"Natural evil" as a part of the broader problem of evil has posed a problem for theists for almost as long as there have been theists. It can be seen as suffering that is embedded in nature, not the product of any volitional action. That suffering seems to be built into the fabric of our universe poses a real problem for those who claim that God is omniscient, omnipotent, and benevolent - perhaps a greater problem than any other aspect of the broader problem of evil.
Theodicy - as we've seen before - is the attempt to logically reconcile the apparent contradiction between an all-seeing, all-knowing, all-powerful, and all-loving good and perfect God, and the fact of suffering, the fact of evil. The most persuasive theodicies, in my opinion, all involve some appeal to human freedom. They argue that suffering is a necessary product of human freedom, and that such freedom is a greater good than the experience of suffering and evil is a bad. As such, the freedom that produces suffering, the freedom that produces evil, offsets the evil, the suffering, that it produces.
While I am not persuaded by such an account, I can see how many people would believe it. Those of us who believe that the freedom of action and the freedom of will that we experience is more than illusory cling to that freedom as one of our most cherished possessions. We resent any intrusion on our freedom, any manipulation, any coercion. We fight off and rebel against those who would subvert our wills. This shows that at least some of us - those of us who do not so readily exchange our freedom for the illusion of security - do in fact see freedom as a kind of supreme good.
This implicit understanding of the value of freedom is at the heart of the most persuasive theodicies. These theodicies tell us that, if, in fact, we must have either freedom or a life without suffering and evil, we would choose to live freely. My only problem with them is that they, in supposing that we must have either one or the other but not both, in fact place limitations of a supposedly unlimited God. In doing so they implicitly contradict what they overtly propose - that suffering is not incompatible with an unlimited and perfectly good God.
"Natural evil," though, is not so easily attributable to human freedom. After all, what role does our activity have in producing hurricanes, tornadoes, earthquakes, cancer and the like? These forms of suffering, these natural instances of apparent evil, have throughout human history seemed to exist outside the realm of volitional action. This fact, however, has not stopped some from attempting to connect natural evil to human activity.
Augustine of Hippo gave the first theodicy against natural evil that I am aware of. In it he connects natural evil both to the Fall of Adam and Eve, and the justice of God. He argues that no form of natural evil - no naturally occurring instances of suffering - existed in the Garden of Eden. In Eden there could have been no hurricanes, no tornadoes, no earthquakes, no disease, no death. However, the Fall of humanity through the actions of Adam and Eve in the Garden, somehow disrupted the very fabric of the universe. When humanity fell, the whole Earth fell with us.
As such, at least indirectly, natural evil is no natural phenomenon. It is the product of the subversion of the human will, the end result of the corruption of our nature, a corruption which in turn corrupted the whole world.
I suspect that he arrives at this position through a reading of the creation myths of Ancient Israel found in Genesis - and yes, there are two distinct myths. The first myth is found in Genesis 1:1 - 2:4a, and the second myth comes immediately after. While the first myth is primarily about
a.) an ongoing creation process that constantly moves from chaos to order, and
b.) the establishment of Shabbot, the Sabbath, a sacred day of rest,
it also asserts a natural connection between humanity and the natural environment. The activity of creation ends on the sixth day, when God transfers dominion of all the Earth and everything in it to humanity. While that transfer has often been seen as almost a transfer of power - we now have dominion over nature and are justified in dominating it and using it for our purposes - it can also be seen as a transfer of responsibility. However it is seen, it connects the well-being of the world with human activity.
The second creation myth is the story of Adam and Eve, a story that also speaks to the relationship between humans and the natural environment. Genesis 2:5 reads
...when no shrub of the field was yet on earth and no grasses of the field had yet sprouted, because the LORD God had not sent rain upon the earth and there was no man to till the soil...
This verse - and its surrounding context - connects all vegetative life to the existence of humans, who are charged with stewarding natural resources and tending to the well being of the ecosystem. This charge - found in both creation myths - is at the heart of Stewardship Theology, a kind of ecologically conscious approach to the Judeo-Christian tradition. This connection may also be the sort of thing that Augustine had in mind when he attempted to connect natural evil to the Fall of Adam and Eve. When the caretakers of the Earth were corrupted, the Earth they were charged to care for was also corrupted.
Augustine also had in mind the justice of God - a reflection of his androcentrism. Natural evil is, for him, only a problem because it causes humans to suffer. Yet such suffering, seen after the Fall, is for Augustine the prerogative of God. We - cosmically speaking - earned it. Perhaps it is used to drive us toward repentance, or perhaps it is used merely to balance the scales of justice. In any event, when a hurricane, a tornado, an earthquake, or cancer or some other horrible disease strikes, we cannot ask God why. We know why. Like all other forms of suffer, the why is answered with the Fall.
I have never had much use for this kind of thinking. By now my philosophic and religious objections to theodicy should be clear. In my view, they don't work, and they don't help. They are neither philosophically or emotionally satisfying. Additionally, in this particular case it has always seemed to me to be the height of arrogance to somehow connect human activity to natural disasters. How, after all, could Adam and Eve - who I don't believe were ever intended to be understood as historical figures - eating an apple cause tornadoes and the like? On a literal level it didn't make sense to me, and on a metaphorical level it didn't speak to me.
But, last night I finally watched (I can't believe I get to use this phrase) Al Gore's Academy Award nominated film An Inconvenient Truth. As I watched it, I remembered Augustine's theodicy concerning natural evil. And while I don't think Augustine was right - he was, after all, writing long before human activity could dramatically impact the natural environment - I do think that he was inadvertently on to something. That is, his notion that human activity plays a role in what we call natural evil turns out to be correct, even if not in the way that he understood it.
Natural evil is - in the way that we experience it today - not exactly natural at all, if by natural we mean something like "the opposite of contrived"; or something like "beyond the influence of volitional action." This is because human activity is drastically altering the natural environment in ways that reap a great deal of suffering.
This was not news to me when I watched the movie - in college I did an independent study comparing and contrasting Buddhist and Christian approaches to environmental ethics because I was already convinced that the ecological crisis was the most pressing moral issue facing us today. However, watching the movie brought the point home to me in a concrete way. This is not a matter of abstract thought, of moral theory. This is a concrete issue, a pressing issue, a live issue, a pertinent issue, an urgent issue. An issue that demands immediate action.
The good news is that we already have concrete proof that humans cannot only negatively impact the natural environment, but can also undo our own damage. Of all the various ecological crises noted by the environmental movement that began in the 1960s, global warming is the only one that is still trending negative. So many "unsolvable" problems have already either been solved, or are at least trending toward a solution.
We now have to - simply have to - use our collective political wills to enact changes that will bring the production and release of greenhouse gasses under control. For more information, visit www.climatecrisis.net and stopglobalwarming.org
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