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New Orleans -- If God Didn't Do it, Who Did?

Rabbi Daniel Lapin

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"Nature, Mr. Allnut, is what we are put in this world to rise above."
Kathryn Hepburn in "The African Queen"

The immediacy of the suffering makes us forget that disasters have afflicted mankind since the days of Noah. Like the Asian tsunami did, the New Orleans disaster provokes serious questions. Some ask, "What sort of God would allow so many innocent people to be killed?" Others present the quandary this way: There are only two choices. Either God is all powerful in which case he did this cruel thing or else he couldn't stop it in which case he's impotent and who needs an impotent deity?

In reality however, there is another approach. This catastrophe was horrible but instead of waving a defiant fist at God, let us calmly examine how He set up the world to work.

Anyone thinking about history recognizes that only rarely does God interfere with nature in a conspicuous manner. That is why when He does, we call it a miracle. The splitting of the Read Sea was one such event. Mostly God camouflages miracles, allowing believers to marvel and others to deprecate. I personally consider the founding of the United States to have been a miracle but I know better than to try and present this belief during one of my university campus lectures.

By and large, God allows the laws of nature to work. The doomed airliner falling from the sky never gets scooped to safety by a giant divine hand regardless of the piety of the passengers. Mountain climbers challenging frozen peaks sometimes die and people living in flood prone areas sometimes drown.

Obviously that provokes the question of why would a benevolent God create such a malevolent nature. Why must gravity compel airplanes with engine failure to tumble out of the sky? Why should earthquakes flatten buildings and shatter lives? Does water really have to rush toward its lowest point washing away anything in its path? The reason that God almost never interferes with His laws of nature and what is more, created nature to be far from benign is that He wanted us humans to work together to overcome nature's menace. "And God said to them, be fruitful, and multiply, populate the earth, and conquer it." (Genesis I)

The important idea here is that the Bible commands humans to subdue the world and conquer it. That does not mean we are to ruin or obliterate nature but it does mean that we are to render ourselves less vulnerable to its harsh realities.

We resist disease with medicine. We conquer the heat of the desert with air-conditioning and we make the frigid plains habitable with heating.

Similarly those who choose to live in low lying areas are morally obliged to do everything possible in order to minimize flood risk. After a flood drowned more than a thousand Dutchmen in 1953, Holland created the world's biggest land reclamation project to ensure it never happened again. You can be quite sure that once rebuilt, New Orleans will never flood again.

There is one more part to this. Apparently God is obsessed with bonding. It is really not so surprising that a monotheistic God whose prime characteristic is the ability to unify, created a world in which the best results come from bonding. Let me explain.

There are about one hundred chemical elements in the world. But very little that we need and enjoy in life is used in its elemental, un-bonded form. The water we drink comes about when two hydrogen atoms joyfully unite with an oxygen atom. The wood in our furniture, the plastic everywhere, our medicine, the steel in our buildings and vehicles--all these are the results of atoms bonding with one another. Why, even rust is the undesirable consequence of us failing to adequately prevent iron from leaping into embrace with oxygen.

God created almost everything seeming to yearn for bonding. Even humans were created to feel a deep emptiness that only bonding with another could heal. He created man and woman to become one flesh' as the greatest expression of unity.

After creating people, God had a problem: how could He ensure that humans unrelated to one another would bond and help one another? In other words, how could God incentivize community and cooperation among humans?

One answer was place them in a beautiful world but one filled with constant threat. Forest fires, earthquakes, disease, and floods are all perils that force frightened people to cooperate with one another. No single individual, all alone can discover the cure to a disease any more than a single peasant can defy a monsoon. However when banded together, people can create universities for medical research. Villagers can unite to construct dikes and dams to protect their homes. Casualty and property insurance is another example of strangers working together to help one another. That pleases God just as when siblings live together in love and harmony their parents feel delight. Whether we climb mountains, build tall buildings, or soar across the seas, we are defying nature just as we are when we build cities on low ground between rivers and lakes. Sometimes the rope snaps, the building falls, or the airship explodes. Sometimes the levees break and the pumps fail.

When these things happen, our response should be renewed determination to develop greater care, compassion, and collaboration among people in order to more effectively subdue nature.

Radio talk show and television program host, Rabbi Daniel Lapin, is president of Toward Tradition -- providing a voice for all Americans who defend the Judeo-Christian values vital for our nation's survival.

Read the entire article on the Toward Tradition website (new window will open). Reprinting allowed with attribution.

Posted: 04-Sep-05

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