Is it only the fault of the Tsarnaev brothers, or does the wider society share in the blame? Will science be able to prevent such tragedies? And what about God? If God is in charge of reality, then couldn’t he have prevented such a terrible tragedy? Just a tweak here or there, or someone discovering the bombs before they detonated? Should we be angry at God for what happened? Here are some thoughts from what several thousand years of Western civilization have taught us.
Is it the fault of the perpetrators?
Long ago, the ancient pagans described a conflict model of the world where different gods battled each other and human beings had to take sides. Taking their cues from passages in the New Testament, many religious conservatives have a similar stance. We are at war. God and Satan are at each other’s cosmic throats. We have been given free will, and it’s up to us to choose the good and reject the evil. Therefore, conservative theologians tend to have a strong sense of individual sin and responsibility.
Is it the fault of society?
Traditional Christianity, starting with Plato and later the writings of Augustine, had a different view from today’s conservatives. Augustine believed everything God created was good. There could be no war because God was sovereign, and would never allow for opposition in his creation. Instead, evil is the absence of good, something like a rip in an otherwise beautiful and perfect piece of fabric. Human beings have this fatal flaw, and everyone partakes in one way or another. Following this view, the perpetrators are at fault, but as flawed human beings we also share in the blame.
Will progress in science and technology fix the problem?
The rise of science in the late middle ages brought new ideas and a different kind of hope. Perhaps evil could be put in a test tube and studied. Science might advance to the point that the causes of suffering could be understood, and if not eliminated, at least minimized. Many who follow this scenario see society and even religion as a problem, not the solution. Unfortunately even renowned modern atheists such as Joseph Conrad attest that there is no hope in human progress. The increasing problems of bombings and mass shootings seem to validate their troubling views. As Plato and Augustine believed, it seems more likely that we have a fatal flaw somehow woven into the fabric of humanity that science and technology will never cure.
Couldn’t God have stopped the bombs?
To some way back in the ancient Roman Empire, the ideas of transcendent gods seemed cold and heartless. Instead, religions called mystery cults told stories of how the gods came down and took part in their sufferings, even to the point of giving their lives for them. Christianity is often seen as the most successful of the mystery cults. Jesus didn’t stop the cross. Instead, he died for our sins, taking our infirmities and sharing our sorrows. Today, many people still take comfort in the thought that when we hurt, Jesus hurts with us.
Should we be angry at God?
The book of Job goes back before science, before Christianity, and before Western civilization, perhaps back to the foundations of humanity. It is not a true story in a literal sense, but it can be true in the more important sense of human experience. Job explored the common thought of his day, that suffering was a punishment for some specific sin. Job believed he was innocent and that he had justification to be angry with God. He discovered instead that God and evil were far beyond his grasp.
Surely I spoke of things I did not understand, things too wonderful for me to know. Job 42:3.
So whose fault is the Boston bombing?
The message of Job says that we need to be careful about who we blame. There are no quick and easy answers. Good and evil are both immanent and transcendent, fully part of who we are as human beings, but also mysterious. The reality lies only with God, outside of matter, energy, space, and time.
In times of calamity it's easy to become angry with God. How do you process your faith in times of tragedy? This will be the topic of our next Coffee Talk, which will be at 10 a.m., May 4 at Coeur Coffehouse.