Our Portion is Charity
Like many, no doubt, my heart has been heavy and my prayers have seemed hollow for the country of Haiti this week. Words seem so small and insignificant in the face of such devastation and pain, but I was glad to have come across these, written by David Bentley Hart after the 2004 tsunami, this morning:
I do not believe we Christians are obliged—or even allowed—to look upon the devastation visited upon the coasts of the Indian Ocean [the nation of Haiti] and to console ourselves with vacuous cant about the mysterious course taken by God’s goodness in this world, or to assure others that some ultimate meaning or purpose resides in so much misery. Ours is, after all, a religion of salvation; our faith is in a God who has come to rescue His creation from the absurdity of sin and the emptiness of death, and so we are permitted to hate these things with a perfect hatred. For while Christ takes the suffering of his creatures up into his own, it is not because he or they had need of suffering, but because he would not abandon his creatures to the grave. And while we know that the victory over evil and death has been won, we know also that it is a victory yet to come, and that creation therefore, as Paul says, groans in expectation of the glory that will one day be revealed. Until then, the world remains a place of struggle between light and darkness, truth and falsehood, life and death; and, in such a world, our portion is charity.
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I read that Pat Robertson said something about Haiti having made a pact with the devil. And I read that Hillary Clinton said something about the earthquake being Biblical. Although these two political figures come from opposite ends of the American political perspective, each speaks of what happened in cosmic terms, and in terms that acknowledge, even if tacitly, that providence still matters, at least in discourse.
David Bentley Hart does not appear to believe in providence, unless providence is reduced to salvation at the end or in another world. I think he is closer to Taylor’s “exclusive humanism” than he is to providence.
Haiti is, perhaps, a reminder of Lisbon, 1755.
When I look at Hart’s faith in the quoted passage, in comparison to the pre-Lisbon faith, I don’t think much of faith remains.
Last night I was reading Jean-Pierre De Caussade, The Sacrament of the Moment, or, as it was first titled, “Self-Abandonment to Divine Providence.” It was written in 1741, fourteen years before the Lisbon Quake. It is still a beautiful book and way of faith still open today.
I think Hart’s understanding of providence would (mercifully) be very different than someone like Pat Robertson or even Hillary Clinton, but based on what I’ve read of him elsewhere it would be extremely difficult to make the case that he is closer to humanism than to providence.
I also think we vastly overestimate how much actually changes in modernity with respect to belief in a good God in a world full of evil. It’s not like people were ignorant about the devastation that can come from nature pre-Haiti or pre-Lisbon. Perhaps our expectations changed somewhere along the way, but surely the misery and brutality and suffering of the world was much more of an everyday reality before Lisbon than after. Christianity was born out of suffering and it has lived with it ever since. There have never been easy answers when it comes to providence…
I want to say a little more about what Hart’s expression brought to my mind.
I think a long time ago religious people, including our Christian ancestors believed that suffering resulted from a breach with God or the gods. In Christianity, that can be seen in prophets’ explanation of the exile and in the apostles’ explanation of Jesus’ death. Suffering could be explained, and it could be dealt with as an individual and as a community through worship and prayer and sacrifice.
Today, we don’t believe suffering is caused by a breach with the heavens. We just see it as problem to overcome. In the purely humanist version, suffering is a problem we overcome by technology, personal discipline and good government. In the Christian version, either God urges us to be humanists (to work for human flourishing, as Taylor explains) through charity or social justice, or someday God will eliminate suffering, or both.
If what we believe today can is called a belief in providence, then Hart’s expression does show a belief in providence.
I think, whatever the right label is, that our belief about suffering and providence has changed. I think the new way fits better with the atheist/materialist view of life than it does with the past of Christianity. We are closer today in our beliefs, even those of us in church, to Dawkins than we are to the apostles and the prophets.
That is what I was thinking about when I wrote, “I don’t think much of faith remains.”
When I read the works of Christians even a few hundred years ago, like Jeanne-Pierre De Caussade, or Brother Lawrence, I hear a faith and a view of providence that is much different from ours, and one in which suffering is not meaningless and has less power.
