The will of God?

Those of you on the Eastern Seaboard counting the cost and cleaning up after Sandy might wonder exactly what motivates people like this guy:

It seems that Pastor McTernan is keen to draw links between Hurricane Sandy and Hurricane Katrina using a mixture of ancient numerology and personal prejudice.  The following is (for me anyway) the bigotted heart of his argument:

“Twenty-one years breaks down to 7 x 3, which is a significant number with God. Three is perfection as the Godhead is three in one while seven is perfection.

It appears that God gave America 21 years to repent of interfering with His prophetic plan for Israel; however, it has gotten worse under all the presidents and especially Obama. Obama is 100 percent behind the Muslim Brotherhood which has vowed to destroy Israel and take Jerusalem. Both candidates are pro-homosexual and are behind the homosexual agenda. America is under political judgment and the church does not know it!”

As with most of these fundy End-Times apocalypse watchers, everything revolves around Israel, although that is a separate issue.  The real problem for me is the Old Testament style retributive spin he puts on our planet’s weather.  The idea that God, in His capacity as Universe CEO issued a memo along the lines of  ‘Those pervs down there don’t seem to be getting the message – time for another wake-up call’ is distasteful to say the least.

In my case it was the impossibility of squaring the existence of evil with the existence of God which lost me what little religious faith I had.  These days, a few years spent teaching Religious Studies has left me thinking differently.  Evil committed by humans against other humans (moral evil) is one thing.  We’ve all got this freewill thing and if God intervened to stop every bad action then we’d be little more than robots.  It’s the destruction wrought by the environment (natural evil) that’s the problem.  In fact, the Lisbon earthquake of 1755 sort of got people thinking about this whole thing far more harshly than they had been before.

When normal, faithful Christians are celebrating All-Saints Day (1 November) and their city falls apart around their ears then one can’t blame them for feeling just a bit miffed.  What the earthquake began the tsunami racing in from the Atlantic finished.  At least 8.5 on the Richter scale most seismologists reckon.  With thousands dead, the questions began.  Why would a supposedly loving God allow so much destruction to happen on a day when people were worshipping Him?  That question resonated massively with the philosophers of the Enlightenment and proved a major boost to the growth of European atheism.

The 2004 tsunami was Lisbon writ large – at least 230,000 dead across fourteen countries.  The same question asked again – and not just by Christians either.  Is there an answer?  Well, yes – but it’s not one most religious people want to hear.  If we can act according to our natures then why shouldn’t the planet?  Natural disasters are the price we pay for living on a geologically active planet and hence one that can support life at all.  No consolation to those who lose loved ones and property at the hands of flood, earthquake etc. but possibly the best answer we’re likely to get.


POLITICAL HOT TOPICS: Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Did he really use the word ‘intended’? If so, then he’s on thin ice – morally as well as theologically. It all comes down to a question of theodicy doesn’t it? God by definition has to be good (omnibenevolent is the technical term), but how do we square a good God with the evil we see around us? That question has always been with us, but it resounded especially loudly in Europe following the Lisbon earthquake of 1755. How could a supposedly loving God permit such suffering to happen to His creation?
There isn’t enough space here to look at the two main schools of thought that try to answer this (the Augustinian and Iranaean theodices). The best simplest response comes from the physicist and Anglican priest Professor John Polkinghorne. He says that it really comes down to freewill. God doesn’t intend evil to happen, but for good to have any meaning, conditions must apply in which evil could occur.
So Mr Mourdock, if you really said that pregnancies resulting from rape are intended by God then you’re on a very sticky wicket.

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CNN: GOP Senate candidate: Pregnancies from rape God’s will
Richard Mourdock, running for U.S. Senate in Indiana, said at a debate Tuesday that pregnancies resulting from rape are intended by God. The Republican candidate was explaining his opposition to abortion in cases of rape or incest when he made the remark. “I struggled with it myself for a long time, and I realized that life is a gift from God, and I think even when life begins in that horrible situation of rape, that it is something God intended to happen,” Mourdock said, explaining that he would allow for exceptions to an abortion ban when a mother’s life is in danger.

CNN: Bogus letters questioning Florida voter citizenship investigated
In the critical battleground…

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Election 2012 – Romney or Obama? 4

Mitt’s campaign thus far has been all about the politics of success.  The guy running a national company who started it in his garage.  The office worker who wanted to be his own boss, struck out on his own and founded a multi-million dollar concern through sheer grit, determination and bloody-minded refusal to give up.  These people epitomise the Republican understanding of the American Dream – decide what you want to do and get the hell out there and do it.  Don’t ask for help – help yourself.  I’m not wholly opposed to this attitude – in fact I think it’s a damned good one in most circumstances.  Trouble is, this is 2012 – not 1812.  The self-reliant stand on your own two feet thing worked on the frontier. It still does work mostly, but is less likely to in a world where we’re not members of down home frontier communities but citizens of a global economy and hence subject to forces we cannot hope to control.  What do you say to the 55 year old who’s just been laid off after the construction company he worked for went into receivership?  A year later he’s still jobless and the bank’s foreclosed on his house.  He’s too expensive for most of the people hiring and too old (in the eyes of others) to retrain.  It’s people like that, at the mercy of economic forces beyond their control, for whom Romney offers little.

