IN 2015, Stephen Fry went viral when he answered a question about what he would say if he arrived at the pearly gates and God was true. “How dare you! . . . Why should I respect a capricious, mean-minded, stupid god who creates a world that is so full of injustice and pain? That’s what I’d say.”
Dirckx offers first-hand, moving accounts from recent natural disasters to consider questions of theodicy, writing as a scientist, for a readership not necessarily versed in theology. Her main thrust is to challenge those who approach the question of her subtitle with too narrow or dualistic assumptions: the word “natural”, for instance, denotes a complex and broken world, with a great beauty that has often resulted from cataclysmic events. Human beings contribute to that brokenness and beauty through action and inaction, corruption, injustice and neglect, often turning lethal disasters into catastrophes — climate change is a case in point. There is no such thing, she says, as an entirely natural disaster. Drawing on a range of scientist-theologians and writers, she explores different approaches to spiritual sin and healing, to conclude that the world is not merely physical, but “there is also a deep brokenness, woven into the very fabric of our existence . . . forces of evil that are at work in nature.”
The yearning for a harmonious existence is universal, but humanity is incapable of mending that brokenness. The human stories witness not only to disaster, but also to the presence of God in the trauma and grief, who enables hope, and the human response in love that ameliorates, with a heightened sense of the preciousness of life.
There was a violent earthquake as Mary Magdalene came to the tomb: the very moment of resurrection marked by a “natural” occurrence alongside the human response (Matthew 28.1-2). That is the strength of this accessible, well-written book: that it challenges any narrow understanding of “natural” to locate humanity in the thick of things, where darkness and light are both alike.
The Revd Frances Ward is a parish priest in West Cumbria, the former Dean of St Edmundsbury, and the author of Like There’s No Tomorrow: Climate crisis, eco-anxiety and God (Sacristy Press) (Books, 21 August 2020).
Broken Planet: If there’s a God, then why are there natural disasters and diseases?
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