Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Where is God in Natural Disasters?

As yet another Earthquake rocks the world with hundreds dead and thousands injured in China, it’s natural to wonder. Where is God? Did God cause this tragedy, or allow it to happen in some sense? Is there any meaning to be found in tragedy? With Earth Day fast approaching, what do natural disasters teach us about nature?

Luke records the famous story of Jesus calming a storm. Maybe there is something in this story that could calm the storms of our minds in the midst of natural disasters. Of course it all depends on how you read the story. If you read it literally, you might imagine that Jesus (God!) had supernatural authority over nature. He could cause a storm, and he could end a storm. This literal reading presents a dilemma. If God can cause and prevent a storm, why would God choose to murder so many innocent people?

Some fundamentalist Christian leaders suggest that storms are sent by God to teach sinners a lesson in morality. Several religious groups claimed that Katrina was sent by God as a result of a gay pride event due to begin two days after the storm. Pat Robertson predicted on his “700 Club” show that disasters, including hurricanes, would descend on Orlando, Fla., because of gay pride events there. He was quoted as saying, “It’ll bring about terrorist bombs, it’ll bring earthquakes, tornadoes, and possibly a meteor.”

Janis Walworth pointed out in 1998 that the evidence doesn’t always support this interpretation. She conducted some studies to test the notion that God may employ natural disasters or even terrorists to destroy areas that would dare to offer gay people the same civil liberties as other citizens. In fact evidence suggested that states with higher gay populations are less likely to be hit by a tornado. She also illustrated that states with higher numbers of Protestants are more likely than states with higher numbers of Catholics to be hit by a tornado. Within the protestant denominations, Baptists seem to be most in danger. Janis then re- directed the question. She wondered if it could be that Baptists and other Protestants purposely flock to states that have lots of tornadoes. That then led to her as yet unpublished study on the correlation between IQ and religious affiliation.

Jokes aside, what sort of a God would kill people because of a sexual orientation they didn’t choose and don’t use to harm others? What sort of a God would play Russian Roulette with people’s lives and with the ecology just to prove a point?
Liberal religion has taken a different approach to miracle texts such as the calming of the storm. It reads the text as text, and not necessarily as history. For example, it might interpret storms as metaphoric, representing the miserable social status of a fisherman in that culture. A story about a leader calming a storm would represent the inspiration of Jesus to live boldly and unselfconsciously and do what you can to calm the storms of oppression.

Bishop Spong suggests that the stories of Jesus walking on water and calming the storm were ways of connecting early Christians with the belief that the presence of God or Ground of Being was somehow manifest in the person of Jesus. First century Christians would liturgically reenact and retell Hebrew stories such as Joshua crossing the Jordan, and in time these turned into miracle stories such as walking on water and calming storms.

How might a liberal reading of the Bible make meaning out of natural disaster? It would most likely reject the idea that God sent the storm. It might connect the social and political context of the disaster, looking at issues of race, poverty, ecology and government intervention as the lessons of the storm rather than suspecting that an external God was sending the storm for any particular reason.
So where is God in the storms of life? Listen to the first words of the Hebrew Bible-
“In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters.”

What a powerful image. God is actively present, within and between, every aspect of nature, like wind over water. God is present with those who suffer. God is not only experienced in the picnics by waterfalls, God is manifest even in deadly storms. God is all and in all, not as cause but as presence.

God didn’t send the storm. God is the storm. God is present in the tension between natural evolution and human progress. God is the interconnectedness of all the causes and contexts of storms and ecology.

Or else maybe a natural disaster is an ecological act of self correction. Global warming, over population, the poor planning of a city and so many other factors conspire in an act of self correction. It’s a sad fact of our world that the wealthier and more powerful people live at higher elevations and so often avoid tragedies such as floods. Human consumption and abuse, mandated according to a literal reading of the Bible, may have forced nature to self correct.

The universe is living and expanding, and not as a closed system that was created once and then only altered when a supernatural and external deity invades it. The earth is naturally evolving; dying and being reborn constantly. As Meister Eckart said, “God is creating the entire universe fully and totally in this present now. Everything God creates, God creates now all at once.”

Mindless consumption makes no sense in a living universe.

This is an awesome piece by Michael lightweaver called “Tsunamis- A Channeling From Big Mama.”
“You know something, I'm fed up with you guys. You take everything SO PERSONALLY. It doesn't occur to most of you that I am ALIVE. Yes, I'm a living being just like you. I'm continually evolving, growing, changing, etc., and you are a part of my growth as you are a part of your own process. When I stretch, yawn, hiccup, or sneeze you think it's some kind of collective punishment for your “sins.” Did it ever occur to you that that is a bit arrogant? You worry about “Earth Changes” -- no such thing except for the fact that I am continually changing. It's not an event. It's an ongoing process that you don't understand because of your fruit fly mentality.

