When our ideas about nature come primarily from Sierra Club calendars or selected snippets from Thoreau, an east coast earthquake and monster hurricane (in the same week) are powerful wake-up calls.
We modern urban dwellers and suburbanites like our nature contained and manageable: a nice hike in the woods; a pretty sunset on the drive home; a lush, green lawn (chemically-induced, alas).
Sometimes we like nature so much we decide to worship it -- or to make it the medium for our worship of God or the "higher power" we think might be up there, out there, presiding over it all. We've been wounded by organized religion, perhaps, disgusted by its hierarchies and hypocrisies. "I can worship God on a mountaintop," we decide. (Or -- conveniently, happily -- on the golf course).
And then an earthquake or hurricane spoils the romance. Mother Nature isn't so life-giving and maternal after all -- not so contained and manageable.
The cruel caprice leaves us in stunned silence. But being the chatterers most of us are, we rush to fill the silence, to explain the unexplainable, often with well-worn pieties ("God has a purpose in all of this") that can be as cruel as the destruction they mean to rationalize.
The biblical tradition asks us to wrestle our whole lives with this paradox: The world God created, loves, and is working to redeem and restore is a place of beauty and fecundity and of arbitrary brutality and terror. The perfect pink newborn and the baby born without a brain. The healthy octagenarian and the 50-year-old early-onset Alzheimer's patient. This is not a puzzle to solve (though modern medicine is surely a gift) but a mystery of human existence to abide, endure, inhabit. Some days go better than others as we try to do this.
"The very least likely things for which God might be responsible," writes Annie Dillard, "are what insurers call 'acts of God.'" The creation that God has set into motion (and sustains every second) means that there will be inexplicable suffering. Fast-moving cars will crash. Tectonic plates will shift. Sea storms will make landfall.
Our task is not to moralize. (Looking at you, Pat Robertson). Our task is to be present with those who suffer -- to pray with our hands and feet, our sweat and tears, our time and money. To make credible the God who is Father and Mother, a God of mercy, not violence, who promises that "though the earth's waters roar and foam, though the mountains tremble . . . the LORD of hosts is with us" (Psalm 46:3,7).
[This post is adapted from a reflection written after the Haiti earthquake in January 2010.]
Debra Dean Murphy is assistant professor of religion at West Virginia Wesleyan College. She blogs at Intersections: Thoughts on Religion, Culture and Politics and at ekklesiaproject.org.