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Wednesday, May 07, 2008

Myanmar, David Hart and the tsunami

I've been reading about the terrible death toll from the cyclone in Myanmar ... US diplomat: 100,000 may have died in Myanmar cyclone. It reminds me of the tsunami of a few years ago. I thought I'd post an old article by David Bentley Hart that ran in First Things after the tsunami .... in some ways, it seems relevant to this new tragedy as well.


Tsunami and Theodicy
by David B. Hart
First Things, 2005

No one, no matter how great the scope of his imagination, should be able easily to absorb the immensity of the catastrophe that struck the Asian rim of the Indian Ocean and the coast of Somalia on the second day of Christmas this past year; nor would it be quite human to fail, in its wake, to feel some measure of spontaneous resentment towards God, fate, natura naturans, or whatever other force one imagines governs the intricate web of cosmic causality. But, once one’s indignation at the callousness of the universe begins to subside, it is worth recalling that nothing that occurred that day or in the days that followed told us anything about the nature of finite existence of which we were not already entirely aware.

Not that one should be cavalier in the face of misery on so gigantic a scale, or should dismiss the spiritual perplexity it occasions. But, at least for those of us who are Christians, it is prudent to prepare ourselves as quickly and decorously as we may for the mixed choir of secular moralists whose clamor will soon—inevitably—swell about our ears, gravely informing us that here at last our faith must surely founder upon the rocks of empirical horrors too vast to be reconciled with any system of belief in a God of justice or mercy. It is of course somewhat petty to care overly much about captious atheists at such a time, but it is difficult not to be annoyed when a zealous skeptic, eager to be the first to deliver God His long overdue coup de grâce, begins confidently to speak as if believers have never until this moment considered the problem of evil or confronted despair or suffering or death. Perhaps we did not notice the Black Death, the Great War, the Holocaust, or every instance of famine, pestilence, flood, fire, or earthquake in the whole of the human past; perhaps every Christian who has ever had to bury a child has somehow remained insensible to the depth of his own bereavement.

For sheer fatuity, on this score, it would be difficult to surpass Martin Kettle’s pompous and platitudinous reflections in the Guardian, appearing two days after the earthquake: certainly, he argues, the arbitrariness of the destruction visited upon so many and such diverse victims must pose an insoluble conundrum for “creationists” everywhere—although he wonders, in concluding, whether his contemporaries are “too cowed” even to ask “if the God can exist that can do such things” (as if a public avowal of unbelief required any great reserves of fortitude in modern Britain). It would have at least been courteous, one would think, if he had made more than a perfunctory effort to ascertain what religious persons actually do believe before presuming to instruct them on what they cannot believe.

In truth, though, confronted by such enormous suffering, Christians have less to fear from the piercing dialectic of the village atheist than they do from the earnestness of certain believers, and from the clouds of cloying incense wafting upward from the open thuribles of their hearts. As irksome as Kettle’s argument is, it is merely insipid; more troubling are the attempts of some Christians to rationalize this catastrophe in ways that, however inadvertently, make that argument all at once seem profound. And these attempts can span almost the entire spectrum of religious sensibility: they can be cold with Stoical austerity, moist with lachrymose piety, wanly roseate with sickly metaphysical optimism.

Mildly instructive to me were some remarks sent to Christian websites discussing a Wall Street Journal column of mine from the Friday following the earthquake. A stern if somewhat excitable Calvinist, intoxicated with God’s sovereignty, asserted that in the—let us grant this chimera a moment’s life—“Augustinian-Thomistic-Calvinist tradition,” and particularly in Reformed thought, suffering and death possess “epistemic significance” insofar as they manifest divine attributes that “might not otherwise be displayed.” A scholar whose work I admire contributed an eloquent expostulation invoking the Holy Innocents, praising our glorious privilege (not shared by the angels) of bearing scars like those of Christ, and advancing the venerable homiletic conceit that our salvation from sin will result in a greater good than could have evolved from an innocence untouched by death. A man manifestly intelligent and devout, but with a knack for making providence sound like karma, argued that all are guilty through original sin but some more than others, that our “sense of justice” requires us to believe that “punishments and rewards [are] distributed according to our just desserts,” that God is the “balancer of accounts,” and that we must suppose that the suffering of these innocents will bear “spiritual fruit for themselves and for all mankind.”

