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Archbishop Sentamu on the Haiti earthquake

On the Today programme this morning John Sentamu, Archbishop of York, was interviewed by John Humphrys about the Haiti earthquake. Humphrys was asking the age-old questions: how can an all-powerful and loving God allow such things to happen, and why do some people survive while others don't? Humphrys is of course an old hand at this game; he recently conducted a series of interviews with leading theologians of different faiths in which the question of reconciling God's omnipotence and love figured prominently.

One of the earlier interviewees was Rowan Williams, Archbishop of Canterbury, who admitted that he could only just live with the paradox. That was at least honest. Sentamu, in contrast, failed even to attempt to confront the issue. He started by voicing the platitude that natural forces can be both beneficial and destructive. He instanced water to illustrate this: essential for life but destructive if there is too much of it. He didn't explain how this analogy could be applied to earthquakes. Are small earthquakes beneficial?

He then wandered off into talking about how Jesus shows us the face of God. Humphrys, understandably baffled, said that he didn't see what this had to do with the question. But Sentamu did little more than repeat himself in answer.

This was one of the feeblest efforts at a theodicy that I've heard from a prominent churchman. I can respect those who, like Rowan Williams, confess themselves unable to find an answer, but to take refuge in irrelevant waffling is unforgivable..

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Anonymous on :

Spot on.

Anthony Campbell on :

Today's "Thought for the Day", by Dr Giles Fraser, was a better effort. He recalled the Lisbon earthquake and tsunami of 1755, which was on a comparable scale to the Haiti earthquake. It caused much questioning of God's providence at the time and prompted Voltaire to write "Candide". Fraser said he would not attempt to solve the religious paradox but found that at an emotional and intuitive level his faith was if anything strengthened, so his answer was prayer. Although I can't go along with him in that myself, he is right to say that religious people seldom find their faith is shaken by catastrophes that befall them.

Olly on :

I've only just finished listening to the BBC iplayer version of the conversation, just in time before it is taken offline. Hopefully it will be included in the Best of Today podcast. I heard some of the exchange last Wednesday morning on broadcast, and I assumed that Archbishop Sentamu was half-asleep, so poor, waffling and unreasoned was his response. I too have more respect for the person who says 'I have trouble with these issues too', or 'we cannot pretend to fully understand God's ways'. Surely he at some time in his past he must have had some thoughts on this issue?

As someone of a mixed background, I have often thought that one reason for the steadfast faith of many Caribbean and African people is their tradition of refusing to even attempt to analyse God.

There are cogent reasons for this tradition. They were introduced to Christianity on both sides of the Atlantic under circumstances in which they were both taught (by missionaries) that faith alone was sufficient in and of itself; and they were often in disadvantageous situations where their faith was a necessary support, and to consider the paradoxes contained within it would likely lead to a crisis of confidence and the loss of that support.

Those that hold to this tradition are good candidates for the 'reverse missionaries' that are coming from outside Europe to support churches in the UK, many of which are challenged to prove their relevance - amongst modern urbanites for example. At least Sentamu remembered to decry mad TV evangelist Pat Robertson's disturbing assessment of God's incentive to 'punish Haiti'. Robertson was asked his opinion of the Haiti situation in an interview. You might have expected him to mention voudou, but he was even stupider than that. Robertson claimed that the Haitians signed a pact with the devil in order to drive out the French, and the earthquake was God's punishment. As is usual nowadays, it can be replayed on YouTube etc.

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