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Theodicy from Lisbon to Haiti: Sympathy for the Devil?

The earth trembled and quaked; the very foundations also of the hills shook, and were removed, because he was wroth (Ps. 18:7.)

Robert Nozick, who was a secular Jew, felt the implications of the Holocaust were devastating for Christian theology:

There remain the ethical teachings and example of the life of Jesus before his end, but there no longer operates the saving message of Christ. In this sense, the Christian era has closed.

Whether he was correct or not, what’s indisputable is that disasters, whether man-made or natural, leave the conscientious among us little choice but to grapple with the nature of the world. Much in the same way war is “God’s way of teaching American’s geography,” cataclysms display history’s awesome ability to force philosophy to, as Nozick put it, change its axiomatic beliefs.

Recently, Pat Robertson made statements attributing Haiti’s historic difficulties, including the latest earthquake, to a pact that Jean-Jacques Dessalines, its first ruler, made with the Devil in order to secure Haiti’s freedom from France. According to the apocryphal tale, a slave Dutty Boukman led the leaders of the Revolution in sacrificing a pig and drinking its blood, not very kosher, at Bois Caman in 1791 in order to secure Satan’s aid in expelling the French occupation. The priests supposedly promised Haiti to Satan for the next 200 years in return, a period which should have ended in 2004.

A glimpse at the historical record could lead one to conclude Robertson was equating the overthrow of slavery with acquiescence to the rule of darkness, which it was in a sense, though it probably didn’t rise to the level of a Faustian bargain in the classic sense. Nevertheless, this view precludes the notion that a group of slaves could defeat the armies of one of the greatest military minds in history. Robertson’s thoughts aren’t that much different from James Carlyle Froude who in The English in the West Indies; Or, the Bow of Ulysses wrote: “There has been no saint in the West Indies since Las Casas, no hero unless philonegro enthusiasm can make one out of Toussaint.”

It’s convenient to dismiss these views as merely being ignorant, if not blatantly racist, if only in mixed company. However, a lingering problem is that of the conceptual frame he uses. Placing aside his seeming conflation of resistance to oppression with embrace of the occult, Pat Robertson’s statements were not terribly controversial in the sense of being at wild variants with the theology held by many Christians. How can one reconcile the concept of divine retribution with that of divine providence? It would not be far-fetched to think that many of those attributing the destruction to God’s disfavor would be able to spin the favorable story of survivors into examples of God’s loving protection. Indeed, Robertson’s views on divine retribution were hardly extreme but were consistent with mainstream Christianity. To explore this, we should examine the theological/philosophical shifts which were further aftershocks of the great Lisbon earthquake of 1755.

* * *

In the 1930s, Walter Benjamin claimed “The destruction of Lisbon in 1755 was roughly equivalent to the destruction of London or Chicago today.” At that time, Portugal was a thriving colonial power and its port at the mouth of the Tagus River was one of the busiest in the world, dealing with merchants from the other great European powers. Estimates are that the city had close to 30,000 houses and was home to over a quarter of a million people.

At 10:24 AM on All Saints Day, the Azores-Gibraltar Transform Fault, under the Atlantic Ocean, off the Iberian Peninsula, rumbled for nearly six minutes, causing fissures to open up on the streets of the city. Forty minutes later, a tidal wave swept up the Tagus engulfing the harbor ad downtown while fires had started in the part of the city which hadn’t flooded. It is estimated that about one in four people in the city perished, about 50,000. The cities of Cadiz, Jerez and Algeciras were also severely damage and another 10,000 people may have died in Morocco. The effects of the quake were felt from Finland all the way to the Dutch East Indies.

The timing, location, and magnitude of the Lisbon earthquake meant that it would not just be another local disaster, soon lost to history but would be a seminal moment in the development of Western thought. In addition, Portugal was a major Catholic country and Lisbon a major Catholic city; the reason the Royal Family survived was in large part because the daughter of King Joseph I was spending time out of the city limits after mass that morning.

* * *

In Negative Dialectics, Adorno wrote “The earthquake of Lisbon served to cure Voltaire of the theodicy of Leibniz.” Leibniz, who much to the chagrin of college students everywhere helped create calculus, posited in his seminal Essais de théodicée sur la bonté de Dieu, la liberté de l’homme et l’origine du mal that God had created “the best possible of all worlds.” Leibniz’ approach to religious interpretation is best summarized by this passage:

The Christian was to hold a position covered by three lines of defences. The base line was to be the substance of Christian theism and of Christian morals, and it was to be held by the forces of sheer reason, without aid from scriptural revelation. The middle line was laid down by the general sense of Scripture, and the defence of it was this. ‘Scriptural doctrine is reconcilable with the findings of sheer reason, but it goes beyond them. We believe the Scriptures, because they are authenticated by marks of supernatural intervention in the circumstances of their origin. We believe them, but reason controls our interpretation of them.

Here Leibniz takes this approach to Scripture and constructs the best summation of his theodicy:

God does the very best possible: otherwise the exercise of his goodness would be restricted, and that would be restricting his goodness itself, if it did not prompt him to the best, if he were lacking in good will. Or again it would be restricting his wisdom and his power, if he lacked the knowledge necessary for discerning the best and for finding the means to obtain it, or if he lacked the strength necessary for employing these means.

