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Phil-osophically Speaking - January 22, 2010

The searing images of suffering and loss in Haiti have saddened the world. The monster quake, which has shaken the impoverished nation to its foundations, has entombed thousands under mountains of rubble while pulverizing airports, roads and communication systems. Assistance crawls at a snail’s pace and the fear that thirst, hunger and disease could ignite another human catastrophe becomes more ominous with every passing hour.

The powerful tremors rising from deep inside the earth have turned the lives of the Haitian people into a prolonged, and living nightmare. The city’s infrastructure, with its non-existent building codes, has collapsed like a house of cards, medical and emergency services are all but invisible and the threat of lawlessness and violence hangs menacingly over a land on the brink of total collapse.

A parade of death marches through the city of Port-au-Prince and its surrounding countryside. Corpses litter the streets, sometimes in stacked bundles; the air is syrupy thick with the stench of death. The whole morbid scene is tortured, grotesque and unsparing in its dimensions.

The earthquake in Haiti is a story filled with suffering and heartache, yet brimming with humanity. The response to the disaster, especially from the American people, has been overwhelming. If there is a silver lining amid the battered city and its shattered lives it is that in the face of such horrors, human fraternity has triumphed over its sordid and petty divisions.

The eternal question, however, of why such terrible things happen gnaws at the deepest recesses of the soul. The so-called “acts of God,” like epidemics and earthquakes, where free will plays no role, beguiles those who earnestly seek to reconcile the world’s multitude of evils with a loving God.

“Is the earthquake in Lisbon,” said a seething Voltaire, “the final proof of the goodness of God?” A sharp accusation considering that most evil springs from the heart of man. Still, when death is so gratuitous, when the young die, when children die, we feel dwarfed by a cold and unfeeling Universe.

If you’re the biologist, Richard Dawkins, the answer to such questions as “why” is obvious. A dogmatic atheist, Dawkins will inform you that in a world of six billion people some of those people are going to be lucky and others unlucky. It is simply a matter of coming to terms with life’s raw arithmetic. But for those who believe in God and believe that human destiny, while shrouded in mystery, is something more than gauging the odds, the answers come hard, if they come at all.

Suffering can be redeeming, as anyone who has lived long enough knows. But when its scope is so horrendous, as it so clearly is in Haiti, can we find reassurance, much less consolation, that the designs of Providence are unfathomable?

The Judaic-Christian tradition has long wrestled with this conundrum. From the cries of the Ancient Hebrews in captivity, “How long, O’Lord” to the agonizing cry of Christ, flayed and naked on the cross, “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me,” the problem of pain is a dangerous and slippery crossroad. Thomas Aquinas understood that suffering is a door that swings both ways; it is the most likely reason why people don’t believe in God and why they do.

To point out these underlying emotions, however, is not to understate the difficulties involved. In the Old Testament, Job becomes a Biblical hero not of understanding, but acceptance. The Book of Job’s meditation on why a just man suffers so greatly is never directly answered. Instead something else surfaces: Can a human being question Almighty God? The response to Job is terse and majestic: “Where wast thou when I laid the foundations of the world?”

The most redeeming aspect of this unfolding tragedy may well be the steadfastness of the Haitians themselves. We cannot begin to measure their grief, but I know their faith, like those mustard seeds in the Gospel, can move mountains and will persevere long after their doubts have run short of breath.

The Haitians are a plainspoken people: They believe in God, the unique and timeless promises of Christ, the transcendence of the soul and life everlasting. They know the world is fallen, never more so for them than now, but they also fervently believe that the things and joys of this life will be greater for once having been broken and lost.

The rationalists will cavalierly dismiss their quixotic notions as superstitions or fables – tales for children. But the Haitians are resolute and not easily defeated. They will rise from the rubble, as living witnesses that there is no sorrow that God cannot heal.