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Iceland's volcano -- a message from God?

Published April 30, 2010 6:00 am

Divine decrees? » Some faith leaders see earthly disasters as heavenly warnings.
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2010, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

What do homosexuality, health-care reform and British advertising standards all have in common?

They're all things that have ticked off God, some religious leaders say, and he is venting his frustration with the angry fires of Iceland's Eyjafjallajökull volcano.

Moscow's Interfax news wire reported that the Association of (Russian) Orthodox Experts blamed the April 14 eruption -- whose gigantic cloud of ash grounded trans-Atlantic flights for more than a week -- on gay rights in Europe and Iceland's tolerance of "neo-paganism."

Conservative commentator Rush Limbaugh said God was angry over health-care reform. San Antonio megachurch pastor John Hagee, the founder of Christians United for Israel, said God was unleashing his wrath on Britain for deciding that Israeli tourism ads actually featured parts of the disputed Palestinian territories, not Israel.

The eruption is the latest in a long line of natural events to which some religious leaders attribute divine judgment. In short, God is using nature to channel his displeasure with human behavior -- both the sinners and those who tolerate them -- and we had better shape up.

It's an impulse that dates back thousands of years and still thrives in religious quarters that generally are skeptical of science and seek divine explanations for natural calamities:

» Iranian cleric Hojatoleslam Kazem Sedighi recently told his Shiite Muslim followers that immodestly dressed and promiscuous women are to blame for earthquakes.

» In February, Rabbi Yehuda Levin of the Rabbinical Alliance of America warned that allowing gays in the military could cause natural disasters to strike America. "The practice of homosexuality," he said, "is a spiritual cause of earthquakes."

» Religious broadcaster Pat Robertson blamed the devastating Jan. 12 earthquake in Haiti on a pact between the devil and Haitians rebelling against French rule in the 18th century.

» Robertson and Hagee blamed Hurricane Katrina on New Orleans' debauchery and immorality.

» Malaysian Muslim cleric Azizan Abdul Razak said the 2004 South Asian tsunami was God's message that "he created the world and can destroy the world," while Israel's Sephardic Chief Rabbi Shlomo Amar said it was "an expression of God's great ire with the world."

So what is it about nature's fury that attracts theological interpretation? For many religious leaders, scholars say, it's an opportunity to win new believers.

"Natural disasters are disruptive. When there's a disruption, people's world views are shaken and need to be repaired," said Steven Friesen, a biblical-studies professor at the University of Texas in Austin. "Natural disasters are a prime time to repair people's world views. ... It's a long-running theme in American culture that God works to bring people into changing their world view."

Who accepts these proclamations and who doesn't often depends on how a believer views God: benevolent, wrathful, active, passive or maybe something less defined, like a cosmic force.

"This stuff attracts people with a strong authoritarian image of God, and who believe that he -- it's almost always a he -- does in fact punish people who do not follow his rules," said Wade Clark Roof, professor of American religion at the University of California at Santa Barbara.

Another common thread among people who link disaster to divine judgment is that they tend to consider disasters as confirmation of already-held beliefs.

"They already think God is working in certain ways, and disasters become an example of that," said Friesen, pointing to Hagee as an example. "There's no logical connection [between Britain's ad policy and the volcano], but because he is already convinced that God works to protect Israel, he believes that God made the volcano erupt to punish Britain."

People who make such pronouncements also are claiming special power or authority, experts said. "They are claiming special knowledge of how God works in the world," Friesen said, "and why he does what he's doing."

But many religious leaders reject linking disaster to divine judgment.

"It's faulty theology. People take the personal consequences of sin, which are real, and project them onto natural disaster. That's where things break down," said Joel Hunter, a board member of the National Association of Evangelicals and a megachurch pastor in suburban Orlando, Fla. "Speculating that disaster happens because sin has reached a certain level puts God in a really bad light."

Rabbi Michael Lerner, president of the Network of Spiritual Progressives, agreed. "You start blaming the victims for a process that is a result of something that they had nothing to do with."

Iceland's volcano -- a message from God?