"Is it a sharp sword of God, or just some other wild body, loving its life?" - a religious naturalist meditation following Tyhoon Haiyan

Typhoon Haiyan on November 7, 2013
Readings: Genesis 6:1-13

Mary Oliver – Black bear in the orchard

It was a long winter.
  But the bees were mostly awake
in their perfect house,
  the workers whirling their wings
to make heat.
  Then the bear woke,

too hungry not to remember
  where the orchard was,
and the hives.
  He was not a picklock.
He was a sledge that leaned
  into their front wall and came out

the other side.
  What could the bees do?
Their stings were as nothing.
  They had planned everything
  except for this: catastrophe.

They slumped under the bear’s breath.
  They vanished into the curl of tongue.
Some had just enough time
  to think of how it might have been—
the cold easing,
  the smell of leaves and flowers

floating in,
  then the scouts going out,
then their coming back, and their dancing—
  nothing different
but what happens in our own village.
  What pity for the tiny souls

who are so hopeful, and work so diligently
  until time brings, as it does, the slap and the claw.
Someday, of course, the bear himself
  will become a bee, a honey bee, in the general mixing.
Nature, under her long green hair,
  has such unbendable rules,

and a bee is not a powerful thing, even
  when there are many,
as people, in a town or a village.
  And what, moreover, is catastrophe?
Is it a sharp sword of God,
  or just some other wild body, loving its life?

Not caring a whit, black bear
  blinks his horrible, beautiful eyes,
slicks his teeth with his fat and happy tongue,
  and saunters on.

The Riddle of Epicurus

Is God willing to prevent evil, but not able?
     Then he is not omnipotent.
Is he able, but not willing?
     Then he is malevolent.
Is he both able and willing?
     Then whence cometh evil?
Is he neither able nor willing?
     Then why call him God?

The Riddle of Epicurus taken from Jonathan Miller's excellent BBC 4 series called 


The devastation caused by Typhoon Haiyan that hit the Philippines just over a week ago is, for people like us who live in a temperate climate, almost completely beyond comprehension. The scale of physical damage was so great that even those with great experience of typhoons have expressed surprise and astonishment at the power of Haiyan. Despite this lack of comprehension on our part I have no doubt all of us here will be, or already have been, supportive of the various aid programmes to the region and we will be particularly supportive of the Clara Barton Fund given its Unitarian connections.

But, even if in the current situation, we do manage to give all we reasonably can and in a fashion we feel will be genuinely helpful, there is a danger that in our own land and culture one question will remain collectively unaddressed - a question which always appears at these moments even though, in our highly secularised society, there are few places it can adequately openly be raised and discussed.

The problem of evil and of suffering is, of course, often directly addressed in our country's various religious communities. However, these communities are increasingly becoming marginal within our culture, not least of all because their general answers to the question of evil and suffering increasingly fail to be persuasive to most of us, and certainly to me.

Because of this failure, in our secular, civic fora (whether that is television, newspapers or parliament etc.) it is believed that the question of evil and suffering almost never need openly be discussed. The only secular place you might hear it rehearsed is in a specialist, minority radio programme such as the BBC's "Moral Maze". The reason for this is simple. Because the prevailing secular view is that, when it comes to events like the recent storm, there is no longer any need to refer to God or the gods we, as a culture can, therefore, safely ignore the question all together. After all, "everyone knows" a storm like Typhoon Haiyan is a natural event, the natural consequences of which we must all simply learn to live, and sometimes die, with.

Now I happen to agree with this basic answer but, unusually for someone who thinks like this, I am also a minister of religion and, because of this, I'm aware of an important pastoral issue. My experience as a minister is that even with a generalised loss of belief in a conventional God many — perhaps even most people — from time to time and at key moments in their life still find the pressing need to think and talk through the question of evil and suffering. The question of why bad things happen to good people will remain, perhaps for ever, a question that arises and which needs careful talking through and reflecting upon. This is something that, over the years, I have done many times with many people.

