March 07, 2005

Where was God during the tsunami?

Last Thursday I moderated a panel discussion (sponsored by the Hindu Students Association and the Religion Department at Case) on the topic of theodicy (theories to justify the ways of God to people, aka “why bad things happen to good people�) in light of the devastation wreaked by the tsunami, which killed an estimated quarter million people.

The panel comprised six scholars representing Judaism, Islam, Jainism, Christianity, Hinduism, and Buddhism and the discussion was thoughtful with a good sharing of ideas and concerns.

As the lay moderator not affiliated with any religious tradition, I opened by saying that it seemed to me that events like the tsunami posed a difficult problem for believers in a God because none of the three immediate explanations that come to mind about the role of God are very satisfying. The explanations are:

  1. It was an act of commission. In other words, everything that happens is God’s will including the tsunami. This implies that God caused it to happen and hence can be viewed as cruel.
  2. It was an act of omission. God did not cause the tsunami but did nothing to save people from its effects. This implies that God does not care about suffering.
  3. It is a sign of impotence. God does care but is incapable of preventing such events. This implies that God is not all-powerful.
These questions can well be asked even for an isolated tragic event like the death of a child. But in those cases, it is only the immediate relatives and friends of the bereaved who ask such things. The tsunami caused even those not directly affected to be deeply troubled and it is interesting to ask why this is so.

Some possible reasons for this widespread questioning of religion are that the tsunami had a very rare combination of four features:

  1. It was a purely natural calamity with no blame attached to humans. Other ‘natural’ disasters such as droughts and famines can sometimes be linked indirectly to human actions and blame shifted from God.
  2. The massive scale of death and suffering.
  3. The rapidity of the events, the large number of deaths on such a short time-scale.
  4. The innocence of so many victims, evidenced by the fact that a staggering one-third of the deaths were of children.

Of course, although rare, such combinations of factors have occurred in the past and all the major religions are old enough to have experienced such events before and grappled with the theological implications. It was interesting to see the different ways in which the four theistic religions (Judaism, Hinduism, Christianity, and Islam) and the two non-theistic religions (Buddhism and Jainism) responded. But whatever the religion, it was clear that something has to give somewhere in the image of an all-knowing, all-powerful, benevolent God, whose actions we can comprehend.

As one panelist pointed out, the last feature (of the ability to comprehend the meaning of such events) is dealt with in all religions with an MWC (“mysterious ways clause�) that can be invoked to say that the actions of God are inscrutable and that we simply have to accept the fact that a good explanation exists, though we may not know it.

Each panelist also pointed out that each religious tradition is in actuality an umbrella of many strands and that there is no single unified response that can be given for such an event. Many of the explanations given by each tradition were shared by the others as well. In some ways, this diversity of explanations within each tradition is necessary because it is what enables them to hold on to a diverse base of adherents, each of whom will have a personal explanation that they favor and who will look to their religion for approval of that particular belief.

The possible explanations range over the following: that things like the tsunami are God’s punishment for either individual or collective iniquity; that they are sent to test the faith of believers (as in the Biblical story of Job); that God created natural laws and lets those laws work their way without interference; that God is “playing� with the world to remind us that this life is transitory and not important; that the tsunami was sent as a sign that the “end times� (when the apocalypse arrives) are near and hence should actually be seen as a joyous event; that it was a sign and reminder of God’s power and meant to inspire devotion; it was to remind us that all things are an illusion and that the events did not “really� happen.

(Update: Professor Peter Haas, who spoke about Judaism, emails me that I had overlooked an important aspect of that religious tradition. He says that: "My only comment would be that you did not quite capture my point about Judaism, which was that the real question is less about WHY things like the Tsunami happened but about how we are to respond to such human suffering given that we live in a world where such things happen.")

All of these explanations posit a higher purpose for the tsunami, and some definitely relinquish the notion of God’s benevolence.

The non-theistic religions have as their explanatory core for events the notion of karma. Karma is often loosely thought of as fate but the speakers pointed out that karma means action and carries the implication that we are responsible for our actions and that our actions create consequences. Thus there is the belief in the existence of cause-and-effect laws but there is no requirement for the existence of a law-giver (or God). The karma itself is the cause of events like the tsunami and we do not need an external cause or agent to explain it. The MWC is invoked even in this case to say that there is no reason to think that the ways the karmic laws work are knowable by humans.

