Sunday, January 09, 2005

Making Theological Sense out of the Tsunami

Our lives are formed by what we choose to believe—even about natural disasters

By Marc Gellman
Jan. 8, 2005

Jan. 8 - The really big questions about life here on planet earth don’t normally flood into our lives the way they have after the Asian tsunami. Mostly we insulate and protect ourselves with puny questions like “Who’s gonna pick up the dry cleaning?” and “Do we have enough cheese?” Then comes a catastrophe and we return, broken and needful, to the big questions that really matter. This is what I have been thinking as I dried my tears, turned off the TV and put away everything that carried the picture of that crying mother on a beach surrounded by dead babies. If you want deeper wisdom than I can provide here you will have to consult your local prophet, saint or reborn Buddha. If you want one in your area code give me a call.

This is a mystery not a problem. The French existentialist (that’s two strikes) Gabriel Marcel wrote that there are only two kinds of questions we human beings can ask: problems and mysteries. Problems are questions that have answers even if we don’t know the answers now. Mysteries are questions that have no answers and never ever go away. Problems define something in the world. Mysteries define us. What is the cure for cancer and why does anyone care about Ashlee Simpson—these are problems. Why does an innocent mother have to sit on a beach surrounded by her dead babies—that is a mystery, and it will not go away with next week’s news cycle. The tsunamis have forced us all to confront again the mystery of suffering. The waves have not only crashed into the coastal towns of 12 countries, they have crashed into the faith of every religion and every sensitive soul who believes that in the universe there is a force of goodness/life/enlightenment/liberation/release that will set right the moral equilibrium of the universe so broken by the picture of that mother and those babies.

Of course you are spiritually free to conclude that we are totally alone in a cruel cold cosmos; or you can conclude that despite the wave and the picture, goodness and life still have an edge over evil, despair and death. The world is no help to you in making your choice. The world gives you ample evidence for both responses to this mystery. On the one side there is the picture of the mother and the babies, and on the other side the pictures of thousands of helping hands, and billions of donated dollars all produced by a humanity both touched and unified by this catastrophe. Our lives are formed by what we choose to believe. If confronting the ultimate mysteries of human existence is just too much for you to face right now, I understand. Call me after you pick up the dry cleaning and the cheese.

Jews, Christians and Muslims have got to admit that God cannot be let off the hook for this. The clergy guys and gals and the theologians (that’s usually a clergy guy or gal without a paying job), who try to make the case that this disaster was not God’s fault and that it was merely nature’s work do not understand point number one of the Abrahamic faiths of Judaism, Christianity and Islam, to wit, God made nature. Nature, for JC&I is not a separate god who can conveniently take the blame for hurricanes, earthquakes, floods, and the humidity in Florida. God is on the hook for everything God has created nature to do. There is, of course, a defense of God as the author of natural evil but you have to decide if it works for you. It has two moves. The first is to remember that if planet earth was not a living belching, cracking, thrusting, tsunami-producing thing, we would not be alive in the first place. The moon has no tsunamis but it also has no water, no atmosphere and therefore no life. The trade off for being given a living planet that sustains life is accepting the dangers on that planet that take life. The second move is to remember that the reason God has given us such big brains is precisely so that we can figure out ways to predict and protect ourselves from natural disasters. Even so, it remains a sad and tragic truth that we will never be able to protect every child from every wave. That’s where theology ends and mystery begins.

Clerics who believe that this was God’s punishment ought to consider other employment. I know it is too much to hope that organized religions would impose a moron test on all potential clergypersons, but I remain hopeful. I am just stunned by the sheer cruelty and coruscating arrogance of those clergy who, in the name of love or salvation, would add a further burden of guilt to the already massive burden of grief crushing the survivors. I hope there is a special place in Hell for them. So let’s get this straight you moron clergy guys; you are in sales, not management so shut up! God did this, but God did not do this to punish people for wearing bikinis!


When the tsunami hit I was walking on the beach in Sanibel Island, Fla., with my two-year-old grandson Zeke. The island was still littered with huge piles of broken trees left by Hurricane Charley that devastated the island in August. Zeke picked up a perfect baby conch shell from the sand and held it up triumphantly to me and said, “Papa, this is very, very pretty.” It all comes down to this: You can either believe in the God of the broken trees or you can believe in the God of Zeke’s sea shell. It doesn’t matter which you choose today because tomorrow or the day after tomorrow, or perhaps, if you are very stubborn, on the day after that, you will come to understand that both the broken trees and Zeke’s pink shell come from the same God. It is the God who spoke to Isaiah, who might also have learned this by walking on a beach with his grandson, “I fashion light, and I create darkness. I fashion peace and I create evil. I the Lord do all these things.” (Isaiah 45:7) Even after that terrible wave, I still believe in the God of Zeke and his pink sea shell.

Gellman is the rabbi of the Beth Torah Synagogue in Melville, N.Y. With his good friend, Msgr. Hartman, he is half of The God Squad and is the author of several children’s books on religion.

© 2005 Newsweek, Inc.

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