God, Nature, and Society: Theological Frameworks Illuminated by Two Natural Disasters

OCTOBER 2012: ESSAY

by Janel Curry

Moments of great stress such as natural disasters illuminate underlying theological constructs and worldviews. Extreme natural events bring to the fore the basic structures of these belief systems, beliefs about the most basic human problems and their solutions, concepts of good and evil, and the trajectory of history. Historical work has been done on the impacts of major natural events on various societies, including religious interpretations of the tragedies, such as the association in China between major earthquakes and changes in dynasties.

Here, I present my findings from a study on the theological worldviews that became evident in sermons that were given following two major natural events— Hurricane Katrina in 2005 and the Asian tsunami of 2004. The wide range of interpretive responses from the religious community to these events led to my pursuit of this line of inquiry. The religious community provided a living laboratory for the exploration of how natural events can illuminate theological frameworks.

This research was part of a larger interdisciplinary project, funded by the Lilly Foundation through the Calvin Center for Christian Worship, which attempted to further our understanding of Christian worship and civic life. Initially, this larger project focused on ten churches in a Midwestern city, extending from the center of the city outward, studied over a year’s time, representing Catholic, Methodist, Reformed, and fundamentalist Baptist congregations. From these ten churches, audio-taped services from the second Sunday of each month were collected and analyzed.

My particular part of the study focused on expressed relationships among God, nature, and humans. But analysis of the 120 worship services showed virtually no development or mention of the relationships among God, nature, and humans. Consequently I supplemented these initial sermons with those found on the web from the same groups for the three Sundays following each event (January 2, 9, and 16 in 2005 for the Asian tsunami and September 4, 11, and 18 in 2005 for Hurricane Katrina). My study examined fifty-two sermons and included several African American congregations as well as several from outside the United States—the United Kingdom, Australia, and Canada. I found no relationship among the sermon content and ethnicity, nationality, or geographic proximity to the events. Four theological worldview categories were used to analyze the sermons: eschatological perspectives; conceptual frameworks for the integration of God, nature, and society; views on human agency; and perspectives on the relationship between sin and suffering. The four ecclesial groups showed consistent differences in these categories, providing insights and lessons for pastoral reflection.

ESCHATOLOGY

Among the sermons studied, the Baptist sermons drew the strongest connection between eschatology and the events of the Asian tsunami and Hurricane Katrina. Baptist sermons referred to the events as “signs of the times” predicting the return of Christ, and called for repentance in light of the coming judgment. Events were seen as warnings and lessons. In contrast, most Reformed sermons made no mention of eschatological themes, though some references were made to the second coming of Christ and future perfection of the world. Methodist sermons likewise made few references to eschatological themes. Rather, their emphasis was on the present, on how the redeemed have been changed (present tense) and need not fear death. The events were primarily used to call for compassion. The Catholic sermons were unique in allowing for mystery, along with the use of religious figures as models for congregants. For example, sermons recognized that we don’t understand why such events occur, but we do know that Jesus has gone before us. Catholic sermons drew on the models of both Mary, who pondered the mystery of the incarnation, and the Holy Family, which experienced being refugees.

GOD, NATURE, AND HUMAN SOCIETY

The second worldview category entailed analysis of sermons in terms of their portrayal of the integration of God, nature, and humans. One aspect of this integration was reflected in views on the relationship between God and nature. The Reformed sermons emphasized the role of God as an ongoing sustainer of nature and as sovereign over nature. These sermons showed ambivalence in terms of the inherent goodness of nature. In contrast, Catholic sermons, when they did mention nature, were the only ones to consistently express the view that nature was inherently good. Not only did they emphasize the goodness of nature, but they also uniquely commented on the need for humans to harmonize with nature, and for humans to be subject to natural force. These uniquely Catholic emphases may reflect the tradition’s stress on natural law, seeing humans as participating in eternal law by discerning its aspects and participating in it.

The Methodist sermons were characterized by an absence of reflection on the relationship among God, nature, and humanity. Nature itself was largely absent among the Methodist sermons. In contrast, the Baptist sermons showed a consistent use of nature in the abstract—God used nature to teach lessons or give warnings to humans. Baptists were the only group to use nature in this way. Furthermore, Baptist sermons emphasized God’s direct control of nature. Another aspect of the relationship among God, nature, and humanity is the particular relationship between nature and society. How do societies and their choices connect to natural events, and how do natural events impact society? In this study, few sermons drew any connection between these natural hazard events and human societal structures. Methodists showed the greatest societal analysis. The relationship between poverty and ability to evacuate was stated in several cases. The Baptists showed the lowest level of reference to structural understandings of the events. In fact, one Baptist sermon blamed the Asian countries for having no warning system, glossing over the public discussion about the distribution of wealth in the world and poor countries’ difficulty maintaining such systems.

