An e-mail exchange between my brother (True Ancestor) and me:
DG: Is there a . . .
God? Does this God direct a tsunami onto several shores at once, having sorted out which of the 40,000 lives should be ended? [UPDATE, 1/7: 140,000, now, and counting.]
And how does one detect a God -- or the God of which we've conceived and (sometimes) convinced ourselves, in the trajectory of a life like I. F.'s [our parents' close friend who just died], born in a U.S. shtetl, not learning English til the age of 8, living a life devoted to social justice, and suffering the death of his oldest son?
I tend to tell people who ask such questions that life ain't a miniseries. The grander designs behind what happen to the world, whether at their simplest or most catastrophic -- are beyond our ability to grasp. The miracle that we're here at all is not diminished by suffering, it's imbued with even more miraculousness. And if everyone good had it good, and everyone bad got washed away, we would be puppets in a morality play, which life has never remotely resembled.
But, damn. When you see the bomb-like devastation that arrives out of the blue, it makes ya think: God invented terrorism. We're rank amateurs by comparison.
AG: I had a conversation with Elizabeth [Randall, our sister-in-law, an Episcopal priest] once that made a great impression on me. She raised the classic question, "Is God all-good or all-powerful? Because He can't be both." (Or, as Archibald MacLeish put it in his play "J.B.," "If God is God, He is not good; if God is good, He is not God.") And her answer was, "All-good -- of course!"
The only God I can conceive of set this amazing world in motion, but doesn't control every detail of it. (It would seem so stupid to me, for instance, to thank God for sparing our house in Fort Myers Beach, as if He had something personal against Punta Gorda. Sodom, Gomorrah, Punta Gorda??) I think God is what prompts us to avoid and prevent evil (if we're not lazy and in denial, if we have the guts, big if) and when we can't, to make the best of the worst that happens. I also think God is connected to awareness somehow. God might have screamed to people on the beaches to get out of there (and to German Jews in the 1930s to pack up and leave), but most of them weren't listening. I heard one survivor's story about how the director of their hotel was down at the beach and when he saw the water weirdly ebb out, he yelled to everyone to get off the beach, fast. No one from that hotel was hurt. This won't ever happen again quite this way, because these countries will put in tsunami warning buoys even on the supposedly "safe" Indian Ocean side.
“I think we have done something wrong and God is punishing us"
There are very few statements like that in the news stories about the tsunami. [Here] is a story of a Hindu group in Michigan condemning the characterization of the wave as divine retribution. Many prefer to see God's hand in the way some survived, like the baby who floated on a mattress. The willingness to thank and not blame God is sometimes truly astounding:
". . . The waves suddenly came in and I was saved by God -- I got caught in the branches of a tree," said Mahmud Azaf, who lost his three children to the tsunami.
An Alabaman man who was on vacation in Phuket when the tsunami hit saw hundreds of dead bodies, but perceived the will of God in the fact he was able to save one child: "That must have been why God let me live this long."
[Here] is an opinion piece from a Christian minister (Roger Ray) that does a straightforward job of presenting the religious perspective:
"There is an account in John's gospel . . . Jesus and his disciples encountered a man who had been born blind. His disciples asked Jesus why this had happened; was it the man's sin or his parents? Jesus' answer . . . : 'Neither this man nor his parents sinned. He was born blind so that God's works might be revealed in him.'
That is the only perspective on a crisis I ever want to have. God didn't send the earthquake or the tsunami. God didn't cause people to be killed or hundreds of thousands to be left in danger. But this crisis is an opportunity to demonstrate the works of God. . . . Persons of all faiths have the opportunity to do a good thing and support one another's efforts."
That's where I see God, or want to see God: not in the destruction but in the reaching out, the piercing recognition, stronger than I remember it ever being, that this is one family, that "every man's, woman's, child's death diminishes me."
UPDATE FROM DAVID: Alan Morinis, with whom I'm studying Mussar, saw things similarly to the Althouse blog you posted on yours. He said, "Events like this -- and like all events -- are opportunities. Not opportunities to say, See?! There is no God,' but to get to know God, the system built by God, and the extent to which God does and doesn't actively run our lives."
UPDATE II: A woman whose first-person story of surviving the tsunami in Thailand is posted on Unknowncountry.com concludes by saying, "This kind of tragedy simply breaks one's heart open to life and how fragile we all are. How can we wage war on [one] another becomes even more impossible to contemplate." Makes you wonder: is that the message we're meant to get? Mini-update: one of my thoughts about the "message," if there is one, of this Flood, comes down to one word: "Division." Between Tamil Tigers and Sinhalese; between red states and blue states. God might be trying to awaken us to the fact that we are one family, that the grieving wail of a South Indian woman feels like it came out of my own gut, and in fact did. The response has been to work together. Even Bill Clinton and George H. W. Bush -- a trivial example, maybe, but a signal one. Salty Vicar echoes this thought, not as his own, particularly, but as one of those floating around:
Some see God in the aftermath of such disaster. Maybe he wanted the revolutionaries in Aceh to submit to the Indonesian military; or he was tired of the civil war in Sri Lanka, thinking – you petty humans, if you really want destruction, let me tell you what I can do. No religion was safe from his wrath - Hindu Mystics, Thai brothels, mosques, teak framed temples and churches, nunneries and beach huts, all broken before the surging, indiscriminate waves.