The remarks of Pat Robertson and Hillary Clinton both allude to this older view. I also read about a Hollywood personality who associated what is happening in Haiti to the recent failure to deal with global warming in Copenhagen. It is hard to say which version of providence, humanist or old Christian, he was invoking.
Yes, I think you are largely correct in this assessment. Our understanding of suffering and providence have changed over time, certainly. I suppose I might just describe the transition in different terms than you. I would prefer to say that faith changes rather than saying that not much of it remains.
On a personal level, I think that whatever attraction is held by some of the older views of providence, I can’t follow them the whole way. I can’t view the amount and variety of evil that our planet has witnessed over the expanse of history (or even this week!) as instrumental and I do not like the thought that God would either. Like Ivan Karamazov, I don’t want the kind of cosmic harmony that necessitates the suffering of children. I do not need the moral pieces to all rationally line up at the end of history. Perhaps I only differ from Karamazov in that I refuse to hand in my “ticket.” My hope is for healing and restoration not the “reason” why little Haitian children are crushed under the rubble.
Re: “On a personal level, I think that whatever attraction is held by some of the older views of providence, I can’t follow them the whole way. I can’t view the amount and variety of evil that our planet has witnessed over the expanse of history (or even this week!) as instrumental and I do not like the thought that God would either.”
I feel the same as you do on this. Several things have made me think further about my feelings lately.
One is Taylor’s analysis of exclusive humanism. It seems to describe my views as well as Christianity. Add a little prayer every now and then to exclusive humanism and you have the Christianity I have experienced my whole life.
The second is comparing this modern Christianity with the writings and prayers from the middle ages and early reformation period, like those of Jeanne-Pierre De Caussade and Brother Lawrence. They approach suffering quite differently, and along the lines of suffering as part of life with God, but not exactly in the harsh way that we both dislike. Suffering does not seem to weigh as heavily on them as it does not us in modernity.
Third is that the ecological perspective I have been reading and writing about rejects humanism and it deals with suffering in a way closer to the way of the writers of the middle ages that I referred to than to the way of exclusive humanism.
And finally, the writings of Mircea Eliade explain how religious practices and beliefs about providence relieved people in earlier ages from the dread of suffering and death.
Outside my window is a beautiful statue of Mary. She has such an expression of joy and peace on her face, and at the same a posture that conveys a desire to surrender herself to the will of God. The old Christian idea is that joy and this posture towards God and life are related, and it is in that spirit that suffering is absorbed in a way unthinkable, undesirable from the perspective of exclusive humanism and, I think, from the Christianity we know that is virtually the same.
I don’t mean to say that I am like Mary. I only mean to say that gazing upon Mary’s posture and joy have made me pause they way I have paused so many times in reading the Bible and in reading nature. And I begin to wonder whether I would ever be able to suffer suffering in Christ and to know the attendant joy.
Thank you for these words.
Have you seen Jon Stewart’s clip from Jan 14th? Go have a look on the comedy network website if not. It’s worth it.
Thanks Andrea. I hadn’t seen the Stewart clip, but I found myself saying an enthusiastic “amen!” after watching it.
Ken, I likewise sense the trend that you allude to. Reflex activism, by nature, seems aprovidential. It is as you suggest an action more consistent with the atheistic/humanist perspective than it is of Christian tradition.
Prayer, a listening posture and discernment are essential to Christian understandings of providence. Further a penitent communal predisposition is the context. Our historical view of providence, and our part in it, has always been that great tragedy insofar as we are accountable for it, is a consequence of great sin. We have in some real way neglected our right responsibilities to God and others and in so doing have acted as agents of calamity.
Have we interfered with the processes of creation (nature) in such a way that expedite natural disasters? Do we have the science to pre identify such events and the resources to better buttress humanity from their effects and choose not to do so? Do we have the means and resources to have pre existing contingencies in place when such catastrophies occur? Are we maximizing our efforts in this regard?
