Winds Thy Messengers
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.
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.
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