January 28, 2005

Cornucopia / Cynthia Dewes

Just one more proof of who's in charge

It seems that a natural disaster like the recent tsunami in Asia either bolsters people’s religious faith or destroys it entirely. We’ve all heard about those who despair of God’s existence because they’ve lost loved ones in an apparently senseless event. On the other hand, there are those who believe that only a purposeful God could have saved them and the other survivors from untimely death.

Some with scientific bents will say that there is indeed a God, but a God whose plan includes periodic natural purges in order to maintain a sustainable world population. Others will claim such events are merely another proof of the chaos and random cruelty that “control” our universe.

It’s easy to see why some faithful people have doubts, when their lives are shattered by things completely beyond their control. They can’t understand why a loving, merciful and just God would allow such disasters to happen. It’s the “Why do bad things happen to good people?” dilemma.

Other responses to such events, such as glib supernatural pronouncements can be unsatisfying, if not plain silly. Thus, those who read Revelations literally may see evidence of the End Times appearing in the tsunami, earthquakes or whatever. These elitists, who want to believe they surely aren’t the ones who’ll be “left behind,” struggle to establish their qualifications for salvation with each new disaster.

There’s also a guilt factor for some folks following natural mayhem, just as there is in war or in the aftermath of a crime. Survivors feel badly because they were spared when others, equally innocent or maybe even more innocent, were not. This leads to even more confusion about the existence of God and God’s responsibility in such events.

Laying blame for things like a tsunami is indeed a difficult thing to deal with. Humans love to lay blame and when they can’t blame it on God, guess who’s left. What’s worse, when they can’t blame it on human error causing some ecological failure or other, they’re left with scary uncertainty.

My favorite story from this terrible event is about the little British girl vacationing on a Thai island with her family when the tsunami came. As they played on the beach, the child noticed that the water receded suddenly and bubbles started to appear on the sand. She realized that something she’d learned in a geography lesson about tidal waves was actually happening.

The little girl screamed for her “Mummy.” The result was, all the people on the beach and everyone in the hotel behind them were evacuated in the 10 minutes she knew existed between the signs she’d seen and the onrush of water.

This story leads me to several ideas. First, a tsunami or any other natural disaster is part of a physical system that God set in place. I don’t know exactly how it works, but I believe that God is loving and not vindictive. I trust God.

Second, like the little girl, it’s my job to be aware of my place in this system and alert to my responsibilities in it. And, third, I must pray for direction in the knowledge that God’s will would never encompass anything but what is good.

(Cynthia Dewes, a member of St. Paul the Apostle Parish in Greencastle, is a regular columnist for The Criterion.)


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