HUMAN AGENCY

Human agency is the belief of individuals and communities that they are capable of acting and making a difference in a situation. Since I could not ascertain the specific actions taken by members of the congregations in response to sermons, I examined the differences in terms of both the responses elicited by the sermons and the actions suggested to congregants, and whether the suggested actions were individually or communally oriented.

The Reformed sermons showed a balance between individual and communal responses. Sermons called for individual compassion and for individuals to put their faith in Jesus. But they also called for communal support of relief efforts and corporate giving. Similarly, Catholic sermons showed a tendency to ask for communal responses to these events, with a strong emphasis on relief work, while compassion and prayers were requested at the individual level. The Catholic sermons were the only ones to talk about valuing the poor, hungry, and sorrowing and seeing them through God’s eyes. One phrase that occurred several times spoke of the need to “seek peace and justice, dignity for all humans,” and to live lives of concern and love for the poor and suffering.

Methodist sermons likewise showed a balance between individualized and communal responses. Sermons called for individual compassion, faith in Jesus, and prayer while also emphasizing being collective agents of hope and supporting relief efforts. Relative to other groups, the Methodist sermons showed the greatest emphasis on actions that involved changing government policies. But in general, congregants were asked to be willing hands, to pray, and to grieve.

The Baptist sermons in the study had a much greater level of individualization than the other three groups. Ninety percent of the Baptist comments were individualized, focusing on compassion, service, and generosity, as well as individual reflection, repentance, and witnessing to others.

OTHERNESS

In both the Asian tsunami and Hurricane Katrina, thousands of people suffered. The problem of suffering, and whether it is perceived as deserved, caused by individual sin, or merely random, is one with which all religious traditions wrestle. The perspective taken by a particular religious tradition can call individuals either to identify with the suffering of another or to distance themselves from others’ perceived sinfulness.

Reformed sermons, more than any others, outwardly rejected any relationship between sin and suffering, implicitly suggesting that congregants not separate themselves from those who suffer. Suffering was seen as the result of the general fallenness of the world, not the particular sinfulness of the victims, and was seen as being used by God to bring people back to himself.

Methodists emphasized the universality of suffering, naming and personalizing those affected. Methodists likewise showed the strongest measure of self-identification, many times referring to those who were suffering as “neighbors.” They drew no connection between sin and suffering. Rather, the problem of evil was seen as a mystery.

Catholic sermons were also especially strong in their self-identification with those who were suffering. Illustrations related to the suffering of the Holy Family intensified this link. In addition, comments were made about the need to help the poor, with one sermon going so far as to be critical of those who separate themselves from the suffering. Like the Methodist sermons, the Catholic sermons stressed the mystery of suffering in general.

Baptist sermons were the only ones to show strong boundaries between themselves and those who experienced these events. When a sermon called for identification with those who suffered in these events, it was grounded in the mutual fear of the coming judgment, drawing on eschatological themes. Baptist sermons were the only ones to express a connection between sin and suffering. The events were used as spiritual lessons illustrating the failure of people to heed the warning signs and evacuate.

SUMMARY

Differences among the four traditions were significant. While fundamentalist Baptists identify themselves as biblical “literalists,” their sermons largely used natural disasters as abstract lessons, giving hearers an opportunity to distance themselves from the events and those affected.1 Catholics distinguished themselves not only in their communally strong identification with those affected by these events, intensified by identification with religious figures who had also experienced suffering, but also in their view of humanity as subject to a good, not fallen, nature. Methodism reflected its heritage in its emphasis on social justice, as well as in its focus on personal prayer and piety. This focus on the individual occurred in the absence of any reflection on the relationships among God, nature, and humans. Finally, Reformed theology was evident both in the emphasis on God as the ongoing sustainer of the natural world and in the expressed belief that this actual earth will be made new when Christ returns.

None of the groups exhibited significant understanding of the role of social structures, such as race and income, on the distribution of the effects of natural disasters. Furthermore, the groups expressed very little understanding of the connection between human choices and nature, or of the way human actions can contribute to natural disasters. Unexpectedly, this was equally true with Hurricane Katrina and the Asian tsunami, in spite of greater press coverage related to structural inequality and human action contributing to the destruction in New Orleans.

LESSONS AND CONCLUSIONS

What lessons can be drawn from this analysis of sermons? Two areas seem to merit increased theological reflection. First, the earth and its complex physical systems need to be taken more seriously and thought through more carefully. Second, attention needs to be given to the role of societal structures and human choices, especially in disasters.

