Gutenberg: Act of God or Human Inaction?

Pictured is Historic Currie Parkway Bridge in Midland, Michigan. Photo taken by Dawn Smith on May 21, 2020.

Gutenberg

The Legal Information Institute defines “act of God:”

“At common law, an overwhelming event caused exclusively by natural forces whose effects could not possibly be prevented (e.g., flood, earthquake, tornado). In modern jurisdictions, ‘act of God’ is often broadened by statute to include all natural phenomena whose effects could not be prevented by the exercise of reasonable care and foresight.“[1]

The term has been around for a while, as evidenced by its 1882 citation in the Oxford English Dictionary[2], and it’s not hard to see why. When something bad happens, we are always looking for someone to blame. This is especially true in the world of contracts and insurance, when there is often a great deal of wealth at stake in determining culpability. “Act of God” is a useful legal term for cases when the damage is undeniable but impossible to pin on one person or firm.

Of course, as a pastor, I come at this from a theological perspective, and I question what act of God says about understanding of the character of God. What does it say when the top acts of God we can think of are “flood, earthquake, [and] tornado?” You have to imagine God as a maniacal supervillain who really has it in for all of us—who can think of nothing better to do with his time than to set a cyclone on India or a coronavirus in China or floods in Midland County. Frankly, I would not believe in such a false god, and I would not encourage anyone else to either.

What we define as an act of God says more about us than it does about God. I would suggest the term “act of God” to refer to natural disasters captures a few things about us: 1) There are forces of nature we truly do not understand that can seem almost magical. Viewers of PBS will recall that it was “Tornado Week” this past week, and what impressed me in the excellent documentaries both from American Experience and NOVA was how little we still know about tornadoes: when they happen, why they happen, what we can do to avoid them. Turn to the field of earthquakes, and we feel even more powerless. 2) On the other hand, if you think about the remainder of world events (i.e. basically everything that happens other than a natural disaster!), it really attributes quite a lot to our sphere of control. The things we do understand, we tend to take credit for. 3) It gives wiggle-room for our own collective actions or inactions to escape culpability or closer scrutiny.

As someone who grew up in Midland, Michigan, this hit home for me this week. On the one hand, this was an act of God in the legal sense: there was really a lot of rain! But in a different sense, it wasn’t. Or it wasn’t any more an act of God than the rain that we like when it feeds our crops and gardens.

Moreover, hard questions should be asked about dams, which have long been questioned from ecological and social justice perspectives; about private ownership of major utilities (in America, a majority of dams are privately owned [3]); about the role of human-caused climate change in the many “500-year floods [and other ‘acts of God’]” we have seen in the last few years. I openly confess my own incompetency to answer many of these questions. I am not a hydrologist, a climatologist, or a civil engineer. But from my theological perspective, throwing all these hard questions on God’s lap is an abdication of our moral duties as creatures created in the likeness of God (Gen 1:27) and called “to till [the earth] and keep it (Gen 2:15, NRSV).”

Bad theology is dangerous to all of us. When we define God by disastrous acts or by sudden deus ex machina miracles[4], we trivialize what it means for God to be the creator of heaven and earth and of ourselves. Theologian Martin Luther wrote in his Small Catechism that God being Creator means:

“God has created me together with all that exist. God has given me and still preserves my body and soul: eyes, ears, and all limbs and senses; reason and all mental faculties.”

To paraphrase theologians form the twentieth century, “every breath we take, every move we make” is a pure act of God our Creator. And not only that, but “reason and all mental faculties” are, too.

There is an old joke about a man stranded on the top of a building surrounded by flood waters. A helicopter comes by and he turns it down, “I’m waiting for God.” Another one comes by, and he turns it down the same way. He rejects help a third time, and finally he dies. In heaven, he asks God, “Why didn’t you save me?” And God responds “I sent you three helicopters. Why didn’t you take them?”

Understanding reason, mental faculties, science as acts of God, too, as God’s creativity at work in the minds and actions of Christians and people of all faiths and no faiths alike is essential because it replaces our popular theology of despair and ethics of nihilism with a theology of hope. There are many natural phenomena in the universe that we do not understand, but they are no more and no less acts of God than the ones we take for granted every day.

The important work before us is to use these gifts God has given us to make the world a better place for all. We will never be able to prevent every natural disaster, but the people in Midland County who have lost their homes due to the flood, the people in New York City who have lost their lives from the virus, and people everywhere who have lost their livelihoods due to the climate crisis deserve better than human non-actors scapegoating a false god.  

James E. Smith is a pastor serving at Trinity Episcopal and St. John’s Lutheran Churches. For comments, questions, or rebuttals, fire off an e-mail at jesmith7770@gmail.com. Prosit!


[1] https://www.law.cornell.edu/wex/act_of_god

[2] OED: “Charter-party : The Act of God, the Queen’s Enemies, Fire, and all and every other Dangers and Accidents of the Seas . . always excepted.”

[3] https://www.fema.gov/dam-ownership-united-states

[4] This was on grotesque display in the run-up to our nation’s response to the coronavirus.


Any views or opinions expressed in “Gutenberg” are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of the Watershed Voice staff or its board of directors.