Where is God when disaster strikes?

January 26, 2006

Avrel Seale, a friend in Austin who writes for the UT alumni magazine, recently submitted an excellent article to the Austin American Statesman, Where is God when disaster strikes?. This makes me think first of the continuing low-level warfare and terrorism occurring in Darfur, as well as the little-noticed famine currently afflicting the people of Malawi. Avrel writes "[t]here is little doubt that, in general, disasters bring out the best in human nature." Thankfully there are ways for Americans to doing something about these two:

  • Join the Million Voices for Darfur campaign, which seeks a stronger response on Darfur from the American government;
  • Support groups like Doctors Without Borders doing relief work in both countries;
  • Donate to groups supplying food aid to the people of Malawi. The United Religions Initiative (URI) is now accepting donations through their website, destined for distribution by local URI chapters inside the country. Another favorite of mine is the UN World Food Program.

Avrel writes, "Bahá'u'lláh, the founder of the Bahá'í Faith, while writing in the voice of God, said: 'My calamity is my providence, outwardly it is fire and vengeance , but inwardly it is light and mercy.'" Working with organizations such as these is a tremendous means of reflecting that inward light back to the rest of humanity.


avrel is an excellent writer, but i've got a couple of major problems with the article... primarily, this passage makes some huge logic leaps and in my opinion misleads the reader on what i believe is the true theological perspective of the faith and sounds overly fatalistic, case in point:

"As a starting point, we must come to terms with the fact that, while these events grieve us, they are in fact caused by God. This can be a tough pill to swallow. But if God is, by definition, all-powerful and the cause of all things in the natural world, then this must be true. The scripture of the Bahai Faith states flatly: "Although such an event is indeed regrettable, we must realize that everything which happens is due to some wisdom and that nothing happens without a reason."

my own interpretation of baha'i theology is that we believe there are three forces at work in the universe, god's will, man's will, and chance, and that expressions of man's will & chance may only be blamed on god in a passive, rather than active sense, in that god allowed them to exist, rather than caused them to happen... i think this is more than semantics, and although we can never know which of the three causal factors at work in the universe (btw all acts of nature here are subsumed within god's will or chance, including dog bites, shark attacks, gravity, etc) are behind a given event i think it's a disservice to the faith to promote the idea of god as the active causal factor behind such events... the "wisdom" in the quote avrel cites could be that god lets us make our own mistakes in this physical world which is governed by physical laws so we can grow, which would also explain the "reason" as well... at least it offers another perspective to the fatalistic concept of a divine puppet show in which we're all puppets on a string that god occasionally shakes up like ants in his little ant farm... anyhow, i think i'll call avrel & ask him about his thoughts on this, he's a real talent & asset & the last thing i'd want to do is quench or curtail any of his efforts, but as i've said, i've got two issues, the second is the girl who's glad her school is gone... that whole line of thinking just echoes barbara bush & her infamous "this is a real opportunity for the poor people" quote, or pat robinson & the god smites the wicked stuff, or even mayor nagging, with the god wants a chocolate new orleans... which also makes me unconfortable...
none of us know why that happened, none of us know if god actively played a role, or passively allowed the forces of his creation to play out in what one may call "chance"... the one thing i think we're all guaranteed in this world is suffering, and religion teaches us that if we're detached we can transcend the suffering and it doesn't matter... the book of job & ecclesiastices (sp?) are great reading on this subject... but, yeah, if one ponders and reflects for a while on how all beings are god's servants and all things are perfect, both ideas being part of our beliefs, then i think one must reconcile oneself to an active/passive experession of god's will paradigm...
your worthless critic,
addendum: the author of this post is lamentably hyper-aware of the fact that it is a million times easier and less productive to find fault with something someone else does than to do something yourself... as such, these comments are offered purely in the spirit of discourse and with all loving-frankness and humility, and i will ask in advance for forgiveness from anyone i may have offended... ;)

Semantics – but I’ll agree that being “semantics” makes the distinction no less important. The first time through, reading the passage you quoted, I was seeing it very much through my own filters (and probably not reading terribly closely). I do not have a strong sense of the personality of God and do not resonate with views of the Universal Reality that are even remotely anthropomorphic. Thus the first time through I glossed over the literal, active sense of “God caused.”