Given this it is, I think, helpful to lay out now, very briefly the question of evil and suffering and then remind you of the chief possible ways of answering it. (The section in italics below comes from Loyal Rue's excellent book, "Nature is Enough".)

The classical problem of evil can be simply stated in the following argument:

1. If an all powerful, all-knowing, and beneficent God exists, then there would be no unnecessary evil or pointless suffering in the world.
2. But there are instances of unnecessary evil and pointless suffering in the world.
3. Therefore, it is not the case that an all-powerful, all-knowing, beneficent God exists.

There are basically six options for making this problem go away:
1. Deny the existence of God
2. Deny the reality of evil
3. Modify the divine attributes 
4. Reject the relevance of logic in theological matters
5. Theodicy (justification of God)
6. The mystery defence

The first option accepts atheism; the second option takes a non-realist approach to values (which seems to imply that the universe is not a moral order); the third option essentially accepts the argument, but reinstates God with reduced attributes; and the fourth option merely asserts that the argument is unfair. Most theological attention has been focused on the fourth and fifth options. "Theodicy" (Greek: theos + dike) means "justification of God". The strategy here is to argue that what may appear to be unnecessary evil or pointless suffering really isn't unnecessary or pointless. God allows evil and suffering, but he does not do so without good reason. Theodicy, then, attempts to demonstrate that every case of apparently pointless suffering has its point in relation to a greater good. By analogy: abdominal surgery may entail suffering, but the suffering is necessary for the achievement of a greater good (restored health). If a theodicy succeeds, then the problem of evil is explained away. The mystery defence is the trump card. It doesn't even try to explain away apparently pointless suffering (NIE pp. 141-142).  

Now each of us has no choice but to adopt at least one of these six solutions and all I'm really asking you today is to take some time considering where you feel sit with regards to this question. Naturally the invitation is there, as it always is, to talk the matter through with me whatever you think.

But one thing is worth saying now. If you find yourself adopting an answer relating to points 4, 5 and 6 then I think it is important to be honest that there is a high chance that the kind of religion and understanding of God that is on offer here will not, ultimately, prove satisfying to you. You will, of course, still be welcome amongst us because we really do subscribe to the idea of complete freedom of thought in matters of religious belief. However, it is fair to say that nearly all contemporary British and American churches will generally be exploring answers relating to points 1, 2 and 3.

Speaking personally, the problem of evil was the single most important reason why I ended up in this church tradition and have slowly come to adopt a religious naturalist viewpoint and I'll conclude, very briefly, with where I find myself today on this question. I do this for two related reasons. Firstly, because you might like aspects of what I say and wish to adopt something like it yourself. Secondly, even if you don't like what I say, it can at least stand as a case study giving an example of the kind of freedom found here, openly and freely, to think through such religious and philosophical questions and this, in turn, may provide you with the impetus to work out for yourself a more acceptable alternative.

My take on this is a mix of points 1 and 2. As most regular attenders (and readers of this blog) know, I do not, cannot believe in God, at least when the word "God" is understood to refer to a supernatural being who created the world and continues to intervene in, or direct it, in some way. This necessarily makes me a kind of atheist.

But, and it is a major but, it seems to me that the word God remains a helpful, perhaps even vital term in human language that refers to something very real. Along with a number of other religious naturalists - especially Henry Nelson Wieman (1884–1975) and Karl E. Peters (both Unitarians by the way - the latter author still being very much alive and working – see especially his books Spiritual Transformations and Dancing with the Sacred: Evolution, Ecology, and God) - I find that by modifying God's attributes it is possible to make God not a "being" but rather "Creative Event". As Bruce Southworth notes:

"For Wieman God was not a philosophical proposition to be proved or disproved. God is a given, a datum of reality. More precisely in Weiman's language, God is an event, a Creative Event, an event of Creative Interchange. God is creativity. As such God is trustworthy, reliable, and sustaining. God is that which can transform and save humans in ways we cannot transform ourselves, provided that we understand and fulfill the required conditions" (Bruce Southworth: At Home in Creativity: The Naturalistic Theology of Henry Nelson Wieman, pp. 3-4).

