Hugo struck my neighbors with terror but not with the fear of God

A few years ago, Hurricane Hugo slammed into the coast of South Carolina at Charleston, where I live. What immediately struck me about a natural disaster is that it has the power to upset one’s sense of the permanence and reliability of the physical world. As so many experienced more recently in Florida and Hawaii, order is replaced by chaos, and certainty is replaced by questions.

Many of my neighbors found that the trees once standing so harmlessly and all in order outside their front doors suddenly came thundering into their living rooms and attics. Others, nearer the coast, found the beauty of the Atlantic Ocean turning ugly and life-threatening, washing the treasures of a lifetime in houses, furniture, and boats out to sea. The kosmos was disrupted, and questions were in order. But what kinds of questions were being asked?

When Lisbon Shook

Hugo was not the first natural disaster to provoke important questions about human existence. The Lisbon earthquake of 1755, which claimed ten to fifteen thousand lives and reduced three-quarters of the city to rubble, resulted in vast social and intellectual disturbance. The quake brought about a period of extraordinary moral and theological reflection. Both the age of revolution in France and Germany, and the age of Wesleyan revival in England are often associated with the catastrophic events in Portugal. Comparing the responses to the two disasters will reveal just how far we have moved in our experience of the world.

Three lines of questioning emerged after the earthquake. First, what does the earthquake have to say about divine providence?

A widespread sentiment took root that this catastrophe was a divine judgment ...

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