God and Nature

In upstate New York we had an earlier than expected snow storm. Nature dumped a foot of snow on us. The first heavy snow is very pretty. Still more than a dozen people were killed in the storm. Our daughter-in-law narrowly missed a thirty-one car pile up on the highway. The same week has seen unprecedented wild fires in California, with an appalling death toll—79 as I write, with 1,000 missing—that will likely rise in the days ahead. Nature is a force to be reckoned with, so often benign, too often devastatingly cruel. But then, can we ascribe human characteristics of kindness and cruelty to that which simply is? Perhaps it's better to see nature as indifferent to either kindness or cruelty. Nature simply is.
Philosophers and theologians have long pondered the relationship of god and nature. Traditional understandings of god—as all powerful, all loving, all knowing, and existing everywhere at the same time—have tried to understand the obvious problems of nature's seeming arbitrariness.
The problem is a glaring one. If god is all loving and all powerful, then surely an all loving god would prevent storms from killing people and wild fires from raging through people's homes.
The answer must be that either god can do anything, but is not all loving (and hence allows unloving things to happen) or else that god is all loving, but powerless to stop nature's random destructiveness.
The first answer preserves god's greatness and power, but makes the divine more demonic than angelic. In the second answer, god is the recipient and victim of nature in just the same way we are.
Both answers are troubling for a traditional theology that sees god outside of, and distinct from, natural processes. In this view god is "super-nature," hence the realm of the supernatural.
Pragmatically, what are the effects of these two views?
The first, god as an all-powerful puppet master who pulls the strings of nature according to god's own whim, allows for the prayers of people to ask the all-powerful to change nature. "Please let the sun shine for the picnic, Saturday." "Please help my friend get well from her illness." "Please stop the wild fire before it destroys Paradise." Sometimes fires change course. Sometimes towns and people are consumed. God's answers to prayers seem as arbitrary (kind one day, cruel the next) as nature's power.
The second, god as all-loving and kind, but not all-powerful, has god unable to change nature. Prayers for such are futile. The second has a kinder god, a god who is glad when humans thrive, but suffers too when humanity suffers. This view seems closer to the Christian idea of incarnation, that god becomes human too to suffer with us. Yet traditionally, this remains a super-nature god who gives up super-nature to become natural.
A third answer is to introduce another godlike figure who is the antithesis of god but almost as powerful—the devil. This understanding—the Marvel comic view of reality—has the superhero and the bad guy in constant struggle. In the end the superhero wins through a greater use of force—the myth of redemptive violence. It plays well at the cinema, but not in real life. Much of the time no superhero comes to our rescue. The devil wins as much as god, and often more.
Doubtless the issues of theodicy will continue to exercise minds and will produce champions of one set of beliefs over another.
Much of the problem of theodicy is because god is super-nature. But, what if there is no super-nature? What if nature is all that exists, with all its wonder, beauty, bounty, multifariousness, power, dis-interest, and unpredictability?
Then we can suggest a syllogism:
If nature is all that exists;
and god exists;
then god is part of nature, and shares in its kindness and cruelty, as both a beneficiary and a victim, in much the same was as does the human, and all other, species.
In what way then does god exist? Not as a supernatural being (somewhat like a human being only bigger and more powerful, the superhero) but as St. John suggested ... as love. God exists as all the love and goodness in nature, our highest human aspiration, and the telos for which we long and toward which we direct our lives.
And nature? The Daodejing suggests that the happiest life is one that flows with nature, that learns its patterns, that doesn't expect always smooth sailing, that allows for the constant changes as a tree sways in the breeze, that accepts nature what what nature is.
To put St. John and Laozi together would be to flow with the ups and downs of nature, accepting the natural course of things, but looking for love and goodness wherever they may be found, with compassion and sympathy for those who suffer from nature's constant changes, working for the alleviation of the suffering of all sentient beings.
Be well as you find the balance,
+Ab. Andy