Friday, March 18, 2011

On Natural Disasters

TITLE: On Natural Disasters
WRITTEN BY: Conrade Yap
Date: 18 March 2011

MAIN IDEA: Must the presence of suffering necessitate the extinguishing of the existence of God? It is a sign of the peak of human arrogance that declares either God is dead, or there is no such thing as God. We should not clench our fists in anger when we do not know the answer to suffering. We should open our hands to help in spite of the mystery of suffering. It is not answers to tickle the curious mind, but how we comfort the human soul in times of disasters that means more. We are not computers needing data to fill in the information gaps. We are human beings needing love to be fulfilled as human people.

This week, the world has been horrified with images of destruction and despair from the tsunami-devastated land of Japan. Though only the North-Eastern coastline of Japan is affected, the media coverage makes it appear like the whole country has shut down. World attention is now fixated on Japan's efforts to contain the nuclear meltdown. For the past few days, it has been one bad news after another.  Psychologists are now warning people of a danger of a 'secondary trauma' that affects those who watch too much of the disaster news. With the Internet, Youtube, and live TV coverage, viewers can visually see the terrible scenes of destruction in Japan, and elsewhere. Coupled with threats of the next big one going to hit North America soon, while there are fears of a nuclear meltdown in Japan, there are fears of a huge anxiety panic all around the world. Fears such as:
  • Food and oil prices will go up;
  • Air travel will be expensive and even dangerous;
  • Hoarding of basic amenities will increase;
  • Doomsday predictions continue to rise;
  • Life will never be 'normal again.' 
The question: Why do natural disasters happen? If God is in control, why does He allow natural disasters to destroy the earth?

A) Classic Trilemma Re-visited
For the most part, there is no acceptable answer. The Scottish skeptic, David Hume poses this re-wording of the classic Epicurean trilemma, also known as the problem of evil:
"If God is All-Powerful, All-Loving, All-Knowing, why does evil and suffering exist?"
He goes on to declare that in order for the existence of God to be sustained, the way out is to declare that God is not as powerful as we think.

Of course, the ancient Greek philosopher, Epicurus, believes in the pursuit of happiness and goodwill, promoting a purpose of life being one that is devoid of suffering. Pleasure is good. Pain is bad. Thus, if death is a result of eliminating pain, then death is something ultimately 'good.'  This may seem plausible but it remains one inadequate answer. For how can one dismiss the existence of God on the basis of the point of evil? What about good? If life is about only pleasure and no pain, what about the kind of pain that saves us? The pain that rescues us from scalding our hands on the hot plate. The pain that we get on our heads and hearts to remind us to slow down. The pain that is a result of daily stress that keeps us aware of our limitations. While pain is undesirable, one needs to admit that there is a positive use of it.

David Bain, in his article "Why do God allow Natural Disasters?" concludes with an eerie doubt about the existence of God. No answers. Christians from various persuasions have debated this topic. None so far can give a convincing answer. All of them can present clues from a limited perspective. That's all. Interestingly, in the book of Job, God's approach to Job and his friends ends with all questions and no answers. If God is all-knowing, and Omnipotent, surely He can answer this difficult question.

B) Man Cannot Handle the Answer
I think, man for all his imperfection is still not able to handle God's answer. It is for our mercy that He choose to withhold giving us an answer that we seek. Thus, we may have approached the whole issue in the wrong way. We cannot handle the truth, just like the naked eye cannot handle the sun. Man is utterly incapable of comprehending these mysterious matter of suffering. As man increases in the knowledge of science and technology, there is that sense of technological invincibility, that science will be able to handle all truth. Although there are already many things science have accomplished, it is still a limited device of man.

Look at all the ills of the world. Is there a cure for cancer? For AIDS? For the common cold? Is there a cure for murder, theft, wicked lusts, evil plans? Is there a cure for the imperfections of this world? The optimist will say that there is, and will put faith in the "a-matter-of-time" argument. The pessimist will say there is no hope, only doom.

