“Why, then, turn to a God who seems to be absent at best and vindictive at worst? Haitians don’t have other options. The country has a long legacy of repression and exploitation; international peacekeepers come and go; the earth no longer provides food; jobs almost don’t exist. Perhaps a God who hides is better than nothing.”

The closing paragraph from Pooja Bhatia’s op-ed in today’s NYT courses with the pain of helplessness and suffering brought about by the recent earthquake that decimated this small island country. Bhatia’s questioning of God’s possible vindictive participation, or His absence, in nature’s destruction of human lives is a classic theological question.

Displaced Haitians Gather on Place Boyer in Petion-Ville
Displaced Haitians gather on Place Boyer in Petion-Ville to spend the night.
(photo: Frederic Dupoux/Getty Images)

Five years ago, the massive tsunamis that killed thousands of people, and displaced thousands more living in the low-lying areas of the South Pacific and Indian Oceans had struck. This question of “Where was God?” was being asked by many. We attempted to get at this issue with our show on the morality of nature — by looking at the history of seismic activity and its impacts through the field of Earth Sciences.

Map of Global Tectonic Plates

To this day, Jelle de Boer’s account of the Great Lisbon Earthquake of 1755 sticks with me, particularly his assessment of the aftereffects of the event and the musical tradition of fado. You can hear the show in the audio player above (or download here). Obviously, we can’t answer the theodicy question. But, hopefully, these scientific perspectives can both challenge and illuminate such religious questions as you read the latest news in Haiti.

Share Your Reflection



We live in a fiercely physical world with great potential for tragedy, it's just a matter of scale. Helping victims in any way we can is a way of acknowledging our commitment to what is good and right in that world. I choose to call that God.

Why not just call "our commitment to what is good and right" our commitment to what is good and right? Instead of further freighting a word which is already rendered virtually meaningless by it's appropriation by thousands of competing contradictory faith based mythologies not to mention millions of individuals.

So interesting and informative and it helps to cope, a bit, with this terrible news.

Why is it that the same people seem to get hit, over and over, in various ways? Why Haiti - so poor, so oppressed, so desperate. Haven't they enough to bear? We, in California, just had a 6.5 quake and hardly anyone was hurt and as far as i can tell none of the damage was more than ... inconvenient. It's such a contrast. The old, Puritan way of looking at things would say that God gives wealth to those who are worthy and so those who aren't simply deserve what they get. I certainly don't buy that - I hope most people no longer do - but the truth is that perhaps this belief is, to some degree, at the bottom of what goes on in disasters. Poor people in New Orleans were left to suffer third-world country conditions in the superdome. Poor people in Haiti are vulnerable because their entire lives are ... unsupported. They don't have houses, they don't have running water, they don't have sanitary facilities, they have very limited access to medical services, food, etc. And, to some degree, we all seem to believe that old Puritan adage that God gives to those who deserve. I don't say this to try to just create controversy - I am looking at myself as well. If we, as a society, are not putting our money and political support behind support services for all then it seems to me that we are, at least implicitly, supporting that Puritan belief. Any one of us, at any time, could suddenly find ourselves on the street. Having been there, I know that in those circumstances, at least in this country, it is VERY difficult not to believe, yourself, that if you were a good, a worthy person you would NOT be on the street. If you doubt this would be true to you, try talking to a homeless person as if you and they were on an equal footing. If you are really honest, I think you will find it very difficult.
So... that's what Haiti makes me think of. It makes me think of us - of how God works through us, and how we all continue to suffer for the ways in which we choose not to confront our deeper beliefs - individual and cultural both.

In the midst of deep sorrow, it is often difficult to recognize the inherent opportunity for growth available in the most difficult moments of our lives. Sometimes it's not much solace when I'm really hurting, but I try to keep in mind that many of the circumstances of my life that thave been most painful have also brought profound growth and transformation. Just as an infant must make a painful, seemingly impossible journey through the mother's narrow womb in order to discover the spaciousness of the outside world, we must become intimate with our own suffering to truly know joy and contentment. What may first appear as "the wrath of God" or an act of abandonment by some higher power may actually be the greatest blessing we ever receive...