UPDATE III: Rodger Kamenetz: "There is no God in the disaster. . . . I think there is God in the response".
UPDATE IV: Rabbi Yehoshua Karsh strongly disagrees with most of the above:
When a child asks
caused the Tsunami
Don’t be afraid to say
Yes . . .
That doesn’t mean
You know why He did it
You don’t have to know
Why He did it
Let them ask
Let them question
Let them be angry
If they feel anger
Keep it real
Even if it’s scary
Keep it real
Read the whole poem. Apparently the first tenet of believing Judaism is: G-D is all-powerful. Is He all-good? Our conception of "good" is too small, too local and self-interested, to answer that question. (See the Book of Job.) He is all-powerful, and He is all-wise. It all comes from Him. To believe anything less is to
To nothing more than
You don't have to be a kid to think that's scary. And sublimely unsentimental. I don't know if I can believe it. But I'm impressed.
UPDATE V: An eminent Baptist agrees:
God is in control of the entire universe, and there is not even a single atom outside His sovereignty. And God's goodness and love are beyond question. The Bible leaves no room for equivocation on either truth.
Thus R. Albert Mohler Jr., president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. And the meaning of the tsunami?
In Australia . . . the Anglican Dean of Sydney, Phillip Jensen, explained that natural disasters are a part of God's warning that judgment is coming. Jensen was right of course, as Jesus Himself pointed to natural disasters as a warning to human beings of our own mortality and of the coming judgment of God. . . . Jesus clearly warned His disciples that famines and earthquakes, along with wars and other ominous phenomena, would be the "birth pangs" of coming tribulation and judgment [Matthew 24:7-8].
We each look at the tsunami and strive mightily to see the universe we want to see.
UPDATE VI: This has got to be the single most-searched, most-blogged, most-discussed question weighing on the collective mind and heart today. And it's utterly fascinating to hear people of every religion, every spiritual and agnostic and atheistic persuasion, weigh in. From Scarborough Country last night (1/6/'05):
JOE SCARBOROUGH: [T]he big question going around the Middle East right now is whether the Christmas tsunami was God‘s punishment for sex-crazed tourists in Asia. . . . At least, that is what some Saudi clerics are claiming.
UPDATE: It was Sheikh Fawzan al-Fawzan:
Some of our forefathers said that if there is usury and fornication in a certain village, Allah permits its destruction. We know that at these resorts, which unfortunately exist in Islamic and other countries in South Asia, and especially at Christmas, fornication and sexual perversion of all kinds are rampant. The fact that it happened at this particular time is a sign from Allah. It happened at Christmas, when fornicators and corrupt people from all over the world come to commit fornication and sexual perversion.
Thanks, Chrenkoff, for this and other weird Saudi, Hollywood and more quotes on the tsunami. Now back to "Scarborough Country":
MAX LUCADO, author of IT'S NOT ABOUT ME and other Christian bestsellers: God‘s priority is not this world, but the next. He has never promised us that there would be no suffering in this life. In fact, he has promised that the suffering could be used to prepare us for and help us to make decisions about the life to come. The 150,000 deaths tragically remind us how frail our life is and how brief our time on Earth is.
The question is, can God be both good and strong? I believe he can. I believe he is a good God, and what he does always has a purpose. It has a reason. I believe he is strong. I don‘t believe he is capricious or careless. I don‘t understand his ways. Whoever does understand his ways claims a falsehood, because his ways are higher than ours, but I do believe that he will use this to glorify his name and to awaken people to the brevity of this life. . . . [T]he priority of God has never been earthly comfort. The priority of God has always been eternal salvation. And throughout scripture, he does whatever it takes. He brings burdens or he brings blessings to awaken us.
WILLIAM DONOHUE, President of the Catholic League: Catholicism in particular is a theology of suffering, as Cardinal O‘Connor once said. Cardinal O‘Connor once stunned the Jewish community by saying that the great gift of Judaism was the Holocaust. He didn‘t mean that to insult Jews.
What he was saying was this. There is no greater suffering than what Christ did. He died on the cross, but that‘s a source of optimism. That‘s a source of redemption. So, I think we have to look at this in a positive sense. In one strange sense, then, what‘s happening to these poor Asian people is their gift to the world. It makes us think about our mortality and about salvation and about redemption. That‘s what we should be thinking about.
