What with all the ongoing media attention to the tsunami, I vowed weeks ago to leave the topic alone. But I’m intrigued by a rash of “Where was God” editorials, with commentators inquiring how a supreme being could have allowed thousands to die in such a manner. I’m sure this religious tangent has been inspired at least in part by the queasy feeling that Gaian glitches can hit anywhere, any time. According to writer Tom Bissell, the idea that geo-catastrophes are something that only happens “to primitive peoples in far-off lands“ is mistaken. In a 2003 article for Harper’s Magazine, he call it “a highly callous form of disaster denial, for yesterday's village-erasing lava flow in Sumatra is tomorrow's super-eruption in British Columbia.“

It seems to me that when disaster strikes on such a scale, the “Where Was God” question is insoluble, unless you go the atheist route and insist the question has a faulty premise. If you believe in a personal deity, you are left with two options, both of them less than satisfactory. One is a Captain Kirk-like creator, who follows the Prime Directive and stays out of minor messes on a little planet in an average galaxy. The second option is God as a practitioner of tough love, sending thousands to their deaths as part of a cosmic plan we cannot understand but is ultimately to our benefit.

The puzzle has a long pedigree. On the morning of November 1, 1755, Father Manual Portal awoke from a nightmare in which Lisbon was destroyed in an earthquake. He went to mass and prayed. A few hours later his monastery was in ruins, just as he had dreamed, writes Otto Friedrich in his history of apocalyptic beliefs, The End of the World. “Tens of thousands of pious citizens were on their knees in their Churches on the All Saints’ Day of 1755, listening to the familiar exhortations to rejoice in praise of their Lord, when they felt the first faint shuddering of the earth beneath them.”

The earthquake was centered just offshore of Portugal, but it caused tremendous damage hundreds of miles inland, with vast numbers unknowingly scheduled for burial in church rubble. So where was God? Wasn’t he listening to the prayers at moment the earthquake struck, and if so, what kind of a response was this?

The Book of Job is all about one man’s encounter with mind-bendingly bad personal disasters, unaware it’s all part of a wager between God and Satan to test his faith. St. Augustine’s The City of God was inspired by the author’s struggle with how Rome could have fallen to the barbarians AFTER if was Christianized. As for the vast corpus of theological hairsplitting, from Saint Jerome to papal encyclicals, much of it can be read as legalistic responses to Christ’s questioning cry at Golgotha: “Why has thou forsaken me?”

So when mediamakers or anyone else plays the WWG card in response to a natural disaster, it usually means conceptual twists and turns worthy of an Escher print. The Roman Catholic Church has been there before.

Death from natural disasters is always worst for the living. The dead are gone, and if you believe that means nonexistence, then they are in no position to mourn - unlike the survivors, who have to pick up the pieces, physically and emotionally. But if the dead have gone off into an afterlife, all the better for them, and survivors even may have reason for envy. Suffering is inescapable in life; that’s Buddha’s First Noble Truth. It’s no accident that Buddhism and Hinduism, the religions of impermanence and transformation, took hold in monsoon-beleaguered Southeast Asia. The Buddhist Sutras, and Vedic texts like the
Bhagavad Gita, have much to say about accepting change.

As far as individual death goes, a dinky flash of consciousness in an eternity of darkness is not much of a story, and I suspect there’s a lot more to it. To alter Einstein slightly, the light beneath appearances is subtle, but It’s not malicious. Human beings address it in prayer, beckon to it with music, target it with particle accelerators and observatories, and stumble after it with the butterly net of words and the mason jar of theory. Source with a capital S is intuited all over the world by the incurably curious, whether they’re from science, religion, or the arts. The approach may be different in each field of endeavour, but the universal feeling of a connection to something vastly bigger than the self suggests something real as inspiration.

What is it? Don’t know. Does it ever listen? Beats me.

So I will leave the WWG debate to the appointed experts. My sympathies are more with the poets and other fools who believe life is not so much a problem to be solved as a mystery to be lived.

Geoff Olson