I cannot imagine a response to suffering and call it Christian, that on some level does not at least whisper complicity.
In addition, what I think our ancestors believed that we do not, is that suffering is redemptive or that it, like every thing else in life, is part of providence and that it has meaning. I don’t think we believe that now. We struggle to explain how Christianity today is different or better than humanism because they are virtually the same, even while we claim that belief in God is the basis for morality and the atheists claim no such belief is necessary.
From a conversation that I had today…
Paul Johnston says:
January 16, 2010 at 3:57 pm
Thank you for a thorough and thought provoking response Msgr.
Msgr, the invocation of John 9:1-3, and your subsequent explanation, is troubling to me. I hope you do not mean to suggest that the horriffic tragedy in Haiti is in some way meant to reveal God’s glory.
Msgr. Charles Pope says:
January 16, 2010 at 4:26 pm
Well i am quoting Jesus here so I guess your question is better directed to him. I cannot make such claims for the Haiti tragedy. But neither will I run from the cross and the extreme paradox of it. Jesus teaches that in the case of the blind man, his glory was somehow meant to reveal God’s glory. Further, regarding his own crucifixion he referred to it as his exultation. Paul spoke of how we should glory in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ. For the Christian, suffering has a role in preparing us for glory and it leads to glory. Chirst commanded that we be will to embrace the cross etc. I cannot say that a tragedy of itself reveals God’s glory but I can say that faith and perseverance in spite of the Cross are of God’s glory. I am aware that this is all quite edgy and I leave it to you and other to make proper distinctions. An earthquake does not reveal God’s glory but the cross does.
Paul Johnston says:
Your comment is awaiting moderation.
January 16, 2010 at 5:45 pm
Thank you, Monseigneur. “Edgy” it is but your further qualification offers the seeds of hope and renewal; the cross as both repository and antidote for all the horror and grief.
What an interesting conversation, and Bible passage to consider.
This weekend I am in the desert near the San Andreas Fault. Early this morning an earthquake about twenty miles away woke me. The magnitude was only 4.3, but the feeling of the shock was quite strong. I heard it before I felt it. The sound woke me.
Tomorrow I am hiking to a place called Eye of the Needle. In a few days a deluge is expected. So much to ponder.
I’m not as pessimistic as Ivan Kharamizov, Ryan. I choose to believe that in seeking virtue, (God’s will) I’ll find it. And in my finding virtue, fewer children will suffer. And when they do,I will be better able to help, than I would be without it.
I don’t know what you mean to say by this. How would your (or my) seeking virtue prevent Haitian children from being crushed in an earthquake? How does it relate to the question of how events like this earthquake fit under God’s providence?
One of my most favorite quotes seems relevant to this post in certain senses (especially considering the nature of this tragedy).
“It is demonstrable…that things cannot be otherwise than as they are; for as all things have been created for some end, they must necessarily be created for the best end. Observe, for instance, the nose is formed for spectacles, therefore we wear spectacles. The legs are visibly designed for stockings, accordingly we wear stockings. Stones were made to be hewn and to construct castles, therefore My Lord has a magnificent castle; for the greatest baron in the province ought to be the best lodged. Swine were intended to be eaten, therefore we eat pork all the year round: and they, who assert that everything is right, do not express themselves correctly; they should say that everything is best.”
From Voltaire’s Candide.
Grimly humorous, isn’t it? I’ve never understood why Christians would waste time trying to construct or defend the world as a perfect system. It seems like a non-starter, for theological reasons alone.
I am responding to Dostoevsky, not Haiti. The arguement that if children suffer there can be no God, or if there is a God who allows such things, I want no part of Him. The “return my ticket” declaration of Ivan Karamazov. I am simply saying, to the extent that I am an agent, my faith will (a) lessen the totality of suffering and(b)allow me to make the best possible response to suffering when it occurs. It is precisely because of suffering that we need our “ticket” all the more. I tend to think this is a viewpoint shared by Dostoevsky, though I do not know, I do know that the ultra rationalism expressed through the character of Ivan Kharamazov, in the end, drove Ivan to madness.
