Friday, October 27, 2006


One recent morning, I woke up and turned on the TV. Bouncing from one news or talk show to another I heard the following statements:

(a) From an African-American minister: the destruction wrought by Hurricane Katrina was God’s will, but we can’t understand His purposes,

(b) From a reporter: A plane crashed in Lexington, Kentucky, killing 49;

(c) From another reporter: Two journalists from Fox news who were being held hostage in the Middle East were freed by their captors; and

(d) From a Christian author: roughly 50% of Christian students lose their faith while in college.

There you have it – four seemingly unconnected statements, all asserted confidently as fact. Immediately, I found myself joining them together.

One common thread involves tragedies. One was a near tragedy – kidnappings that ended in a release of two men – but the other two were the real McCoys. The plane crash turned out to involve human incompetence, as we learned that the the pilot used the wrong runway and the air traffic controller was too busy to notice what was happening. Katrina, of course, is considered an “act of God,” like other deadly hurricanes or earthquakes, only the extent of the disaster was exacerbated by human incompetence in building such a shaky levee system. The hurricane, you see, can’t be blamed on human beings, but perhaps the flooding can.

What else can we say about these tragedies and near tragedies? We can’t help but recognize that the only story with a “happy ending” has, as its heroes, a group of unknown terrorists who apparently had enough of a heart to set their captors free. Otherwise, the stories end in despair and frustration – frustration with human intelligence and human priorities letting us down in New Orleans and Lexington, and despair that massive numbers of people so commonly die before their time as a result of the ruthless laws of nature. These are the same laws that have resulted in burying many a good man alive under rubble or whisking away entire seaside towns in a single torrent of wind and water.

I have expressed my impressions of these tragic and near tragic events essentially in secular terms – and I suspect that these are the terms that would be used in a typical American college. But what about those of us who view the world through the lens of fundamentalist theology? Of scripture? It’s a bit different, isn’t it? The person who sees in every earthly event a divine purpose must truly marvel at the sight of tragedy. What exactly was the Great Man thinking when he sent the tsunami? Why did He cause the Arab terrorists to free two reporters one minute, and allow the pilot to use the wrong runway the next? Why did He inscribe those reporters in the book of life, and provide the Grim Reaper with more than 1000 dead residents of the Big Easy and 49 dead plane travelers? Can we find the answers from reading Scripture?

Apparently, the African-American minister whom I heard interviewed on TV couldn’t muster an explanation. He remained confident that the explanation for the above events was God’s will. He simply could say nothing more about the why behind that will. And that, perhaps, is the problem for those fundamentalist Christians who wish their children to have a college education without losing their faith.

There is something about going to college that makes intelligent people seek explanations. Despite what people think, there’s more to the college experience than keg parties, worries about pregnancy, and experiments with drugs. In college, students solidify their senses of self, and do this in large part by understanding their own unique places in the world. College kids ask questions. They need to know the how’s and why’s – or at least the most reasonable explanation for them. In college, reason is king, perhaps even more than hedonism. College students realize that they can enjoy hedonistic pursuits more freely than they could as a child, but they also realize that these pursuits aren’t what gives life meaning. Meaning comes from understanding your self and your world, and reason is the key to such wisdom.

This leads me to the fourth statement identified above. As I sat on my living room chair, listening to a Christian author lament the loss of faith among formerly Christian college students, my head began to shake. Instead of looking at this phenomenon as a failure of Christianity to conform to modernity, the author was criticizing the collegiate ethos. Apparently, he was concerned that – perish the thought – teenagers exposed only to their parents’ world views were becoming inquisitive, open-minded, soul-searching adults. And strangely enough, a lot of them were opting for new perspectives. Imagine that.

I share with that author the concern that our society generally and colleges in particular de-emphasize the value of spirituality in our lives. I share also the attitude that our professors often go beyond being scientific to the point of being scientistic – which I mean in the disparaging sense of being so enamored with the scientific method that it is relied upon even in situations where it clearly has limited value. But bashing excessive secularism can only go so far. Spiritual people must recognize that the urge to find reasonable explanations for worldly phenomena is natural and, indeed, wholesome. Yes, there is much about life that the human mind cannot explain, yet that shouldn’t stop us from trying. And that shouldn’t stop us from holding on to philosophies that offer a more sensible partial-explanation than other alternatives.

Is it really sensible to think that a divine "will" intended to take certain innocent lives, while sparing others? Is it really sensible to view natural disasters as the product of conscious choices by a divine intellect? Not to me it isn't. And apparently, at least half of the Christian students who matriculate in colleges agree with me by the time they leave. I'll respect the other half's right to disagree. But if they hope to persuade me to join their side, they had better do more than cite Scripture. They'd better ground their arguments in reason. Do so, and I promise to listen.


Finding Fair Hope said...

Everywhere I go on the Internet (and I admit I don't go many places), I bump into men asking me "Why?" as if there was one answer and I might have it. Well, I might, but try as I do, I don't seem to find one that satisfies them.

I think it's a healthy sign that young people in college are asking the same questions we once asked, and that, no more than we were, they are not satisfied with traditional answers. This should lead them, rather than to give up, to keep seeking, to read, to meditate, to reach their own conclusions (which are never concluded, by the way). Unfortunately they are all too often told that they must stop asking.

I like your neat little foray into television and its superficial sweep of great matters, and even more I liked that it inspired you to put together this thought-provoking post. I'll think about it, but you can be sure I won't come up with the real answer to "Why?" any time soon

Finding Fair Hope said...

Notice how I didn't put a period at the end of that last sentence? It wasn't intended, but it does seem to indicate that I'm not finished with this.

Daniel Spiro said...


With regard to the ultimate questions, the idea of an "answer" -- or a permanent solution -- seems almost absurd. You can analogize the search for wisdom on these issues to a never-ending voyage in which each day (corresponding to each attempt to philosophize seriously), the voyager must find a resting place for the night before embarking again in the morning. With the embarkment comes more uncertainty and restlessness.

At some level, I suspect that many of us merely choose among multiple somewhat-reasonable hypotheses, and select the one that seems to make our lives the most meaningful. The pie-in-the-sky (i.e., cosmic Santa Clause) hypothesis seems plausible to me, for example, but not plausible enough to make it worthy of my belief.