This blog features some of the author's lengthy essays on sacred scriptures, theology and history.

Tuesday, November 27, 2012


by Lope C. Robredillo, STD

YEARS AFTER the worst disaster in memory struck Southeast Asia on December 26, 2004, the survivors of the tsunami went on with rebuilding their lives.  In this process of recovery, massive international aid kept pouring in.  But beyond the problems of survival, and of economy, science and psychology that they had to resolve in order to make their lives whole again, there remains a question that baffles not only most of the survivors who believe in a God who cares for human beings, but even us who were spared: where was God in that catastrophe?  Why did the tsunami have to occur, and devastate thousands of Asians?

In a letter to the editor, Sen. Aquilino Pimentel, Jr. of the Philippines asked: “Was the tsunami that hit and killed tens of thousands in Indonesia, India, Sri Lanka, Thailand, Maldives, Myanmar and other nations an act of God?” (Philippine Daily Inquirer, Jan. 20, 2005).  Not so long after the disaster, Imams in Indonesia, Pimentel went on, were quoted as saying that the tsunami was a wake-up call from God who was displeased because people were not faithful to their duties as set forth in the Koran.  Another Imam claimed that it was God’s punishment, since Muslims were killing Muslims in Aceh.  However, Sen. Pimentel finds the view of a chief rabbi, Jonathan Sachs of the United Hebrew Congregation of the Commonwealth preferable.  According to this Jewish rabbi, the tsunami was a natural calamity that is a consequence of our having been placed in a physical world.  But the Senator decried that he has yet to read a Catholic theologian speak on the matter.

Truth to tell, though they may not have the tsunami particularly in mind, Catholic scholars have wrestled with problems of that nature.  Admittedly, however, there has never been a solution proposed that adequately satisfies.  Just to illustrate how difficult it is to give a definitive answer to a problem like it, one can single out the proposal of Teilhard de Chardin, a Catholic author, priest and scientist.

For Teilhard who looks at the universe in convergent evolution toward Christ, such calamities as earthquakes and tsunamis are but an inevitable condition, the price of evolution.  The universe, he says, undergoes a process of arrangement and “in such a system which advances by tentative groping” toward a higher form of complexity, it is inevitable that there are failures, disintegrations and discordances.  “We are realizing,” he says in his book, Activation of Energy, “that within the vast process of arrangement from which life emerges, every success is necessarily paid for by a large percentage of failures.  One cannot progress in being without paying a mysterious tribute in tears, blood and sin.”

Evil, like the big quake or the tsunami, is thus a by-product of evolution.  Says Teilhard in his book, The Phenomenon of Man: “Indeed, if we regard the march of the world from this standpoint (i.e., not that of its progress but that of its risks and the efforts it requires) we soon see under the veil of security and harmony… a particular type of cosmos in which evil appears necessarily and abundantly as you like in the course of evolution—not by accident (which would not much matter) but through the very structure of the system.  A universe which is involuted and interiorized, but at the same time and by the same token a universe which labors, which sins, which suffers.  Arrangement and centration: a doubly conjugated operation which, like the scaling of a mountain or the conquest of the air, can only be effected objectively if it is rigorously paid for—for reasons and at charges which, if only we knew them, would enable us to penetrate the secret of the world around us.”

But, if one may ask, why is there a need for God to create a world that has to undergo an evolutionary process at such a price?  If the tsunami were a condition for progress, who is the man, were he given the choice, who would accept this bargain in the name of evolution?  By what logic does one justify the occurrence of such a disaster in order to succeed in the arrangement and centration? The point raised is a bit similar to Fyodor Dostoevsky’s, in his book, The Brothers Karamazov: “Imagine,” says Ivan to Alyosha, “that you are creating a fabric of human destiny with the object of making men happy in the end, giving them peace and rest at all, but it was essential and inevitable to torture to death only one tiny creature—that baby beating its breast with its fist, for instance—and to found that edifice on its unavenged tears, would you consent to be the architect of those conditions?”

How much wisdom, then, one would ask, is there to creating a world that has to evolve from a less perfect state to a more perfect one?  One cannot, for sure, maintain without blasphemy that God, like a Roman emperor pleased to see a slave dancing in the arena before the horns of a bull, is such a sadist who enjoys himself in failures, clapping for a encore, seeing an elimination round.  To do so would lead one not just to doubt or deny his wisdom, omnipotence and providence, but even, more particularly, to question the discrimination it would engender.  What is wrong with a world not subject to continuous changes, a world in its highest state of complexity right from the start of creation?

Probably, it would make more sense to accept the view that evolution must exact its price, if those who pay it are only those who have turned against God.  In that sense, one could agree with the Imam who said about the tsunami being God’s punishment for Muslims who kill their fellow Muslims in Aceh. In fact, this is how some Old Testament texts view misfortunes that befell on Israel.  In the book of Judges, for instance, God would raise up an enemy to punish the people for their sins.   The friends of Job held the same conviction.  For them, God would never have allowed Job to suffer adversity if the latter had never defied him.  If Job suffered, he must have done something to deserve it, even though he refused to admit it.  But if the victims of the tsunami deserved it, were they more sinful than the people of Europe and America?  Were the poor people in Indonesia worst off than the rich who control the economy of the Third World?  Thieves, criminals, terrorists, and swindlers should be in jail—and yet where does one find many of them if not in the parties of the rich and famous, or gracing in the society page?  One can always ask why the greedy and the very corrupt prosper, while the honest, the meek and the humble are often damned.