The non-theistic karma traditions do not believe in the existence of evil or an evil one. But there is a concept of moral law or justice (“dharma�) and the absence of justice (“adharma�), and events like the tsunami may be an indication that total level of dharma in the world is declining. These traditions also posit that the universe is impermanent and that the real problem is our ignorance of its nature and of our transitory role in it.

The problem for the karma-based religions with things like the tsunami is understanding how the karma of so many diverse individuals could coincide so that they all perished in the same way within the space of minutes. But again, the MWC can be invoked to say that there is no requirement that we should be able to understand how the karmic laws work

(One question that struck me during the discussion was that in Hinduism, a belief in God coexists with a belief in karma and I was not sure how that works. After all, if God can intervene in the world, then can the karmic laws be over-ridden? Perhaps someone who knows more about this can enlighten me.)

(Update: Professor Sarma, who spoke on Hinduism, emails me that: "As for the inconsistencies in Hinduism --there are lots of traditions which are classified under the broad rubric "Hinduism" so the attempt to characterize a unified answer is inherently flawed.")

Are any of these explanations satisfying? Or do events like the tsunami seriously undermine people’s beliefs in religion? That is something that each person has to decide for himself or herself.


Trackback URL for this entry is: Faith On The Rocks -- Shaken Not Stirred
Excerpt: ...One exhortation comes from Mano, who asks Where Was God During the Tsunami? He cites the following divine characteristics: benevolence--God must not be a cruel God, passion--God is not passive in any human affair, and power--God must not be limited ...
Tracked: March 8, 2005 12:47 AM


Hi Mano,
What were the christian's specific comments ?

Posted by Indra on March 7, 2005 11:11 PM

The following was an email I received from a friend of mine Kim Hauenstein, D. Min, who is Executive Director, United Protestant Campus Ministries and Adjunct Faculty in Religious Studies, Cuyahoga Community College.

Kim is someone who who has clearly thought a lot about this topic and has, I think, very interesting things to say about it. I have received his permission to post his response on the blog.


The idea of God and disaster is one that I had to resolve for myself before I could finally take my vows in ministry. It was definitely a crisis of faith during my college and seminary years until finally it made sense to me through the writings of Alfred North Whitehead, Charles Hartshorne, and John Cobb, Jr., in what is now known as process theology (and in Whitehead's case, process philosophy). This system of thought does not provide any great sense of comfort for the victims or for those who continue to live with the pain of loss, but it does, for me, explain God's role in a much better way than simply God's being "missing" in one way or another.

I believe that process thought also associates with the Hindu concept of karma in certain ways and its bent toward other eastern philosophies has caused it to be held in much suspicion by western philosophers and theologians. I have not found it to be a problem. But, as with karma, it stresses the free will and the repercussions coming from our decisions. If we decide to start a war, or produce an act of violence against another human being, it is our responsibility, not God's, nor is it God's will for us to act violently. The best explanation of this I know is Charles Hartshorne's The Divine Relativity in which he defines God in this way: God is omniscient, omnipresent (process theology understands God in the eastern way of being fully present in all of nature and at the "atman" of all things), but not omnipotent. This is the major difference from traditional theology. Orthodox theology does see God as all three and if God is omnipotent, then God does have the power and responsibility to produce disasters and for whatever reason to kill innocent people. That was a problem for my faith and the major one I had to resolve in seminary, where I came into touch with Hartshorne. If God is that capricious and unreliable in terms of God's love (which I believe to be the basis of God's presence), then how can one trust, or have faith, in such an unpredictable God and how can one ask others to have trust? It appears that in the discussion, it was said that this is a must: that we must trust God, no matter what terrible things happen. But if our basis for trust is God's love, and all of a sudden God is wrath, how can that be?

For process theology, the only value in a disaster is viewing it in retrospect and gaining some sense of reassurance from the way people respond lovingly to crisis, and things like that. The disaster itself is seen as nothing but what it is: pure terror, pure accident caused by the freedom of even the smallest creatures in the universe to act in a way that is contrary to God's will of love. In other words, atoms themselves have freedom and karma, even though it might be understood differently as the karma that humans possess with a better understanding of the possible results of their actions. The atoms might not know the results of their actions, but they still possess the freedom to react in ways other than beneficent. They might combine in ways that create a tornado or a hurricane or a tsunami. What is God's part?

