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Barton Swaim on Natural Disasters as Ministers of God
I have a vivid memory of walking through McClellanville, South Carolina, in September of 1989, a few days after Hurricane Hugo obliterated the town. I remember staring at what had been—so I was told—a supermarket. It was now a pile of rubble, a grotesque gathering of broken concrete, with no sign of a supermarket. The fact that this wasn’t done by some great machine built for the purpose, but by wind and water, filled me with shock and fear.
The shock and fear passed quickly—I was seventeen. But I remember wondering, though I’m sure I was too self-conscious to say it out loud, whether it was right to say this had been done by God. I never heard anybody say so, or even raise the question—this despite the fact that I was in McClellanville under the auspices of a church in a neighboring county.
A Judgment for Instruction
In an earlier time, it wouldn’t have been left to a teenaged kid to ponder. For many centuries, destructive acts of nature were said to be judgments of God. As late as 1756, the American Presbyterian minister Samuel Davies interpreted a series of earthquakes in Europe as God’s judgment on a godless generation: a judgment intended to instruct the backslidden. “Such devastations,” he said—the sermon bears the excellent title, “Religious Improvement of the Late Earthquake”—“are at once judgments upon the places where they happen and warnings to others.”
Davies (pronounced Davis) preached this sermon at nearly the height of the European Enlightenment, by which time even he could sound a little defensive about interpreting natural events in this way:
There is a set of conceited philosophers risen among us who think they disprove all this, by alleging that earthquakes proceed from natural causes and therefore it is superstitious to ascribe them to the agency of Providence. But there is no more reason or philosophy in this than if they should deny that a man writes because he makes use of a pen or that kings exercise government because they employ servants under them. I grant that natural causes concur toward the production of earthquakes; but what are these natural causes? Are they independent self moved causes? No; they were first formed and are still directed by the divine hand.
Davies’s conception of nature did not exclude second causes, but for him God inhabited these contributing components to effect his purposes, almost as if he could be glimpsed behind or among them. It brings to mind Cowper’s lines, “He plants his footsteps in the sea,/ and rides upon the storm.”
The Modern Mechanistic Thesis
Christians understood the natural world in this way until—if I’m right about this—about the middle of the eighteenth century. The transition began, as Hans Blumenberg argued in The Legitimacy of the Modern Age (1966), with the decline of “nominalism” during the late Middle Ages. Nominalism, in Blumenberg’s highly abstruse but to my mind reasonable argument, consisted in the belief that particular occurrences in the world do not take place according to “universal” norms but only according to God’s particular direction.
The birth of the modern, he says, was made possible by the introduction of a “mechanistic thesis,” which “established the material substratum of the world as something meaningless in itself, and consequently as a potentiality open to man’s rational disposition.” What characterizes the modern age in Blumenberg’s account is its abandonment of the belief that happenings in the material world are contingent upon God’s will, and its assumption that these happenings have no meaning until invested with significance by man.
Miraculous Patterns in Nature
In the older conception, God is not to be identified with the natural world, but he causes and upholds every detail of it. There is a lovely passage in one of Chrysostom’s sermons in which he lists what seemed to him miraculous patterns evident in nature. “Who is there,” he asks, “that must not feel astonished and amazed at these things; and without hesitation pronounce that they are not the works of nature, but of that Providence which is above nature?”
For Chrysostom, God did not merely create the natural world and set the whole thing in motion, now and again attending to it or intruding into it. He means, rather, that each motion, event, and tendency in the natural world is actively superintended by the Lord. He gives an example:
Behold the sea abounding with waves, and fierce winds; yet this sea, spacious, and large, and furious as it is, is walled in with feeble sand! Mark also the wisdom of God: He permitted it not to be at rest, nor tranquil, lest you suppose its good order to be of mere natural regulation; but remaining within its limits, it lifts up its voice and is in tumult, and roars aloud, and raises its waves to a prodigious height. But when it comes to the shores, and beholds the sand, it breaks up, and returns back again within itself; teaching you, by both these things, that it is not the work of nature that keeps it within its boundaries, but the work of him whose power restrains it.
Obviously Chrysostom was not aware of modern physics, and I don’t know if he had ever seen the desolation wrought by a Category 5 hurricane. But he is manifestly aware of the inclination to attribute natural occurrences to laws (“the work of nature”) rather than to God. And he rejects that inclination.
To Soften Consciences
That sense of God’s superintending ubiquity is also apparent in Calvin’s references to the natural world, as for instance in his comments on Psalm 18, with its stunning evocation of God’s anger: “Then the earth shook and trembled; the foundations also of the hills moved and were shaken, because he was wroth. There went up a smoke out of his nostrils, and fire out of his mouth devoured: coals were kindled by it. He bowed the heavens also, and came down: and darkness was under his feet.” Calvin draws from this the reasonable supposition that sudden changes in the atmosphere are intended by their creator to soften indurative consciences.
“If natural things always flowed in an even and uniform course,” he says,
the power of God would not be so perceptible. But when he changes the face of the sky by sudden rain, or by loud thunder, or by dreadful tempests, those who before were, as it were, asleep and insensible, must necessarily be awakened, and be tremblingly conscious of the existence of a presiding God. Such sudden and unforeseen changes manifest more clearly the presence of the great Author of nature.
God the Referee?
Chrysostom, Calvin, and Davies were men of both sense and learning. They knew the natural world operated according to patterns or laws. They believed it did so, however, according to God’s continual and particularized sovereignty, not according to some original divine dictate outside space and time. In their understanding, an apple fell to the ground not, in the final analysis, because gravity pulls apples to the ground when you drop them, but because at that moment God was satisfied that the apple should follow the usual course. In such a worldview, the experience of an earthquake or hurricane led naturally to the questions, What is God saying to us? And how should we alter our behavior in response?
Of course, modern man, or at least twenty-first-century man, asks those questions, too—though he substitutes the word “Earth” for “God,” and by “behavior” he means governmental initiatives. Hurricanes still demolish cities and droughts still ruin economies, but the accepted response to them is not to repent of sin or reform behavior. It’s to pass new laws.
Christians still believe, or think they believe, in God’s dominion over his creation, but it doesn’t seem to mean much beyond general acknowledgements of his power. Occasionally some preacher will openly suppose a flood or wildfire to be evidence of God’s displeasure—to the delighted outrage of the news media. Most Christians, though—at least it’s my impression—think of natural events as ruled by chance or blind laws, with God only occasionally using them to accomplish his aims, like the interventions of a referee in a game that would otherwise take its own course. About the only remnant of the old disposition left to us is the designation “acts of God”—mainly for the purpose of processing insurance claims.
I wonder whether we haven’t lost something in abandoning the older conception of things. Manifestly it’s wrong and unwise to interpret an earthquake as empirical evidence of God’s vendetta against (for instance) Haiti. Yet surely that same event offers excellent reasons for some form of—to use the older term—religious improvement. Surely devastation on that scale calls for something other than hand-wringing and godly platitudes. After all, we don’t believe natural events are merely the blind consequences of impersonal laws.
Or do we?
Barton Swaim works as a speechwriter and is the author of Scottish Men of Letters and the New Public Sphere (Bucknell, 2009). He is a member of First Presbyterian Church in Columbia, South Carolina, a church of the Associate Reformed Synod.