By definition, an “Act of God” absolves each one of us of personal responsibility. If God wills it, what does it matter what I do, think or say? I cannot hasten the outcome, nor delay it. Nor for the same reason can I reproach anyone with responsibility for not hastening or delaying any such outcome. Accolades addressed to others (or to myself for that matter) for enabling or preventing such outcomes are just as illogical as they are meaningless. We become like pencils in the hands of a whimsical God.
What matters therefore (more than the constant search for dimensions of my freedoms as a sentient being) is that I seek a better understanding of God’s intent. That way, with some hope, I will (or at least, try to) act according to His wishes and not futilely at cross-purposes. Moreover, to God’s credit, He has made himself clear through the scriptures.
Or has He?
The number of available scriptures is as problematic as is the question of what God is, and what He can know. (For polytheist confessions, then, the proper enquiry must be about what “God-in-council” is, and what “He” knows.) By definition, (and this I think works best with monotheist religions) the answer to this question ought to be “everything: past, present, and future”. The trouble with this answer is that by accepting its validity, a large degree of fatalism creeps into the concept of “man”. We all cannot but act as we have. “Freedom” is illusory. In addition, no matter what cautions we take, accidents will happen, planes will crash, and people will die.
In the end, this is as much a recipe for “doing nothing” as it is a question of how much freedom even God has. For if His knowledge consists of chapters of “caused” episodes (in other words that what follows is as knowable in advance — by God — as what precedes), and everything knowable is known by Him before they happen, then God cannot do anything but watch this script unfold. When once we grant Him the capacity to change the sequences of events (in the light of possibly distasteful outcomes) we may thus reinforce His omnipotence, but at great cost to His omniscience.
This confusion over the concept of “God” and His role in the affairs of men (an anthropomorphic conceit, truth be told) showed up strongly in the Minister of Aviation’s response to the recent plane crash in Lagos. “We do not pray for accident, but it is inevitable. All we do is to do everything to ensure that we do not have accidents. But it is an act of God.” Thus Mrs Stella Oduah, responding to the death of 16 (or more) people in a light plane accident in Lagos two weeks ago.
If “it” (whatever this is, but in the Nigerian case, disasters appear to have the largest odds of “occurring”) will happen; then it is an act of frustrating emptiness to seek to do anything to avert it. In this sense, the minister’s reading of God’s will and man’s space to act within the context of the former’s immanence is as tautological as it begs a fundamental question. It does of course invite the question: “Do we still have a need for government, if all governments are ultimately effete, in the face of God’s will?” On the other hand, is it the case that the incompetence that we see in the public space daily is another manifestation of “God’s will?”
Before we conclude that those Nigerians who imagine that the stewardship of the country should and could be better might be setting themselves against the divine intent, what we have to prove is why God is so unkind to Nigeria that a major plane accident must happen twice every year.
On the assumption that we do not deserve God’s special attention, then we may suppose that He would dispense boons and banes in equal measure. Therefore, a destination like Hartsfield Jackson Atlanta International Airport with 95 million passengers passing through in 2012, on the strength of our own experience with God, ought to witness a higher level of fatalities. Beijing Capital International Airport had passenger traffic of 81 million last year, while Heathrow had 70 million. None has experienced as many casualties as we have (in both relative and absolute terms).
Not fully knowing God’s mind I have heard people speculate that the African’s innate naïveté may have helped him lose favour in God’s sight, while the savvier Caucasian ingratiated himself into God’s good graces. Given the premium that the West places on reason and their disdain for superstition, it is no surprise that denizens there continue to find favour with the same God whose terms are so punishing to us.
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