lamb or that a vulture is worse than the sparrow. This is the world that is. This is the reality -- principle of religion.

Dwight Nelson:

Okay, but the question is, beyond nature, Rabbi, natural disasters that happen in the world of nature, catastrophes that leave tens of thousands of human beings obliterated. How--how does God relate to that?

Dr. Harold Schulweis:

God has to relate to that through us.

Dwight Nelson:

Through us--

Dr. Harold Schulweis:

Only through us. Through human beings, through human intelligence, through human competence to community, but the--we have an expression in the Talmud which says, nature pursues its own course. In that sense God does not want nature to change.

Dwight Nelson:

So it's not a divinely--not--a divinely directed course in nature?

Dr. Harold Schulweis:

It is--this is what--this is ro--this is what is.

Dwight Nelson:

Um-hum.

Dr. Harold Schulweis:

Now, we were created in this world to make that which is what ought to be, and, therefore, the--the question always reflects--the question is never, seems to me, why didn't God intervene? Question is why didn't you intervene?

Dwight Nelson:

But am I going--how am I going to intervene with a tsunami? How do I stop a tsunami from taking--

Dr. Harold Schulweis:

You can't stop the--

Dwight Nelson:

Two hundred some thousand--

Dr. Harold Schulweis:

The tsunami wipe--but what you can do is to respond to it. And I find God or, the words I like to use,Godliness not in the cause but in the response. What do you do about a tsunami? Are you going to feed these people, protect these people?

Dwight Nelson:

The acts of charity?

Dr. Harold Schulweis:

Are you also going to have a warning system which is going to work or are you going to say, well, that's Asia, we're not going to have it here. Wha--what, but mostly I want to say that God, to me, is found in the way in which you respond to nature. You have two aspects here then, God who is a source of nature and God who is a source of ideals, morality, love.

Dwight Nelson:

Chris, your perspective different at all from Harold's?

Dr. Harold Schulweis:

There might be a thing or two that I would add or say just a little bit differently, but in--in large measure,I--I agree with what Harold has said. If God were to go about changing the way nature works, even on rare occasions, at one level we might want to think we would take that as a great comfort, that God is looking out for us and protecting us, but at a deeper level we would learn not to trust the world that God has created, that the world doesn't necessarily work the same way every time. The arthquakes don't always necessarily create tsunamis, and one wonders, you know, what--what we want God's alternative to be. Do we want God to make the--all those tons of water disappear before they hit land?

Dwight Nelson:

Which was your suggestion a moment ago, when you said it's not a fair question -- to even link God in a causative, in a causing sort of way with these natural disasters.

Dr. Christopher Heard:

Well, again, I think that what Rabbit Schulwise has said, that God has created the world to work in a certain kind of way and that our responsibility, rather than blaming God when the world works in a--such a way as to cause humans to suffer, is to understand how the world works and on the back end of natural disasters to respond in appropriate ways. On the front end of natural disasters to anticipate them, to be wise about where we put luxury resorts, to be wise about where we put high-rise hotel buildings and apartment buildings. To be wise about where we plant our farms and that sort of thing.

Dr. Harold Schulweis:

Well, let me, just carry on with one of the points--you made a very interesting point. There's something wrong with the question. The question presupposes that God is a kind of a--is superman. He's a person. And now we're going to go and guess as to why He does this or that or this or that. Well, He did it because He was angry. He did it because the people were not good. That's why He picked the volcano. That's why He had the tsunami.And I think that gets us into a, uh, uh, a projection that--

Dwight Nelson:

God judging the human race _________

Dr. Harold Schulweis:

God judges, that really is another way of saying we are judging it, only we're saying it's God's doing.

Dwight Nelson:

Gentlemen, the reality is that whenever you inject God into a conversation, third millenials, the issue comes up, how can He be a God of love if we have such massive human disasters? So the question is, is it fair to use God as a scapegoat when things go terribly wrong? That's the question we need to follow up when The Evidence continues.
[Commercial]

Dwight Nelson:

We're back with Dr. Christopher Heard and Rabbi Harold Schulweis. Dr. Heard, what about this concept of using God as a scapegoat? How does that feel for you?

Dr. Christopher Heard:

Well, I do think that God, there's a certain degree of responsibility for the way the world works as its creator. But in terms of blaming God for specific events or in terms of thinking that God caused those specific events for specific reasons, that doesn't really fly for me. At the same time, there is in the biblical tradition, this-- this lament tradition that when things go wrong, what you do is you complain to God about it and you accuse God of not running the world the way that it ought to run and you let God know that you don't like the way the world works. And yet, we recognize that the world does work in this particular way.

Dwight Nelson:

So, Harold, some of this we're responsible for and I got it all?

Dr. Harold Schulweis:

I think one of the most important, radical verses in the Bible, I think will shed some light on this, is the one that Judaism and Christianity and Islam share, and that is that God created the human being in His image, man and woman, every human being. Therefore, whenever you speak about God, you invariably must include the human being. If you ask me, where was God during the holocaust, the answer is, and where were human beings? Where were the United Nations? Where were the people of the world? Same thing with [Dafur].