With regard to the great tragedy in Haiti, cosmic forces of nature are the reason, but I do believe sins plays a part. Did we as people of the world do everything we could have to predict, help prevent or mitigate against this disaster? Is it beyond the science of seismology? Is it beyond our technology? Could we have known something and acted? Should we have known something and acted? Is the concerted, politically co-ordinated effort on behalf of the collective welfare of all humanity the priority it should be? Is it a priority at all?
Mankind should look in the mirror and ask why, before we look to the heavens.
I once studied architecture and while doing so tried to imagine or design a structure that could withstand earthquakes, fire, storms, burglars, and bombs. My teacher asked me, “Even if you succeed, would anyone want to live in it?”
Of course, none of us would. Myself, I prefer old houses. They are much more vulnerable to earthquakes than the new homes, the tract homes, the homes that satisfy today’s building codes. But I don’t want to live in the newer homes. I think I would die inside if I were forced to.
Maybe something like this is true of a life, or a world, without suffering.
I wonder, could you say this to a Haitian this week? I think they might take the new homes. I think I might too.
No, not this week.
Outside of Haiti, even, some clients of architects do want to live in bunkers:)
Paul, on this, at least, we are agreed.
How blessed you are, Ken. Do you feel God’s presence?
Thank you for the assurance. I don’t know that I am. And do I feel God’s presence? I am afraid to check.
Don’t be afraid, Ken. You are loved.
Bringing in The Brothers Karamazov leads to an interesting type cast. Ken, as Ivan, Paul as Alyosha. For those who have access, reading Alyosha’s reply to Ivan’s Grand Inquisitor would be very interesting. I see the same conversation there.
Notwithstanding similarities that you see, I would not say that. I don’t identify with Ivan. The modern problem of evil in theology does not trouble me the way it did Ivan. I think Ivan was a fool, and arrogant in his morality and moral superiority. I agree with Alyosha. I think Ivan’s harshness towards the Roman Catholic Church is repulsive.
If I am like a devil, then I am more like Satan in Paradise Lost than I am like the Grand Inquisitor or Ivan, or like the devil in the gospels. If my yearnings are demonic, then it is because that they are too much like Milton’s Satan who valued freedom so much that he chose ruling in Hell over serving in Heaven. I pray that my yearnings will instead find their home with the Spirit of Christ in the wilderness.
If physical death be prerequisite to eternal life, ought there not be some joy in our response?
Our response to what? To the earthquake?
To physical death, however it would occur.
I think you are right that there is joy associated with imagining eternal life. I think I can elaborate. It is just hard to sustain those feelings when we confront death in its immediate effect on us. To the extent that Paul’s three virtues, faith, hope and charity, have a hold on us, we may be able to sustain more of that joy in the face of death. It is not of, of course, joy over death that one would feel. It would joy that survives death.
I left a word out of that last sentence. It would be joy that survives death (that one would feel.)
Ryan, it never occurred to that Paul would be referring to joy as a response to the earthquake, but your question reminded me of something else.
Within the ecological view or religions that I described at your blog before, there is a potential joy associated with natural events that are catastrophic to humanity, that reduce our numbers. The joy is related to the hope that nature is still more powerful than us. The joy is that if our numbers are smaller life on the planet overall has better chance. It is sentiment something like the joy people once felt, and some still feel, when they kill predator animals, like wolves, or when they kill a creature they fear like snakes.
I have not seen the movie Avatar. I have heard it described as reflecting a kind of anti-american, anti-business, anti-human sentiment. If so, that is an example of what I am describing.
James Lovelock’s book title Gaia’s Revenge represents a metaphor for this hope, or joy.
It is hard from a humanist perspective to see this in a positive light. It is hard from the ecological perspective to see humanism in a positive light.
Ken, from “Caritas in veritate”, I thought it might be helpful.