As mentioned previously, God is seen, in process theology, as knowing everything that has ever happened, everything that is happening now, and all the POSSIBILITIES of what could happen in the future; that is understood as God's omniscience. However, in process theology, God is DEPENDENT on the creatures to make the proper decisions so that the future will be in line with beneficence and love rather than violence and hate, or even natural disaster as caused by some out-of-control natural causes. At one time, God was blamed for terrible illnesses, for instance. Science (and this is why science and religion work so closely in my own philosophy, even though I know very little of science) produced cures for those illnesses and they are largely eliminated. The illnesses were not God's will, all along. God's will was for us to find the answer to eliminate them. So it is with natural disasters, as far as I understand process theology. We have not found the answers to hurricane or tornado or tsunami; the furthest we have gotten at this point is to be able to predict them and protect people in that way from their destruction. I think one of the issues in the current tsunami was that some scientific predictors were not yet in place in that area and that many lives would have been spared if there had been appropriate warning.

So the argument in process theology is that God's power is, indeed, limited to what can best be described, I think, as persuasion... persuading us through God's manifestations in all of the religious traditions of how to live in a way that leads to peace and well-being for all people and for the creation. If we understand God’s omniscience to be unlimited in terms of knowing all the possibilities of the future, there is still the part of our own personal responsibility on behalf of individuals (and even extending to the smallest in the created order) to be co-creators of the future in a way that is more in line with the beneficent spirit that has manifested itself through the various religious traditions. If we believe that God gives the creatures both freedom and the responsible use of that freedom, as I do, then the only alternative for understanding God is that God is dependent on us for making right decisions. That provides the reason for the belief that this God cannot force us to do the right thing, but can only persuade us to do so. And that, by its very nature, limits God's power. For better or worse, God is dependent on us to use our freedom responsibly and in a way that benefits rather than harms the creation.

Process theology is certainly not the dominant or orthodox theology of either Christianity or Judaism, primarily because of this limit that it places on God's omnipotence. But, to some of us, it makes more sense than the belief in a supreme being who is sometimes love, sometimes wrath -- sometimes loving and at other times smiting innocent people.

Posted by Kim Hauenstein on March 9, 2005 11:25 AM

Try the book "The Case for Faith". By Lee Stobel

Posted by Bob S on March 9, 2005 03:09 PM

Correction of comment:
"The Case for Faith" by Lee Strobel

Posted by Bob S on March 9, 2005 03:13 PM

I received the following email from someone who had recommended this blog entry to a friend and then forwarded to me his/her reply about how karma works in Hinduism. The writer was unable for some reason to post the response but I thought it was interesting and am posting it here on his/her behalf.

The email said:

"Just wanted to explain what Hinduism believes. Hinduism believes in both God and the theory of Karma. It believes that the Grace of God is unconditional. To explain it with a very simple example, God's Grace can be compared to the glow of a lamp. A person can study in the light or may forge bank notes in the same light. It is up to the person to utilise the Grace of God and shape his/her own future.

The theory of Karma is a bit detailed and I am attaching an article which will probably help explain what Hindus believe in.

Regarding the Tsunami deaths I think you have to form your own opinion. However if you read the para on `Prararabdha' Karma, it might explain it a bit better."

The writer also attached the following brief article:


One of the basic beliefs of Hinduism is the law of Karma or Action, the law of cause and effect. It is explained by the saying, ’As we sow, so shall we reap.’ A farmer cannot leave his fields fallow and expect a crop of wheat. Nor can he sow wheat and expect a field of rice. Similarly every good thought, word or deed begets a similar reaction which affects our next lives and every unkind thought, harsh word and evil deed comes back to harm us in this life or the next.

Often Indians are called fatalists in the grounds that it is the law of Karma that make us accept and not fight misfortune. This is not so as Karma is far from being a fatalistic doctrine.

There are three stages of Karma. The only karma that is beyond our control is Prarabadha Karma. According to this, the body or tenement the soul chooses to be born in is not under human control. The choice of parents, the environment of the home, and the physical condition of the newborn are the result of the sum total of favourable and unfavourable acts performed in a previous life. These cannot be changed. They are predetermined by the quality of the previous life. So also the time of death. Our scriptures aver that even a thousand spears will not kill you if your time on earth is not yet over, but when your end is near, even a blade of 'Kusa' grass could bring about your end. When each one of us has finished enjoying the good and paying for the bad deeds of the previous life, the time on earth is over. The soul leaves the body, and goes into another to work out its destiny afresh, arising out of the good and bad deeds of this life.

