Earthquakes and Providence

My old boss Ted Kinnaman has a piece in the Huffington Post on Pat Robertson’s claim that Haitians deserved the recent earthquake because they made a pact with the devil in order free themselves from colonial slavery. Others have developed the historical case for such a pact. Where many have taken Robertson to task for misrepresenting Christianity, Ted notes that while none of us would like to admit it, this kind of ascription of responsibility for one’s own suffering is actually a traditional problem throughout Christian theology, and in theism in general:

[Robertson’s] most fundamental intellectual commitment is to the existence of a good and all-powerful God. A good God cannot want people to suffer undeservedly, and an all-powerful God would not allow people to suffer undeservedly. Therefore any undeserved suffering is evidence that there is no such God. But since (he presumes) there is such a God, all human suffering must be deserved.


This is a fairly standard version of the problem of evil. Whereas we are somewhat comfortable attributing evils like genocide to human agency, we cannot similarly account for natural disasters with a significant tragic dimension. Instead, we posit a kind of magical cursing, by which unrelated sins lead to our eventual suffering, without any kind of natural causal relation. For this kind of karmic revenge, we need supernatural agency, and Robertson was not alone in finding it:

For Erol Josué, the earthquake was mother nature, the land of Haiti, rising up to defend herself against the erosion, deforestation, and environmental devastation that have been ongoing for the last few decades. “Everybody was smashed to the ground,” said Erol. “Rich and poor. But look how symbolic this is. The Palace is smashed, the legislative building, the tax office, and the Cathedral. The country is crushed. We are all on our knees.” This Vodou priest is not speaking about divine retribution, as has Pat Robertson. God is not punishing us for disobedience. Erol is speaking about a giant natural rebalancing act, a reaction against human dealings with the ecosystem.

This kind of generalized environmental desert argument crops up quite often, though it’s just as disturbing when voiced by a Christian pastor as by a Vodoun spirit-worker. In either case, we search for meaning in the monstrosity of the physical world’s indifference to our suffering, and if we’re not careful the stories we tell ourselves will preserve our standard prejudices in favor of the basic fairness of the status quo. At a very basic level, we cannot really observe a gap between what is and what ought to be, so we are constantly looking for justifications for the world’s inadequacy and injustice.

Ted’s piece caught my eye because there’s a particularly on-point historical antecedent: the exchange between Voltaire and Jean-Jacques Rousseau over the Lisbon earthquake of 1755. Voltaire offered his criticism of theistic Pollyannas in verse form:

  • Come, ye philosophers, who cry, “All’s well,”
  • And contemplate this ruin of a world.
  • Behold these shreds and cinders of your race,
  • This child and mother heaped in common wreck,
  • These scattered limbs beneath the marble shafts—
  • A hundred thousand whom the earth devours,
  • Who, torn and bloody, palpitating yet,
  • Entombed beneath their hospitable roofs,
  • In racking torment end their stricken lives.
  • To those expiring murmurs of distress,
  • To that appalling spectacle of woe,
  • Will ye reply: “You do but illustrate
  • The iron laws that chain the will of God”?
  • Say ye, o’er that yet quivering mass of flesh:
  • “God is avenged: the wage of sin is death”?
  • What crime, what sin, had those young hearts conceived
  • That lie, bleeding and torn, on mother’s breast?
  • Did fallen Lisbon deeper drink of vice
  • Than London, Paris, or sunlit Madrid?
  • In these men dance; at Lisbon yawns the abyss.

There is little room for optimism or for a loving Providence in a world where children and mothers die for the sins of their ancestors or husbands. (If sins they indeed are.) But Rousseau insists that it is not a metaphysical meteing out of sufferings for sins, but rather a practical one. The fault is not God’s, but in Man’s unnatural departure from God’s plan.

Without leaving your Lisbon subject, concede, for example, that it was hardly nature that there brought together twenty-thousand houses of six or seven stories. If the residents of this large city had been more evenly dispersed and less densely housed, the losses would have been fewer or perhaps none at all. Everyone would have fled at the first shock. But many obstinately remained . . . to expose themselves to additional earth tremors because what they would have had to leave behind was worth more than what they could carry away. How many unfortunates perished in this disaster through the desire to fetch their clothing, papers, or money? . . .

For Rousseau, who held that civilization is the first sin that takes us away from the state of nature and also a state of grace, it was overbuilding in an earthquake zone that caused the disaster. Dense housing violates God’s plan for humanity, and human hubris is again returned to its rightful place as the source of suffering.

Immanuel Kant, however, responded to Lisbon with a different plan, thoroughly secular: he sought to understand the causes of earthquakes themselves, and to call for the construction of dwellings that could withstand such disasters. To those who wished to use real human suffering to develop their arguments about God’s role in its causation, he answered: “We stand with our feet on the cause.”

Yet Kant, too, saw a role for Providence. In the appendix to his Critique of Judgment, he writes this: “Nature… has spared [Man] no more than any other animal from its destructive workings: plague, famine, flood, frost, or attacks from other animals large or small, and so on.” Yet, he continues, nature also endows humans with the capacity to reason about causes and to derive best practices for dealing with the depredations that nature also visits upon us. Out of the chaos and suffering of the natural world, there emerges the possibility of developing new knowledge and institutions that would prevent future suffering. This limited and materialist teleology was the only one he thought valid within the bounds of critical reason as it applies itself to history and the prospects of moral progress. Kant’s insight was simple: though human reason searches for a supernatural cause and the overarching justice of tragedy, reason can also demonstrate the futility of that search through an investigation of its own limits.

It’s sometimes depressing how when confronted by horror, we often forget the insight that our reason often overreaches its powers. I guess that’s what philosophers are for.

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