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Earl Doherty

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God and Tsunamis (January 10, 2005)

     When I was a young man, news went around the world one day of a horrendous accident at a vacation spot in Spain. A camping ground by a lake was filled with families, mostly foreign tourists, basking in the summer sun, swimming by the shore, preparing meals in the late afternoon. This camp was accessed by a passing roadway that was restricted to light traffic. Against this regulation, a tanker truck was travelling along it, and as it approached the entrance to the camp, a tire blew. The truck careened onto the campground, crashed, and its load of oil exploded. Hundreds of people, children and adults, were incinerated. Many died in screaming agony, trying to extinguish the fire that engulfed them by standing under the campground showers or plunging into the waters of the lakewhich simply made their agony worse, since water is ineffective against burning oil and only spreads the flames. Others died later in hospitals, while many 'fortunate' enough not to be too near the epicenter of the inferno were disfigured and bore pain for the rest of their lives.

     At that age, my atheism was newly-minted. I had decided, not too many years before, that intellectual considerations required the rejection of the idea of a God. The incident in Spain now made that judgment a visceral one. Under no circumstances could my mind accept that a loving, all-powerful God could treat his creatures with such callous cruelty and indifference, no matter what their purported flaws and failings, flaws which he himself had built into us from the day of creation. Even within the context of the simplistic myth of Eden and the Fall, the capacity to choose to disobey was a part of that Creation. It seemed to me that the punishment of every individual throughout subsequent history, all the sufferings and misfortune which this world (let alone the hellish part of the next one) had inflicted upon so many, would be the ultimate injustice, evidence of a divine insanity. I chose to discard the whole irrational mythology I had grown up with and accept without qualm the non-existence of God.

     Now I and the rest of the world have witnessed an event which dwarfs the tragedy of an exploding tanker truck on a campground in Spain. But it has produced the same demanding, agonizing questions about God's role and existence, this time, it seems, cutting through a much wider swath of minds around a shocked and horrified world. While the American media, ever mindful of the sensitivities of its faith-full public, seems to have deliberately muted the expression of that doubt and dismay, they have been unable to disguise the depth of the trauma. Even from the likes of Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell, there has been (to my knowledge) no mindless blather about divine retribution. The scope of the disaster has been simply too big, the death and destruction too overwhelming. The faces of too many innocent-eyed, traumatized children, many of them now orphans, have filled our TV screens, with the corpses of their equally innocent brothers and sisters laid out behind them. Too many images of inconsolable grief on the part of devastated parents whose families and homes and livelihoods were washed away in an instant haunt both our waking and sleeping moments. I doubt that even the most brain-dead fundamentalistof any religionhas not anguished, in the darkness of his or her own night, over the question: where was God in all this?

     Like many articles, I am sure, that have appeared in publications around the world, an editor of the Ottawa Citizen, the leading newspaper of Canada's capital, attempted to come to grips with the dilemma inherent in the Asian catastrophe. Under a heading (not a great beginning): "Thy will be done / It's hard to understand why an all-powerful God would allow so many people to die in last month's tsunami," Leonard Stern opens by acknowledging that "in churches and other places of worship, the cry rings out: 'Where was God?' " He declares that the possible answers are "easily identified," but that "the hard part is selecting the right one." Here are his five possibilities, which I have edited while for the most part keeping his own words:

(1) God doesn't exist. The suffering of innocents is inconsistent with the existence of a benevolent God. An omnipotent Deity is a fiction. We live and die by chance. Natural disasters are not the responsibility of humanity's failings. (Stern cannot go on without inserting a qualifier to this: "For many people, atheism is not an option. They are as certain in God's existence as they are in their own.")

(2) The innocent are not innocent. The compulsion to rationalize human suffering by claiming that the victims deserve it is as old as the Biblical book of Job. Stern alludes to Falwell's declaration about the 9/11 attacks representing God's displeasure at the decadence of American society.

(3) God is wrathful. God is a trickster who delights in tormenting us, often provoking a reaction on our part, from cursing to disowning him. This, Stern says, is a way station on the road to atheism.