All three wished to justify the ways of God to man, to affirm God’s benevolence, to see meaning in the seemingly monstrous randomness of nature’s violence, and to find solace in God’s guiding hand. None seemed to worry that others might think him to be making a fine case for a rejection of God, or of faith in divine goodness. Simply said, there is no more liberating knowledge given us by the gospel—and none in which we should find more comfort—than the knowledge that suffering and death, considered in themselves, have no ultimate meaning at all.

The locus classicus of modern disenchantment with “nature’s God” is probably Voltaire’s Poème sur le désastre de Lisbonne, written in response to the great earthquake that—on All Saints’ Day, 1755—struck just offshore of what was then the resplendent capital of the Portuguese empire. Lisbon was home to a quarter million, at least 60,000 of whom perished, both from the initial tremor (reckoned now, like the Sumatran earthquake, at a Richter force of around 9.0) and from the tsunami that it cast up on shore half an hour later (especially murderous to those who had retreated to boats in the mouth of the river Tagus to escape the destruction on land). An enormous fire soon began to consume the ruined city. Tens of thousands were drowned along the coasts of the Algarve, southern Spain, and Morocco.

For Voltaire, a catastrophe of such indiscriminate vastness was incontrovertible evidence against the bland optimism of popular theodicy. His poem—for all the mellifluousness of its alexandrines—was a lacerating attack upon the proposition that “tout est bien.” Would you dare argue, he asks, that you see the necessary effect of eternal laws decreed by a God both free and just as you contemplate

Ces femmes, ces enfants l’un sur l’autre entassés, Sous ces marbres rompus ces membres dispersés

“These women, these infants heaped one upon the other, these limbs scattered beneath shattered marbles”? Or would you argue that all of this is but God’s just vengeance upon human iniquity?

Quel crime, quelle faute ont commis ces enfants Sur le sein maternel écrasés et sanglants?

“What crime and what sin have been committed by these infants crushed and bleeding on their mothers’ breasts?” Or would you comfort those dying in torment on desolate shores by assuring them that others will profit from their demise and that they are discharging the parts assigned them by universal law? Do not, says Voltaire, speak of the great chain of being, for that chain is held in the hand of a God who is Himself enchained by nothing.

For all its power, however, Voltaire’s poem is a very feeble thing compared to the case for “rebellion” against “the will of God” in human suffering placed in the mouth of Ivan Karamazov by that fervently Christian novelist Dostoevsky; for, while the evils Ivan recounts to his brother Alexey are acts not of impersonal nature but of men, Dostoevsky’s treatment of innocent suffering possesses a profundity of which Voltaire was never even remotely capable. Famously, Dostoevsky supplied Ivan with true accounts of children tortured and murdered: Turks tearing babies from their mothers’ wombs, impaling infants on bayonets, firing pistols into their mouths; parents savagely flogging their children; a five-year- old-girl tortured by her mother and father, her mouth filled with excrement, locked at night in an outhouse, weeping her supplications to “dear kind God” in the darkness; an eight-year-old serf child torn to pieces by his master’s dogs for a small accidental transgression.

But what makes Ivan’s argument so disturbing is not that he accuses God of failing to save the innocent; rather, he rejects salvation itself, insofar as he understands it, and on moral grounds. He grants that one day there may be an eternal harmony established, one that we will discover somehow necessitated the suffering of children, and perhaps mothers will forgive the murderers of their babies, and all will praise God’s justice; but Ivan wants neither harmony—“for love of man I reject it,” “it is not worth the tears of that one tortured child”—nor forgiveness; and so, not denying there is a God, he simply chooses to return his ticket of entrance to God’s Kingdom. After all, Ivan asks, if you could bring about a universal and final beatitude for all beings by torturing one small child to death, would you think the price acceptable?

Voltaire’s poem is not a challenge to Christian faith; it inveighs against a variant of the “deist” God, one who has simply ordered the world exactly as it now is, and who balances out all its eventualities in a precise equilibrium between felicity and morality. Nowhere does it address the Christian belief in an ancient alienation from God that has wounded creation in its uttermost depths, and reduced cosmic time to a shadowy remnant of the world God intends, and enslaved creation to spiritual and terrestrial powers hostile to God. But Ivan’s rebellion is something altogether different. Voltaire sees only the terrible truth that the actual history of suffering and death is not morally intelligible. Dostoevsky sees—and this bespeaks both his moral genius and his Christian view of reality—that it would be far more terrible if it were.

