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Understanding natural evil

Recently, I've answered many questions from readers about God and evil. Many people wanted to know how a good and powerful God could be reconciled with the profound and proliferating instances of evil in the world. Now, the earthquake in Japan has sent shudders through our planet, and our lives, putting a bloody edge to such agonizing questions about God and goodness.

I've tried to help questioners understand that most of the evil we face is our own fault. Free will is the most common cause of our moral blindness. Our indifference to evil is usually the main reason for the spread of evil and consequent suffering.

I've tried to explain that this freedom to choose good or evil is both a blessing and a curse, whether God exists or not. Whether we're alone in the universe or the beloved creations of a loving God, we can't escape our responsibility to make the world a better place. We can't shift the burdens of our moral lives to a God who'll magically protect us from our own venality and brokenness. The work of goodness in the world is ours, not God's.

However, the earthquake in Japan reminds us of the terrifying truth that natural evil -- evil not caused by our moral failures -- is still and always will be a threat. This evil is on God.

Yes, we can say -- and I've said this myself -- that even natural evil is not really evil because it's just the natural consequence of living on top of the crust of a living planet. If the earth were a dead rock, it would not belch fire, as it's now doing in Hawaii. If the earth were dead, its tectonic plates would not shift, causing earthquakes and tsunamis, as just occurred in Japan. We live with a dangerous but living, breathing earth and any other option would mean death for all life.

I've used this defense of God for natural evil many times and still believe it's true and theologically valid, but theology is not comforting in the face of the massive destruction and death in Japan and around the North Pacific basin. It's simply foolish to say that we could have done more to predict and protect the people of northern Japan. True protection would mean evacuating all of Japan, all of California, large swaths of Latin America. Central and Southern Asia, and a thousand other places where the earth could suddenly twitch. Some natural evils we simply can't escape.

Now, my soul energies are not focused on defending God, but rather on a deeper contemplation of our arrogance and vulnerability before nature. Because we can escape into warm homes, we've foolishly come to believe we've mastered the cold. Because we enjoy our beaches, we've come to believe we're stronger than the waves. Because we can build up to the sky and calculate stresses and loads, we've come to believe our buildings can survive all of earth's tremors. Such beliefs are part of a thin fabric of illusion that we can reach the sky through our own efforts and never be struck down by the power of the earth's natural forces.

To say this simply, we are very small animals. Our only gift is that we've been given minds and souls to understand our place in the universe. We're weak, but we are aware. That awareness must always temper our pride and calm our arrogance before the overwhelming majesty and unconquerable power of what Jefferson called "Nature and Nature's God." We must embrace the paradox of our physical weakness and our spiritual audacity. If God had made us invulnerable to nature, we'd be gods. If God had taken away our divine souls, we'd be dumbfounded before the power of nature, as are all other animals on the planet. Instead, God has made us as we are, just "a little lower than the angels," yet capable of comprehending God's power and majesty in the world.

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Send questions only to The God Squad, c/o Tribune Media Services, 2225 Kenmore Ave., Suite 114, Buffalo, N.Y. 14207, or e-mail them to godsquadquestion@aol.com.

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