I recently finished Christian ethicist James Gustafson's slim exploration of the intersection of faith and science called An Examined Faith: The Grace of Self-Doubt.
I find that so many of the themes of this book have lingered in my mind, slowly expanding.
For example, he notes that most thinking Christians have had to re-evaluate their interpretation of the Creation story in the opening chapters of Genesis based on emerging theoretical models of how the Universe began. But he also notes that Christians have largely left unexamined how their theology of "final things" is impacted by what we know about global warming.
How does our understanding of God's activity in the world become shaped by the little pieces of science that we pick up, sometimes in newspapers and TV shows, occasionally in the classroom and in conversations?
The books is fascinating and nuanced, but the part that has stayed with me longer is the example that Gustafson uses to frame his entire book. He quotes from a 1737 letter by the American preacher Jonathan Edwards to his friends about the collapse of a meeting house during a Sunday worship service:
“We in this town, were the last Lord’s Day the spectators, and many of us the subjects, of one of the most amazing instances of divine preservation, that perhaps was ever known in the land. Our meeting-house is old and decayed, so that we have been for some time building a new one, which is yet unfinished. It has been observed of late, that the house we have hitherto met in, has gradually spread at bottom; the cells and walls giving way, especially in the fore-side, by reason of the weight of timber at top, pressing on the braces that are inserted into the posts and beams of the house. It has done so more than ordinarily this spring; which seems to have been occasioned by the heaving of the ground through the extreme frost of the winter past it’s now settling again on that side which is next the sun, by the spring thaws. By this means, the under-pinning has been considerably disordered; which people were not sensible of till the ends of the joists which bore up the front gallery, were drawn off from the girts on which they rested by the walls giving way. So that in the midst of the public exercise in the forenoon, soon after the beginning of sermon, the whole gallery—full of people, with all the seats and timber, suddenly and without any warning—sunk, and fell down with the most amazing noise upon the heads of those that sat under, to the astonishment of the congregation. The house was filled with dolorous shrieking and crying; and nothing else was expected than to find many people dead, and dashed to pieces.
The gallery in falling seemed to break and sink first in the middle; so that those who were upon it were thrown together in heaps before the front door. But the whole was so sudden, that many of them who fell, knew nothing at the time what it was that had befallen them. Others in the congregation thought it had been an amazing clap of thunder. The falling gallery seemed to be broken all to pieces before it got down; so that some who fell with it, as well as those who were under, were buried in the ruins; and were found pressed under heavy loads of timber, and could do nothing to help themselves.
But so mysteriously and wonderfully did it come to pass, that every life was preserved; and though many were greatly bruised, and their flesh torn, yet there is not, as I can understand, one bone broken or so much as put out of joint, among them all. Some who were thought to be almost dead at first, were greatly recovered; and but one young woman seems yet to remain in dangerous circumstances, by an inward hurt in her breast: but of late there appears more hope of her recovery.
None can give account, or conceive, by what means people’s lives and limbs should be thus preserved, when so great a multitude were thus imminently exposed. It looked as though it was impossible but that great numbers must instantly be crushed to death, or dashed in pieces. It seems unreasonable to ascribe it to any thing else but the care of Providence, in disposing the motions of every piece of timber, and the precise place of safety where every one should sit, and fall, when none were in any capacity to care for their own preservation. The preservation seems to be most wonderful, with respect to the women and children in the middle ally, under the gallery, where it came down first, and with greatest force, and where there was nothing to break the force of the falling weight.
Such an event may be a sufficient argument of a divine Providence over the lives of men. We thought ourselves called to set apart a day to be spent in the solemn worship of God, to humble ourselves under such a rebuke of God upon us in time of public service in his house by so dangerous and surprising an accident; and to praise his name for so wonderful, and as it were miraculous, a preservation. The last Wednesday was kept by us to that end; and a mercy in which the hand of God is so remarkably evident, may be well worthy to affect the hearts of all who hear it.”
As Gustafson notes, what was it precisely about this event that prompted Edwards to say it was God's providence at work? What if all the worshipers had been killed? What if half had been killed? When people of faith encounter human tragedy, they are invariably engaged in this kind of calculation, wittingly, or not.
What disastrous events are we willing to ascribe to God's activity in the world, and what do we give up to purely natural causes? I would wager a guess that most of us (myself included) have a deep sense that God's love for Creation is not compatible with his directing tornadoes, collapsing buildings, and other tragedies in such a way that people die. But what are we saying about God when we carve out a bit of providence within that natural disaster? Say, for example, a child who is found in the wreckage of a tornado destroyed home? Providence or something else? Or in other cases, when a person dies, is that also Providence?
Gustafson urges us to examine our faith. This is difficult work, but once you begin the examination, going back to an unexamined faith seems impossible.