GOD, ALLAH & THE TSUNAMI DISASTER
by Austin Kenny
||We have had the tsunami, hurricane Katrina, and the earthquake in Kashmir in recent times ... all of them raising questions that are probably unanswerable. Those with monotheistic beliefs have sought answers in God or Allah. Austin Kenny analyses some of the answers given and finds them wanting.|
In the Irish Times of Jan 12th the editorial entitled, ‘God and the tsunami disaster’, proudly proclaimed that ‘the depth and sophistication of the theological reflection required is well reflected in the articles published by this paper today’. It quotes Archbishop Sean Brady as saying that this is one of those ‘age-old questions not adequately answered by soundbites, pious phrases or short articles’. Just two pages earlier on a page entitled ‘Where was God?' Catholic spokesperson, Sean Freyne, writes, ‘God is love and is unconditionally in love with this universe and all its inhabitants’. This soundbite and pious phrase appeared in a short article, one of four, which shared the page.
Professor Freyne, while not wholeheartedly endorsing Nietzsche’s theory of the ‘Death of God’, does consider the narrow traditional, doctrinal view of God to be redundant. Yet at the same time he contends that, seeing the devastation wreaked by the tsunami, ancient myths of the sea ‘seemed more appropriate than ever’ and that ‘the enduring power of primitive myths about the deep, indeed of all myths, is the reassurance they offer when one is confronted by the deep mysteries of the world.’ Despite the elegant prose and the Professor’s posturing as a progressive intellectual, this amounts to nothing more than that old patronising exhortation to ‘have faith my child’ once the hard questions are asked. Better the comfort and communal sanctuary of the familiar fairy tale than the cold isolation of the search for understanding.
Professor Freyne continues ‘the notion of God as president of a static and ordered universe’, or as ‘the dispenser of remedies on demand, has long hindered the search for the new God.’ Of course he doesn’t acknowledge that it was the Christian Churches, and especially the Catholic hierarchy that were responsible for this ‘type of idea dominating Western piety for centuries’. They fought tooth and nail against every advance in knowledge from Galileo to Darwin. If the Catholic Church had its way, the earth would be flat, the sun would revolve around it and a bearded God in a robe would be sat on his throne above the clouds observing proceedings while flanked by more angels than you could fit on the head of a pin.
However, Professor Freyne does claim to believe in a more enlightened and expansive view of God. A dynamic and evolving universe in all its complexity allows us to think of God ‘as a metaphor for our deepest yearning for wholeness and fulfilment’ or even consider that ‘alternative Gods might begin to make more sense’. He asks ‘To whose version of God are we to turn when faced with the devastation of the tsunami?’ So what we have here is a kind of a la carte Catholicism for the intellectually sophisticated. Choose your own version of God, and if you don’t like anything on the list of candidates you can vote ‘None of the above’.
Despite his best efforts at finding ‘a more adequate way to talk about God’ or ‘an appropriate language’, he inevitably resorts to the old and futile exercise of trying to explain the inexplicable by giving it human attributes. He talks of God’s struggle, God’s suffering and God’s love, all of which are attempts to know the unknowable, to access the inaccessible and are ultimately meaningless.
The Church of Ireland view was expressed by the Venerable Gordon Linney, a retired Archdeacon. He tells us ‘we should give thanks for the great outpouring of love and compassion that embraced the globe as people united to help the victims,’ and, representing the Presbyterians as well as the Methodists, the Reverend Katherine P. Meyer writes ‘if we maintain our humanity in the weeks and months ahead, new glimpses of ourselves may be entrusted to us’. While the editorial enthuses: ‘Figures now show how wholeheartedly Irish people have responded to the tragedy, putting the voluntary contributions among the most generous in the world’.
Hallelujah! God’s plan is revealed. The disaster was created as an opportunity for those unaffected by it to win brownie points with the Almighty by showing how charitable they are and we Irish have come out on top in the charity stakes. We’ve done ourselves proud. A great result, congratulations all round. A penny for the black babies – no make that tuppence says Paddy.
