THE TSUNAMI: WHY DID IT HAPPEN?
WHERE WAS GOD?
BY CARDINAL CAHAL B. DALY
13th January 2005
Since the South-East Asia earthquake and tsunami, many people have been asking “Why?” this happened and “Where was God?” I too have been asking: “Why?”, and I have found no intellectually completely satisfying answer. This I have learned, however, that answers are to be sought, not by drawing ideas out of one’s head at a desk but by searching one’s heart in humility on one’s knees in prayer. As Karl Rahner said, what the Church needs nowadays is “theology on its knees”. The tsunami and the havoc it has wrought have more of the aspect of mystery than of problem.
We can think and speak and argue – and even preach – so glibly about God, forgetting the reverence and awe which attach even to the thought of God, even to the word ‘God’, even to the name, God. God cannot be properly named by a human name or fully apprehended by human thought or adequately defined in human language. Jews to this day never pronounce the holy name ‘Jahweh’; it is too sacred to be spoken. (Contrast the way some people use the holy name, Jesus.) Job in the Bible, after arguing with God about the evils he had suffered in spite of his innocence, ends by saying:
“I have been holding forth on things I cannot understand. …
I knew you only by hearsay
but now, having seen you with my own eyes,
I retract all that I have said”. (Job 42:3-8).
Nothing that I can say or write about the tsunami is completely satisfying, even to myself. No definitive ‘explanation’ can be given. We can only offer comment to suggest the complexities of the whole question. We can only point to things which we do know from science and from reason, and to things we know from faith, supported by reason. Reason itself assures us that it is God who created the universe and who made it knowable by reason and by science. It is an evolving and developing world; evolution is the process which God uses as His instrument in creating and sustaining the world. People of faith know that, where science is thought to be in conflict with faith, either science is being misunderstood or faith is being misinterpreted.
A world where continents did not move and where tectonic plates did not impact on one another – in other words, a world without earthquakes – would not be the world which science knows. A world where earthquakes in maritime regions do not cause tsunamis would be a world where science is impossible; for science presupposes an order of nature where effects invariably follow causes and where patterns of regularity and sequence apply. Furthermore, there are good scientific reasons for believing that the environmental conditions applying on our planet are those which are required for the coming into existence and the survival of human life. These conditions have not been found to exist anywhere else in the universe. It would seem that if God wished to create humans in His own image and likeness, as we believers know He did, then the present earth is the kind of earth that He “had” to create.
In my boyhood home there was a picture representing Jesus Christ, his side pierced by the soldier’s lance, his Heart open to love and its pain. His right hand is holding up a fragile globe, representing our earth. This picture, which some might call naïve, gave, I suggest, a symbolic representation of creation which in many ways is closer to the truth than many of the notions of creation reflected in the recent debate about the tsunami. For its coming into existence and its continuance in being, the world depends totally and at all times on God’s upholding power; if that were withdrawn, the world would immediately crash into ‘smithereens’, – or rather into nothingness. Yet everything in that upheld world has its own inbuilt patterns of cause – effect relationship, of order and of inter-connectedness with the rest of nature. All of it is subject to the “laws of nature”. It is as though in creating the world God freely self-limits His almighty power, in order to create a world where physical laws prevail, a world also where human beings with reason and free will can exist; and this is a world where the human species can flourish and a world where science is possible. God’s power is directed by His reason, and His power and reason are guided by His love. Christians believe in miracles; but miracles are by definition extra-ordinary and, in the modern jargon, “one-off”, suspensions of the laws of nature, not their abolition.
We read in the biblical account of creation that God entrusted the earth to the care of the human species, bidding them to “cultivate and take care of it”, to “conquer” and “subdue” it. An evolving and unstable earth often needs to be “conquered” and “subdued”, and science provides many ways of doing this – including recording and prediction and warning systems, as well as engineering and architectural systems, which at least mitigate the destructive power of natural disasters. But these are least developed or non-existent in poor countries. God created an earth with abundant resources, but left it to humans’ reason and free will to share these resources fairly and justly among all members of God’s human family. Instead of asking, “Where was God when the earthquake happened?”, it might be more appropriate to ask, “where were the rich and powerful of the earth when the tsunami struck and there was no regional warning system and no advance preparation?”
After writing all this, I am still asking: “Why?”. But I am also remembering the many “Why’s?” addressed to God in the Bible by people of faith and prayer. Many of these are in the psalms. We find them particularly in the group of psalms lamenting the destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple at the hands of the Assyrian invaders:
“Why, O God, have you cast us off forever?” (Psalm 73).
“Why should the nations say, ‘Where is their God?’” (Psalm 78).
“Why have you broken down the walls (of your vineyard)?” (Psalm 79).
But the most amazing ‘Why?’ of all comes from God Himself, God made man, Jesus Christ, dying in anguish on a cross, and almost despairingly crying out:
“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me”. (Matthew 27:46).
He was praying Psalm 21; these are the opening words of that Psalm. This is the only time in all four Gospels that Jesus does not address God as ‘Abba’, ‘Dearest Father’. The Son of God feels literally ‘God-forsaken’! But soon after, he is again addressing God as “‘Abba’, ‘Dearest Father’, into your hands I commend my spirit” (a verse from Psalm 30). In spite of everything, Christ’s trust in God’s love never wavered, even when God, his Father, seemed to have abandoned him.
It is possible to believe totally in a person that you love, even when you don’t understand that person’s behaviour in a particular situation. You know that you are seeing only part of the picture; one might say, ‘hearing only one side of the story’; and you know that when the whole picture is seen, all will be made clear.
So it will be with us who believe in God and who trust Him now in the darkness and amid the chorus of all the “Why’s?”. On the eve of His Passion, taking leave of his disciples, Jesus said:
“You are sad now
but I shall see you again
and your hearts shall be full of joy
and that joy no-one will take from you.
When that day comes you will not ask me any questions.
(John: 16: 1)
There will be no need for questions; for on that day all will be made clear; and, in spite of all the appearances to the contrary, it will be seen that, as Mother Julian of Norwich said: “Love was His meaning”. God so loved the world as to send His only Son to join the huddled masses of innocent sufferers, so that in the depths of their suffering, the sufferers might hear, from their own midst, the voice of a fellow-sufferer who is God and yet is one of their own; and he is saying to them: “I am with you … I am with you all days, Yes, to the end of time.” Hans Küng once wrote: “The Gospel of Jesus Christ begins where the Book of Job ends”.