Wednesday, 9 March 2011

Acts of God

I am told that in Christchurch a clergyman went into a shop and was asked by the shopkeeper why the clergyman's boss had sent the earthquake. The clergyman replied that earthquakes are of the earth, but that the acts of bravery and kindness apparent all over the city are the acts of God. It's an answer that got the reverend gentleman off the hook, temporarily at least, but I don't think it would have been a satisfactory answer for the shopkeeper, at least, not when he went home and thought about it later.

I suppose my unknown colleague was defending his boss, not that his boss ever needs defending, and was falling for a trap common to us religious people; namely, thinking that God is only in the good bits of life, and therefore, that the not so good bits come from somewhere else: from Not God. We have an example of this thinking in our own much admired New Zealand Anglican Prayer Book. In our psalter, the committee which put the book together saw fit to go through and take out all the naughty bits: anything that was too "negative" was deemed unsuitable for worship and was replaced by a discreet series of dots. Of course this bowdlerising runs counter to the genius of the Book of Psalms, in which there is nothing, but nothing, but absolutely nothing which you cannot bring before God and have it received with compassion and understanding and healing. I think it also runs counter to a central tenet of the Gospel,  but more of that in another post, later.

When I look down from lofty mountain grandeur 
And hear the brook and feel the gentle breeze: 
Then sings my soul, my Saviour God, to Thee; 
How great Thou art, how great Thou art!

So if God is in the lofty mountain grandeur how come he is not in the earthquakes which formed the lofty mountains?

The shopkeeper's question and the clergyman's answer both seem to assume a sort of static world in which there are things like the Southern Alps and the Canterbury Plains and the Pacific Ocean and the City of Christchurch. These entities are just sort of there, admittedly changing a bit over the years, but for all intents and purposes remaining the same since God and/or the Universe made them that way at the beginning of time  and we all live happily amongst them. God set all this up but exists somehow outside of the system. He (yes, He)  looks down on it all more or less kindly and makes the sun come up and the rain fall down and he finds us parking spaces if we ask him nicely, but every so often he seems to get in a snit with us, perhaps because too many of us are attending the Masonic Lodge, or  maybe too few of us are thinking about him in the approved fashion, so he punishes us by shaking the place up a bit, causing  buildings to fall down on babies and cliffs to crush godly old men.

And yes of course I am caricaturing, but not much, as this sort of worldview is the only one in which the question "why did God send the earthquake?" makes any sense. When earthquakes and tsunamis and floods and pestilence are visitations from outside the system, there must be a reason why they were visited on us. Further, because God is only interested in the nice bits of life, and these events are definitely not nice, the reason must be that the divine knickers are well and truly in a twist over something we or, more likely, some other people,  have been doing lately.

I don't think it works like that, but you knew I was going to say that, didn't you?

I don't think that the universe is a collection of static things; it is a process. Every thing that is and ever was and ever will be had a beginning, when it came into existence and has an end, when it ceases to exist; everything, including mountains and cakes and cities and paintings and atoms and species and civilisations and Christchurch Cathedral never used to exist, and one day will not exist again. In between the beginning and the ending whatever it is we can think of is in a constant process of changing from one state to another. And in the middle of this astoundingly complex, huge beyond our capacity to imagine process we are given the extraordinary gift of life and the astonishing privilege of consciousness.The universe in which we temporarily find ourselves is beautiful and terrifying. It is filled on every hand with wonderful blessings and dangers threatening life and limb. Why do earthquakes happen? because it is the nature of the earth to move as much as it is the nature of a cat to move. Why do earthquakes happen? Why on earth do we imagine that they would NOT happen?

 So why did God put us, poor temporary fragile creatures into such a scary place? Well, that's the question I hope the shopkeeper was really asking. There is an answer which should be seen immediately as a non starter. We are obviously not here to enjoy a permanent state of blessedness and safety, even though most of the statements of the problem of theodicy seem to assume we are. Most of the worlds religions do promise such felicity in some form or another, but not here, not now. For us now, in this place, we are here precisely because

I realise that I have bitten off more than I can chew in trying to wrestle with the question of theodicy in the space of a blog post. I realise also that I have no business addressing the evils of the earthquake from the safety of  a stable little city where the walls still stand and the bogs still flush and and the earth doesn't belch up foetid grey sludge at every turn, but  I do want to think for a bit about the actual experience of life threatening events; so I will do it by talking about the events which threaten me.

Next time.


Anonymous said...

Psalm 8 had a prety good idea of the smallness of man in the universe, which the Hubbel telescope and the Voyager spacecraft have amplified exponentially. Answering shopkeepers' - or anyone's - question is also a question of scale: how much of the picture can we know and cope with? 'Humankind cannot handle very much reality', as Eliot reminded us.
But no theodicy is faithful to Christ unless is robustly declares:
1. The created universe may be a process, on its way, after trillions of trillions of years, to the inexorable heat death of total entropy at the sub-atomic level) but God is unchanging.
2. The Resurrection of Christ is the answer to this and every other form of chaos.
And if that seems unreal, the limitation lies with us.
3. Hard-headed (but not necessarily hard-hearted) atheists tells us to accept things as they "are". But this is where Lewis's essay 'The Weight of Glory' - written as bombs rained down on England - repays reading.

Leanne said...

I know it sounds odd, but I'm glad we don't have all the answers. The whole point of being alive, for me at least, is to live in a world where no-one has the answers, and work through the problems, and build strength from them.

Anyone who claims to have all the answers is probably trying to sell you something, or is mentally ill. Or both.

The people who give me strength and who I admire question everything, and are willing to learn that sometimes the answers (if and when there even *are* answers) aren't easy.

I guess the reason not having all the answers is (for me) a good thing, is that it is a reminder of how absolutely beyond our understanding God/the Universe is.

I *like* the fact that, despite everything we go through, and all the suffering and hardship, the stars will still be there and the mountains will continue to grow - even as a result of devastating earthquakes.

Maybe what I'm saying isn't palatable, and it probably isn't Christian, and it might even be offensive to some people (everything I say seems to be offensive to people these days! In fact, I seem to have just been branded as "offensive"!), but maybe searching for meaning and trying to find answers in the *why* isn't the solution to this, and maybe it isn't going to help us find a way out of our grief.

What *will*, I think, will be learning and beginning to understand how much we, as a community, can love one another, support one another, grieve for one another, and build our own humanity and love through all of this.

Maybe we only truly find God when we discover that we can care for someone we don't even know - as much as we would for ourselves.

Just my (overly) long and rambling 2c, as usual.

Anonymous said...

To follow up my earlier comment: Hopkins' 'That Nature is a Heraclitean Fire and of the Comfort of the Resurrection' begins in the most tortuous way but ends with great brilliance - another poem for our times, I think.

VenDr said...

Thank you for the reminder of some old friends, particularly the Hopkins. I don't think the beginning is tortuous. It's pure Hopkins of course, but the idea of ephemeral clouds forming apparently solid shapes before dissolving; shapes that are given their appearance of solidity by the light from beyond shining through them is the basis of all that follows.

It is many years since I read the weight of glory, but I've found it (why don't I get round to ordering my bookshelves?!)and it's sitting beside my bed, waiting.

Meister Eckhart says "God is no-thing." i.e. none of the characteristics of thingness can adhere to God, including, I suppose, change.