The vileness of this response is underscored by the realisation that, for the vengeful Judaeo-Christian God of the Bible or the bloodthirsty Allah of the mullahs, inflicting plagues and pestilence, death and destruction on the wretched of the earth, for the most trivial reasons, was nothing unusual.
Which brings us to the fourth contributor, Yahya Al-Hussein, imam and president of the Islamic Foundation of Ireland. He warns us that ‘delving into this question and reflecting too much about it only leads to error and bewilderment’. This might explain the conclusions he comes to when he delves into it a bit himself. He claims that ‘from what God has told us, a calamity could be for punishment…or as a test to see how we respond…or as a reminder of the blessings of God on those who were not touched by it’, and he concludes ‘Allah knows best’. If this illuminating contribution reflects deep and sophisticated theological reflection, what would the pontificating of a medieval religious zealot sound like?
If the calamity was an act of punishment, it makes little sense unless those being punished are made aware of the reason for it. So would Allah’s spokesman care to tell us what terrible offence was given to the Almighty by the poor unfortunates (mostly children) who perished in the wave or who suffered the loss of their loved ones, their homes and all their belongings. I’m sure he is aware, and approves of the fact, that the children in some of the affected areas of Indonesia, who have managed to return to their Islamic schools, are being taught, in their very first lessons back, that the tsunami was a punishment from God. For what is not clear. Of course, if Allah knows best, the victims must have deserved it. So should we be helping them at all lest we be deemed guilty by association?
If the calamity was meant to be a test, to see how we respond, then what response constitutes a pass mark? Is it different for those who suffered and those who did not? What sort of wicked and twisted perspective could come up with such a barbaric idea of an omniscient deity that, on a whim, would cause such suffering merely to test humanity’s response? And what warped reasoning would consider it paradise to spend eternity with such a wilful and malevolent being?
Perhaps the most despicable idea of all is that the disaster was meant ‘as a reminder of the blessings of God on those who were not touched by it’. I suppose this would be in the same way as the holocaust was meant as a reminder of the blessings of Nazi Germany on those who were not Jewish. Here is the voice of an intolerant belief system that revels in guilt and punishment, wallows in retribution and death and is profoundly anti life. Because such an ideology carries the label, ‘religious belief’, or purports to be an aspect of someone’s culture does not make it worthy of respect or deference from those of us who try to be tolerant and accommodating of other views and customs. Righteous intolerance, regardless of what mask it wears, should be confronted always and is worthy of nothing but contempt.
The source of such pernicious ideologies is to be found in the belief that one book contains the answers to all the questions on how and why we were created and by what laws we should live our lives to please our maker. God’s literary agent in the Middle East was most industrious. From here came the Koran, the Torah and the Bible, all claiming to be the word of God. Can they all be right or is there another explanation?
If the Devil is devious enough to ‘quote scripture for his own use,’ isn’t he devious enough to have written the scripture in the first place? It certainly would explain a lot if it were the hand of Satan and not God’s that was behind the writing of these three books. They have wrought more havoc and caused more death and desolation than a thousand tsunamis and they are still fomenting strife from the Ardoyne to Kandahar via the West Bank and Gaza Strip. If, as it appears likely, it was Satan who planted those three seeds of conflict in the seemingly barren ground around Mecca and Jerusalem, he must be well pleased with his handiwork. They have grown and flourished beyond his wildest dreams and still bear his bitter fruit.
In answer to the question ‘Where was God when the tsunami hit?’ He was where he always was, in the imaginations of those who believe in him. He exists nowhere else. He can neither help nor hinder us. We have nothing to thank him for nor do we have anything to blame him for. We are on our own. We should embrace the fact and realise that this makes life even more precious and that it is incumbent on us to take care of each other as best we can. We are on our own.
|Author: Austin Kenny lives in Dublin.|
|Source: This article was first published in The Irish Times.|
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