So what about Obama?  The most vitriolic attacks on his policies tend to come from the far-right of the Republican Party and the Tea Party, but as I said in an earlier post those guys are on a different wavelength entirely and best dealt with separately.  That said, their influence has spread way beyond their particular political demographic and can be seen in the pronouncements of some otherwise mainstream political figures.  (For that reason they can’t simply be written off as nutjobs, but I’ll talk about that in a later post).  Thing is, when you look for balanced criticism of Obama’s policies you have a tough job finding any.  When you check out the background to the website/blog it turns out the writer either thinks Obama’s a saint or that he’s the Antichrist in person – there doesn’t seem to be much middle ground.  Good old polarised American politics again?

Certainly, Obama has not delivered on his 2008 election policies.  A comparison of recessions and recoveries since 1945 shows that America’s climb out of recession has been much slower than Obama promised (See

Even allowing for the fact that the 2007-09 recession can’t be blamed on Obama, surely America’s slow recovery can?  The responses I’m reading again depend on the political persuasion of the writer, but the following point can’t be denied.

Economists Polack and Schott of Yale University point to the high levels of state and local job losses that accompanied the period 2008-11.  Yes, the private sector has played its part – 4.5 million jobs is a pretty good showing (I wish to God they’d pull something like that off over here in the UK).  However, this has been negated by massive public sector job cuts.  Obama’s American Jobs Act of 2011 might have taken the sting out of this process, but it was blocked by a Republican filibuster.  The money to fund it was apparently due to come from partially limiting access to tax deductions for families earning over $250000 a year.  Since that was seen as penalising the successful it was a non-starter.

It would be simplistic to say that Obama has failed because the refusal of the American political class to work together hasn’t allowed him to succeed, but there’s a lot of truth in it.  Whilst Republicans and Democrats misrepresent, stereotype and abuse each other the American economy is unlikely to get much better.  At least, that’s the picture we’re getting over here…

Next up – Foreign policy

The beginning is a very delicate time.

At least, it is according to Princess Irulan in Frank Herbert’s ‘Dune’.  Ordinarily I’d have no argument with that, except that in this case I feel the need to get to the point fast and if people don’t like what they’re reading – well the internet has no involuntary subliminal compulsion – yet.  Why blog?  For me it seems a great way to explore and discuss the ways in which the humanities subjects have both interacted with and influenced all areas of human culture since Oldupai Gorge.  The study and understanding of history, geography and religion involves concepts and ideas that can be seen as relevant in their particular context, together with ones that have changed and developed over time.

The way in which physical geography works has changed little if at all over the history of the Earth (no matter how long you believe that is).  Historical, religious and political concepts certainly have, a fact which has given us most of our triumphs and tragedies.  For example, historical concepts get viewed differently across the centuries and it’s not always because you’re the victor or the vanquished.  There’s a cultural element at work too.  Take the oft quoted response of  Chinese Premier Zhou-en-Lai to President Nixon’s question on the French Revolution’s impact on western civilisation.

‘It’s too early to tell’.

Now, whether apocryphal or not, it’s often been held up as an example of sage and patient oriental thinking in the face of the impatient occidental mind set.  However, recent comments by Charles Freeman (Nixon’s interpreter on the 1972 China visit), put a different spin on the comment.  Speaking in 2011 at a Washington seminar on Henry Kissenger’s book ‘On China’, Freeman indicated that the real meaning of Zhou’s reply had been lost in translation by those who’d heard what they wanted to hear.  In fact, claims Freeman, it wasn’t 1789 that Zhou was referring to but the Paris student riots of 1968.

Freeman wasn’t able to say how the misunderstanding arose;

“I cannot explain the confusion about Zhou’s comment except in terms of the extent to which it conveniently bolstered a stereotype (as usual with all stereotypes, partly perceptive) about Chinese statesmen as far-sighted individuals who think in longer terms than their Western counterparts,” Freeman said in a follow-up email. “It was what people wanted to hear and believe, so it took hold.”

One of many historical examples where the truth doesn’t read as well as the story…

It also shows that concepts such as revolution, freedom and democracy vary in their interpretation from culture to culture as well as across the centuries.  In a multi-cultural and multi-polar world we forget that at our peril.

That will probably do for now….

Sources:  Financial Times 10.06.2011