Tuesday, January 11, 2005

God's Will

Monday morning as I was fumbling for my work clothes, I was listening to Barbara Bradley Hagerty, NPR’s religion correspondent, do a piece which the website describes as how, for some people--
“…the tsunami disaster raises major questions of faith: How could so many innocent people be swept away, what could be behind such enormous devastation? We'll talk with members of different religions about how they reconcile human suffering with the idea that God watches over the world.”
She went on to interview a number of clerical people and adherents about their beliefs on this score, and I suppose the result was not unexpected: a division between those who fatalistically accept the tragedy, or even contribute it to human evil, and those who don't.

The Muslim cleric felt such miseries are called down by a God who micromanages everything to the last iota, for a purpose know only to Him (sic). We can merely hang on knowing He is all good, being satisfied that only when we die will we understand his plan and know why it happened. The pantheist in Asia believed that because we have so badly abused nature, the God who is in all of nature has sent this destruction as a warning. The Baptist preacher believed that, since all humanity is born sinful, there is no one not deserving of death. Thus the devastation of the tsunami was a sign of His anger at our generically evil ways, and additionally, a rebuke to him (the preacher), in particular, to remind him of his sinful ways and need for repentance. (More about this in a minute). And there was the rabbi who believed that the meaning of it and the understanding of God, for us, is found not in the acts of destruction themselves but in the way we respond and react to them.

I have known variations on the Baptist's thoughts all my life, but even now I can't help hearing a certain egomaniacal heartlessness in them. God, being the merciless angry guy he is, decides to wipe away half a million human beings, most of whom are children, because they're all bad, and because the world needs another lesson, and especially because some particular white guy in America needs a reminder of how bad he is. If God is so concerned about this guy's soul that He wants to make an impression, how about a lightning bolt directly at someone he cares about, like a family member? But no, that would be too close to home. God speaks much better through the blood and misery of people half way around the world. It's so convenient to prattle on about God's blessings and judgments(as so many U.S. TV broadcasts have done), when we can sit safe and warm in the comfort of our untroubled houses and cluck over the nightly news. And how much better it makes us feel to believe that those people deserved it anyway, every infant of them, because we're all sunk in sin! As usual, the primitive god of the Old Testament wins out again over the one of the New Testament. How ironic, then, that a representative whose religion is all Old Testament espoused what felt to me like the most humane and intuitively "right" view--the rabbi who finds meaning in how men behave when faced with tragedy. Because isn't that really how we see the good and evil in ourselves? We're faced with events that challenge the things we know, the way we understand the universe, and we turn away, or plunge in to help, or we're shown a mirror of our own flaws and strengths as we set them in motion. With our actions and inactions we create a reality that can be heaven or hell, or just a pointless limbo. We learn who we are, and how we relate to our Creator, not by what He does to us, but by what we do to Him, and each other.

I think I want to be a Jew. The link to the audio of the piece can be found here. Click on the Monday, Jan 10 show.

And finally, a quick note that Ira Glass' This American Life had a fine piece on NPR Sunday about soldiers in Iraq and their families, called "In Country". Touching and galvanizing especially for the parts on the National Guardsman and the interview between the uncle and his nephew Rob still in Iraq. Go listen.

1 comment:

Rob said...

This was such a predictable piece that I almost put in a CD when it came on, but then I thought "Well hang on, perhaps I need a bit more outrage at the moronic ramblings of the religiously-afflicted". And boy was I rewarded for my patience. The Rabbi was the only one who I didn't want to grab by the lapels and drag through a survivor's camp in Aceh province. I've never put any stock in this totally moronic attitude that a 'just God' will punish the innocent. It's what drove me to atheism in the first place.

More arrogant than that was - as you point out - the notion that in some way this natural disaster was a 'warning' of any sort, or a 'lesson'. Go on, call the storms ravaging California or the Florida hurricanes warnings - largely unheeded, of course - but a tsunami is nothing of the sort. It's an appalling disaster, one far beyond the scope of 9/11, yet largely underfunded and under-heeded by our fellow 'Americans' with their red-state moral values.