The Case for Catastrophic Agnosticism

David Stokes

1/17/2010 12:01:00 AM - David Stokes

Here we go again. While the world watches unspeakable horror unfolding in the wake of the beyond-words tragedy in Haiti, and as millions of people sift through the rumble searching for their loved ones and lives, the predictable idiocy of self-anointed neo-prophets is ever present to tell us exactly why God “did” this. As a minister of the gospel (now in my 33rd year) I am deeply offended each and every time some big giant talking theological T.V. head weighs in and speaks for God as some kind of insider heavenly hedge fund trader.

Of course, you know what I am talking about, right? The other night, Televangelist Pat Robertson waxed un-eloquent about the earthquake in Haiti.

"Something happened a long time ago in Haiti, and people might not want to talk about it. They were under the heel of the French. You know, Napoleon III, or whatever. And they got together and swore a pact to the devil. They said, we will serve you if you'll get us free from the French. True story. And so, the devil said, okay it's a deal—ever since, they have been cursed by one thing after the other."

Politically Incorrect Guide to the Constitution

So, there we have it. From the mountain. True story (Pat said so). Take it to the bank. Because the Haitians wanted to get out from under “You know, Napoleon III, or whatever,” God sent a great earthquake to kill tens of thousands.

I have a suggestion for Mr. Robertson and others who seem to just wait for opportunities to step up to insert feet in mouth during moments of inexplicable tragedy. Stop and pray—pray a sort-of Serenity Prayer, one that says:

“God, grant me the humility to not try to explain what I don’t know; the courage to bear witness to what I do know; and the wisdom to know the difference.”

Personally, in such moments as these, I find myself saying, “I don’t know—I simply don’t know,” when asked by a congregant or man on the street about why things like the earthquake in Haiti happen. Sometimes that answer is met by a look that seems to say, “But I thought you were an expert on God?”

No one is an expert on God. That’s what makes him God and me, not.

It is, of course, understandable to want to know why bad things happen to people, but to try to apply anything other than general observations to specific troubles is an exercise in the worst kind of subjectivity. And when a member of the clergy speaks, doing so with the air of authority, it is a grievous sin to give absurd information. While it is never a good idea for the trumpet to give an uncertain sound, it can be just as bad to blare forth with a certainty unwarranted by facts, wisdom, or revelation.

The word “agnostic” literally means, “I don’t know,” and sometimes that’s the best we can do.

But sadly, too many people—especially some who should know better—decide to play the part of Job’s wacky “friends,” explaining it all, the whys and wherefores of trial and triumph. Having suggested a prayer for Pat Robertson, et al, I now have a text. It comes from that very Book of Job, near the end, when reality is starting to make sense to the suffering man.

“Job answered: ‘I'm speechless, in awe—words fail me. I should never have opened my mouth! I've talked too much, way too much. I'm ready to shut up and listen.’”
Job 40:3-5 (“The Message”)

Some might wonder about the fact that there were cases back in Bible times, where calamity would come to a city or region as a clear indicator of God’s displeasure. He destroyed Sodom and Gomorrah, Nineveh, and even determined captivity in Babylon for the children of Israel. But what must be noticed is that these things never happened without ample warning—complete with undeniable specificity—and merciful opportunity to repent (change their ways).

In fact, in the case of Nineveh, he sent Jonah, a Jewish prophet, with the judgment message, one that included a timeline—in 40 days the city would perish. Jonah was a complicated man, who initially ran from the job. And no one was more surprised than he was when the city bathed itself in warning-driven waters of remission prompting the Lord to stay the city’s execution.

Of course, Jonah wasn’t a happy camper. He wanted the city to burn. The scenario that unfolded before his eyes—one of a faith-driven cultural renewal—didn’t please him at all. And when I hear those who profess faith purporting to explain why God “did it” when bad things happen, I also pick up a hint of Jonah: “They deserve what they got.”

But, some might counter, didn’t Jeremiah preach a message of judgment? Yes. And he wept all the while. There is a vast difference between weeping and the saying of “Amen!” (Which means “so be it” or “I agree” or, in some cases it seems, “see, I told you so!”). There is not a dime’s worth of difference between what Pat Robertson recently said and the ravings of the Reverend Jeremiah Wright. Both preachers presumed to pronounce judgment; only the reasons and regions were different.

And both preachers crossed the line between fair and foul, wisdom and folly, truth and conjecture, and authentic witness and abusive demagoguery.

I have no direct line from God as to why bad things happen, nor does any other preacher today—liberal or conservative. When tragedy comes I don’t ask “why?” —I ask “what for?” And I try to help people through pain. And out of it. The Good Samaritan didn’t launch into a theological or philosophical journey to figure out how such a bad thing could happen to the man on the road, he simply poured in the oil and the wine.

That’s what all people of faith should be doing right now. We don’t know why it happened, but we know what we should do—find a way to help.