When it comes right down to it, and I can’t really explicate this in any meaningful way at this point, I don’t really see a difference between God’s Will and chance. God is that from which reality emanates (cf. Some Answered Questions, p202).

Coming down to a practical plane, where we do distinguish between “chance” (i.e. hurricane) and “God’s Will” (i.e. Baha’u’llah’s Revelation), I tend toward the both/and, or active/passive, viewpoint you espouse. I do see nature as passive expression of God’s will; again in SAQ we have “It is said that nature in its own essence is in the grasp of the power of God, Who is the Eternal Almighty One: He holds Nature within accurate regulations and laws, and rules over it” (p5).

So yes, it is true that God is the ultimate cause. But the intermediate cause of a disaster like Katrina is the global earth system (Gaia) that, on its own, creates hurricanes. A system that is being thrown out of whack by stupid human tricks. So to look past Nature as the immediate cause of the disaster risks missing the degree to which human behavior has exacerbated climate change and Atlantic storm patterns – which we cannot afford to do if we wish to reduce suffering in this mortal realm.

the upside of anger here is the excellent surf texas had all summer, notwithstanding the deleterious effects global warming and the hurricanes had on the gulf... which, btw, is worth a second look, in terms of the way the saltwater has impacted the wetlands, along with the coastline itself... did you see we had a right whale down by port A?
the other good thing about global warming is that after the icecaps melt everyone's going to want me to make waterworld II, which is cool... ;)

Hi Stephen. Hi all.

Thanks for the kind words and thought-provoking comments.

I guess I will rest my case on Abdu'l Baha's statement referenced above, "... everything which happens is due to some wisdom and that nothing happens without a reason." This seems pretty cut-and-dried to me. Believe it or don't, but if Abdu'l Baha said it, it is the Baha'i view.

This is excerpted from a talk he gave not about natural disasters, but rather about the sinking of the Titanic, a fact that points out the interesting dual nature of disasters. God may have caused a Cat 5 hurricane to hit the Louisiana coast, but He did not build a city below sea level, nor did He neglect its levees. That was our bright idea. The disastrous character of Katrina is mostly on us. God may have created the ice berg, but He didn't steer the ship into it.

My main reason for writing is to point out that there is a WORLD of difference between what I wrote and the utterances of Pat Robertson. While Pat claims over and over again to know WHY God does what He does, I do not and never would. We're asking for huge problems when we try to get too specific about what happens in the world and what it might be meant to achieve. All I'm saying is that human behavior before and after disasters seems to follow a pattern, and that pattern seems to be one that ultimately advances civilization. Baha'is define that advance as achieving a greater degree of unity. We believe we do know that much about God's will ... that He wants us to be more unified.

Incidentally, Jay Galvan and I have recently completed producing and directing an independent movie that deals with this very issue. It's called THE SECRET OF SURANESH, and you can watch the trailer and read more about it at www.toltecmarketing.com/film.

And Kevin ain't kidding about the surf. I was at South Padre the week before Rita hit and was almost knocked off the jetties -- this at about 700 miles away from the storm.


hey avrel, thanks for responding... i'm glad you saw some of the swell from those hurricanes as well! as far as your "Believe it or don't, but if Abdu'l Baha said it, it is the Baha'i view" response, i've gotta say that i found that a little bit suspect for a couple of reasons... first off, baha'u'llah, in TOB, states "you have wasted your life", straight up, full stop... it's a tablet addressed to a linguist in which baha'u'llah states that the languages of the world should be reduced to one... now if i take that out of context, print it on nice cards, and send it out to the community for ayyamiha, it is what baha'u'llah said, but it could probably be misconstrued... and that quote from abdul baha just states there's a wisdom and a reason, not a positive causal assertion laying on the divinity... but there are many other quotes out that that more or less support your position entirely, and still others that support the point i am making about god's passive vs. active will... for instance, the quote immediately below, and the final passage from SAQ on free will... please read these if you've got the time, i think there's a deeper level of understanding this stuff than the way you presented it, and i think that the way you presented it resonates more with the sort of right-wing conservative fatalistic approach that many of the least beneficial dogmas out there espouse... case in point, traditional belief: god is perfect, man is born in sin; baha'i belief: god is sanctified beyond all human attributes, man is not born into original sin... but look at this along side the passage from abdu'l-baha below, in which he states that man can choose to do good or evil with his free will but relies upon god for either path, in that his life is dependent upon god, even as a sailboat is dependent upon the wind... our free will being the rudder in that analogy... my point is this, over-simplified statements of baha'i theology can mislead as easily as lead, so we should be careful... but having said that, i'll commend you again in your efforts, as i have the hightest respect for all your endeavours!
yours truly,