Christians often find it hard to adopt the spiritual idiom of the New Testament—to think in terms, that is, of a cosmic struggle between good and evil, of Christ’s triumph over the principalities of this world, of the overthrow of hell. All Christians know, of course, that it is through God’s self-outpouring upon the cross that we are saved, and that we are made able by grace to participate in Christ’s suffering; but this should not obscure that other truth revealed at Easter: that the incarnate God enters “this cosmos” not simply to disclose its immanent rationality, but to break the boundaries of fallen nature asunder, and to refashion creation after its ancient beauty—wherein neither sin nor death had any place. Christian thought has traditionally, of necessity, defined evil as a privation of the good, possessing no essence or nature of its own, a purely parasitic corruption of reality; hence it can have no positive role to play in God’s determination of Himself or purpose for His creatures (even if by economy God can bring good from evil); it can in no way supply any imagined deficiency in God’s or creation’s goodness. Being infinitely sufficient in Himself, God had no need of a passage through sin and death to manifest His glory in His creatures or to join them perfectly to Himself. This is why it is misleading (however soothing it may be) to say that the drama of fall and redemption will make the final state of things more glorious than it might otherwise have been. No less metaphysically incoherent—though immeasurably more vile—is the suggestion that God requires suffering and death to reveal certain of his attributes (capricious cruelty, perhaps? morbid indifference? a twisted sense of humor?). It is precisely sin, suffering, and death that blind us to God’s true nature.

There is, of course, some comfort to be derived from the thought that everything that occurs at the level of what Aquinas calls secondary causality—in nature or history—is governed not only by a transcendent providence, but by a universal teleology that makes every instance of pain and loss an indispensable moment in a grand scheme whose ultimate synthesis will justify all things. But consider the price at which that comfort is purchased: it requires us to believe in and love a God whose good ends will be realized not only in spite of—but entirely by way of—every cruelty, every fortuitous misery, every catastrophe, every betrayal, every sin the world has ever known; it requires us to believe in the eternal spiritual necessity of a child dying an agonizing death from diphtheria, of a young mother ravaged by cancer, of tens of thousands of Asians swallowed in an instant by the sea, of millions murdered in death camps and gulags and forced famines. It seems a strange thing to find peace in a universe rendered morally intelligible at the cost of a God rendered morally loathsome. Better, it seems to me, the view of the ancient Gnostics: however ludicrous their beliefs, they at least, when they concluded that suffering and death were essential aspects of the creator’s design, had the good sense to yearn to know a higher God.

I do not believe we Christians are obliged—or even allowed—to look upon the devastation visited upon the coasts of the Indian Ocean and to console ourselves with vacuous cant about the mysterious course taken by God’s goodness in this world, or to assure others that some ultimate meaning or purpose resides in so much misery. Ours is, after all, a religion of salvation; our faith is in a God who has come to rescue His creation from the absurdity of sin and the emptiness of death, and so we are permitted to hate these things with a perfect hatred. For while Christ takes the suffering of his creatures up into his own, it is not because he or they had need of suffering, but because he would not abandon his creatures to the grave. And while we know that the victory over evil and death has been won, we know also that it is a victory yet to come, and that creation therefore, as Paul says, groans in expectation of the glory that will one day be revealed. Until then, the world remains a place of struggle between light and darkness, truth and falsehood, life and death; and, in such a world, our portion is charity.

As for comfort, when we seek it, I can imagine none greater than the happy knowledge that when I see the death of a child I do not see the face of God, but the face of His enemy. It is not a faith that would necessarily satisfy Ivan Karamazov, but neither is it one that his arguments can defeat: for it has set us free from optimism, and taught us hope instead. We can rejoice that we are saved not through the immanent mechanisms of history and nature, but by grace; that God will not unite all of history’s many strands in one great synthesis, but will judge much of history false and damnable; that He will not simply reveal the sublime logic of fallen nature, but will strike off the fetters in which creation languishes; and that, rather than showing us how the tears of a small girl suffering in the dark were necessary for the building of the Kingdom, He will instead raise her up and wipe away all tears from her eyes—and there shall be no more death, nor sorrow, nor crying, nor any more pain, for the former things will have passed away, and He that sits upon the throne will say, “Behold, I make all things new.”



Blogger cowboyangel said...

It's really tragic what's happened there. And tragic that their idiot government took so long to receive help from other countries. Too bad they weren't the ones wiped out by the cyclone.

I'm sure at some point, religious nuts will start blaming the poor victims for some horrible thing they were doing that caused God to wipe them out. That's always seemed one of the most un-Christ-like things anyone could ever do. Yet they seem to revel in the nastiness of making the charge.

9:31 AM  
Blogger crystal said...

