October 19, 2006
Acts of God or Forces of Nature?
— David Albertson and Cabell King
Just over a year has passed since Hurricane Katrina hit the Gulf Coast. Media sources marked the anniversary with analyses of the various forces contributing to the sufferings of New Orleans. What was "Hurricane Katrina" exactly? Was it an "act of God" that providentially enabled a tired city's rebirth, as some suggest? Was it an inexorable "force of Nature," a liquid juggernaut whose sheer volume overwhelmed inadequate levies? Or were there also cultural and political forces at work that co-caused the devastation — not intractable "acts of God" but effects of human agency, with its usual injustice and failure?
A recent article in the New Yorker points out that the hardest-hit Lower Ninth Ward lies on higher ground than some wealthier areas near Lake Pontchartrain ("The Lost Year," August 21, 2006). "What doomed it ... was its position near the junction of the Industrial Canal and another canal," writes Dan Baum. Baum chronicles how the predominantly African American Lower Ninth has always been a favored site for "social engineering by wrecking ball," beginning with the Industrial Canal in 1923, which split the district in two. "Urban renewal" in the 1960's saw eight square residential blocks destroyed to clear space for an amusement park that was never built.
The special attention continued in 2005, when the Lower Ninth was the only flooded neighborhood cordoned off by National Guard troops, while proposed maps of a revitalized New Orleans showed only green parks where black neighborhoods once stood. Baum interviews several residents who began to distinguish the different forces causing the compounding catastrophe. "First, nature violated them, then the bureaucracy and planning process," remarked a critic of the Nagin and Blanco commissions. One man shouted at a FEMA official explaining flood insurance policies: "This wasn't a flood. A flood is an act of God. This was the government — the government! —doing a bad job of building levees and destroying our homes."
What is an act of "Nature," and what is an act of "God"? The idea of superhuman inexorability certainly has mythological roots (Juggernaut, or Jagannath, is an avatar of Vishnu). At what point do either Nature or God become indistinguishable from human action — from cultural, political and economic effects? In the modern technological west, divine action has become difficult to perceive; rather than demonic possession, we see an epileptic seizure, for example. Yet "acts of Nature" are still commonly distinguished from human agency. To be sure, Katrina stands as a terrifying reminder that there are forces independent of cultural construction. Yet even in this seemingly obvious instance, the visibility of Nature has begun to dissolve and become more transparent to human action — of indifferent officials, careless engineers, prejudiced developers. Indeed, it is becoming harder to point to a stable Nature that stands independent of human action. If the "death of God" marked the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, might the "death of Nature" mark the twentieth and twenty-first?
In 1989, naturalist Bill McKibben observed the "end of Nature," the dissolution of the assumption that Nature stands eternally independent of human action. One used to consider Nature as the permanent, static backdrop to the drama of human affairs — weather patterns, topographical contours, animal populations, even genetic composition. Today we confront the fact that all of these have become malleable and manipulable, and that Nature is no longer so distinct from other products of human industry. But the consequences go beyond environmental degradation and the loss of a "natural" landscape. The capacity to transform the human genome, for instance, begs the question of a fixed "human nature" (though certainly some would ask if we ever had one). Some, with Donna Haraway, now argue that traditional distinctions between human and machine, or physical and non-physical, have blurred and become unserviceable in light of contemporary bioscience.
Many religious communities are concerned about new biotechnologies and the worsening situation of the environment. But Christian theology in the west finds itself in an especially difficult position, since it has relied heavily upon some version of "Nature" to express the meaning of "grace." The present destabilization of Nature thus raises a series of challenging questions. What position are Christian theologians now in to address this loss of Nature? What does the notion of the "supernatural," or the drive to transform human nature through grace, have to do with the technological quest to transcend human limits? Without Nature, would grace be less comprehensible?
Hurricanes and tsunamis are awesome reminders of the indifference of Nature, and no one can suggest that their power over human life is diminishing. In most western religions, such forces of Nature have long reflected the face of God and reinforced human limits. But since the middle of the last century, when looking into the mirror of Nature, have we seen another face looking back? Or has the glass simply gone dark?
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The Martin Marty Center is sponsoring an interdisciplinary conference this month that explores precisely such questions as those above: Without Nature? A New Condition for Theology. The natural scientists, social scientists, theologians, and ethicists who will present their findings first convened in 2005 (as it happened, just after Katrina struck). The research project now concludes with a public conference on October 26-28, 2006, at the University of Chicago Divinity School. All sessions are free, and the public is warmly invited.
David Albertson and Cabell King are Ph.D. candidates in Theology at the University of Chicago Divinity School.