Monday, January 17, 2005

In the aftermath of the tsunami, along with the inevitable telethons and benefit concerts featuring the usual roster of attention-starved pop divas and over-earnest rock stars, comes Job’s old theological lament: “how could a merciful God let this happen?” This “why?” is the oldest rhetorical question there is. Prompted by catastrophe, it serves to express our anger at the death of innocents and our sadness at our inability to stop it.

But some attempt to answer, usually with poor results. If, for instance, you take the ever-popular televangelist stance of Jerry Falwell, et al.: that catastrophes are God’s punishment for (fill in the blank with your favorite fornicating scapegoats), then all of the sudden God doesn’t seem so merciful, does he? In fact, he seems petty, vindictive, and in need of anger management classes. In other words, a great big bossy version of Reverend Falwell himself. God help us.

For those of us who would like to believe that God is not a total psycho, philosophers and real religious leaders the world-round have, unfortunately, little to offer in the way of encouragement. The consensus seems to be: if God is not dead, He’s got ADHD, narcolepsy, or bi-polar disorder.

This is the downside of our modern-day monotheism. In classical mythology warring gods caused natural disasters, an explanation that alleviated the need to justify the suffering of mortals who were merely their playthings. Struck by lightning? Zeus must have been having a bad-hair day. Hindus are delegators. They’ve got Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva dividing the tasks of creation, survival and destruction among them. Asking why Vishnu is always losing his head is like asking why a fish swims. Japan’s native Shinto religion has eight million gods. More than enough to make a little mischief.

In these alternate moral universes, there are claims and counterclaims, jealousies and intrigues, rages and sulks, as in life. But when there is only one player on the board it becomes a different game altogether. The God of Abraham has no one to blame but Himself, and believers have no one to blame but Him. Complicating matters considerably is the fact that the Abrahamic God did not simply wake up in the world one day, like Ptah of Egypt. He was not hatched from a giant egg like P'an Ku of China. His universe did not simply spring into being. According to His own meticulous records it was an act of will. Possibly premeditated. If it all sprang from one divine head, we are dealing with one divine head-case.

Some say God lets catastrophes happen because they bring out the best in the rest of us. Without killer tsunamis, we wouldn’t know just how selfless and giving we really are. We might get to thinking we’re actually the cold-hearted misers who turned a blind eye on, say, the five million children worldwide who starved to death last year, without every asking why.

After all, it’s the oldest rhetorical question in the book.


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