Monday, 18 January 2010

Responses to tragedy

It's always difficult to know how to think about tragedies like the Haiti earthquake or the tsunami, particularly if you believe in some omnipotent being that could have prevented it, or worse, caused it (I don't).

Andrew Brown points out that the only valid response is to do something to help the survivors — not to theologise about it.
Looking at the world with loving-regard we do not find an answer to a riddle but, if Edwards is right - and I'm inclined to agree with him - we are, instead, brought face to face with sheer acknowledgment. But such an acknowledgment is not merely an act of final and hopeless surrender to some brute, static, natural fact for remember in what Edwards thinks this acknowledgment consists: namely that the world so regarded offers us a kind of 'disclosure' that it and its constituent beings are a miracle, never to be comprehended, with depths never to be exhausted.
I agree — if you attempt some sort of theological explanation, you get either bad science, bad theology or bad ethics (or all three).

Similarly, Mark Morford in the San Francisco Chronicle compares the horror of the Haiti earthquake with the massacre in Mexico and struggles to comprehend it:
I struggle all the time with how to acknowledge and respect and even analyze the devastation and the horror that streams across the media wires every day without letting it turn my bones ashen gray.

I think we can only try to realize, as best we can, just how deeply tied into the tangled web of humanity we really are; all the wars and suffering, drugs and gangs, pain and loss, even as we try -- sometimes very weakly indeed, sometimes in the face of devastating counterevidence -- to remind ourselves that there really is an equal amount of beauty and joy, hope and positivism to be had in the world. Isn't there?
Now, on to the bad theology: Many Pagans' response to natural disasters is saying that it's Gaia shrugging off Her fleas:
I do believe that if something happens, that it will be the Earth shrugging off a lot of what is hurting it. I think all the disasters (earthquakes, floods, tsunamis), are the Earth's way of trying to heal the damage humankind has dealt to her. I just have this lingering belief that eventually it will be too much, and the world is just going to (for lack of a better term), purge much of its problems out the way it knows how.

I don't think everyone and everything will be destroyed or anything, but I do think that there will be much more natural disasters hitting many more places.
Oh yeah? Well if that's the case, how come a lot of these disasters hit the Third World, which isn't using more than its fair share of the Earth's resources? Bad theology, bad politics, and a failure of compassion of almost the same magnitude as that of saying that Haiti was somehow cursed.

Many Christians respond by saying that natural disasters are caused by the Fall; that the world, including Nature, became flawed as a consequence of the Fall, and that death was introduced as a result of the Fall. This is just bad science - though it can sometimes produce good theology, as in this article by David Bentley Hart:
Where was God? In and beyond all things, nearer to the essence of every creature than that creature itself, and infinitely outside the grasp of all finite things. ...

I found myself thinking again and again of a photograph I had seen in the Baltimore Sun. ... In the background of the photo was a scattering of huts constructed from crates and shreds of canvas, and on all sides barren earth; but in the foreground was a little girl, extremely pretty, dressed in tatters, but with her arms outspread, a look of delight upon her face, dancing. To me that was a heartbreaking picture, of course, but it was also an image of something amazing and glorious: the sheer ecstasy of innocence, the happiness of a child who can dance amid despair and desolation because her joy came with her into the world and prompts her to dance as if she were in the midst of paradise.

She became for me the perfect image of the deep indwelling truth of creation, the divine Wisdom or Sophia who resides in the very heart of the world, the stainless image of God, the unfallen. ... But that, I would say, is the nature of God’s presence in the fallen world: his image, his bride, the deep joy and longing of creation, called from nothingness to be joined to him. That child’s dance is nothing less than the eternal dance of divine Wisdom before God’s throne, the dance of David and the angels and saints before his glory; it is the true face of creation, which God came to restore and which he will not suffer to see corruption.
I do not see the world as fallen, but I like the way that Hart and other Chtristians emphasise compassion for others, and the way that Hart sees the Divine reflected in the world (and has got the gender and mythology right, too).

Some people refer to natural disasters as "natural evil" — I disagree with this, because evil requires intentionality, in my opinion.

Some atheists have stated that natural disasters show that the universe is a hostile place; but this is inconsistent with not believing in a deity; how can the universe be "hostile" if it has no mind, no intentionality? Hostility requires awareness.

And back to the good theology...

Andrew Brown points out that, in the face of disasters, we need to be ready to help the survivors to pick up the pieces — a loving response is the only one possible:
The horror remains before us all, and unimaginably so for all those in Haiti. My heart goes out to them and my love is sent - as will some of my money - and it goes, not because their plight presents me with an unanswerable riddle (the consequences of which I must assuage) but because I trust implicitly in those people who, by their commitment to loving-regard, will incarnate a Divine yet wholly natural love in the heart of our world.
Amen to that!

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Anonymous said...

Thank you for giving this thought. I am finding it hard to comprehend and take in. Poor Haiti, a country already on its knees, and now this. And how tragic to hear that basic aid is not getting in. Come on, ingenious humans - you can do it!

Thank you for opposing and criticising the truly-dreadful 'Gaia flea theory'.

Yewtree said...

Yes it's awful isn't it? Both the tragedy and the kind of things some people say.

Louise said...

Hi, thanks for directing me to this from Facebook - there seem to have been a lot of tragedies lately. On Sunday I read out a piece by John O'Donohue from his book, Blessings. These sentences reflect the gist of it.

When we yield to helplessness, we strengthen the hand of those who would destroy. When we choose indifference, we betray our world. Yet the world is not decided by action alone. It is decided more by consciousness and spirit; they are the secret sources of all action and behaviour. The spirit of the time is an incredibly subtle, yet hugely powerful force.

I think that many/most of us need to feel that we can make some kind of difference when people are suffering so badly. Louise xx

Yewtree said...

Amen to that, Louise.