Saturday, August 13, 2005

Colossal Questions for Tragic Times: Tsunami, Catastrophe, and Christian Faith

Colossal and perennial questions assault us during times of unspeakable anguish. Although it has been several months since a devastating tidal wave pummeled southern Asia, its still behooves us to ask those haunting questions, since the punishing after effects of this catastrophe continue. Moreover, we can be certain that other catastrophes—both manmade and natural—will devil our days and render sleepless our nights in this world of woe. Yet if you were to enter “tsunami, philosophy, and religion” on Google, you would not find simple answers to why this or any natural disaster should wreak such devastation for so many human beings. Despite the instant information available everywhere, wisdom about deeper matters seems to elude our grasp.

The New York Times gave a secular, naturalistic answer, claiming that “the underlying story of this tragedy is the overpowering, amoral mechanics of the earth’s surface,” which operate “with profound indifference to anything but the pressures that drive them.” Meaning is exhausted by geology; tragedy is reducible to physics and chemistry. Yet the same plate tectonic system that permits tsunamis makes life on earth possible, along with dozens and dozens of other fine-tuned factors not known to exist anywhere else in the universe. The probability that this panoply of life-supporting elements was birthed by chance and impersonal natural law is vanishingly small. Moreover, the mechanics of life itself reveal highly complex and purposeful systems that defy mindless materialistic theories of origin. Our genes are brimming with vast amounts of highly specified and complex information. DNA is a code, a living language of symbols that cannot be reduced to the laws of chemistry or biology.

Secularism cannot explain this tragedy. A world without design is a world too small. Secularism is hard-pressed even to provide the moral categories necessary to support the very concept of tragedy. If we are nothing but the result of physical particles and forces, what’s all the fuss about human death? The earth’s plates shift, and deaths occur. Yet our response to human loss betrays what we know: we human are unique among the living. Even when it comes from nature (and not other humans), the doom of our fellows jars us as unnatural, not the way it is supposed to be. Some higher animals note the deaths of their offspring or mates with some feeling, it seems. But we lament death. We cry out to heaven as our tears fall to earth. This language of lamentation is indelibly enshrined in our literature and sacred writings.
However, there is no generic “religious” answer. Religions offer different answers, depending on their view of the cosmos. After many years of study, I am still left with unanswered questions—and I join others on the mourner’s bench. Nevertheless, there is an ancient and globally appreciated narrative that gives meaning to tragedy and sparks hope even amidst desolation.

Yet the biblical worldview provides the categories that make the best sense of human suffering and offer solid hope for a better world to come. Nature is not a self-enclosed system. The cosmos was designed by a personal and moral being, who deemed it “good.” Yet our first parents—reckoned “very good” by their Author—rebelled against their Creator, thus fracturing and fragmenting creation, both for themselves and for their progeny, whom they represented. The Creator, however, did not abandon his erring creatures. God continued to reveal truth through nature and through his prophets, whose message engaged both Israel and all the nations. Despite the fractures and fissures of a world in rebellion, God remains involved in creation and concerned for it, even sending his one and only Son to rescue it from futility. History is played out on God’s watch. God attends to every detail according to his unlimited wisdom and matchless power. As Jesus said, “Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? Yet not one of them will fall to the ground apart from the will of your Father. . . . So don’t be afraid.” Jesus himself knows the worst that this world has to offer, having experienced it on a cruel Cross for the sake of humanity’s redemption.

How does God relate to this catastrophe? The deadly tsunami neither surprised nor outsmarted the Ancient of Days. It was no random, impersonal upsurge devoid of meaning. If it were, hope would be vanquished for both the living and the dead. But we, with clouded vision and bounded intellects, witness but a microscopic part of the cosmic narrative. Evils inscrutable to us play a significant part in the divine economy of this bent and broken world, we are told. The Apostle Paul claimed that even after the world-shaking achievements of the crucified and resurrected Christ, the whole cosmos groans together in travail, awaiting its final redemption. We all groan with it; but we may groan with hope and work hopefully for the world’s healing, if we entrust our lives to the one who said he was “the resurrection and the life.”

7 comments:

Ted Gossard said...

Good words. Thanks.

Interesting to see how the article in "the New York Times" tried to handle it.

Though not able to give a final answer to evil we can point to God and to his promise.

We too certainly live in the tension of God's yet to be fulfilled promise. We as God's children are not exempt from trouble. This reality of seeming randomness affects us too.

Maybe that is part of God's plan, not too much unlike Job. In some way- beyond us, his good and loving purposes go on- in the midst of the better and the worse in our lives as his children.

And as you poignantly say, "We all groan with it; but we may groan with hope and work hopefully for the world’s healing, if we entrust our lives to the one who said he was “the resurrection and the life.”

Weekend Fisher said...