“… 51. The way humanity treats the environment influences the way it treats itself, and vice versa. This invites contemporary society to a serious review of its life-style, which, in many parts of the world, is prone to hedonism and consumerism, regardless of their harmful consequences. What is needed is an effective shift in mentality which can lead to the adoption of new life-styles “in which the quest for truth, beauty, goodness and communion with others for the sake of common growth are the factors which determine consumer choices, savings and investments”. Every violation of solidarity and civic friendship harms the environment, just as environmental deterioration in turn upsets relations in society. Nature, especially in our time, is so integrated into the dynamics of society and culture that by now it hardly constitutes an independent variable. Desertification and the decline in productivity in some agricultural areas are also the result of impoverishment and underdevelopment among their inhabitants. When incentives are offered for their economic and cultural development, nature itself is protected. Moreover, how many natural resources are squandered by wars! Peace in and among peoples would also provide greater protection for nature. The hoarding of resources, especially water, can generate serious conflicts among the peoples involved. Peaceful agreement about the use of resources can protect nature and, at the same time, the well-being of the societies concerned.
The Church has a responsibility towards creation and she must assert this responsibility in the public sphere. In so doing, she must defend not only earth, water and air as gifts of creation that belong to everyone. She must above all protect mankind from self-destruction. There is need for what might be called a human ecology, correctly understood. The deterioration of nature is in fact closely connected to the culture that shapes human coexistence: when “human ecology” is respected within society, environmental ecology also benefits. Just as human virtues are interrelated, such that the weakening of one places others at risk, so the ecological system is based on respect for a plan that affects both the health of society and its good relationship with nature.
In order to protect nature, it is not enough to intervene with economic incentives or deterrents; not even an apposite education is sufficient. These are important steps, but the decisive issue is the overall moral tenor of society. If there is a lack of respect for the right to life and to a natural death, if human conception, gestation and birth are made artificial, if human embryos are sacrificed to research, the conscience of society ends up losing the concept of human ecology and, along with it, that of environmental ecology. It is contradictory to insist that future generations respect the natural environment when our educational systems and laws do not help them to respect themselves. The book of nature is one and indivisible: it takes in not only the environment but also life, sexuality, marriage, the family, social relations: in a word, integral human development. Our duties towards the environment are linked to our duties towards the human person, considered in himself and in relation to others. It would be wrong to uphold one set of duties while trampling on the other. Herein lies a grave contradiction in our mentality and practice today: one which demeans the person, disrupts the environment and damages society.”…
Yes, it is interesting. It says, in a sense, that humanism, or at least its Christian form, is compatible with ecology.
Ken, I read that a right application of Church doctrine is right ecology.
Hey James, like, Ken I find the characterizations irregular. There is too much empathy and compassion in Ken’s voice for the likes of Ivan K, he really is an Alyosha without the same security of faith.
If I was to liken Ken to a literary character I would suggest english schoolboy “Simon” from Goulding’s “Lord of the Flies”.
And while I am flattered by your assessment of me, I am more a Dmitri K type, aspiring to be an Alyosha, than I am the real deal. 🙂
I think you both miss who Ivan is- he is not the GI. He uses the GI as a foil for sake of argument against the theism Jesus represents- then retreats. Alyosha recognizes Ivan as a believer because his conflicted tale tells exactly the opposite story. That’s why Alyosha’s reply to the GI story is so important. Ivan is full of compassion and that is why he can’t stand the suffering he sees around himself. He can’t reconcile his materialism with this compassion.
A few years back a local Dawkins style prof, who was a friend of mine, used to bring me into his class during his Brs Karamazov lecture because he thought I was a good example of the naive Alyosha. Those were fascinating discussions. I wasn’t all that thrilled to be Alyosha either 🙂 but came to appreciate the spirit in which it was made and accept the perception that I am naive- but I am pretty well read in the Russians 🙂
Anyhow, if the shoe doesn’t fit- I willing to back up. After all this is not a discussion about Dostoyevsky but how we see the world.
Thanks, James. I understand what you meant.
Art and literature carry so many meanings.
I don’t think of Alyosha as naive. If your professor friend thought of you as naive, it reflected his own lack of understanding, a hole in his humanity, even if there is no God.