Wieman wanted an answer to the question of how do we know and/or experience God? He answered in "creativity". This response was simultaneously to answer another question, namely, how we might be saved? His answer was "By faith - by ultimate commitment to God, which is commitment to the Creative Process, a commitment that necessitates our co-creativity" (ibid p. 8).

I find myself feeling that the various committed human responses we are seeing to the typhoon in the Philippines and which are directed at building better, more resilient, sustainable loving and healthy communities are powerful expressions of faith in God as "Creative Process".

But it should be clear to most people here that changing "God's" attributes (point 3, making the word "God" refer not to a supreme being but rather to "Creative Event" or "Creative Process") is to make "God" less than "God" once was and, to many people, this sounds suspiciously more like point 1 than point 3 – i.e. it's atheism by another name. As Epicurus said, if God is neither able nor willing to prevent evil and unnecessary suffering then "why call him God?" It's a very good question indeed. (I do have my reasons for retaining the word "God" but, here, I'm deliberately going to leave it unanswered. I'll return to this on another occasion.)

Such an answered question brings us, finally, to Mary Oliver's poem, "Black Bear in the orchard." I value this poem so highly because as she addresses the problem of evil and unnecessary suffering she manages to hold, in an easily understood narrative form, the delicate balance I want to maintain between points 1 and 3 - between not believing in God (at least as conceived in monotheistic circles) and finding ways to change one's definition of God so that God becomes "Creative Process" and, as such, an intimate part of Nature itself.

We can see that "Creative Process" is found in the event that is bees' collecting of honey and the making of honeycomb - the creation of honeycomb and honey is an extraordinary process. But the "Creative Process" is found too in the bear's waking from hibernation and in it's need to eat so that it can begin create its own new, spring life. "Creative Process" is also found in the fact that "Someday, of course, the bear himself will become a bee, a honey bee, in the general mixing." (Whilst I was writing this address I was re-listening to the Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young album Déjà vu on which they perform Joni Mitchell's song Woodstock. It includes the line "We are stardust, we are golden, we are billion year old carbon" which, surely, carries an echo of Mary Oliver's point.) And, lastly, "Creative Process" is displayed beautifully in Mary Oliver's poem itself - her creative response to the catastrophe which creates a creative interchange between her and us which offers us a way to think and talk through catastrophe.

And, in all this creativity, what is catastrophe? What is the bear's sledge hammer through the hive, what is the typhoon in the Philippines, what is the evil and suffering all of us will have to face at some point in our lives?

Oliver gives her answer in the form of a question and a display of fact. The question is as follows:

"Is [catastrophe] a sharp sword of God, or just some other wild body, loving its life?"

Her display of fact is simply to show the black bear leaving the orchard:

Not caring a whit, black bear
   blinks his horrible, beautiful eyes,
slicks his teeth with his fat and happy tongue,
   and saunters on.

Typhoons, earthquakes, tsunamis and many other disasters will, forever, come to pass and saunter on not caring a whit. We know this to be true and it is never less than hard to deal with. But we can, with growing knowledge, come to understand them all as part of a "wild body, loving its life" and we can respond as another wild body, loving it's life by creatively caring for those who have been hurt in the movement of Nature. When we do this I feel it is right to say something like "Look! There is God!" Such a God, the "Creative Event" is an emergent aspect of Nature whose wild body, loving its life, will always, from time to time, appear to us as a black bear in the orchard. The religious task is, I think, to learn to love the Creative Process not only in ourselves but also in bears and typhoons. For me only such a loving acceptance of Nature's wild body, loving its life, can bring any kind of meaningful solution to (or perhaps final abandonment of) the old, old problem of evil.