Hi there

I've studied a lot of theodicies and various treatments of the problem of evil. For the Christian approach, I think we too quickly forget that the account of Eden contains more than a rebellion -- it also contains a curse. That we die, and that we are "driven out of Eden", was God's will after we became corrupted. At the same time we were given hope. We will be destroyed and this world will be destroyed -- and recreated. Consigning this world to death was the first, and necessary, step in paving the way for a new creation.

Ted Gossard said...

Good points weekend fisher. Thanks.

Spencer said...

Hey Doug, interesting article. I hope you don't mind some criticisms.

You wrote:
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Moreover, we can be certain that other catastrophes—both manmade and natural—will devil our days and render sleepless our nights in this world of woe.
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Good. I'm glad we both agree that the tsunami incident was--and still continues to be--a devastating tragedy of unspeakable proportions.

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The New York Times gave a secular, naturalistic answer, claiming that “the underlying story of this tragedy is the overpowering, amoral mechanics of the earth’s surface,” which operate “with profound indifference to anything but the pressures that drive them.” Meaning is exhausted by geology; tragedy is reducible to physics and chemistry.
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It doesn't follow that just because there's a naturalistic explanation for the tsunami's occurance that "meaning is exhausted by geology; tragedy is reducible to physcis and chemistry,”since, to those who believe in a supernatural explanation, the incident isn't MORE meaningful and tragic. The reason why such an event would "wreak such devastation for so many human beings”has nothing to do with the tsunami itself, but with its effects on the lives of the people it came in contact with.

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The probability that this panoply of life-supporting elements was birthed by chance and impersonal natural law is vanishingly small.
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If the plate tectonic system was NOT birthed by chance but by a designer (God), then this designer must be directly and fully responsible for the devasting impacts the tsunami caused.

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Secularism cannot explain this tragedy.
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Why not? There is nothing lacking in a naturalistic explanation, except your claim that such an explanation is improbable, NOT impossible. Notice the distinction between these two claims: 1) Naturalism cannot explain this tragedy; and 2) it is improbable for naturalism to be true. Your defense of 2), if successful, does not imply 1). Also, it would be problematic for your position if supernaturalism can explain this tragedy, for it pins the blame directly on God, who is suppose to be omnibenevolent.

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If we are nothing but the result of physical particles and forces, what’s all the fuss about human death?
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Your rhetorical question, when restated in proposition form, is a non- sequitur.

P. We are nothing but the result of physical particles and forces.
C. Therefore, human death isn't a big deal.

Human death is obviously a big deal since, as you stated, we“lament death.”However, you have yet to support your hidden premise, which is that it isn't possible to lament death if we are nothing but the result of physical particles and forces.

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Even when it comes from nature (and not other humans), the doom of our fellows jars us as unnatural, not the way it is supposed to be.
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First, you are making a hasty generalization; many humans have not seen the doom of our fellows” as unnatural. Second, what does this prove? The existence of emotions can perfectly account for our display towards the non-living, and evolutionary psychology can account for the existence of emotions.

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But we lament death. We cry out to heaven as our tears fall to earth.
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Again, hasty generalization, and what does this prove?

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How does God relate to this catastrophe? The deadly tsunami neither surprised nor outsmarted the Ancient of Days. It was no random, impersonal upsurge devoid of meaning.
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If the deadly tsunami was not a random, impersonal upsurge, then it must have been a non-random, personal upsurge. And if this is the case, I'm not sure how one can reconcile the cause of this tragedy with the cause of goodness.


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If it were, hope would be vanquished for both the living and the dead.
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For all the non-Christians who perished in this tragedy, isn't hope in eternal life in heaven vanquished for them?


Kind regards,
Spence (denu241)

Douglas Groothuis said...

To Spencer: I don't have time to respond to your points here, but keep in mind that this was originally written as an editorial for a secular newspaper--although it was rejected. It was not written as a piece of analytical philosophy for a journal. So, a great deal of compression and eliding is required in that format.

Phil Aldridge said...

Doc -

As a Christian, I actually take comfort in the notion that the tsunami was a random act of tectonics. To see such devastation and to know that it was simply the cold mechanics of our strange little planet is much preferrable to the idea that somehow the immeasurable horror was specifically caused by God.

As you said, the same plates the kill also allow life. It makes so much more sense to believe that this earth is operating on physical laws that give and take away.

I know you aren't necessarily advocating that extreme-Calvinist point of view, but I always like to take the opportunity to defend randomness. If their isn't randomness in this world, I would shudder to contemplate the implications.


Spencer -

The hidden premise is that a random collection of atoms has no inherent value. If we're made of the same stuff that makes up rocks, salt water, lightning, or asteroids, then we have no more inherent value than they do, under a naturalistic view. Thus, a human passing away is a natural and mundane as a meteor disintegrating in the atmosphere. It is the world beyond the natural that gives life value.

Douglas Groothuis said...

Nothing is random in God's universe. If it were, God would not be Lord and master of everything. Yet he is. Read Colossians 1-2; Matthew 28:18-20; Ephesians 1 and the entire Bible.