Voltaire, who was perplexed at the Lisbon earthquake that killed more than 30,000 people and happened, ironically, on All Saints’ Day, November 1, 1755, has a point, when he asks in his poem, “The Lisbon Earthquake”--

Was there more vice in fallen Lisbon found
Than Paris, where voluptuous joys aboud?
Was less debauchery to London known,
Where opulence luxurious holds her throne?
Earth Lisbon swallows; the light sons of France
Protract the feast, or lead the sprightly dance.

But the truth is, many innocent people, including children, perished in that tragedy with the guilty.  And that is very hard to comprehend. What have the innocent children of Southeast Asia to do with the price to be paid for the evolution?  Why should they be the ones to pay?  One is reminded of words of Dr. Rieux, an unbeliever, in Albert Camus’ book, The Plague, to Father Peneloux who has been preaching that the calamity that struck Oran was a just punishment from God for the people’s godlessness: “No, Father, I’ve a different idea of love.  And until my dying day I shall refuse to accept a scheme of things in which children are put to torture.”

No doubt, Teilhard’s cosmic vision sheds much light on the problem.  Tsunami, for him, has to be understood in terms of evolution, the general good which conditions it.  Perhaps, of this tragedy that hit Southeast Asia, he may speak as a condition for the order and arrangement of the evolving universe, whose value is far greater than the evil it conditions.  The tsunami must be taken not as an isolated phenomenon but as a structural part of the total ensemble of stages in evolution.  “Provided the peak is actually there,” he says in his book, Activation of Energy, “and the game is worth the candle, what mountaineer is surprised or complains at having to be injured as he climbs, or at having to risk a fatal fall?  Taken as static facts and in isolation, pain and perversity are meaningless.  Taken as dynamic factors, in a system that is fluid and feeling its way, they are both vindicated and transfigured.”

Even so, Teilhard does not adequately solve the issues his proposal raises.  But if his solution fails, like all other explanation, it is because, to get into the heart of the problem, one has to go beyond the cerebral.  Rational explanations are doomed to conk out.  Teilhard’s theory is acceptable in shedding light on some aspects of the problem, but it sorely fails in its other dimensions.  It leaves several questions unanswered, like the inclusion of the innocent children in that tragedy.  It seems, however, that the problem is not one of lack of solutions.  Rather, it is about the inadequacy of tools.  Logic, in this matter, is a failure, because it does not have enough tools to get into the kernel of the matter.  There are realities in life where logic fails, like the experience of beauty, the ecstasy in sex and love, the drawing power of the innocent, or the language of love.  Love defies logic.  When one makes it logical, one deprives oneself of the experience.

The same is true of finding God in the tsunami.  One has to go beyond logic.  In the face of Asia’s worst tragedy, probably the real question is not about why God allowed it to happen, or where was he when it struck, but about our approach to it.   For a Christian, one has to share the experience of Job in the Old Testament.  Because his friends failed to account for his suffering adequately, he wanted to hear what God had to say about his it.  But when he spoke, God, far from justifying his action, merely overwhelmed Job with his power and omniscience. Job’s encounter with the Almighty’s power and knowledge made him realize how futile human logic was; he had to retract his rational approach. “I heard of you by word of mouth, but now my eye has seen you.  Therefore I disown what I have said and repent in dust and ashes” (Job 42:5-6).

What does this imply?  Since there are no adequate rational approaches to the problem of tsunami, a Christian must learn to live with realities that defy logic.  Even more important, he has to transcend it.  Following Job, one can only stand in awe at God’s wisdom, realizing how incomprehensible his system that governs the world.  His omniscience and man’s knowledge are unbridgeable.  Like Job, one must surrender to God’s mystery. One must trust him, even if he does not understand.   When one abandons himself to the incomprehensibility of God’s wisdom, knowing that God is God and not man, it would not be difficult to find God even in the tragedy of tsunami.  A man of faith knows that God is not absent in such an event.  He is there in the victims.  As Hans Kung puts it, in his book, On Being a Christian, “suffering, too, is encompassed by God: suffering, too, even though it seems like being forsaken by God, can become the point of encounter with God.”

Illustrative of this is a story that happened in a concentration camp during the Second World War, in Elie Wiesel’s book, Night. After the electric power was blown up, the Gestapo eventually put its three suspects on the gallows, two adults, and one child.  After the three necks were placed within the nooses, someone said, “Where is God?  Where is he?”  Finally, the two adults died, their tongue hung swollen, but the third rope was still moving.  Being so light, the child was still alive.  “Where is God now?” the same man asked.  Then, Weisel heard a voice within him answering the man: “Where is he?  Here he is—he is hanging here on this gallows.”  To see God in the child on the gallows, to see him suffering with the victims of tsumani—that should be the specific Christian experience in the tragedy, because Christ himself revealed on the Cross that God suffered with victim. 

Hence, the tsunami is never an evidence of God’s absence.  Quite the contrary, it is there that a Christian, who abandons himself to him amid utter meaninglessness, can encounter him.*

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