John Calvin embraced the created world. He saw it as something to be studied and understood, something in which God and humans could take pleasure. For Calvin, God’s concern for the created world should be reflected in a human concern to understand and appreciate the earth. Calvin argued that knowledge of nature was a gift of God, lavished on believers and unbelievers alike. The downgrading, neglect, or willful ignorance of science and learning were reprehensible.2 Calvin rejected a mechanistic view of nature. He saw all creation as ultimately owing its existence and character to the sovereign will of God, as being sustained by and subject to the will of God.3 God is, in Calvin’s view, continuously providing created entities the energy and ability to function in such a way that they behave and operate in a consistent, regular manner.4

Many sermons, especially among the Reformed, attempted to incorporate the physical earth into their theological perspective on these events, but they did so by focusing primarily on the meaning of the fall when it came to nature. The very existence of hurricanes and earthquakes was used as evidence of the fallenness of the creation, for example. Yet in reality, hurricanes are part of the system of distribution of energy across the globe, as are earthquakes.

Reformed ministers were not the only ones who struggled with how to depict and understand these physical events. Among the Methodists, nature was virtually absent altogether. And among Baptists, nature was merely a tool used by God to either punish, teach, or give warnings of the second coming of Christ.

This struggle with the place of the physical earth and the meaning of the Christian hope of redemption has received much attention recently, especially in the work of N. T. Wright.5 Wright challenges Christians to see the earth not as something that is temporary and expendable, but as part of the salvation story. This is in great contrast to some Christian traditions, particularly dispensationalism, that see attachment to the physical earth as idolatry.6 Most sermons in this study displayed a lack of understanding of and appreciation for natural systems. Theological work that takes the created physical world seriously, such as that of Calvin and Wright, needs to be encouraged. Ministers need to think clearly and carefully about what they are communicating to their congregations about natural systems and extreme natural events, such as tsunamis and hurricanes.

This study also illuminated a need for ministers to think carefully about the relationship between social structures and extreme natural events. Natural scientists focus on how these kinds of events are part of natural forces at work on the earth, while social scientists study how the effects of such extreme natural events are mitigated or increased by societal choices. Natural and social scientists, in their study of both natural systems and the interaction of natural systems with human systems, are what I call “horizontally focused.” Sermons after the Asian tsunami and Hurricane Katrina called people either to focus on their own relationship with God (“vertically focused”) or to think and act horizontally; in some cases they did both. Ministers who take an entirely horizontal perspective assume that congregants are capable of changing circumstances together with others, but they may fail to deal with the larger issue of the meaning of suffering in the world. Likewise, ministers who exclusively emphasize a vertically oriented response can fail to help congregants understand the role of the state and of human institutions both in contributing to these crises and in responding to them.

All the Christians traditions in this study exhibited minimal understanding of the role of social structures in the creation of these two natural disasters in the first place, failing to recognize factors related to poverty and an inability to escape or build warning systems; factors related to the economic, social, and political forces that lead to increased development along coastlines; factors of human-induced environmental change that disrupts the natural systems that at one time absorbed the impact of such natural forces. This lack of reflection on human choices and social structures was just as true with Hurricane Katrina as with the Asian tsunami, even in spite of all the press coverage related to poverty, structural inequality, and human impacts contributing to the destruction in New Orleans. While sermons frequently used the disasters as evidence of the fallenness of nature, the concept of sin embedded in human societal structures was absent from all traditions. To counteract this lack of understanding and reflection, ministers need to think about how to communicate the presence of sin within societal structures and confront the difficult issue of human complicity in creating the social structures that contribute to these kinds of tragedies.

As Christians, we hope and trust that the practice and discipline of worship shapes our lives and forms our ethical and theological orientations. This research was an attempt to test the nature of this formation and to gain insight into the conceptual frameworks expressed by pastors representing a variety of Christian traditions. My hope is that through this exploration we may all become more aware of the theological and practical work that still needs to be done to ensure that our worship better reflects our true theological understanding of the natural and social world of which God has made us a part.

Janel Curry is provost at Gordon College in Wenham, Massachusetts.

NOTES

1 Joel Carpenter, Revive Us Again: The Reawakening of American Fundamentalism (New York: Oxford University Press, 1997), 47.
2 Davis Young, John Calvin and the Natural World (Lanham, MD: University Press of America, 2007), 10.
3 Young, John Calvin and the Natural World, 58.
4 Young, John Calvin and the Natural World, 203.
5 N. T. Wright, Surprised by Hope: Rethinking Heaven, the Resurrection, and the Mission of the Church(New York: Harper Collins, 2008).
6 Janel M. Curry and Kathi Groenendyk, “Place and Nature Seen through the Eyes of Faith: Understandings among Male and Female Seminarians,” Worldviews: Environment, Culture, Religion 10, no. 3 (2006): 326–54.