Ten years ago, a devastating tsunami struck the Indian Ocean. Soon afterwards, the British Catholic journal The Tablet asked me to respond to the question raised by many, “Where was God?” This article was published in January 2005. It is among the most requested of my Tablet articles, having been reprinted in a number of Catholic journals and translated into several languages.
Last month, my friend’s grandmother – a musician of remarkable talent, a strong and courageous woman, a sweet and devout soul of 94 – died peacefully in her sleep, surrounded by her family. Another friend, 42 and the mother of a seven-year-old, died suddenly when she overstressed herself exercising while still recovering from a bout of pneumonia. Meanwhile, a car bomb in Baghdad killed 24. And a tsunami in the Indian Ocean killed 140,000.
Numbers can be numbing. Every astronomer knows that; we readjust our figures, changing centimeters into light years, to give ourselves numbers that our brain can comprehend. The sheer scale of the death toll in South Asia following the earthquake and floods cannot be comprehended in the same way as the death of an individual friend. But ultimately, every death is an individual affair.
Martin Kettle, writing in the Guardian soon after the event, was among the first to dare ask the religious question. He wrote, “A non-scientific belief system, especially one that is based on any kind of notion of a divine order, has some explaining to do… What God sanctions an earthquake? What God protects against it? Why does the quake strike these places and these peoples and not others? What kind of order is it that decrees that a person who went to sleep by the edge of the ocean on Christmas night should wake up the next morning engulfed by the waves, struggling for life?”
Christianity is, in fact, hardly “non-scientific.” But it is cold comfort to point out that, for instance, the very seismic networks (and the theory behind them) that allowed scientists in North America and Europe to calculate the magnitude of the quake and the size of the tsunami even as it was racing across the Indian Ocean, were first set up a hundred years ago by Jesuit priests in the Philippines, India, and Africa.
It is also not sufficient (though soberingly true) to realize that our misplaced priorities made a bad situation worse. A tsunami warning system in the Pacific gives us confidence that the resorts of Hawaii would be warned in a way that did not occur in the Indian Ocean. Bureaucratic wrangling, a lack of money, a lack of will, all worked to prevent such a system from being implemented in south Asia, in spite of the warnings of a few lone voices over the past ten years. And we can shake our heads (or our fingers) at the priorities of a society that spends more money in seven hours of a questionable war in Iraq than it first offered to the entire tsunami relief effort.
But even that kind of hand-wringing does not get to the meat of Martin Kettle’s question. In an ideal world, we’d be prepared for natural disasters. But what sort of world is it, where such disasters occur in the first place? As a cynical friend of mine put it, “I always feel suspicious of people who claim the hand of God rescued them from some terrible accident. What about all the other accidents where God wasn’t there? Does God have a bandwidth shortage, so that He only gets to hear about some problems, but not others?”
It is all a part of a much bigger theological issue, one that affects scientists and indeed the whole modern world view that searches for God in a universe governed by cause and effect. How does God act in the world?
Quantum effects aside, we do live in a world of cause and effect. Radioactive elements in the Earth decay, giving off heat, which drives the convection of rocks in the Earth’s interior. Dragged along by this convection, the Earth’s lithosphere is in constant motion. The downwelling slab of the Indian plate below Indonesia makes room for the mountains being formed elsewhere in the seafloor. That motion provides Earth its oceans and atmosphere, builds its mountains, recycles its surface materials, refines minerals into rich ores, provides the environment for oil deposits and beautiful coral reefs.
Within those reefs, we can see evidence from shifts in the way the coral has grown that the downwelling has never proceeded completely smoothly. Earthquakes, and subsequent massive ocean waves, erupted from Sumatra in 1797, in 1833, in 1861. A hundred and twenty years on, the name Krakatoa still sends shivers up our collective spines. People died then, too.
We can believe in a God who controls on a string every atom, every event, deliberately setting up life and tragedy. Such a God would indeed be a God immune to our sense of cruelty. Another possibility is a God who observes, but does not intervene: the Deist God of the 18th century, who set up the laws of the Universe, wound up the spring, and let it loose to run independent of any further effort on His part. We can deny the existence of any God at all. Or we can deny the reality of those tragedies, and continue living as if we ourselves were immortal.
None of these are gods that, upon prayer and reflection, I can accept. But they are not mere straw-men I’ve set up for a Jesuitical argument. They are gods that all of us believe in, some of the time; some of us, all of the time. And so we rail at God when our love affairs go bad, our politicians lose elections, our business dealings flop.
But my experience as a believer, as a scientist, as a human being, is that the situation is far more complicated – and confusing.
The laws of entropy are relentless. The Universe, it appears, is fated to a gradual heat death as all energy dissipates itself into a uniform, featureless, ever-expanding ocean of cold. But in the meanwhile, on the surface of the Earth, plants take sunlight and use a variety of unlikely chemical reactions to reverse entropy locally, making flowers… and weeds. Savagely ripping that vegetation from the earth, bugs and bunnies populate the fields. Amazing in their own beauty, they are fed upon by the beautiful and majestic predators of the Earth: the birds, the mountain lions, the humans…
Humans… who are free to act for good or evil, capable of consciously creating beauty and ugliness. Humans whom, beautiful or ugly, we mourn when they die. Why do we mourn them? Because we find them worth mourning.
Is death, then, but a natural part of life? Part of God’s Plan? Are pain and mourning the price we pay for being alive? Yet as Christians we are faced with the final contradiction: our God came to Earth, lived a life of pain and mourning and death, precisely to proclaim an end to Death itself.
God does play by the rules. He set up the thermodynamics that gives us mountains, earthquakes, tsunamis; and yet those same laws of physics and chemistry allow for a human brain capable of calculating that thermodynamics, and of understanding – albeit, terribly imperfectly – how to recognize, and avoid, the dangers of living on the Earth. That God respects cause and effect, and He is reliable enough for us to be able to understand His universe with confidence and some comfort.
But that same God also does intervene in individual lives. The New York Times described how one young mother in a small Indonesian village fled for safety in the highlands, carrying her child, because she “heard a voice” telling her to flee. The mother next door, apparently, heard no such voice. We hear the survivors’ stories; we never hear the victims’.
Last December 26, around the Indian Ocean, someone died of drowning. It was another grandmother. It was another mom of a seven year old. The fact that it happened again, over and over, 140,000 times, neither intensifies nor diminishes the meaning of each individual death.
In 2003, it was a Christmas earthquake in Iran that filled the news. And 2005 will bring its own tragedies.
God is present; and we don’t understand. But we are capable of knowing that we don’t understand. That is the strangest mystery of all.