Where is God when His children suffer?
An age-old question follows in Katrina's wake
The awesomely destructive power of nature in a tsunami or hurricane may make doubters of us all. As David Bentley Hart writes, "Nature squanders us with such magnificent prodigality that it is hard not to think that something enduringly hideous and abysmal must abide in the depths of life."
And when Katrina pounded into the Gulf Coast of the US last month, the horror of natural disaster was compounded by tales of suffering that could have been prevented by a better response - raising troubling questions about race, class, and justice.
Taken further, such inquiry inevitably evokes questions about the Christian concept of "theodicy" - or the vindication of Providence in the face of disaster.
David Bentley Hart's book In the Doors of the Sea: Where Was God in the Tsunami? fills out arguments he first raised in The Wall Street Journal the Friday after the tsunami battered southern Asia last December.
Hart allows that different views of Providence may be found in the Bible. He admits that Jesus' words leave room for debate, but points out that nothing in his teaching or actions implies that human tragedies "are part of the eternal work or purpose of God."
As with the tsunami, so with Katrina: faced with the agony of the moment, some religious thinkers argue that "there is a divine plan in all the seeming randomness of nature's violence that accounts for every instance of suffering, privation, and loss in a sort of total sum."
Hart, instead, provides a rationally compelling argument for seeing "two worlds at once": one, the natural world "in all its beauty and terror," and the other the world of creation, "radiant with the beauty of God."
To practice "seeing" this way requires "charity," writes Hart. Sustaining this vision takes mental work: intellectual, emotional practice.
Faced by events like the tsunami or hurricane Katrina, many yield to a "theological fatalism." That is, one may yield to the temptation "to attempt to console ourselves or others with vacuous cant about the ultimate meaning residing in all that misery."
Reading Hart, one becomes aware of the power of intellectual distinctions, distinctions which may look like "little more than sophistry" and yet which, pondered and faithfully arrived at, create a steadier and more flexible response to the "slings and arrows of outrageous fortune."
"In the Doors of the Sea" is timely, eloquent, and unfashionable. Its arguments are missing from public debate - perhaps with tragic results.
• Tom D'Evelyn is an editorial consultant in Providence, R.I.