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Wednesday, January 5, 2005

Voltaire and the tsunami.

More critical theology from the Boston Globe op-ed page — this time from columnist Scott Lehigh. He focuses on Voltaire's response to the catastrophic earthquake and tsunami that devastated Lisbon, Portugal, on All Saints Day, 1755, killing between 15,000 and 60,000 people. (Many of the people who died were crushed while worshiping in the 30 churches that were destroyed by the quake, a circumstance that provoked all sorts of religious interpretations.) Lehigh writes that Voltaire's disgust at theodicies in the aftermath of the quake has grown commonplace today — to the good of religion as well as science:

We now know that the shifting of tectonic plates causes earthquakes — and the notion that God uses natural disasters to punish sinners seems hopelessly antique to most of us. To profess that sort of belief is to betray oneself as a captive to a fundamentalist mind-set that has elevated faith above reason in apprehending natural phenomena.

Yet because we don't see God's hand at work in natural disasters, neither do tragedies that shock the mind strike us as a compelling argument against God's existence.

Now, one can argue that that's because the faith-eroding questions that would be raised are simply too disquieting to confront. Or that we don't have our own Voltaire to frame them for us.

Yet the larger reason is surely this: Science has so succeeded in separating the physical from the spiritual world that if we don't see the tsunami as God's wrath, neither do we realistically consider that divine intervention might have stayed the massive wave that claimed so many lives. Indeed, even as we pray for the afflicted, we neither fault God for the misery nor expect that he might have forestalled it.

Thus have faith and science come to exist in their own realms, a construct that largely sidesteps the great debate that followed the earthquake of Lisbon. By separating faith from the natural processes of the world, we have also removed it from the path of calamity. And made it possible to maintain our belief in the face of such a mystifying tragedy.

("Faith Meets Science," Scott Lehigh, Boston Globe 1.5.05)

Copyright © 2005 by Philocrites | Posted 5 January 2005 at 9:15 PM

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Michael Finegan:

January 5, 2005 09:32 PM | Permalink for this comment

If God was punishing those people, we would deserve that punishment just as much.

Jesus said:

Now there were some present at that time who told Jesus about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mixed with their sacrifices. Jesus answered, “Do you think that these Galileans were worse sinners than all the other Galileans because they suffered this way? I tell you, no! But unless you repent, you too will all perish. Or those eighteen who died when the tower in Siloam fell on them - do you think they were more guilty than all the others living in Jerusalem? I tell you, no! But unless you repent, you too will all perish.” (Luke 13:1-5)

Do I need to say more?


January 5, 2005 11:25 PM | Permalink for this comment

A friend called me today to rant about the nauseating application of sentimental religious interpretation to survivor stories from the tsunami disaster. Apparently Paula Zahn is particularly prone to interpreting every reunion of child and parent or loved ones as a "miracle." In one story, featuring a (photogenic blonde Swedish) child whose father was able to find him after they were separated by the tsunami, she remarked, "Well, if that doesn't make ya believe in miracles...!" The child's mother was killed, which doesn't seem so miraculous.

My friend noticed that, in the FOX and CNN universe, only white-skinned people were granted these "miracles." Marianne Williamson, Mitch Whatshisname and the other pop theology hacks should be having a field day.


January 6, 2005 09:52 PM | Permalink for this comment

Here's a copy of the letter my other half wrote to the Globe about this article:

Scot Lehigh's column "Faith meets science" (op ed, Jan. 5) raises _the_ theological question of human suffering that the earthquakes in Lisbon, the recent tsunamis, and countless large and small tragedies in between prompt: when disasters happen, where is God? The Salvodoran theologian Jon Sobrino, writing in response to the 2001 earthquakes in El Salvador (quickly forgotten outside of El Salvador), maintains the depth of that question but adds a second: where are we? This is not just a question about our relief efforts now, but about our inattention before the tsunamis. Why, in a world of such resources, were so many malnourished children unable to escape the waves? Why did so many buildings collapse in a world where our sturdy structures protect our books, our stereos, our entertainment centers? How do the structures of international aid and debt which support our lifestyles contribute to the vulnerability of our world's poor? At its best, the Christianity which I profess teaches the real presence of God with us in our suffering without denying or dismissing how brutally mysterious such suffering can be. But before we dismiss disasters only as "acts of God" beyond all reasoning, we must ask ourselves the second question: how are these disasters also acts of humanity, acts of ours, what we have done or failed to do?

Brian Flanagan


January 7, 2005 10:03 AM | Permalink for this comment

See also "The Future of Calamity" by Andrew C. Revkin (New York Times 1.2.05, reg req'd) for more on the idea that "catastrophes are as much the result of human choices as they are of geology or hydrology."

A number of blogs have been following the religious or theological interpretation of the tsunami. I'd especially call attention to Terry Mattingly's post at GetReligion.

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