All these examples are to show you that the trials which beset our every step, all our sorrow, pain, shame and grief, are born in the world of matter; whereas the spiritual Kingdom never causes sadness.

167: Thou hadst asked about fate, predestination and ...
Thou hadst asked about fate, predestination and will. Fate and predestination consist in the necessary and indispensable relationships which exist in the realities of things. These relationships have been placed in the realities of existent beings through the power of creation and every incident is a consequence of the necessary relationship. For example, God hath created a relation between the sun and the terrestrial globe that the rays of the sun should shine and the soil should yield. These relationships constitute predestination, and the manifestation thereof in the plane of existence is fate. Will is that active force which controlleth these relationships and these incidents. Such is the epitome of the explanation of fate and predestination. I have no time for a detailed explanation. Ponder over this; the reality of fate, predestination and will shall be made manifest.

Paris Talks
Pages 109-112

November 22nd

In this world we are influenced by two sentiments, Joy and Pain.

Joy gives us wings! In times of joy our strength is more vital, our intellect keener, and our understanding less clouded. We seem better able to cope with the world and to find our sphere of usefulness. But when sadness visits us we become weak, our strength leaves us, our comprehension is dim and our intelligence veiled. The actualities of life seem to elude our grasp, the eyes of our spirits fail to discover the sacred mysteries, and we become even as dead beings.

There is no human being untouched by these two influences; but all the sorrow and the grief that exist come from the world of matter--the spiritual world bestows only the joy!

If we suffer it is the outcome of material things, and all the trials and troubles come from this world of illusion.

For instance, a merchant may lose his trade and depression ensues. A workman is dismissed and starvation stares him in the face. A farmer has a bad harvest, anxiety fills his mind. A man builds a house which is burnt to the ground and he is straightway homeless, ruined, and in despair.

All these examples are to show you that the trials which beset our every step, all our sorrow, pain, shame and grief, are born in the world of matter; whereas the spiritual Kingdom never causes sadness. A man living with his thoughts in this Kingdom knows perpetual joy. The ills all flesh is heir to do not pass him by, but they only touch the surface of his life, the depths are calm and serene.

Today, humanity is bowed down with trouble, sorrow and grief, no one escapes; the world is wet with tears; but, thank God, the remedy is at our doors. Let us turn our hearts away from the world of matter and live in the spiritual world! It alone can give us freedom! If we are hemmed in by difficulties we have only to call upon God, and by His great Mercy we shall be helped.

If sorrow and adversity visit us, let us turn our faces to the Kingdom and heavenly consolation will be outpoured.

If we are sick and in distress let us implore God's healing, and He will answer our prayer.

When our thoughts are filled with the bitterness of this world, let us turn our eyes to the sweetness of God's compassion and He will send us heavenly calm! If we are imprisoned in the material world, our spirit can soar into the Heavens and we shall be free indeed!

When our days are drawing to a close let us think of the eternal worlds, and we shall be full of joy!

You see all round you proofs of the inadequacy of material things--how joy, comfort, peace and consolation are not to be found in the transitory things of the world. Is it not then foolishness to refuse to seek these treasures where they may be found? The doors of the spiritual Kingdom are open to all, and without is absolute darkness.

Thank God that you in this assembly have this knowledge, for in all the sorrows of life you can obtain supreme consolation. If your days on earth are numbered, you know that everlasting life awaits you. If material anxiety envelops you in a dark cloud, spiritual radiance lightens your path. Verily, those whose minds are illumined by the Spirit of the Most High have supreme consolation.