The second stage is that of Samchita Karma which is the accumulated Karma of all previous births, which gives us our characteristics, tendencies, aptitudes and interest. This is why two children born of the same parents and given the same environment, for example, turn out to be very different in their capablities and characteristics.

Samchita Karma is, however changeable. With wisdom a man can change himself, his habits and get rid of evil thoughts and desires. Similarly one born with good characteristics could descend to a life of evil, setting aside his naturally good inclinations. It is therefore alterable by man himself.

The third, Agami karma, consists of the actions in our present life, which determines our future in the later years of his life and in the next. It is entirely within our hands and our own free will. Man cannot change his past birth, but he can mould his future. By evil thoughts, words or deeds, we mar our days to come. By purity of thought, compassionate words and deeds, righteous action without thought of the fruits thereof, we pave the way for a better life for all our tomorrows in this birth and the next.

Therefore Karma is not a fatalistic doctrine. It is a logical theory, which explains differences in our births and temperaments and guides us in moulding our future lives.

Posted by Mallar on March 10, 2005 09:01 AM

After being present at the Thursday event and reading the comments in response to this blog, I have reflected a great deal this week and I would like to share a few thoughts.

To preface, I personally have deeply pondered and questioned the nature of suffering for many years, initially through the rituals of theistic religion, then purely through non-theistic philosophy, to a then unknown (yet more fruitful) inward path. As has been proven to me time and time again through my own observations and experimentation in my own personal life, there is no doubt in my mind of the existence of karma, scientific cause and effect - if you plant an appleseed, and the conditions are right, an apple tree will grow (never a peach tree). I've seen it, experienced it, at times predicted it - like clockwork. One only has to mindfully observe one's own life for a relative duration to see it.

However, what some may term converse, is that it has also been proven to me the artful law of grace, an intelligient, compassionate unscientific energy - that can be reached, tapped into, experienced. Call it what you will-it has many names. For me, this law of grace seemingly cannot alter karmic energy, but does seem to co-exist and work along side and through it. For although the negative effect of karma (i.e. suffering) is extremely difficult to endure, I believe the benevolent law of grace is at work simultaneously. The very belief that suffering (evil?) and grace (God?) are separate, opposite entities, that seem to inexplicably and confusingly exist on the same plane, causes the very doubt and confusion when disaster strikes.

I believe that when dealt with without judgement, the very suffering we endure is specific to our need to further our spiritual path - however that my take shape, for it's different for everyone - and however extreme it may be. The very suffering (karma) I believe holds its own genetic seed of opportunity. I may even dare to suggest that the depth of suffering may birth a reactive matched height of spiritual understanding. For one cannot know warmth without having felt the cold, one cannot fully appreciate light without having at least witnessed darkness - how can you - it's impossible.
I cannot speak for the tsunami victim nor the victims of Sudan, Vietnam or 9/11, etc., the most any one of us can do is speak from our own experience. But as physics and metaphysics meet, as is for the macro is true for the micro, and as I believe the personal reflects the universal, our own inward journies may very well answer the mysteries of the cosmos.

Posted by Mary on March 10, 2005 11:00 PM

i would just like to say i found your explanation very insighting and interesting. it was a great help for my understanding of god.

Posted by melli on April 7, 2007 12:51 PM

I believe that God has a part in EVERYTHING; For we as humans have many options and if we choose not to live as God intended and make choices how God would than there are always consequences. Although many people lead good,spiritual lives, many do not. There are evil people amongst us that murder,torture,abort,and lead hateful lives with intent to harm innocence. Karma is true, karma is real. Something our own father could have done (murder,rape,molest,ect.) can indirectly cause karma on us as the child. How? let me explain...Personally, my own father was/is a bad person. He has issues with alcholism,he has been abusive to women (girl friends/his own mother)and all and all he has done some very bad things. He has never been in my life hence leaving me, an innocent child fatherless..for his karma has fallen on me though I am sure he leads a miserable life, my life as a small child was plagued with sadness and lack of self-worth because of his own choices. I am twenty two now and have since moved on and have became a happier person, but I feel my childhood should have been different. Ultimately there are many opinions and philosophies about God,karma and the question of if karma is the issue, how is it innocence is affected...simply choices of others. Everything is interconnected, this is the lesson of life. Life is seen as a test, we have choices; the choices we make good or bad affect us in some way and can/will affect the people we love. I have sat back and analyzed life and its is far more complex than most can comprehend, yet the answer is directly in front of us.

Posted by on September 10, 2010 05:21 PM