The numbing challenge of reconstruction in the diagonal wrath track of Hurricane Charley begins. Observers rushed to calculate the cost. Would it require $15 billion to put Florida back together? Or $20 billion? But one casualty of the damage was not immediately considered. This was the loss of faith of some people in Florida who stared down at the debris that only hours earlier had been their homes.
The New York Times spotted the story. Its article was entitled, “After the Storm Come Tests of Faith.” And the subtitle, “Beleaguered Residents Find Their Churches Damaged, Too.” Why bother to reconstruct a church to serve as a center for the cultivation of faith in the same God who spawned Hurricane Charley and directed its course from Punta Gorda northeast on its itinerary of destruction? The reporter describes the First Baptist Church of Lake Wales, about 75 miles northeast of Punta Gorda. One sees “more than a half-million dollars in damage…done to buildings on its seven-acre campus. The actual church was largely spared, save for an off-kilter steeple hanging forlornly above the circular sanctuary.” A jaunty reminder that the church lives on, never mind the surrounding desolation? On another site, a determination to survive was outspoken, though the strains of it, depressing. “This is going to be a construction zone for a long time to come.” said Pastor Dennis Postell. “Outside,” the Times dispatch continued, “beneath the white tent, the church’s minister of music, Bill Maginn, led an 8-piece band and a 16-member chorus through spiritual songs as the passing traffic on Cooper Street slowed to listen. ‘Good morning, everybody,’ Mr. Maginn shouted. ‘Isn’t it great to be alive?’”
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So how explain devotion to a God who permitted Charley? Who created Charley? Who gave Charley its course? Over seventy years ago, two thoughtful British intellectuals exchanged views on basic Christian questions. One of them, Ronald Knox, was a Catholic priest, a convert, who would soon embark on a retranslation of the entire Bible. The second, Arnold Lunn, was an adventurer, a mountaineer, a philosopher who was seeking his way to Christianity through the rubble of Christian history. The published exchange–Knox the learned evangelist, Lunn the obdurate skeptic–threatened at one point to abort. “I think the point of our difference may be expressed thus,” said Knox. “You will not go with me to worship a God who is limited by nothing outside Himself, because you do not think that He exists. And I will not go with you to worship a God who is limited by anything outside Himself, because I do not care a rap whether He exists or not.”
Knox was saying: If you are preparing to worship a God who doesn’t have the authority to tame a hurricane, your God is not grand enough for me to venerate. A few years after their famous exchange, Lunn inscribed himself as a Christian.
What the Christian cannot do is adduce a reason for everything that happens. A rabbi told me many years ago that after he discovered the Holocaust, he gave up his religion. A God who permits the Holocaust to happen is not a God that rabbi wished to worship.
There was no answer to the rabbi, unless one is driven to the mathematics of good-things/bad-things, bent on composing a ledger which ends up with God doing more good things than bad– included among his good things, giving birth to people who live to decry his shortcomings. Father George Tyrell wrote early in the 20th century that human beings could not be expected to love God, but rather to aspire to love him. To love the God who devised Charley would require the discovery of an intersection between what Charley has done, and the blessings it would some day be conceded to have brought on.
That is too big a job for most Christians to take on. The best a Christian can do, surveying this latest iniquity of Nature, is to take refuge in what we have called the Butler Escape. Bishop Joseph Butler, 18th century theologian, conceded that “the world would be different if I had created it.” Yes, in the world you and I would have created, we’d have done without all those things, hurricanes and holocausts and hate and envy and spite and…gratitude?