Disaster Ignites Debate: ‘Was God In the Tsunami?’

“Was God in the Tsunami?” I woke up to that question in my Yahoo inbox four days after the waves struck, a posting from Beliefnet, a popular discussion list I subscribe to. It was the morning when the death-toll estimates had gone into six figures for the first time. It would be interesting to calculate the number of deaths from a catastrophe that trigger the moment when people start asking “Where was God?” questions. But it seemed to me that morning marked the beginning. It was a week that would end with the Archbishop of Canterbury himself declaring that he had doubts about God.

As surely as the tsunami followed the earthquake, the questions-the perennial, never-satisfactorily-resolved questions-of theodicy followed the tsunami. Theodicy, of course, is the subdiscipline of theology devoted to the attempt to reconcile the idea of an all-powerful, just and loving God who intervenes in history-the God most Western religions believe in-with the recurrence of catastrophic slaughter from “natural” causes such as tsunamis and man-made evils such as genocides.

The same morning “Was God in the Tsunami?” arrived in my inbox, I checked on my favorite Web site, Arts and Letters Daily (aldaily.com), which links to the most notable essays and reviews of the day, and found a box that linked to no less than four articles with headlines such as “Faiths Ask of Quake: ‘Why Did You Do This, God?’” and “To God, An Age Old Question.” It was just the beginning.

Let me concede that yes, there are many paths to faith, but it is an underappreciated scandal that, philosophically, the “age old question” of theodicy has not been satisfactorily answered without resort to vague evasions (“It’s all a mystery,” “We just can’t understand God’s plan,” “It will allow good to manifest itself in the hearts of the survivors,” “We live in a fallen world,” “The dead are better off in heaven”). A failure that asks us to just have faith that it’s all for the best in the best of all possible worlds. Yes, Voltaire misconstrued in Candide, probably deliberately, Leibniz’s Theodicy: Leibniz was claiming that God created the best of all possible worlds consistent with free will-the freedom to choose evil without which choosing good means nothing special. The best of all possible worlds consistent with the nature of human nature, in other words-and its predilection for choosing evil. The question Voltaire should have posed is whether a better, less murderous human nature-consistent with free will-could have been created by Leibniz’s God.

Of course, the inadequacies of traditional theodicy are not a problem for those like my colleague Jim Holt, one of the best translators of arcane philosophical controversies (Kripke on naming!) for non-specialists. Mr. Holt once wrote that the evidence suggests that “the world is not presided over by a deity who is all-good and all-powerful, but rather by one who is 100 percent malevolent but only 80 percent effective.” He arrives by a different route at the answer offered by some extreme Gnostic sects who believed this world was presided over by a malevolent demiurge posing as God.

And the inadequacies of theodicy are not a problem for those who don’t believe in an all-powerful God. Harold ( When Bad Things Happen to Good People) Kushner is one of those who thinks the problem of God’s tolerance of catastrophic evils is solved essentially by making God a weakling-loving, but not really in charge, despite all the boasting in the Bible about God’s powers, including the tsunami-related powers of raising and lowering the waters at will (remember that whole Flood thing?). Kushner is there on Beliefnet advising people to read the 23rd Psalm, which seems to me a wildly inappropriate choice, promising as it does that God will always be at our side to lead us beside still waters. So it’s all good, except for the 150,000 who didn’t exactly get the still waters that day.

I recall the asperity with which this easy out (Kushner’s “God is not all-powerful”) was dismissed by Yehuda Bauer, the former head of the Yad Vashem Holocaust museum, when I asked him about it in Jerusalem. “There’s no way there can be an all-powerful and just God,” Mr. Bauer said. “Because if he’s all-powerful, he’s Satan [considering the recurrent prevalence of genocidal evil in the world]. If he’s just [meaning just but, as per Kushner, too weak to make the world just], he’s a nebbish …. I don’t need a God like that.”

It’sremarkable, though, how Kushner’s cop-out has become the contemporary evasive answer to questions of theodicy. Inside my faded paperback copy of When Bad Things Happen …, I found a bookmark that had evidently been there when I bought it. It’s from the Full Circle bookstore, 50 Penn Place, Oklahoma City, Okla.

I had evidently bought the book when I went down there right after the Federal Building bombing to do a story (for The New York Times Magazine, June 4, 1995) on how the culture deals with questions of theodicy in the aftermath of catastrophe.

“Full Circle,” indeed. Rabbi Kushner’s well-intended book didn’t do the job for me back then, and it doesn’t do it now, although it has become an almost unquestioned meme. Poor God-He means well, but He seems to have lost the superpowers he had in the Bible. Some sort of spiritual Green Kryptonite slipped him by Satan, I’ll bet. So He’s struggling and weak and nebbishy and we have to buck Him up.

But for those who don’t try the easy way out, the great conundrum of theodicy was recapitulated on the Arts and Letters Daily Web site by its editor, Dennis Dutton, in his lead-in to the links:

“If God is God, he’s not good. If God is good, he’s not God. You can’t have it both ways, especially after the Indian Ocean catastrophe.” It’s a version of the challenging syllogism posed by J.L. Mackie in a 1955 issue of the journal Mind, an argument which contemporary theodicies have been trying, without notable success, to refute ever since.

