As poignant as it is inevitable, a recurring question after natural disasters of the magnitude of the Indian Ocean tsunami is, “How could God allow this to happen?” Isn’t such wanton destruction of innocent life proof that God doesn’t exist, or that He doesn’t care, or that the disaster was some kind of punishment? (These kinds of questions are related to theodicy — a compact definition and discussion is here.)
My personal reaction to such thinking is that God cares, but he set us on this physical spheroid in space with specific physical rules and processes, and once those rules and processes were in motion, it’s pretty much been hands off, save for the occasional intervention (and the certifiable interventions seem to have slowed down considerably since Biblical times).
Note rabbi Jonathan Sacks’s position, as stated in the LA Times today:
- Essential to monotheism is that conflict is not written into the fabric of the universe. That is what redeems tragedy and creates hope.
The simplest explanation is that of the 12th century sage, Moses Maimonides. Natural disasters, he said, have no explanation other than that God, by placing us in a physical world, set life within the parameters of the physical. Planets are formed, earthquakes occur, and sometimes innocents die.
To wish it were otherwise is in essence to wish that we were not physical beings at all. Then we would not know pleasure, desire, achievement, freedom, virtue, creativity, vulnerability and love. We would be angels — God’s computers — programmed to sing his praise.
….The religious response is not to seek to understand, thereby to accept. We are not God. Instead we are the people he has called on to be his “partners in the work of creation.” The only adequate religious response is to say: “God, I do not know why this disaster has happened, but I do know what you want of us: to help the afflicted, comfort the bereaved, send healing to the injured and aid those who have lost their livelihoods and homes.” We cannot understand God, but we can strive to imitate his love and care.
That’s some wisdom there.
The rabbi mentioned the importance of hope – Philip Kennicott is deeply suspicious of hope, as least as portrayed in the U.S. media:
- No matter what may be happening on the other side of the globe, where hundreds of thousands are dead and injured, millions homeless and whole regions in shambles, the narrative arc of the stories Americans expect requires hope. So even before the real actors in this faraway drama have felt the full burden of despair, journalists have moved on to inspiring tales of survival, affirmation that life is returning and that healing proceeds apace.
….Only a churl would deny anyone the consolation of hope, but this frantic drive to find heartwarming alternatives to the death and destruction seems more a symptom of the American psyche than a “fact on the ground” in the tsunami zone. We impose hope because it allows us to contain a horrific story.
Images of destruction inspire an intolerable sense of futility in those far from the catastrophe. The obvious response — to send aid — is adequate only to prevent further suffering. About the suffering that has already happened, the losses that can’t be undone, we can do nothing. Except watch for a time, until we’re numb, or bored, or angry at the repetitive misery — and then, in the back of the head, cue those violins, the sunset mood, the irrational affirmation that allows us to ring down the curtain.
To ring down the curtain on the story, not on the actual suffering.
….The basic lines of the hope story are essentially theological — pain is viewed as a trial, followed by the redemption of hope and healing — and they break down into a neat, two-act structure. There may not be resurrection, but there are at least tales of miraculous survival.
Disaster also forces the skeptical mind to question God’s existence, and yet the media — supposedly so skeptical — do a virtuoso dance around the problem of God and His mercy. There are complicated theological ways around this problem, this dilemma of two Gods, one who wields earthquakes and waves like Zeus throwing thunderbolts, the other filled with compassion and alert to the power of prayer. While the media will occasionally raise the issue of doubt — or how religious leaders deal with doubt — they revert quickly, effortlessly, to an endorsement of orthodoxy. It is easier to report on people praying (the visuals are better) than it is to write about doubt. And doubt makes people angry. It shakes faith at a time when faith is under stress.
hope becomes a kind of revenge, a revenge we take on the lack of sense in all of this. We fire the big blunderbuss of hope into the darkness of this story, hoping to keep the reality of it at bay. You can feel hope, as the story progresses, becoming tangible, almost three-dimensional.
….then hope begins to meld, seamlessly, with self-congratulation. “Sometimes even the worst events may bring positive change” is one headline. “Region opens hearts, wallets,” reads another, from a small newspaper.
….Cynicism is as false as hope. It is the other great temptation — to turn away, indifferent — and certainly the greater evil. But cynicism and the insipid American narratives of hope share a similar willful deafness to the reality of things. The cynic turns away and says, I won’t listen to this because it doesn’t concern me. The purveyor of bogus affirmation does what rich, comfortable people have done to poor, miserable ones since time immemorial: He writes them a script, a better script, something with a happy ending, something that lets him sleep a bit more easily when the reality of other people’s pain becomes unbearable. [Washington Post]
Kennicott has me there: I barely followed the story at all for the first week because I found it too overwhelming and depressing and wasn’t forced to because I was on a break from this site. It didn’t much fit my holiday mood, either.
I don’t agree that hope is as false or self-serving as Kennicott does. Hope is what makes it possible to keep going in the midst of incomprehensible, seemingly meaningless destruction. But I also know that’s a lot easier to say from the other side of the world, and perhaps that’s Kennicott’s ultimate point.