Copied from “Solar Crash”.com, sorry for the method of reproduction, I don’t know how to link….
FROM SOLAR CRASH
“I haven’t asked for permission yet, so I’m posting the below comments anonymously.
It’s by someone who’s worked in disaster relief for a number of years.
We have all seen the terrible news that is happening in Haiti
especially in the capital of Port au Prince. What I want to ask each
of you to do is to give with your head and not just your heart. There
is an obvious urgency for immediate relief efforts to rescue and save
lives. But the reality is that for these purposes giving at this time
is already too late. Aid agencies and other NGOs will determine a
budget looking at what they have on hand and what they can hope to
recover with immediate donations and spend accordingly. Money
collected now for emergency relief will go to replace what is spent.
Any extra will then have to be spent on ad hoc ‘emergency’ projects to
be created in the months to come. The extraordinary outpouring of
donations with each major catastrophe is an indication of Canadian
sympathy but not wisdom. As with other major catastrophes aid agencies
will collect more moneys then they can spend. This fact along with
not-for-profit rules which require donations collected be spent only
for the purpose for which they were collected (a good rule that
protects donors), means agencies will have to come up with ways to
dump cash at the end of the fiscal year. This kind of spending only
encourages wastefulness at best and often leads to creating a culture
of corrupt behaviour.
For aid agencies each disaster is a windfall and they must ‘make hay
while the sun shines’. The administrative portions they keep for
themselves are a strong motivator. They are not at fault for this
rather it is the giving pattern of their supporters who only give when
they see death, suffering and destruction on their TV screens. An
earthquake of this magnitude is still beyond our human technology for
prevention or even early warning. However, the risk reduction and
amelioration that is part of disaster preparedness should have
accounted for an event of this scale. And those preparations should
have been attended to from year to year, requiring steady and
targeting giving from donors and governments and the attention of the
I visited Haiti in 2001 inspecting water and sanitation, community
development projects of and preaching at a church of the Evangelical
Baptist Churches of Haiti (EEBH). Port au Prince sits at the edge of
the water and spreads up high mountains. The steep roads where they
exist become torrential rivers with every rainfall sweeping anything
not secured down into the harbour and knocking over the sheds and
makeshift shelters of the poorest that live on the edge of the sea.
Other construction is in concrete but often with limited use of
expensive rebar; but even rebar would not have saved many of the
buildings in this particular earthquake. The lack of adequate
infrastructure will seriously hamper relief efforts. The lack of
adequate in country stock piles of emergency supplies will mean that
aid will come too late for many. Many have been killed and many more
will die in the coming days.
I am asking you to hold of giving for emergency relief. For many this
may sound callous. But as I have indicated, the emergency funds that
will be spent are already in the accounts of the aid organisations;
they can’t handle more in any real useful way for this emergency. The
giving from the knee jerk reaction of governments and the general
public will more than adequately cover these funds and replace the
What I am asking you to do is to hold off until the rehabilitation
efforts get under way; when specific projects are developed that will
rebuild and hopefully improve conditions. Every tragedy is also an
opportunity. In the villages I visited water was managed using spring
capping and rainfall capturing technology that provide safe an ample
water for healthy communities. Many of these systems will need to be
repaired or rebuilt in the coming months.
I hope to be able to get in touch with the General Secretary of the
EEBH who hosted me during my visit and ask him to direct our giving.
In the meantime if you want to contribute to the relief efforts I
would like to suggest channelling that through the Salvation Army or
some other long term agency which does not spend a great portion of
what they receive on themselves and a great deal of advertising. But
do save the bulk of your generosity for the coming months when
rebuilding efforts get underway.
Please do continue to pray.
Your thoughts on the matter?”
Not being an expert on these matters, I’m happy to trust those who know more than me. I certainly appreciate the concern to given intelligently and once the media spotlight has drifted elsewhere.
For myself, I am quite comfortable giving to MCC (Mennonite Central Committee) because they have a history of investing long-term in areas of need.