(4) God is weak. Pointing to Rabbi Harold Kushner's now famous When Bad Things Happen to Good People, Stern posits the possibility that God may be just, loving and omniscient, but he is not all-powerful. He quotes Kushner: "God can help us, but what He can't do is protect us." God did not send the tsunami, nor could He prevent it, but He made His presence known by the humanitarian effort that followed. [These capital H's are Stern's.]

(5) God is unknowable. For most people of faith, says Stern, God must by definition be all-powerful. And also all good. Which brings us back to square one: Why does He allow evil in the world? It just might be that humans are not meant to know. Or that we have no way of knowing.

     And so, after this brief jaunt around the way-stations of this writer's theistic universe, we are indeed back at square one. Before retracing that circuit, however, let me quote Stern's conclusion following on his five possibilities:

Religion teaches us that we are God's creation; sadly, that which is created can never penetrate the mind of the creator. As God admonishes Job, "Where was thou when I laid the foundations of the earth?" Asking why God creates tsunamis is akin to asking what heaven looks like. It's unanswerable. This is perhaps not the most satisfying explanation for human suffering, but it is, I think, the most intellectually honest.

     I must beg to differ. Intellectual honesty is the last thing that is involved here. Stern's conclusion is in fact a surrender of intellectual honesty. To put it colloquially, it's a cop-out. Every one of his possibilities is dishonestly dealt with. No. 1, that "God doesn't exist," is in fact the only one for which we possess positive evidence, namely the disaster itself. The fact that people like Stern are led to write articles of this sort, reflecting the dilemma which confronts millions of minds in the face of this event is an admission that such minds cannot reconcile it with belief in a Godor at least that there is great difficulty in doing so. Ergo, the event itself is an indication, it is tangible evidence, that no God exists. Possibility No. 1 thus stands apart from the others as an inherently reasonable conclusionindeed, it is the best one of the lot. Stern, of course, does not treat it that way. His language is subtly dismissive ("the allure of atheism"), and as I noted above, his bow to those who cannot embrace atheism as an option suggests he is willing to allow them their way.

     Possibilities Nos. 2 and 3, certainly as presented, are also dishonest, no more than filler. No reasonable mind, much less one that genuinely has respect for the Deity it believes in, could imagine that God found infants and young children "guilty" of something heinous enough to deserve a sudden and grotesque death, or even to survive a destruction and loss that would devastate their lives. Of course, there has beenand continues to beno shortage of dogmatists who must cling to a primitive doctrine like Original Sin in order to excuse God for punishing the seemingly innocent. (In my young day, it was still the Catholic view that infants who died unbaptized, as well as stillborns and those who died in the womb by spontanteous abortion, went to a dismal "Limbo" for eternity, forever separated from God because they had not been sprinkled with ritual holy water.) St. Paul may have claimed that "we are all guilty through the sin of Adam," but as Stern admits, such thinking has become increasingly repulsive to the average person.

     Even more repulsive is Stern's third option, and one wonders why he included it, characterizing God as little more than a heavenly adolescent who enjoys pulling wings off butterflies. He uses it to make his point about those who rail against God in the face of events like the Holocaust, perhaps to belittle such conduct as one that can lead to atheism.

     Rabbi Kushner's less-than-powerful Deity, Stern's Possibility No. 4, is at least an attempt to introduce an element of rationality to the question. Kushner's thesis has not been widely embraced, as even a limited and imperfect rationality can never override most believers' need for a perfect God, and Stern acknowledges such. What I find particularly galling in his comments about this option is the statement that while he did not send (or prevent) the tsunami, God nevertheless could be seen as making his presence known by the humanitarian effort which followed in response. Here we have another need by the religious mind: to impute all that is good and commendable in the human makeup not to humans themselves, not to a natural development of which we can be proudsince we are incapable of such things, given our inherent degenerate naturebut to an external perfect Being who is supposedly expressing himself through us. All good comes from God, all blame lies within ourselves. Stern's entire exercise is a result of, and comes from a need to support, this negative self-portrait of humanity which religion has always promoted and thrived on.

     Thus we come full circle to Stern's Possibility No. 5, that "God is unknowable." But rather than a possibility, this is an apology. It is Stern's way, at the end of the day, of avoiding the whole issue. Religion propounds an irrational doctrine and an absurd world-view, and the exercise thus becomes one of justifying a continued belief in God. This is "theodicy," the eternal task of the theologian: a vindication of God's justice in the context of tolerating the existence of evil.

