Hearkening back to the cataclysmic Lisbon earthquake of 1755 and its reverberations in Euro-American culture, Paula Cooey reviews some of the history of theological and philosophical reactions to earthly catastrophe and human suffering—most notably, Voltaire’s Candide—and appeals for a response to the current crisis in Haiti that is less metaphysical and more altruistic:

Voltaire’s resolution to the issues posed by suffering, as manifested through the character of Candide, are as unsatisfactory as blaming the victims on theological grounds to my mind. It’s not the atheism—it is the egocentricity. Some of the most important struggling humans do takes place in a theological arena; so, I encourage all challenges and questions posed about and to God, especially in regard to human suffering. Whether one is atheist, agnostic, religiously affiliated, or self-declared spiritual, an existential struggle with the absurdity of suffering are critical to wisdom. Questions may be predictable and inevitable: “How could this happen?” “Why Haiti? It’s so poor already?” “How could a just God allow such a thing to happen?” “What does this event have to teach us?” But in the last analysis they don’t address the effects of the cataclysm on the dead, dying, and grieving—or the sick, starving, and miserable—from their place in the dramas we call life. What about those irrecoverable losses? Are they merely the collateral damage of our own inner struggles; occasions for testing, edifying, forming, and reforming ourselves?

No, cultivating our own individual gardens, whether performed atheistically or theologically, is not a sufficient response to my mind.

If the Lisbon earthquake has anything to tell us in the face of Haiti here and now, it would have less to do with edification through the contemplation of suffering and more to do with some very practical advice—something like “be careful or here we go again” with our rush to asking all the wrong questions first. I am reminded of Dr. Rieux in Camus’ The Plague. (Why is it the French who always capture such dilemmas so well?) For Rieux, disaster, in this case an outbreak of plague, might well bespeak meaninglessness, but this is irrelevant. The point is to respond, to do any and everything one can, corporately or alone, to minister to the dead, the dying, and the survivors quarantined with them. Ann Bracket concludes her piece on John and Charles Wesley on the occasion of the Lisbon earthquake by reminding her readers that we cannot even begin to know God’s justice unless and until we address injustice in the arena of material human suffering.

Read the entire article at Religion Dispatches.