The lack of success seems to have lent a tone of desperation to some. I was struck by the police-interrogation tone of one of the links: “Faiths Ask of Quake: ‘Why Did You Do This, God?’”

“Yeah, Tough Guy, why’d ya do it? Your prints are all over the crime scene, Big Guy. You have the right to remain silent …. ” You can almost hear the late, great Jerry Orbach, who’s now presumably in a position to put the question, kicking a chair in the squad room to get the Divine Perp’s attention.

Then there was a link to “Tremors of Doubt” in The Wall Street Journal by David Hart, an Eastern Orthodox theologian, which had the virtue of conceding that the conventional consolations of pop theodicy “about God’s inscrutable counsels” or that “all this mysteriously serves God’s good ends” are “odious banalities,” and that even believers can’t assume that theologians have answered the theodicy question adequately.

It was only the beginning of the orgy of theodicy that followed, if one may use a profane term for a sacred quest. Foolish things were said by men of all faiths (almost always men, by the way; it’s what feminists used to call Male Answer Syndrome): the rabbi in Israel who pronounced the tsunami “an expression of God’s great ire with the world”; the Buddhist sage who said it represented God’s resentment of the “huge amount of pent-up man-made evil on earth”; the mullah in Indonesia who said that it was “a reminder from God he created the world and can destroy the world.”

And the media kept headlining the search for answers: “Why Does God Allow Terrible Things to Happen to His People?”, an essay in The Times of London asked. And there was an essay that addresses the question not to God, but to those who believe in Him: “How Can Religious People Explain Something Like This?” (Martin Kettle in the U.K. Guardian, the rare essay that suggested there were no good answers.)

And then, at the end of the week kicked off by “Was God in the Tsunami?”, this shocker: On Sunday(!), Jan. 2, the London Telegraph dropped the bomb “Archbishop of Canterbury: This Has Made Me Question God’s Existence.” What’s next? “The Pope Says: ‘I Am a Wiccan!’”? (It’s true that the archbishop waffled a bit and called for prayer, but he did say his faith was “upset” by the catastrophe.)

One thing a reading of these essays reminded one of is that natural disasters are both more and less problematical for defenders of the faiths. On the one hand, earthquakes and the like don’t involve man-made evils and thus the question of the depravity of human nature-and the difficult question behind that question: whether humans are at fault for their depraved nature, or whether the deity who created them could have done a better job creating humanity consistent with free will.

As my friend Errol Morris puts it: The difficulty with man-made evils is not “man’s inhumanity to man,” the problem is precisely “man’s humanity to man.” The wickedness of humanity is not an aberration, but more like the norm.

No, man or human nature can’t be held responsible for earthquakes and tsunamis-except in those bloodthirsty theodicies which persist in seeing the punitive hand of God punishing man’s collective sinfulness by the slaughter of innocent children not old enough to sin. A hard-to-defend but scripturally habitual response from a wrathful God for the sins of a sinful human nature He created but is somehow not responsible for.

Nor are natural disasters as much of a problem for Deists, or for those who believe in a god who stopped intervening in human affairs after the creation of the universe or the creation of man. Catastrophic evils might call into question what is meant by the “intelligent” in “Intelligent Design,” but not Design itself.

But for those who believe in a God who has intervened in history, as he is portrayed in Western scriptures, a God who can raise and lower the waters, punish and save at will, has miracles at his disposal, and should be able to separate the sheep from the goats, the saints from the sinners: For that sort of God, the indiscriminate slaughter of 100,000 saints and sinners-children and parents alike-presents more of a problem.

If God is responsible for the fall of a sparrow, it’s hard to exempt him from other, more dramatic natural developments. Sure, you could say it’s not His fault: He left us in a broken world, a fallen nature to reflect our own inner Fallen Nature. A vale of tears, whose horrors better prepare us to value the heaven that awaits us (well, some of us).

But in general, in this view, we’re better off dead-or, as some respondents on the Beliefnet comments section had it, the tsunami victims were lucky, they’d received a gift: They’re in heaven ahead of time.

Let me return to “Was God in the Tsunami?”, the Beliefnet missive written by Rodger Kamenetz, a Jewish Buddhist or a Buddhist Jew (it wasn’t quite clear-he had equal reverence for both traditions, it seemed). On the plus side, the author made the important point that any attempt to defend the deaths of tens of thousands of children not old enough to sin as part of “God’s Plan,” as His collective punishment for man’s wickedness or some other variation on the blame-the-victim theodicy was an obscenity (my word, not his).

And he gets points for citing King Lear-not Lear himself, but Gloucester’s bitter complaint that “We are to the gods as flies to wanton boys. They kill us for our sport,” It’s not the only answer in Lear, but it’s one that fits the bare facts.

But then Mr. Kamenetz (whose essay has the alternate title “Was God in This Disaster?”) lets himself get distracted by the Talmudic and Buddhist mystification. Proving once again that not all “wisdom of the sages” is equally wise, or must necessarily be approached with the same reverence.

