Writing the Disaster: A Philippine Case Study of the Challenge to Traditional Theodicy in Popular Media

By Principe, Jesus Deogracias | Journal for the Study of Religions and Ideologies, Winter 2015 | Go to article overview

Writing the Disaster: A Philippine Case Study of the Challenge to Traditional Theodicy in Popular Media


Principe, Jesus Deogracias, Journal for the Study of Religions and Ideologies


False starts

A motoring journalist worries about how one's insurance coverage might not include damages due to so-called "acts of God," 1 and from this concern he moves on to surmise on our propensity to place blame on God for misfortune that comes our way2. I scanned this page with a smile, ready to scroll on to other pages that would serve me better in thinking about the topic of religious response to suffering; but then I paused, wondering, why is this not a viable starting point to philosophically discuss the question of the religious person's response in the face of disaster?

These were the questions that I had wanted to consider: what happens in the religious person's confrontation with disaster? Is a person's belief significant in the way he or she copes with the devastating reality of disaster? Is this person's belief affected - perhaps weakened or challenged - by the encounter with disaster? Will we find some dialectical dynamic between one's religious sensibility and how one deals with catastrophic events?

I first had thought that in trying to find some avenue within which to navigate these concerns, perhaps I should try to explore the philosophical discussion on the question of God and the presence of evil. And so I looked at the literature and found myself embroiled within diverse and difficult discussions of logical versus evidential arguments, of skeptical theism versus friendly atheism, on questions of the attributes of the divine, such as omniscience and omnipotence and omnibenevolence, and on the possibilities of possible worlds, and the question of whether among these there would be a best one.

"Evil and Omnipotence"3 is seminal in this discussion, giving rise to a number of debates that have continued in the literature, and which might be found in any of a number of compilations of philosophical essays. One then can look to Peterson4 or Reichenbach5 or Howard-Snyder6 or Van Inwagen7 as providing venues wherein one might immerse one's self into such discussions as have just been mentioned.8 It seemed then that engaging in the philosophical discourse on the subject required one to first look closely at Mackie's challenge of the irrationality of religious belief in the face of evil, and to then follow some strand of this debate and then perhaps to ultimately side with one camp or the other, of either accepting or rejecting the theist's claim that the existence of evil need not be seen as an insurmountable obstacle to belief in a God.

A problem that I had with these works and with this approach - apart from the intractable difficulties inherent to this debate - was the question of how this scholarly discussion is related to the religious response to disaster. Is there still any taking into account the particularity of the suffering confronted by those who have been affected by disaster? Is the abstract discussion of the concept of "suffering" still connected to the particularity of the suffering that is experienced in the face of real disaster?

I had been hoping to write of the religio us sensibility's response to disaster; that is my own general statement. But perhaps I should now clarify that I was actually thinking more specifically: I had been wondering about my home country, the Philippines, which is often beset with all sorts of natural calamities. I am interested in the question: how do a people - one that generally would describe its members as being predominantly religious - deal with the reality of disaster?

Even that statement, of course, can be too broad. In a country beset by various natural calamities every year, it is easy to speak of a general proneness to disaster, and a general vulnerability of people. The sheer frequency of natural catastrophes besetting the country seems to be a matter of common knowledge; although one can, of course, refer to studies made on this, detailing the number of storms that hit the country in a given year, and other similar data. …

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