Last week some guy found fossilized footprints of a dinosaur which roamed the suburbs of Washington, DC. 100 million years ago. That was long before you were even a suggestive sparkle in the Creator’s eyes. Did you know that the total life span of a fruit fly is seven days? Seven days! OK, so let’s say this guy John-the-fruit-fly is born one Monday morning in late October. On Thursday, the first freeze of the season hits. John tragically freezes to death. Now one could take a fruit fly perspective and claim that this was some kind of punishment for John’s many fruit fly misdeeds or -taking a somewhat larger view of the matter - one could see that John had the unfortunate bad luck - or chose at some level - to be born four days before the first killing frost. Do you have any idea how old I AM? Your life span isn't much more than a fruit fly and your whole sojourn here as a species isn't much more than a blink of the eye to me.

When Mama moves, she shakes things up. It's just that you don't have an “eonic” sense of time, so you tend to take it personally. Get Over It! One hundred years from now, you and probably everyone you know will be dead.... and on to greater adventures. I will still be here, yawning, hiccupping & sneezing long after your species ceases to even be a memory around this place. Put your daily petty dramas into THAT perspective. Why does it ALWAYS HAVE TO BE ABOUT YOU? Did it ever occur to you how much of your energy and money is focused on killing other species on this planet - and I'm not just talking about bug spray and chicken farms. You are spending over $175 million dollars a day to destroy Iraq while 14,000 children starve to death every day. That means that more children have starved to death so far since 12/26/04 - just from neglect - than all of those who died in the big wave. And then you applaud yourself for sending two days worth of war costs for relief. NOW THAT IS SOMETHING YOU SHOULD TAKE PERSONALLY! YES, I'M PISSED - BIG TIME. But God and I haven't conspired to punish you. You seem to do a fairly good job of that yourself. I'm just fed up with taking the blame - along with GOD - for just being who I am and doing what I have been doing for the last several millions of years; long before you came on to the scene. And though I may not sound very compassionate at the moment, I do feel the pain of EVERY ONE OF MY CREATURES who suffers. Did you know that I sent a warning to let everyone know that I was about to sneeze? Did you see the news? The only ones who heard me were the wild animals in India and some “primitive” tribal people on a remote island. They all went to higher ground just before the wave hit and none of them died. Why didn't the rest of you hear me??? So, I let you know I'm about to sneeze, you don't hear me because you aren't listening, and it wreaks havoc. And then you have the audacity to blame GOD! Give me a break. Maybe you should just start listening..... Or even better, maybe you should ask yourself what you are doing that is so important that you aren't listening....”

My opinion is that there is no divinely ordained purpose to a disaster that kills so many people. It is just part of an ever-changing universe. However, it’s also my sense that there are some important lessons we can choose to take out of storms. The main one is to stay alert; pay attention.

That is the half truth of all religions, to watch for the signs or cycles of life. The falsity of all religions is their attempt to paint a single portrait of life’s meaning which is divinely ordained and immutable. The common thread of all religions is compassion. Compassion grows out of our understanding that we are not separate from those who suffer and we are not separate from nature.

You experience God in the storms of life when you realize the interrelated causes and consequences of natural disasters, when you feel the pain of victims as if they are your own family, and when you step out in compassion to help those who suffer.

Seed of Wisdom

The universe is on its own journey of growth and change. The question for humans is whether we will collaborate in this change or whether we will be forced to adapt in response to overwhelming crisis. May we have the foresight to choose the path of collaboration. Take responsibility for your part in the future of the earth. Live mindfully today.

Say to yourself: My choices to live mindfully make a huge difference to the whole planet.


Daniel Smith said...

Great article! I agree, taking everything literally is insane. It just doesn't make sense literally. And the reasoning behind natural disasters even more so. If God wanted to punish or prevent a group of gays for having a pride march, would it not make more sense to just target them as a group? Why would God let thousands of other "innocent" people die in the process? I can't help but wonder what the reasoning would be behind the the Dinosaur's extinction some time ago when "sinful" humans did not exist...

Ellie said...

thank you for this timely Earth Day blog focused on an eco/ spiritual understanding of natural disasters.

Dave Persons said...

From the modern Gnostic view, as I wrote a few weeks ago in my blog, none of this is really known by Creator God, but it's all part of our thinking we could exist apart from God in a physical/time universe. It's thus a vast illusion, full of pain, disappointments, and sorrow. You can read my take at

You'll have to click around to find the article, "Whence cometh Earthquakes?" written shortly after the Haiti one.

Dee said...

Thank you for this. I have had issues throughout my years when conservative religions tell us to "fear" God and his "punishment" to those who disobey, on one hand, then moments later, sing of his love!?!?!? This post totally reflects the views I have adopted as an adult and the ones I now teach my children. He is a loving God, WITH us through all storms, natural and those we face in life...not causing them. :)

Chiropractic Grand Junction said...

Earthquakes are everywhere now. All we have to do is take precautionary steps and be ready. God is always by our side, we just need to believe.