Maisie said…
Perhaps it is not so much a redefining of the word God that is required but a fresh understanding of just what it means to be human and our own place in the creative process?
Irish Sirmons said…
Thank you Andrew, I am a bit behind on my reading but I could not move on to another sermon until I had commented on this one. First a few questions:
Natural disasters, to me, feel 'understandable', more so than war. How do we see God in the Event of war? Or should we define war as the antithesis of God (as in the 'original Sin' of Cain)?
Aldo Leopold wrote an essay called 'Odyssey' and you can find it in the expanded version of his A Sand County Almanac. It details the many lives of X a piece of matter which has transferred many times from one body to another. I've highlighted something on nearly every page of the Almanac and I think you'll enjoy it, too.
Dear Maisie,

One certainly can do what you suggest (that would be to produce a theodicy) but for me the classical problem of unnecessary evil and pointless suffering continues to hang over us only when we continue to hold on to our old definitions of God as some kind of supreme Being. Those definitions seem to me (and many others, of course) to be wrong. As I said in the address, "The problem of evil was the single most important reason why I ended up in this church tradition and have slowly come to adopt a religious naturalist viewpoint."

But when one begins to talk about God as Being (and not "a being") or, as Wieman does, as Creative Event, then everything changes - God, our sense of the divine and the sacred and also our own place in the creative process.

The picture that emerges from this change seems to me better to accord both with the picture of the world as it shows up in the light of the natural sciences and also in that of my own religious experiences of the divine and the sacred - experiences which have, of course, been profoundly shaped by the loss of belief in the monotheistic, philosophical, conception of God bequeathed to me by Christianity.
Dear Irish,

Very good to hear from you. I hope all is going well in your new home.

I think you are pretty much right when you suggest we see war as the "the antithesis of God". I'm not sure that this is the "original sin" though - but I'll come back to that at the end of my brief reply.

War, although it clearly encourages many extraordinarily creative moments in individual human lives and communities, is not, as a whole, a creative event at all but, obviously, one which is hugely destructive. As a whole it cuts against "Creative Interchange" or "Creative Process" which Wieman saw as equivalent to God as "Creative Event". He thought this process could be divided into four "parts" - emerging, integrating, expanding, and deepening.

In essence he thought that new experience or information helped us gain an *emerging* awareness of the world - of people, relationships, culture, things etc.. Following this we begin a process of *integrating* this new awareness, new idea etc. with our already existent knowledge, experiences and values. Together, these two parts help us begin to experience an *expanding* understanding of the world as a complex, dynamic whole. Lastly, added together, these things help us to ask better kinds of questions, know better what we might listen for, look at and seek out and, in the process, we may say our understanding undergoes a "deepening". Naturally, this is a process that doesn't stop with any momentary deepening but, rather, continues to spiral around on itself.

Now I can come to "original sin". The original sin, it seems to me, is to absolutise and fetishise any particular point of that ongoing process.

So let's imagine that we achieve a certain kind of deepening and out of that comes a "created good" - say, some kind of particular, new and liberating, political, ethical or religious stand. But if that new stand becomes absolutely fixed and fetishised then, as a "created good", it can very quickly turn into a barrier to the whole cycling process of emerging, integrating, expanding, and deepening. It become something bad because it fails to take into account (acknowledge) that, as a new stand, it has helped something else emerge which needs integrating into our lives which, in turn, expands our understanding of the world and can lead to a further deepening.

So original sin is connected with our propensity to turn our "created goods" into "God". Wieman wanted us always to ensure that we focused instead on "Creative Good" - the creative power of nature/life itself constantly to unfold in new and extraordinary ways.

It may be observed that conflict and wars always come about whenever a particular nation or culture's "created goods" (or some of them) have become absolutised and fetishised which, in turn (consciously or subconsciously) causes them to harm and/or destroy both peoples and environments.

This environmental note brings me to "A Sand County Almanac". I have read a few extracts from it but confess to not having read it. Thanks for the prompt - I will get a copy promptly! It sounds from your few words in your comment that what I write above connects with something of Leopold's thinking.