In James Wood’s brilliant novel, The Book Against God, self-absorbed and ineffective Thomas Bunting undertakes to write a book—entitled The Book Against God or BAG as he refers to it—that will refute his Anglican priest father’s religiosity and establish the irrefutability of his own atheism.
Separated from his wife, unable to complete his dissertation and obsessed by his father, it’s not entirely clear why Bunting is a sympathetic character. But somehow he is. And that’s why toward the end of the novel, when he gives an unintentionally offensive eulogy at his father’s funeral, the reader wants to put a gentle arm around him and lead him away from the microphone—which, fortunately, his estranged wife does.
Standing at that pulpit he says:
One of the arguments I make in my Book Against God is that life is what I call a bowl of tears. In some people, the bowl overflows; in others, it hardly seems full at all. Yet all suffer. Now, my father did suffer, I think, even though he used to joke that he was absurdly happy, that unlike most men he was seeking the key to unhappiness. . . .
The achievement of Wood’s The Book Against God is that he portrays Bunting’s insistence on atheism—the author’s own position, I believe—as being equally as spurious and indefensible as the faith he seeks to debunk.
This matters because it seems as if Wood gets right what writers of screeds pro- and con- religion consistently get wrong: That words are never up to the task of discussing divinity or the lack of divinity. Words simply fail.
Words point toward a divine order or disorder in the hope of comprehending that which is unknowable. Atheist and believer together are equally stranded in the cloud of unknowing.
Now Wood has written an op-ed piece for The New York Times in which he points to the way earthquakes, perhaps even more than other disasters, have always given rise to the interpretation that they are a result of sin and a sign of divine displeasure.
“In the 18th century, the genre of ‘earthquake sermon’ was good business,” he writes. “Two small shocks in London, in 1750, sent the preachers to their pulpits and pamphlets. In Bloomsbury, the Rev. Dr. William Stukeley preached that earthquakes are favored by God as the ultimate sign of his wrathful intervention.”
He cites the sermons following the Lisbon earthquake in which human sinfulness was met with cataclysmic punishment. He gives us the father of Methodism’s own take on tremblers: “There is no divine visitation which is likely to have so general an influence upon sinners as an earthquake,” wrote John Wesley, in 1777.
And, of course, he cites Pat Robertson’s absurd pronouncement that Haiti’s history of woes was the result of making a pact with the devil escaping French control. The earthquake, he said, was “a blessing in disguise,” because it will give the Haitians a chance to re-build.
We all know how heinous that is: to justify catastrophic events by saying they are God’s will.
But Wood goes a step further.
He writes, “We should expect nothing less from the man [Robertson] who blamed legal abortion for Hurricane Katrina. But even when intentions are the opposite of Mr. Robertson’s, and in a completely secular context, theological language has a way of hanging around earthquakes.”
In his speech President Obama observed that “we stand in solidarity with our neighbors to the south, knowing that but for the grace of God, there we go.”
Wisely, Wood points out that, however well-intentioned the sentiment, the actual content of what President Obama said was not that far removed from what Pat Robertson’s view: that God had something to do with it. That God spared some people, but not others.
The same kind of God is operative in both statements: a God who punishes, a God of judgment and condemnation.
Since we live in a post-Enlightenment world in which we know that natural disasters are natural and not divine acts of chastisement, it’s strange and unsettling that theological language creeps its way into our response to them.
And, for people of faith, it’s a reminder that the God most people create in their minds is one of wrathfulness and capriciousness.
Particularly in the midst of Haiti’s crisis, it is important not to theologize—however benignly—the event. It perpetuates the notion of a vengeful God and it ends up blaming the victims.
Wood writes, “We who are, at present, unfairly luckier, whether believers or not, might reflect…that in this context no invocation of God beyond a desperate appeal for help makes much theological sense.”
As Thomas Bunting might put it: The bowl of Haiti’s tears is full, is overflowing. But that is not God’s doing.
And perhaps the grace of God is in our hands. And what we do with them.