He gives us a story he says is from the Talmud that has Moses getting to heaven and learning that one Rabbi Akiba is the wisest interpreter of God’s words and actions. Moses asks God what Rabbi Akiba’s reward will be. “God shows him a vision: Akiba tortured by the Romans in the marketplace, his flesh stripped from his body.” Moses asks God why this incomprehensibly horrific fate for such a wise man. “God answers with a riddle,” we’re told: “It arose in thought.”

Say what? “It arose in thought.” That’s the best he can do? A Bill Clintonesque “because I can” boast?

Is it just me, or does this story not exactly speak well for God? I guess you could say it “arose in thought” for the Roman soldiers, so you could put the blame on them, but the way it’s told here, it seems clear it’s God showing off both his power and his self-mystifying inscrutability.

A God who encourages watching torture-as in the theology of Aquinas, who imagined that one of the pleasures that God would offer the souls He saved would be gazing down from Heaven upon the cruel and prolonged tortures of the damned in Hell. Recreational sadism from Heaven’s luxury skyboxes ( Summa Theologica, Question 94).

This was one of the logical outcomes of certain orthodox Christian doctrines that used to drive William Empson crazy. Read Empson’s Milton’s God, his last, most lacerating book, almost totally devoted to denouncing the God of Paradise Lost-Milton’s massive effort at overcoming the contradictions of theodicy. And arguing from a study of Milton’s posthumously published and ambiguously heterodox De Doctrina Christiana that Milton had doubts, too. (Actually, it’s almost impossible to find a copy of Empson’s Milton’s God; someone should bring it back into print.)

But to return to “It arose in thought”: That’s not a “riddle,” that’s a rebuff. In cruelty, it goes beyond the God of Job with his brusque “none of your business, buddy” brush-off. I wonder if the author of “Was God in the Tsunami?” is aware of how impoverished a God this sorry “riddle” gives us?

Perhaps recognizing that this isn’t going to resolve any doubts or offer much consolation, he makes his Buddhist move. He’s met the Dalai Lama, he wants you to know, and “One time I asked the Dalai Lama how he would respond to a parent who had lost a child. And he said-these aren’t his exact words-that when you lose a child you are constantly thinking of that child in your imagination.”

The implication being that the child is really not lost at all-in fact, he or she is still right there in your life, in a low-maintenance way, I guess you’d say. In the imagination, of course, but “constantly” there. Maybe more present than when he or she was alive. I wonder how well this works when he tries it out on parents who have lost children.

The comments on the listserv in response to the essay were mainly divided between atheists and believers, both factions, in their own way, absolving God from responsibility. For the atheists, if he doesn’t exist, he couldn’t have done it; for the believers, God has no responsibility for the catastrophe, just for the goodness displayed by the rescue workers in the aftermath, and the few “miraculous” stories of survival.

This is something I find particularly annoying: a God who can intervene to save a handful out of a hundred thousand and gets credit for all the goodness displayed in the aftermath of the havoc He wrought.

“Why this need to defend God?” someone (that would be me) finally posted on the Beliefnet comment board in response to the multiple alibis for God that others were posting. All so eager to rush forward and exonerate their version of God from any connection to the slaughter. It began to smack of “they doth protest too much”: The disaster somehow gets transformed into a display of God’s wonderfulness. In a way, doesn’t this sort of thinking suggest a kind of Stockholm syndrome? He’s the only God we’ve got, He’s got us imprisoned in this hell of a world-so, after a while, we worship Him.

One of the most glaring instances of this sort can be found in a quote in a story the Post carried on Jan. 2.

It was the heartwarming story of a baby boy born prematurely while his mother fled upland from the waves as they hit the coast of India.

Yes, it was the heartwarming “MIRACLE OF LIFE” that the Post headline had it.

But then I have to admit that I cringed when I read the words of the baby’s father (who had given him the name “Tsunami”-I’m sure the parents of those who lost babies will think this is really cute).

But the thing that made me cringe was this quote from the father of Baby Tsunami: “It’s all God’s grace!” he said.

I can’t really blame the guy for saying whatever he says at a moment like that. He’s got his baby. But think of the implications. Either he believes that his family has special grace, and that the tens of thousands of other families who lost children suffered the torment of a lost child because they deserved it, because they lacked “God’s grace.” Or he believes that God looked down and saw tens of thousands of imperiled children and decided that this one deserved the special intervention of his “grace” and the others didn’t.

If you believe that God intervened to save this one little life, you have to believe that He chose not to intervene to save the lives of all the other children. He wanted them dead.

I would propose a truce between believers and unbelievers so they can stop fighting over the credit for the goodness of the rescue workers, whether it should be assigned to God or to man, so that we can remove God-and the critique of God-from the equation entirely for a while and save our energy to support the recovery unencumbered by this perennial debate, however important and profound.

Here’s the terms of the truce: Unbelievers will stop pointing out the inadequacies of the believers’ theodicy, their justification for God. And believers will stop claiming credit for God for everything good that happens, unless they are willing to condemn Him to a perp walk for all the crimes committed on earth, many in his name.