Yes, I guess that's the conclusion drawn by people who think that everything that happens is God's will.

11:20 AM  
Blogger cowboyangel said...

Well, there are various ways of looking at what constitutes "God's will." I'm more of an agnostic in this regard. I think they died because of weather. And I don't think God is running some celestial computer that caused the cyclone to hit them. It hit them because they live on the coast.

I guess I believe that God creates things and sets them in motion, but that She isn't behind every little thing that happens. Don't know what that makes me.

3:05 PM  
Blogger crystal said...

I guess I believe that God creates things and sets them in motion, but that She isn't behind every little thing that happens. Don't know what that makes me.

It makes you someone like me :)

3:39 PM  
Blogger Jeff said...

There are many tragedies that appear to happen by caprice, or mere chance. A matter of being in the wrong place at the wrong time. When we look at tragedies driven by climate, however, like the one that occurred in Myanmar, maybe we should look at those in a different way. Maybe we should look at mankind’s own role and responsibility in those events. Bear in mind, I’m not trying to display a callous disregard for the suffering or the loss of human life in any way. I’m just wondering if we should be looking at least as much at man’s own hand as at God’s.

I posted last year on a book I’d read about the disastrous volcanic eruption at Krakatoa that killed thousands and thousands of people. The author went into great detail in explaining the whole science around vulcanology and plate tectonics, and I noted:

“As we look at some of these natural disasters like earthquakes and volcanoes, and wonder why God would allow such things to occur, it is interesting to note in the scientific explanations that the world is built to do these things, that it must do these things, that they were essential for life itself to flourish to begin with, and that shifting continental plates and volcanoes actually provide a means for the world to recycle and renew itself.”

What does that have to do with Myanmar? In the modern era, at least since the massive tidal surges that killed thousands of people in Bangladesh in 1971, we know that having large populations living in tidal flats on the Indian Ocean is exceedingly dangerous. We learned that lesson again in the Christmas Tsunami that occurred a few years back. These people aren’t stupid, and I would never accuse them of being stupid. They are very well aware of what the risks are. Rather than shaking our fists at God, or questioning why God allows such things to occur (not saying that anyone here is doing that), perhaps it is more appropriate for us to ask what kinds of social structures we ourselves have built in this world that force people to try to eke out a living in an environment that they know to be inherently dangerous. Maybe we need to take closer stock of how we should be living in a more symbiotic relationship with the environment, recognizing our one-ness and cooperation with it… a relationship that should be seen as one of integrative stewardship rather than one of mastery and exploitation. The whole issue of global warming is forcing the awareness of this issue upon us, whether we like it or not. We need to look at the relationship between us and God and the earth differently.

Again, not to be callous, but we know that the city of San Francisco is built right on top of the San Andreas Fault. Tragedy has occurred there before and it will again. It’s only a matter of time. When it does occur, will anyone be able to claim that it is divine punishment with any credibility? Will anyone be able to condemn God for his indifference or for his capricious will? We know that tornadoes occur with great frequency in the American plains states. Sadly, the loss of life often occurs in the flimsy construction of trailer parks, so much so that people in other areas of the country could almost get the impression that the plains consist solely of trailer parks... We know of course, that they do not, but maybe we should question why so many people need to live that way in an area where tornadoes are known to frequently occur.

1:25 PM  
Blogger crystal said...

Hi Jeff,

I think a recent study on global warming said it would mean the deaths of thousamds of poor people, among those bing the people who live on the coasts of the Indain Ocean.

I often wonder why people live in places where they know they'll be doomed in one way or another. I think they must be either very well off and can afford to keep rebuilding, or poor and have no other alternative.

Did you see the story in the news a couple of weeks ago that said it was inevitable that a big quake would stike San Francisco in the next 30 years? There at least, I assume building codes take that kind of thing into account. For one semester of college, I commuted to San Francisco State. Ever time the bus crossed the Bay bridge, and then when the street car went under the tunnel in the city, my skin would crawl as I waited for an earthquake to strike.

Some natural disaster stuff is predictable or preventable or avoidable, but much of it seems "out of the blue" .... look at that giant sink hole in Texas :) Maybe the world is made to work this way, but why did God make a world made to work this way?

6:51 PM  
Blogger cowboyangel said...

I often wonder why people live in places where they know they'll be doomed in one way or another.

...she says, living how many miles from the San Andreas Fault?! :-)

Of course, I'm living in a zone that's supposed to get hit with a terrible hurricane any year now.

10:58 AM  

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