And then there's this from Hirhurim (Musings) -- perhaps the most extreme example of "Jewish guilt" I've ever seen:
In wake of the recent tragedy in the Far East, whose deadly repercussions are still being felt, some rabbis have tried to find reasons for the "natural" disaster. One sin in particular that I have seen attributed as the cause is inappropriate talking in the synagogue. . . . R. Yoel Teitelbaum . . . notes that rabbis have traditionally responded to great disasters by searching for spiritual causes. . . . Do we not find in the Talmud many statements that attribute specific disasters to specific sins? . . .
With such a vast historical tradition, why are people so offended by these types of statements? . . . [W]e have become acculturated to the modern, secular world. People simply do not believe that violating commandments are sins that will be punished . . . We trivialize the commandments so that violating them does not seem like something that should merit major punishments. . . . That is not the faith of our ancestors.
On the other hand, when we attribute a disaster that happens to others on our sins, are we not being arrogant? First of all, we must keep in mind that the Torah calls us God's firstborn son. This is an obligation and a responsibility. Regardless, though, what is the other option? Would it be better to blame the tragedy on the sins of those who died?
This debate is just wild.
UPDATE VII: Yikes! This may be the wildest one of all.
Mis-nagid describes him- or herself as "a secretly atheist frum (pious) Jew -- a kind of mole inside the minyan. He (or she, but the anger sounds male) calls other devout Orthodox "godiots," and frankly admires the enlightened, rational view of the tsunami offered by science. You expected this to be coming from Richard Dawkins (whom s/he quotes approvingly), not from a "frumie":
The godiots would love for you to take away from the tsunami tragedy that "we are helpless; throw yourself at the mercy of [Yahweh|Allah|Jesus] and trust that He'll only torture you for your own good." This is the exact opposite of the true message, and is totally self-serving on their part. They would love for you to think that you're helpless, and that there are no better options than faith.
The true message is that faith is futile. Whether or not any religion is true, faith has shown itself to be utterly ineffective. Prayer doesn't work, but reason does. We are not helpless, unless we discard reason for the futility of faith. People resort to praying in situations that are not under their control. No one prays that the fridge door will open -- they just open it. Priests, Rabbis and Mullahs benefit from a sense of helplessness and are the last ones to give men tools to empower themselves.
Unlike religion, which is based on faith, science, being based on reason, works. It's not perfect, but it gives us earlier warnings, and better understanding of the timings, risks and consequences. It gives us airships to move supplies across the world in time to save lives. It gives us vaccines to stave off infectious outbreaks. It gives us radios to coordinate rescue efforts with. It gave us mass communication tools to help spread the word about the desperate need for help. Meanwhile, the Pope held a mass, and some words were said. No results were achieved, nor can any be expected to be.
Mesorah.org sent out an email invitation to a live online class titled "Tsunamis. What is the Torah's View?" That's as useful as a class whose topic is "Tsunamis. What is the Elizabethan view?"
Besides, you're not likely to get any valuable moral advice from the Mishna Berurah. For example, if the tsunami knocked a house down onto a goy on Shabbos, you're halachically required to let him die, rather than "violate" Shabbos. If he's a Jew, move heaven and earth to save him. If not, heaven forbids you to move earth.
Apparently there's a whole underworld of secretly irreverent Orthodox who do their blaspheming in blogs. Mis-nagid links to a bunch of them, including one character who calls himself Rabbi Pinky Schmeckelstein and features "Words of Torah Dripping with Sarcasm and Condescension." Another unsuspected world to explore!
UPDATE VII: Gerard Vanderleun at The American Digest has a beautiful and haunting essay on why this disaster is too big to feel:
[W]hat has happened has already gone, beyond our power to recall it, into the realm of myth. We will remember it not as the Great Tsunami of 2004, but as the day that the sea swallowed up the land and all that were in its path. And we will all vaguely remember that it has all happened before, in smaller or greater ways, long ago, and will happen again. We have seen the myth of the deluge made real and as such it plunges deep down into our souls, far deeper than that shallow place where our modern, civilized emotions dwell.
UPDATE VIII: Sitting with our dad (87 and healthy) on the beach, watching the sunset over the Gulf of Mexico -- for the nightly quality of which he traditionally gets the credit or blame -- he comments on the congruence of of this activity with "the sunset of my life." (One of those long, lingering ones, in no hurry to be over.) A bit later he says, "You know, I imagine I pass away, and I come face to face with God, and he says, 'Well, here I am. What's this about you not believing in me?' And I say, 'How can I believe in you when you let the Holocaust happen? When you allow the poorest people on earth to suffer so terribly?' And God says [making a fist] 'C'mon! Ya gotta believe! Whats'amatta you?!' And I say, 'NO. WHATS'AMATTA YOU!'"
That may just be the last word.