But Leibniz isn’t done, he pushes the idea further:

There is, however, ambiguity in the assertion that love of virtue and hatred of vice are infinite in God: if that were absolutely and unreservedly true, in practice there would be no vice in the world. But although each one of God’s perfections is infinite in itself, it is exercised only in proportion to the object and as the nature of things prompts it. Thus love of the best in the whole carries the day over all other individual inclinations or hatreds; it is the only impulse whose very exercise is absolutely infinite, nothing having power to prevent God from declaring himself for the best; and some vice being combined with the best possible plan, God permits it.

God is good because he is perfect, not because the world is; he is trying his best and should be judged on his good intentions.

The aftermath of Lisbon severely damaged the concept of “the best possible of worlds;” it was a cop-out for an ostensibly all-powerful, all-loving God. Indeed, it was the fallout of the Lisbon earthquake which lead the deist Voltaire to viciously attack Leibniz’s theodicy, most famously by creating a vicious caricature in the optimistic Dr. Pangloss of Candide. Voltaire questioned the rationale given for the gruesome fate which befell Lisbon in his poem Poème sur le désastre de Lisbonne.

And can you then impute a sinful deed

To babes who on their mothers’ bosoms bleed?

Was then more vice in fallen Lisbon found,

Than Paris, where voluptuous joys abound?

Was less debauchery to London known,

Where opulence luxurious holds the throne?

However, Leibniz’ theodicy didn’t so much solve the problem as much as it evaded it; there could be no valid critique of religious faith on the problem of natural evil (Note of course that evil is only a problem if one is a believer. It is difficult to propose metaphysical problems if you a priori reject the very notion of metaphysics.) Leibniz’ view’s were not completely discarded, he is too brilliant a thinker for that, and a version of his theodicy survives as the Anthropic Principle, using subsequent scientific discoveries. But this wasn’t the only major development from Lisbon; Immanuel Kant, then only twenty-four and resident in Konisberg Germany, would begin the nascent steps into what is now seismology by analyzing the reports about the earthquake and his attempt to grasp the enormity of that disaster would eventually lead to the development of his thoughts on the sublime.

* * *

It remains uncertain the extent to which can one embrace a concept of divine retribution while still considering the essence of Robertson’s statements offensive. If we accept the concept of divine retribution, what does this ultimately say about the character of God? Is it a case of God actively causing harm or merely withdrawing his protection? And ultimately, what difference does it make? (An Adventist offshoot started in Barbados called Truth for the Final Generation, rejects what they consider “the traditional view of a God who destroys His enemies by violent, cruel, coercive measures.”)

One option is to designate any act which may be interpreted as divine retribution as not being evil in any sense, which means that if one were to accept Robertson’s interpretation, the calamities which have befallen Haiti are not inherently evil, and as such require just explanation, not justification.

Similarly, the Lisbon disaster was quickly absorbed by the religious leaders of the time and made to fit in with the historicist interpretations of the Bible. (According to this eschatology, Lisbon was just one of the fulfillments of the prophecy made in Revelation 6:12-13.)

Following the earthquake, John Wesley argued in Some Serious Thoughts Occasioned by the Late Earthquake at Lisbon, that those who attribute it to “natural causes” were in fact denying the power of God:

First, if by affirming, all this is purely natural, you mean, it is not providential, or that God has nothing to do with it, this is not true, that is, supposing the Bible to be true.

The reasoning behind this is the notion that if God doesn’t cause earthquakes, then there is no way for him to provide protection from one. It’s a perverse logic but it is consistent and accepted; we’ve all seen the survivors thanking God that he spared their lives despite crippling them and crushing their families.

The one possible solution to this is what some have deemed dualistic theodicy; essentially this means that natural evil is a result from the free-will exercised by demonic forces, an idea which bares some similarity to the Great Controversy narrative. (I was initially introduced to this concept by Clifford Goldstein.) This formulation grants the Devil near God-like powers, something the Louvin Brothers warned about so many years ago.

It should be noted that dualism was incorporated into Christian thought via Zoroastrianism, and as such is a departure from classic monotheistic Judiasm. In fact, early Judaism didn’t have a “Devil” as is commonly understood. According to Jeffrey Burton Russell, in Judaism, Yahweh dealt both good and evil and was thus a more complicated figure, producing more conflicted followers, even today. Ha-satan on the other hand was merely “the accuser” and was not seen as being directly responsible for evil per se.

Therefore, the contemporary conception of the Devil is in a sense a theodicy itself. For the uses of Robertson and his acolytes, it’s appropriate: the Devil is merely fulfilling his old role as scapegoat, taking the blame for the crippling debt placed on Haiti, the numerous military occupations, pernicious development models and propped up dictators, including Mother Theresa’s friends the Duvaliers.

Once again Azazel is bearing the burdens for man’s sins (well not my Azazel, who as I write this is staring at my old man’s imported mango trees with love in his eyes.) But one may legitimately ask, in what I do ultimately believe? History and Geology.


A writer, Matthew Hunte lives in St. Lucia. He graduated from the University of the Southern Caribbean in 2005.

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