If God is God, we have to trust Him. We have to acknowledge that He knows best, just like a young 3-year old who gets angry when the father refuses to let him play with matches. Not getting an answer now, does not mean there is no answer. Experiencing evil now, does not mean that there is no God. Seeing the presence of suffering does not mean that God is heartless. We need to remain open to a future revelation. We need to keep a positive stance, that good can still arise out of the bad. We can learn to keep our questions open, and to use new discoveries as a way to question our old assumptions. We may not be perfect now, but we can be better people now. We may not get a perfect answer now, but we can accept the possibility of an answer later.

C) Limit to Explanations
Job repented after being questioned by God. Perhaps, this is the stance we need to take right now. Why do natural disasters happen? Atheists claim it is simply something that happen, like the big bang. Scientists pinpoint the problem to tectonic plates movement, or the astronomical alignment of stars, magnetic poles and the atmospheric conditions of the earth. Philosophers argue about the plausibility of a God or no God. Theologians defend God. Others defy God.

Instead of searching for answers, perhaps, natural disasters is a time to remember how fragile human life is; how dangerous this earth can be; and how little we know. Deaths and destruction are most unfortunate. Nobody wills them to happen. Yet, we cannot dispute that man still has to shoulder part of the blame. Take the example of a polar bear that drowned recently at the Arctic. According to scientists, this is a worrying trend which has never been encountered before. They point to the melting of the ice in the North. They point to a lack of food. They point to global warming. If there are no heaters or giant furnaces in the North, what can cause the ice-cap to melt so badly? Instead of constantly bugging God with the question: "Why do God allow natural disasters?" what about re-directing the question back to man. Is man totally innocent from environmental disasters? If so, why do people build houses on weak foundations, tall buildings in hurricane lands, and huge power generators on earthquake zones? For a man that is so ready to point a finger at God, remember that there are four fingers that point straight back at man.

Global warming is caused by man, whether partially or completely. Widespread burning of fossil fuel raises the overall heat of the earth, and lowers the ability of the atmosphere to retain heat. People continue to buy and use cars. They throw garbage as if there is no tomorrow. Several movies have given us a hint in this direction.
  • AVATAR: an environmentally-concerned movie
  • GODZILLA: growth of a giant lizard due to nuclear testing;
  • AN INCONVENIENT TRUTH: Al Gore's classic on global warming;
  • giant spiders, bugs, ants, and man-made viruses are some of the movie genres that attribute world problems to the follies, greed of man.
D) My Comments
There is no clean cut answer right now to the reasons behind suffering and pain. If there is, our predecessors would have discovered it long time ago. Yet, the age-old question remains unanswered or unsatisfactorily answered. My suggestion: "Keep an open posture." Keep learning. Keep asking. Keep probing. Do not be too arrogant to pretend that humanism will know all the answer. Do not be too hasty to proclaim the death of God. Do not be too cock-sure that science will eventually have all the answers sooner or later. Do not let pessimism lead you to embrace weird philosophies that are full of theological gaps and logical holes. If we admit that man is imperfect, what makes us so certain that we can handle the most perfect answer to the question of suffering?

One more thing. So often, we question God's existence when there is presence of suffering. What about the good times that happen to us? Has man ever bothered to pause, and to ask, "Why does God allow me to have such a good thing?" This is one clue how imperfect we are. Let me end with a couple of quotes:
"But pain insists upon being attended to. God whispers to us in our pleasures, speaks in our conscience, but shouts in our pains: it is His megaphone to rouse a deaf world." (CS Lewis)
"Life is 10% what happens to you, and 90% how you respond to it." (Unknown)
"It is not true that suffering ennobles the character; happiness does that sometimes, but suffering, for the most part, makes men petty and vindictive." (W. Somerset Maugham)
"Must you continue to be your own cross? No matter which way God leads you, you change everything into bitterness by constantly brooding over everything. For the love of God, replace all this self-scrutiny with a pure and simple glance at God's goodness." (Saint Jeanne Chantal)
"The world is full of suffering, it is also full of overcoming it." (Helen Keller)
"In this world you will have tribulation, but be of good cheer, for I have overcome the world." (Jesus Christ in John 16:33)
"Pain is never permanent." (Teresa of Avila)

In any circumstances, we still have a choice. A choice to remain hapless, helpless and hopeless. Or a choice to maintain hopefulness and helpfulness. I will choose the latter, regardless of the question of suffering. In Christ, it is possible.


No comments:

Latest Posts