Blogs > Cliopatria > God, the Tsunami, and the Open Boat

Jan 10, 2005 9:09 pm

God, the Tsunami, and the Open Boat

The Tsunami has caused some people to ask God “why?” Of course, Green Bay Packer fans are asking the same question today. A tacky juxtaposition? Darn right it is, but it is one that is a constant in Christianity and probably in all religion.

Prayers rise up to heaven like incense. They rise up from the just and the unjust alike. They rise up from quarterbacks when they throw the big pass, from children during exams, from the guilty and the innocent in prisons around the world. They rise up from victims of torture who die surrounded by laughter. They rise up from the torturers when someone they love is ill. A prayer is implicit, even if unintended, in every “damn” that has been uttered. Maybe there’s a bit of one with every coin that gets tossed in a Salvation Army can, that this money will do some good.

William Safire in his column “Where Was God?” reminds us of Voltaire and the Lisbon Earthquake (though he misreads Voltaire I think). He reminds us of Job. He concludes in a manner that affirms the right to ask God why but not the right to abandon faith, but, for the life of me, I see nothing in what Safire says that encourages faith in the decency of any Almighty who might be out there.

You would think that means that I like this column by Heather MacDonald, when she suggests boycotting worship until God does a better job. Perhaps it is simply that the idea of the column is a bit better than the execution. Or perhaps flip atheism seems as superficial as most affirmations of deity in the face of disaster.

I do not speak here of personal faith of people caught up in calamity. One does not need faith to see the power of faith to buoy up those in pain. But I see no explanatory power in faith, nothing that explains in a way that I find satisfactory the movement of tectonic plates and the consequences of that motion.

Stephen Crane’s short story, “The Open Boat,” is one of those much anthologized short stories that deserves its prominence. Men shipwrecked in an open boat struggle to survive. Faith does not save them. God does not save them. By helping each other, most live, but the man who does most to help dies in the last frantic swim to shore.

The response to the Tsunami reminds us that human beings can do something well. That many who respond do so out of love of what they call God reminds us that religion inspires good acts every day. But for me, as for Voltaire, or Crane, it seems more of a confirmation of the fundamental indifference to the individual of the forces that permeate the universe, even as we strive to carve out an enclave where caring matters.

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William Harshaw - 1/11/2005

When I read Safire I was reminded of Charles Rosenburg's Cholera Years: The U.S. in 1832, 1849 and 1866. Initially cholera was viewed in religious and moral terms but by 1866 scientific understanding had progressed and those interpretations were no longer used. The lesson I draw is that if there's something humans can do, we will; if we can't, some of us will apply religious thought as a sort of residual category.

Ralph E. Luker - 1/11/2005

Oscar, This is well said and there's much in what you've said that I agree with. In the end, however, monotheistic communities of faith will not agree with you, of course. The bottom line is that G_d is, well, G_d, after all. All our doubts are only _our_ doubts; all of our anger is only _our_ anger. If there is a G_d, all of our anger and all of our doubt weighs very little in the balances because the G_d of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob stands prior to and survives all human experience and transcends all human knowledge. You can reverse things and call G_d before judgment, question G_d as Job did, but in the beginning, through time, and in the end, G_d is creator, Lord of history, and Judge of all that has been and is. So, for communities of faith, the questions are legitimate ones, but they don't make humanity the judge of G_d. That's why they remain only questions.

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