May 24, 2006
Where was God during the tsunami?
(I will be traveling for a few weeks and rather than put this blog on hiatus, thought that I would continue with my weekday posting schedule by reposting some of the very early items, for those who might have missed them the first time around.)
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.
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 totality 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 coexisted with a belief in karma and I was not sure how that could work. 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.)
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.