Friday, March 25, 2011

"But God was not in the earthquake" (Sunday Reflections for March 20, 2011)

"But God was not in the earthquake..." 1 Kings 19:11

There has been one remarkable thing about the theological reaction to the catastrophic earthquake and tsunami in Japan: there hasn’t been any. The one exception I’m aware of was Glen Beck’s vague observation on-air that “perhaps” God was trying to tell the world something, like it needs to change its ways. Apparently even Beck realized how vacuous this sounded and dropped the subject.

A catastrophe of this magnitude begs for some kind of interpretation. In the past, such events inevitably led to sermons and theological treatises on the ways of Almighty God and humanity’s weakness and sinfulness. This time by implication, the theological silence is rendering a different judgment: God had nothing to do with it.

Today in our world of instant communication, we are aware of natural and human-made disasters within minutes of their occurring. We’re also aware of more of them, prompting some to mistakenly think such events are happening at an increased rate. Scientific evidence doesn’t support that, however. Rather, the ballooning human population just means people are more often impacted by such events.

Science has given us an awesome but also disturbing picture of our world. As beautiful and bountiful as the earth is, it can also be amazingly and capriciously violent. Or at least so it seems to us, for on a global scale such events are barely a ripple. The Japanese earthquake was one of the strongest ever measured yet it caused the world’s rotation to increase by only a fraction of a second and changed its axis by a fraction of a degree.

Understood in the context of the earth’s geological history, all this is barely a hiccup. And yet it is just these “hiccups,” multiplied over hundreds of millions of years, which have made the planet what it is today. We marvel at the beauty and scale of the Rocky Mountains yet they didn’t get that way by being modeled out of Play Doh. They are the result of countless instances of just the kind of violent moving and shaking northern Japan experienced.

And this is true of most of our world’s features. We can multiply the examples endlessly. Meteorologists are beginning to understand how hurricanes keep the world’s atmosphere in balance. The Gulf of Mexico is likely the result of an enormous meteor or asteroid collision. Indeed, we probably are only here now because of that “catastrophe,” which was the likely cause of the huge “die-off” that wiped out the dinosaurs and 90% of the rest of animal life. It was the dinosaurs’ untimely exit which allowed the mammals to come to dominate the planet.

In 1755 a huge earthquake and tsunami nearly destroyed the city of Lisbon, Portugal. For Europe, at least, many historians view it as the turning point of Christianity’s cultural domination for it was an event that left theologians speechless. They had no explanation for it because Lisbon was seen as a beautiful and truly Christian city. If any place was deserving of God’s blessing and protection, it was Lisbon. Clearly, it didn’t get. Instead, the event came to be viewed as a confirmation of the new Enlightenment understanding that the world operated according to natural laws rather than divine ones.

God didn’t cause the Lisbon earthquake or the most recent one in Japan. Nor does God cause any other natural phenomenon which we humans may judge to be disasters because we were in the way when they occurred. All of them are simply part of the natural rhythm of events on our churning and heaving planet.

In our last Lent midweek "Living the Questions" video, it was suggested that we need to get rid of the notion of God as “almighty.” Events like these underscore that idea. It isn’t helpful, it isn’t (as the video correctly says) biblical, and experience just says it can’t be true. Life is full of events that are beyond anyone’s control. Most of them are benign and we hardly notice them. Occasionally they are beneficial and sometimes they are catastrophic. Where God enters the picture is in challenging us to decide how to react. If we are blessed at such moments, how will we use that blessing? When disaster strikes, how will we respond to our own needs or to those of others? These are often the crucial moments that define our character and who we are as human beings.

As much as science has done for us, it is highly unlikely we will ever tame our planetary home. Nor for that matter should we, according to what science has shown us. These natural churnings are essential for what has made the earth the planet that it is. Science can help us learn how to better co-exist with our planet’s shakes and rolls. Wisdom should cause us to heed their warnings and counsel. Compassion is what should move us to aid whoever suffers in such disasters wherever our knowledge and wisdom haven’t been enough.


Kim said...

Sadly, it's possible the magnitude of the disaster just delayed these kinds of comments. Bishop Mike Rinehart just posted his response to the media.

But I like this passage, Doug. I hadn't actually heard it in this connection before, and I plan to use it!

Doug said...

Thanks for your thoughts Kim and for sharing the link.