Friday, March 11, 2011

Thinking about tsunamis.

A month ago I was asked to write a "lenten meditation" for a booklet of "daily devotions" for the season published by my church. I agreed, and was assigned what for me proved a difficult Biblical passage. In my piece, I referred to the earthquake that had just struck New Zealand. Today's disaster in Japan, which may spread to other places by tsunami, brought it to my mind. I'm republishing it below, in an expanded form based on some more thoughts I've had since I submitted it.

You will be in the right, O Lord,
when I lay charges against you;
but let me put my case to you.
Why does the way of the guilty prosper?
Why do all who are treacherous thrive?
You plant them, and they take root;
they grow and bring forth fruit;
you are near in their mouths
yet far from their hearts.
But you, O Lord, know me;
You see me and test me-- my heart is with you.

Jeremiah 12: 1-3

This passage troubles me. Jeremiah must have been in a bad way when he wrote it; after all, “do all who are treacherous thrive”? Bernie Madoff may have prospered for a time, but he was brought to justice, though it has proved mostly cold comfort to those whose trust he betrayed. Beyond the question of factuality, though, the passage points to a great difficulty for me and for many: the problem of evil. If God is good and just, omniscient and omnipotent, how or why can evil exist? Perhaps, like me, you were told as a child that everything is part of the unfolding of “God’s Great Plan.” You may wonder if this Great Plan includes, to use an example in the news as I write this, the deaths of perhaps a hundred or more people in an earthquake in New Zealand. Near the close of the passage, Jeremiah addresses God with, “You see me and test me.” Does God “test” people? Did God arrange the death of young Annie Darwin to “test”—evidently past the breaking point—her father’s belief?

Jeremiah’s faith survived the test, whether it was put to him by God or by his own troubled mind. At the close, he confesses, “my heart is with you.” This took me back a few years to a time when I was wrestling with the concept of faith, and wrote a blog post on the subject, which I headed with an epigram from Anne Lamott: “The opposite of faith isn’t doubt, it’s certainty.” Doubt may arise from facts: for example, good things happening to bad people, and bad things happening to good. If we try to explain these facts--that is, to achieve certainty--with statements like "it's God's will," we are on shaky ground. People who try to do so are, in the words of Cathleen Falsani, “more interested in being right than being Christian or loving or gracious or civil.” Faith should be grounded on hope, and oriented toward the future. It doesn’t mean denial of the past or of present realities; indeed, it may demand action to change those realities. This is where I think Jeremiah was at the end of the quoted passage.
You may reasonably ask: "What can we do to change the realities that give rise to earthquakes, tsunamis, and other natural disasters?" At present, relatively little, beyond creating and enforcing building codes, discouraging people from building in areas of especially high risk, making better warning systems, and studying ways to improve our ability to predict such events. You may then ask: "Couldn't a wise and benevolent God have given us a planet without shifting tectonic plates?" That's a question I can't try to answer. Perhaps the problem is in the question itself.