People often ask things like “How can God be good and allow things like tornados to kill so many people?” While traditions like Wesleyanism and Roman Catholicism, with our robust doctrines of free will, are able to explain the theodicy question of human evil without implicating God as the source of it, evil occurring in the natural world is not explained well by free will.
So we need to think more about the nature of the created order, and the resounding aspect of relationality intrinsically woven through it by God, whose very nature is also relational. When Hurricane Katrina came ashore and caused such damage to local human civilization, including not least the loss of human lives, one of my colleagues (ShipNazarenes’s own Rev. Rich Rotz) said to me “Hurricanes are not evil forces. They are ecologically beneficial in a variety of ways. They are just felt to be evil when humans build in places where we shouldn’t.” Rich’s observations were spot on. Hurricanes clear out silted-in estuaries, open up new marshlands, jump start ecological succession inland in ways that are beneficial to all kinds of species. Species we enjoy seeing. Species we like to eat. Hurricanes are biologically beneficial to the ecosystem. However when we build homes and cities in hurricane-prone areas, and we build them in ways that will not withstand the ways hurricanes affect tides and windspeeds, we experience the damaging results. A weekend three inch Thanksgiving snowfall would be just as deadly in Pennsylvania if we were all living in Tahitian huts and wearing nothing more than sarongs. The only reason we don’t think of a three day stint of 20 degree weather as deadly is that we dress and build accordingly.
If you spin a ball with a magnetosphere and atmosphere in orbit around a sun, you end up with global wind patterns like Earth’s: a Coriolis effect of thermal distribution of the atmosphere absorbing solar heat. (Mars has tornadoes. Jupiter’s Great Red Spot is a hurricane that has been raging for three centuries and the storm itself is larger than the planet Earth). If we didn’t want winds to operate, if we didn’t want the plate tectonics that create the Sierras to also create earthquakes, if we didn’t want gravity to cause a jump from a 5th story window to result in a broken leg, we would be arguing for a world in which there is no relationality. No interaction between one entity and another. Every relationship you cherish would be impossible. To argue for a Creation where the possibility of damage did not exist would be to argue for a Creation without freedom, without interaction and relationship between any one thing (a rock, plant, sun, person, Siamese cat) and any other thing. Whatever we imagine that Created Order might look like, it would lack interaction and relationship in any meaningful sense. Having boundaries which involve danger (don’t jump from that 5th story window) is not intrinsically evil. The relationality of the universe is the source of its most joyous glories.
And so: tornados. A civilization which wishes to build in a tornado-prone area needs to build tornado-safe structures. These are issues of aerodynamics, and perhaps in many cases, building underground. (Dr. Annalee Newitz’ article concerning ‘death-proofing’ our cities in June 2013 Discover Magazine, is drawn from her book Scatter, Adapt, and Remember: How Humans Will Survive a Mass Extinction, which looks like a very enjoyable read). If we want to live (and survive with fewer tragedies) in tornadic locales, we need to build for it, just as we build houses in Pennsylvania with the structural integrity and thermal dynamics to survive snowstorms and February temperatures.
Eskimos have lived for thousands of years in climates impossible to live in Tahitian style. A universe with the joys of relationality also requires human management of our living arrangements in ways appropriate to the climactic zone we live in. It’s not that the climate, the wind, the plate tectonics are natural evil. It’s part of the reality of the possibility for relationality: a cosmos where one object can meaningfully relate to or interact with another. It is not a strike against God’s goodness.