Norwich science faith talk on natural disasters
A recent talk in Norwich by Christian professor Bob White on 'Are Natural Disasters Acts of God?' looked at biblical characters and how they responded to natural disasters through expressions of faith, hope and charity and at the implications for us today.
by Nick Brewin and Patrick Richmond
When we read the small-print of insurance companies, we find that an “Act of God” refers to any natural catastrophe which no one can prevent. But how can an omnipotent God of Love create a world in which earthquakes, floods and volcanic eruptions may kill many thousands of people at a stroke? As a research scientist, Professor Bob White FRS has spent his whole life studying earthquakes and volcanoes. For all that time he has been reflecting as a Christian on the impact of natural disasters and has written a book on the subject entitled ‘Who is to Blame? Disasters, Nature and Acts of God’ (Lion Hudson, 2014)
At a recent talk in Norwich, Bob helped an audience of over 60 people to tackle one of the biggest conundrums of Christian thinking relating to the problems posed by natural disasters.
Bob noted how the Christian gospel affirms that God remains sovereign over creation. As Charles Wesley put it when reflecting on the catastrophic earthquake in Lisbon on All Saints Day, 1755: “What is nature itself, but the art of God, or God’s method of acting in the material world?” Sometimes we have to accept that “Nature is what God does”, in the words of Saint Augustine. But how can we accept this, when nature causes such disasters?
In response, Bob noted that the Gospel also affirms that humanity is somehow fallen and our relationship to God and his world damaged. He drew on the biblical references to Job, Joseph and Jesus and how they each responded to natural disasters through expressions of faith, hope and charity. Noting that he is not a philosopher, he also recommended further reading, such as Don Carson’s How long O Lord? (Baker Academic; second edition (2006)) and warned against simplistic answers.
The book of Job portrays his sufferings as a test of his faith. The point is made that Job’s misfortunes were not a punishment for his sins, contrary to the assertions of his so called comforters: “There is none like him on the earth, a blameless and upright man, who fears God and turns away from evil (Job 2.3)”. Although the story allows us to understand more of what is going on than Job does, ultimately it shows that God’s wisdom in creation is far beyond human comprehension or criticism.
The biblical story of Joseph illustrates a hopeful, humanitarian response to impending disaster. Because humans have God-given foresight and free-will, they can hope for a better future and help to mitigate the effects of disasters, as Joseph did by storing food during the seven years of plenty in order that people could survive the subsequent seven years of drought and famine (Genesis 45:5?8).
As for the life and teachings of Jesus, these promote love and repentance. Natural and man-made disasters do not show the victims were especially sinful, but nonetheless we all need to repent of sin (Luke 13.1-5). Any form of catastrophe should inspire love, compassion and support from others. Such acts of charity are what Jesus taught us to do.
Christ also points to issues of social justice that are often an important component in disasters. In many cases, it is clear that human greed and selfishness have served to aggravate the impact of natural disasters. For example, Bob explained how the tragic earthquake in Haiti in 2009 caused havoc among the impoverished community for the simple reason that none of the buildings were constructed to resist earth tremors. In 2011, a Japanese earthquake of greater magnitude combined with a tsunami caused less than a tenth of the casualties, mainly due to the superior building standards used.
Bob said that, as humans made in the image of God, we can be agents of new creation. We are called to work for better scientific understanding of disasters, in order that we can enable communities to build resilience against them. Volcanos, earthquakes and flood plains all play a part in the fertility and habitability of the earth. We need to plan and build human habitations wisely in relation to them. Clearly, the viewpoints of science, religion and politics are often intertwined when confronting the causes and consequences of natural disasters. We should strive to remove the unjust disparities in wealth and resources that mean that it is so often the poor and disadvantaged who suffer the most. In the words of Ban Ki-moon, Secretary General of the United Nations: “Climate change affects us all but, unfortunately not evenly, not equally”.
Robert (Bob) White FRS is Professor of Geophysics at Cambridge University and Director of The Faraday Institute for Science and Religion. He spoke in Norwich on 30th November at a meeting organised by Science and Faith in Norfolk, an ecumenical group affiliated to Christians in Science.
Science Faith Cathedral Lecture - March 8
The 8th Science Faith Cathedral Lecture organised by SFN will be held on Tuesday 8th March 7.00 – 8.30 pm as part of the Cathedral Science Festival. The distinguished lecturer will be Dr Denis Alexander from the Faraday Institute, Cambridge and his title will be 'Evolution and Adam: Reality, Myth and Symbolism'.
For more information on the Science and Faith in Norfolk group visit https://sites.google.com/site/scienceandfaithinnorfolk or email