Sunday, July 18, 2010

Falling trees and spilling oil: Acts of God?

Last week's New Yorker has a nice tongue-in-cheek (or is it?) article about the responsibility for action or inaction - be it God's or human's:
Last month, after a limb fell from an elm tree near the Central Park Zoo, critically injuring a woman and killing her infant daughter, citizens wondered, as citizens will, how such a thing could be allowed to happen. When trees kill, as trees will, you blame it either on the tree pruners or on “an act of God.” You are supposed to choose one or the other—last week, Mayor Bloomberg cited the latter—rather than detect any trace of God’s will in the fallibility of arborists and bureaucrats. This assumption owes something to the fact that “act of God” is a legal term specifically deployed to absolve human beings of any fault or indemnity. When God acts, apparently, the rest of us do not. He’s a little like the Balladeer, the Waylon Jennings voice-over, in “The Dukes of Hazzard”: the picture freezes when He weighs in.
Okay - one has to be careful with any article that mentions The Dukes of Hazzard :) (But Waylon Jennings brings back some credibility). But now back to the blame game:
Questions of agency, divine or otherwise, dog us these early-summer days, amid a pileup of ill tidings: an intractable war; hints, once again, of economic depression; the deep-sea oil disaster in the Gulf of Mexico. Who’s to blame? Who’s in charge? On the day of the Mayor’s pronouncement, a technician who is working with British Petroleum to drill relief wells told the Times, in response to questions about the state of the damaged well, and about the prospects for fixing it, “No human being alive can know the answers.” A line like that could put a man in a theological mood—especially on the heels of the technician’s previous remark, a triumph of the triple negative: “I won’t say there haven’t been relief wells that haven’t worked.”
Did the technician, with his assertion of earthly ignorance, mean to invoke the omniscience of the divine? Probably not. Was he putting his money on a dead engineer, or a well-informed squid? Hard to imagine. But he had, at least subconsciously, echoed the efforts of B.P. and many others to distance themselves from responsibility and, more to the point, liability. B.P. wishes—prays—that it could call the Deepwater Horizon blowout an act of God. But it is an act of man, no matter how primal, eternal, Biblical, or infernal it may seem.
Okay now we have to put theologians to work out the appropriate theodicy
A half century ago, the Oxford theologian and philosopher Austin Farrer, a friend of C. S. Lewis and J. R. R. Tolkien, advanced the concept of “double agency,” which has nothing to do with Russian spies pretending to be Portuguese. Oversimply put, the idea seeks to reconcile faith and science, and divine agency and free will. In Farrer’s rendering, God creates creatures and phenomena, which, as agents themselves, then create and act freely. In “Saving Belief: A Discussion of Essentials,” he wrote, “God not only makes the world, he makes it make itself; or rather, he causes its innumerable constituents to make it.” In other words, it’s a collaborative effort. God is Phil Spector, and we are the Ronettes.
But what about the world’s destruction? Are we collaborating with God on that album, too? Last week, a call to the prominent Farrer scholar Edward Hugh Henderson, a seventy-one-year-old professor of philosophy at Louisiana State University, scared up a defense. Like B.P.’s Tony Hayward, God, through his good agent Professor Henderson, was distancing himself from the Deepwater Horizon catastrophe.
“God does not smash in from outside to overthrow creatures, to put out of gear the order of nature that God has over eons of evolution brought to its present state,” Henderson said. “What the oil is doing to the Gulf and its denizens is what oil, being oil, would do.” (Incidentally, Farrer’s 1966 work, “A Science of God?,” was originally issued in the United States under the title “God Is Not Dead.”) “In one sense, divine agency is everywhere,” Henderson went on. “In another, you wouldn’t want to say that accidents and carelessness are examples of double agency.”
Hmm...okay so we have to pick and choose events or actions that really qualify as "double agency". Of course.
Henderson, a native Alabaman who has lived in Baton Rouge for forty-five years, has lately found himself to be in an apocalyptic mood, as he considers the havoc wrought just to his south. As a believer (“I was raised a Presbyterian, but Farrer made an Anglican out of me”), he can only have faith that God acts through people’s response to calamity, rather than through, say, the suffocation of a fishery and the death of a sea. “It’s at the level of human freedom that you can distinguish between action that is or isn’t underwritten by the pervasiveness of divine will,” he said. Good Lord.


Anonymous said...

Don't know what to say about the article. But, as a Muslim I believe that God knows of all our deeds and even our thoughts.

Kubra said...

Interesting article... the way man has dealt with the dilemma of free will vs. will of God has usually been an opportunistic one in practical matters; it is easier to blame it on God obviously, it isn't like He can be called to witness stand or something :)

On a more serious note, it is actually very dangerous to use disasters, whether man-made or natural, to illustrate the will of God, or link these explicitly: people often wonder for a "motivation" behind the "will of God" and you end up with a God who causes earthquakes because people drink alcohol more (this is a typical argument heard after earthquakes in Turkey) or do not believe that Jesus is God incarnate... now, assuming such a lovely divine behaviour ends up feeding more "man-made" disaster, not oil-spills may be but intolerance fuelled aggression, definitely.

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