The odyssey

James Wood doesn’t think much of theodicy.

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 after the catastrophe, President Obama movingly invoked “our common humanity,” and said that “we stand in solidarity with our neighbors to the south, knowing that but for the grace of God, there we go.” And there was God once again. Awkwardly, the literal meaning of Mr. Obama’s phrase is not so far from Pat Robertson’s hatefulness. Who, after all, would want to worship the kind of God whose “grace” protects Americans from Haitian horrors

Which is why I wish Obama would leave the goddy stuff out. The intention was good, but really, if that’s the grace of God, what’s God thinking? That we have better building codes and more medical facilities and bigger airports so therefore God should do the earthquake in Haiti because that way it will be really worth watching on tv?

The president was merely uttering an idiomatic version of the kind of thing you hear from survivors whenever a disaster strikes: “God must have been watching out for me; it’s a miracle I survived,” whereby those who died were presumably not being “watched out for.”

Exactly. I said much the same thing in my essay for 50 Voices of Disbelief, though I said it in a slightly less respectful tone.

People seem to know that God is good, that God cares about everything and is paying close attention to everything, and that God is responsible whenever anything good happens to them or whenever anything bad almost happens to them but doesn’t. Yet they apparently don’t know that God is responsible whenever anything bad happens to them, or whenever anything good almost happens to them but doesn’t. People who survive hurricanes or earthquakes or explosions say God saved them, but they don’t say God killed or mangled all the victims. Olympic athletes say God is good when they win a gold, but they don’t say God is bad when they come in fourth or twentieth, much less when other people do.

Why don’t they? Why do people thank god for good things and look carelessly out the window when it comes to bad things? Why is it all thank you thank you thank you and never damn you damn you damn you? I suppose because once it gets to damn you damn you damn you it’s time to leave, so we don’t hear so much about it.

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