Monday, December 26, 2005

Grace and Destruction

I watched a very interesting program this evening on Channel 4 called 'Tsunami - Where Was God?' It asked the basic question: "If God is good, why did he let this happen?" The reporter Mark Dowd travelled widely across the affected region talking to religious leaders and trying to understand their perspective on the tsunami tragedy. He encountered many different reactions ranging from a resigned acceptance of the loss of his whole family by a Muslim Indonesian man to a Sri Lankan Hindu woman who said she now hated God because he had let her husband and children die.

One of the questions Dowd asked early on in the programme was to an Indonesian geologist. After the geologist had explained to him mantle convection, plate tectonics and plate subduction, Dowd asked: “Can you imagine a construction of the world where all this would be unnecessary? Where earthquakes do not need to happen?”

To a geologist like myself, the question seems absurd. After all, the world is as it is. But to a religious person like Dowd, the question is fundamental to the idea of protecting God’s benevolence. After all, if the geologist could think of a safer design, then God would be guilty of bringing unnecessary suffering on the world.

It appeared to come as something of a relief to Dowd later in the programme to find another scientist who could tell him that without the movement of tectonic plates across the planet, there would be no mountains, the sea would be equally distributed across the whole earth and hence the earth would be some large marsh inhabited only by swamp grass and algae. That’s to say humanity wouldn’t exist at all. As a result, Dowd came to realise, that without the combined creation and destruction linked to plate tectonics, evolution and all the forces which make the earth as it is would never have come into existence. That may be true. Alternatively, the situation could be somewhat bleaker. If there was no plate tectonics, the earth might simply be a dead world, something like the moon. All somewhat hypothetical.

Many of the people interviewed in the programme spoke of 'karma' and it seemed the idea that the people who had died had done something bad in a past life was a way in which many people had dealt with the problem of ‘why?’ In some way, it seemed, blaming the victim had allowed survivors to stop asking the unanswerable questions and draw a line under the tragedy. This applied even to the parents of dead children for example. Although this philosophy sounds crude and even cruel, it does seem at the same time that it might be effective in as much as it lets the living get on with their lives.

It also seems that polytheistic religions such as Hinduism and their gods such as Shiva who embody both Destruction and Grace may help people to be more accepting of life’s tragedy as well as it’s joys, to be more attuned to the idea that good things and bad things are somehow inextricably linked: for example, that without the tragedy, there would not have been the compassion of the world for the survivors. This seems to apply equally to geological phenomenon: without plate tectonics there would be no tsunami and no resulting destruction, but there would also be nothing to destroy, and nothing to be saved from destruction.


Andrea said...

'without destruction there is no compassion'
I like that.
I am not one who likes mixing god in all of it though, I beleive in fate but that we can change our fate. I dont believe that anyone did anything wrong or deserved to die in the tsunami. hmmm
Interesting show, I would like to watch it.
Interesting perspecive as a geologist.

Jonathan Wonham said...

Hi Andrea, when you say you believe in 'fate' does that mean you think what will happen in the future is predestined? If so, how can you change your fate?

I don't believe that anyone deserved to die in the tsunami nor that there was a god 'supervising' it who was able to decide who would die and who wouldn't.

However, I had the feeling from the program tha some people who held this kind of view were able to put the tragedy behind them more easily.