Dwight Nelson:

Where was God during the earthquake in Northridge, Los Angeles?

Dr. Harold Schulweis:

The point is, that is number one, that's Elohim, that's the nature of nature. Platelets move, they will always move. That's the way the world is. That's Elohim. Question again is not what made it move but what did you do about it. Not, you may not be able to revent it, but you can do an awful lot. I can't prevent the death of this child, but I can come to that mother and to that father and I can be at their side and I can give them my comfort, my comfort, my support, my--my love, my embrace. That is where God expresses himself.

Dwight Nelson:

And we could, conceivably, prevent erosion by where we direct our--our buildings and where we plant cities. So somehow, we--we--

Dr. Harold Schulweis:

But supposing you can't? Supposing you can't? Supposing that is a fact? This is the way the world is structured. You can't do it. You -- you're not now going to say, so therefore God did it? God created the world. Now it's your obligation to make this as safe a world as possible, within limits, but don't expect that kind of miracles. You've got to live with the ambiguities of life, the limitations. Otherwise, you're making, really, you're treating God like my Poppa, and I want Poppa to do everything to get me out of trouble. He gave birth to me, that's correct. He has given me divine potentialities, he has--most of it belongs to me, and that to my mind is the most radical motion in the monotheistic ethical tradition.

Dwight Nelson:

Hm. Do you think that's going to be convincing for me, as a skeptic. Let's just say I'm the skeptic here and I'm saying, okay, I'm willing to entertain the thought that there might be a benevolent being in charge of the universe. What would you say to me, Chris, how would you get me past this hurdle of massive human catastrophe through natural disasters, to get--how would you get me to God?

Dr. Christopher Heard:

Well, I would say if you're looking for God in the tsunami, you need to look at the aid workers after the tsunami. You want to look for God in the holocaust, you need to look at the people who hid Jews and got them out of Germany during the holocaust. You look for, I don't think I could say it any more eloquently than Rabbi Harold did just a few minutes ago. But I would also ask whether or not your expectations of God are reasonable, whether or not it's really the existence of God that is a problem for you, or the existence of a certain God, a certain image of God that may--

Dwight Nelson:

A caricature that--

Dr. Christopher Heard:

(inaudible)

Dwight Nelson:

That doesn't reflect ________

Dr. Harold Schulweis:

You are the skeptic here.

Dwight Nelson:

Um-hum.

Dr. Harold Schulweis:

I would have to ask you these questions?

Dwight Nelson:

Okay.

Dr. Harold Schulweis:

Do you believe that mercy is godly? Do you believe that helping people is godly? Do you believe that lifting up the fallen is godly? If you can say yes to these things, you believe in God.

Dwight Nelson:

Hmm.

Dr. Harold Schulweis:

That's exactly what God is. God is the way in which you relate and behave towards other human beings.So, I'm not going to ask you do you believe in God. I'm going to ask you do you behave godly? And therefore I think you're not a skeptic. I've always thought so, by the way. I thought you were a very religious guy.

Dwight Nelson:

I appreciate that, Rabbi. Chris, would you buy that--that reasoning that it's the godly acts that bring me to God?

Dr. Christopher Heard:

In many ways, yes. I would say that's where you see God at work in our world. If you're looking for God to do miraculous things in terms of stopping natural disasters or eradicating illnesses and things like that, then I think you're looking in the wrong place. I think you need to look for evidence of God in the evidence of the behavior of those who embrace God.

Dwight Nelson:

One last question. In that context -- the skeptic -- how do I know I found God? How am I going to know?

Dr. Harold Schulweis:

I'll give you a Hasidic story. A man came to the rabbi and said, I don't believe in God. And what's more,I see poverty, I see war, I see devastation. And the rabbi says, what do you care? What do you mean, what do I care? I see destruction, I see mass destruction. And the rabbi said, what do you care? He says, what do you mean, what do I care? That--that--life has no meaning without that. And the rabbi says, if you care that much, you believe. So, believing is expressed by caring and caring through action.

Dwight Nelson:

Gentlemen, thank you both for being here on The Evidence. You've given us--you've given us much to--to brood over, ruminate upon. I'm going to be back in just a moment with some final facts, so stay with us right here at The Evidence.

[commercial]

Dwight Nelson:

Maybe we're not supposed to make sense out of natural disasters. If we could, we might begin to think that that's the way God intended things to be. But if you look at the creation story in the book of Genesis, you'll see that God made a perfect world. This crumbling, cracked up planet of ours is not what he wanted. It's become the battleground for the great conflict between good and evil, a conflict that rages around you and me right now. But as bad as things may seem, we can look forward to a bright future, and I say that because here in the same book, we're given a vision of a new world, God's vision, God's perfect recreation where there'll be no more disasters and no more death.

I'm Dwight Nelson and that's what I believe. Join us next time for more of The Evidence.
[Music]








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