I myself was in prison forty years--one year alone would have been impossible to bear--nobody survived that imprisonment more than a year! But, thank God, during all those forty years I was supremely happy! Every day, on waking, it was like hearing good tidings, and every night infinite joy was mine. Spirituality was my comfort, and turning to God was my greatest joy. If this had not been so, do you think it possible that I could have lived through those forty years in prison?

Thus, spirituality is the greatest of God's gifts, and `Life Everlasting' means `Turning to God'. May you, one and all, increase daily in spirituality, may you be strengthened in all goodness, may you be helped more and more by the Divine consolation, be made free by the Holy Spirit of God, and may the power of the Heavenly Kingdom live and work among you.

This is my earnest desire, and I pray to God to grant you this favour.

Some Answered Questions
Pages 247-250

Question.--Is man a free agent in all his actions, or is he compelled and constrained?

Answer.--This question is one of the most important and abstruse of divine problems. If God wills, another day, at the beginning of dinner, we will undertake the explanation of this subject in detail; now we will explain it briefly, in a few words, as follows. Some things are subject to the free will of man, such as justice, equity, tyranny and injustice, in other words, good and evil actions; it is evident and clear that these actions are, for the most part, left to the will of man. But there are certain things to which man is forced and compelled, such as sleep, death, sickness, decline of power, injuries and misfortunes; these are not subject to the will of man, and he is not responsible for them, for he is compelled to endure them. But in the choice of good and bad actions he is free, and he commits them according to his own will.

For example, if he wishes, he can pass his time in praising God, or he can be occupied with other thoughts. He can be an enkindled light through the fire of the love of God, and a philanthropist loving the world, or he can be a hater of mankind, and engrossed with material things. He can be just or cruel. These actions and these deeds are subject to the control of the will of man himself; consequently, he is responsible for them.

Now another question arises. Man is absolutely helpless and dependent, since might and power belong especially to God. Both exaltation and humiliation depend upon the good pleasure and the will of the Most High.

It is said in the New Testament that God is like a potter who makes "one vessel unto honour, and another unto dishonour." [1] Now the dishonored vessel has no right to find fault with the potter saying, "Why did you not make me a precious cup, which is passed from hand to hand?" The meaning of this verse is that the states of beings are different. That which is in the lowest state of existence, like the mineral, has no right to complain, saying, "O God, why have You not given me the vegetable perfections?" In the same way, the plant has no right to complain that it has been deprived of the perfections of the animal world. Also it is not befitting for the animal to complain of the want of the human perfections. No, all these things are perfect in their own degree, and they must strive after the perfections of their own degree. The inferior beings, as we have said, have neither the right to, nor the fitness for, the states of the superior perfections. No, their progress must be in their own state.

Also the inaction or the movement of man depend upon the assistance of God. If he is not aided, he is not able to do either good or evil. But when the help of existence comes from the Generous Lord, he is able to do both good and evil; but if the help is cut off, he remains absolutely helpless. This is why in the Holy Books they speak of the help and assistance of God. So this condition is like that of a ship which is moved by the power of the wind or steam; if this power ceases, the ship cannot move at all. Nevertheless, the rudder of the ship turns it to either side, and the power of the steam moves it in the desired direction. If it is directed to the east, it goes to the east; or if it is directed to the west, it goes to the west. This motion does not come from the ship; no, it comes from the wind or the steam.

In the same way, in all the action or inaction of man, he receives power from the help of God; but the choice of good or evil belongs to the man himself. So if a king should appoint someone to be the governor of a city, and should grant him the power of authority, and should show him the paths of justice and injustice according to the laws--if then this governor should commit injustice, although he should act by the authority and power of the king, the latter would be absolved from injustice. But if he should act with justice, he would do it also through the authority of the king, who would be pleased and satisfied.

That is to say, though the choice of good and evil belongs to man, under all circumstances he is dependent upon the sustaining help of life, which comes from the Omnipotent. The Kingdom of God is very great, and all are captives in the grasp of His Power. The servant cannot do anything by his own will; God is powerful, omnipotent, and the Helper of all beings.

This question has become clearly explained. Salutations!