     As a thinking, intelligent commentator on world and local affairs, as an editor of a public newspaper in a supposedly enlightened, secular society, Sternand thousands of others like himhas abdicated his responsibility. In the end, the headline serves as the answer: "Thy will be done." Humans "are not meant to know." Indeed, it is presumptuous even to seek such knowledge, to try to arrive at such understanding. Stern advocates the shutting down of the mind. We are to embrace irrationality, in the same vein as Paul urged upon his readers in 1 Corinthians: God has set up a world system, a process of salvation, which is inherently "folly," and thus the wisdom of the world will never understand the wisdom of God. Stern has presented us with an exercise which he knows will lead nowhere, only to a supposed vindication of religion's mantra: that we bow before things unknowable, unchallengeable, non-accountable, while relegating ourselves to some kind of trash heap. Perhaps one resembling the devastation caused by the tsunami. It would make as much sense to regard the Asian disaster according to a Possibility No. 6: that it was God's necessary and compassionate way of illustrating to humanityperhaps in tough-love fashionjust how much garbage is the world he created for us, along with the needs and desires, the happiness and pride, we seek in our misguided way to bring to it. Embracing such an option would at least be in keeping with religion's outlook, faithful to its picture of God's workings. I'm surprised Jerry Falwell didn't think of it.

     Of course, the religious mind always insists on having it both ways. Only when faced with a dilemma of this magnitude, only when the idea of God cannot squirm out of things, does the Deity become Unknowable. Only then does the question become "unanswerable." Accompanying this is the corollary that we are the ones at fault for trying to "penetrate the mind of the creator," as Stern puts it. God's own words (in Job) even do the admonishing for us. Under all other circumstances, on the other hand, the Falwells of this world have no compunction about analyzing and declaring the mind and motives of God to a minute degree. They know precisely what he wants, what he proscribes, who he supports and who he condemns.

     Nor is there ever any possibility that God can be apportioned blame, unkindness, or imperfections. God is always to be given a pass, a "Get Out of Jail Free" card. But whereas the game of Monopoly has only one of these in the deck, religion's deck contains an infinite number, as many as God needs. He can't help but always win the Theodicy game.

     When I was young, perhaps following the Spanish campground disaster, an image came to me. Not as versant in the bible then as I am now, it was prompted by a cantata by William Walton, called Belshazzar's Feast, a choral setting of the dramatic scene in the 5th chapter of the book of Daniel. During the days of the Exile, Belshazzar the king of Babylonwhich had conquered Jerusalem and scattered many of its peopleheld a feast. Before the wall of the chamber a disembodied hand appeared and writ words. Daniel, one of the Jewish exiles in Babylon, was called in by the king to read and interpret. The hand had been sent by God, Daniel declared, and one of the words it wrote, tekel (weight, as of money on a balance scale), signified the judgment of God on Belshazzar: "Thou art weighed in the balance and found wanting." That scene, for me, conjured up an image of the Last Judgment, but with a scenario rather different from the one usually presented in Christian mythology. While the peoples of the world, at the world's End, were brought before the throne of God for judgment, it was they who spoke and pronounced their judgment on Him: "Thou art weighed in the balance and found wanting."

     Rather than wait for the world's End, what we need is to have the world's people stand up now and pronounce their judgment on the idea of God. The Asian tsunami provided a good occasion to do so. Unfortunately, a commentator like Leonard Stern had neither the wit nor commitment to rationality (nor perhaps the permission of his newspaper) to deliver that judgment. But there are those who have. And they need to speak out, without fear of condemnation or consequence. Otherwise, our world will indeed be washed away in a sea of ignorance, superstition, and fear of the perceived unknown, ending up on the trash heap of things abandoned in the service of a primitive and self-destructive mythology. Rather than look upon humanitarian relief as an act of the Divine, we need to see it as an expression of the best in ourselves, a nurturing of our own human compassion and capacities, as well as our pride in what we are: life striving to improve and progress in a wondrous, if uncertain, universe, where gods do not demand to be excused, and where intelligence and reason, instead of being maligned or repudiated, can be embraced.

Earl Doherty

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