December 29, 2004


Believers, nonbelievers, and agnostics are conducting a lively discussion on the theological implications of natural disasters such as the Asian earthquake. Does such an event necessarily affect the belief in a person, moral, loving God?

Particularly thought–provoking and well–written comments can be found on the blog of Catholic writer Amy Welborn , on Mirror of Justice, and on The Paragraph Farmer, which leads to a secularly oriented article in The Guardian. (Thanks to G as in Good H as in Happy for initial leads.)

I am not equipped to discuss theology with the erudition of many of those commenters, but it seems to me that a satisfactory mythological interpretation was achieved in the region of the earthquake in the pre–Christian era. The disaster is the work of Shiva—god of destruction, who is also the great yogi and the Lord of the Cosmic Dance—and his consort Kali, who wears a garland of skulls and yet who is also the Great Mother.

Assuming that these divinities are merely personifications of physical forces and events, incomprehensible to the mythmakers, this is an explanation that should seem realistic to the scientific mind. In this universe, creation implies destruction.

A younger philosophy born in the same region tells us that the human suffering caused by the tsunami comes from imperfect understanding—from attachment to the objects of desire, such as life, health, and safety. This view continues to be helpful to many as a form of psychotherapy.

And yet I can’t help thinking that if we as a species were satisfied with these unblinking, unsentimental explanations of suffering and evil, we would stagnate and decay. It was necessary to discover the idea of a god who loves us and cares about us—who is an individual and treasures our individuality—in order for us to become a species that treasures our own lives, the lives of our conspecifics, the lives of our sister species, the life of our planet. (And some day the life of our universe.)

Iris Murdoch says in METAPHYSICS AS A GUIDE TO MORALS, “Good is the reality of which God is the dream.” In order to deeply feel that the person next to us, or on the other side of the battlefield, is a suffering creature as deserving of loving care as we are, it is a great help to believe that some God cares about those persons too. (And if the story of the Incarnation of Christ is true, God himself had to descend to human form to feel that depth of compassion.) These are feelings we must nurture in ourselves, and strengthen with all our might, if we are to survive. Morality is an evolutionary necessity at this point. (I’m aware of the influence of Teilhard de Chardin here.)

I’m not talking about logical necessity, I’m talking about psychological necessity. It’s logically possible for individuals to believe in and work for the earthly salvation of this world without invoking appealing to religious belief—many secular saints have done so—but it doesn’t work well on a population–wide scale.

So, leaving the tsunami aside, these theological discussions of morality, sophistic and self–comforting as they sometimes seem, may serve a great function. They may be sparks in the forging of a more advanced moral understanding among us poor half–intelligent humans. Only by fumbling with these ideas over thousands of years more will we be able to arrive at answers that are both satisfactorily intelligent and satisfactorily compassionate.

And I am NOT suggesting that the tsunami is somehow justified as the prompting for a theological discussion on the part of cozily situated Western bloggers and journalists. God forbid. The suffering among the ants in my backyard when I pour poison on their hill would have sufficed.