Tsunami thoughts after a year
God apparently values independence higher than manipulation, even in disasters
- Father William Grimm MM, Tokyo
- March 9, 2012
Last week, in anticipation of the first anniversary of the earthquake and tsunami that devastated northeast Japan last March 11, I revisited the area after several months.
When I was last there, a clean-up had begun, but towns were still fields of debris. Now, most of that has been cleared away and put into neat piles, often covered in plastic. It was as if a few trainloads of the elderly women who in residential neighborhoods of Japan sweep the streets each morning had been brought in to tidy up the disaster zone.
For some reason, the flat expanses, dotted here and there with a building awaiting demolition, were more eerie than the fields of ruin. At least the ruins showed that people had lived there. Now, so much looks like there was never any human presence, especially when, as was the case when I was there, snow covers the remaining foundations of long-gone buildings.
I spent a night in one of only two buildings in downtown Otsuchi that are still usable after repairs. It was as if humankind had become extinct.
For a believer, that causes questions. Where was God when so much ended? Where will God be when, as is likely, humankind as we know us becomes extinct?
A televangelist in the US has said that recent destructive tornadoes in that country were due to a lack of prayer on the part of Christians. Apparently, he holds that God needs a certain quantity of prayer in order to avert calamities.
At the time of the Japan disaster, there were despicable people who claimed that the disaster, however caused, was ultimately the act of an angry god punishing those who were not good enough. In other words, in order to deal with some people’s lack of goodness, this divinity drowned children. Many who smugly claim to speak for that monster even call themselves Christians. In their case, there is a theological category for what they say: blasphemy.
Others take the more intellectually respectable and even defensible view that the deaths of nearly 20,000 people is proof there is no God.
These doubters, however, do not present their best case. The death of so many people is just a blip in the rate at which people die. Just a few weeks ago, seismologists updated their predictions to say that there is a 70 percent chance that a quake of equal force and probably more death and devastation will happen in the Tokyo area during the next four years. In 1923, an earthquake and tsunami killed some 140,000 in the Tokyo-Yokohama area. Mass death in Japan or anywhere else is nothing new.
But, there is no need to stress numbers if one wants to use death to argue against the existence of God. The death of 20,000 unknown people on the shores of the Pacific Ocean pales into insignificance when compared to a single death much closer to home: mine.
I will die and the world will end for me. My death may not occur in some calamity that becomes international news, but that does not make it any less disastrous for me. Does the certainty that I and everyone else will die prove there is no God?
Judging from their complaints, deniers think that if there were a God, that deity should prevent disasters. They do not make it clear where the cutoff point for this responsibility lies. Should God prevent calamities that take hundreds of thousands of lives? Tens of thousands? A single life? Would a rainy day when I planned a picnic be something God should avert?
In any case, the god they posit is a protector who can and should manipulate the world to bring about our desired results. Because disasters are proof that such manipulation has not occurred, then that god does not exist.
I agree with the atheists; I, too, disbelieve in the god they deny. I assume that most believers do likewise. But, does proof that a manipulator god does not exist also prove that, for example, a lover God does not exist?
"Aha! But would a lover God make disasters happen?" No. Disasters are made by either Nature or (more often) humankind.
If God is a lover who wants us to be lovers as well, then freedom is essential. Love cannot be coerced. In order to love, we must be able also to hate, to hurt, to ignore. Without such options, there could not be love. Divine manipulation would prevent suffering in our lives, but would also prevent our being able to be lovers rather than puppets. God’s love respects freedom.
Apparently, God’s love relationship with creation also allows Nature its own "freedom" in terms of the processes of geology, physics and evolution. There is no divine manipulation to prevent the Earth from being what it is. Nor is there divine manipulation to overrule potentially disastrous human manipulation.
God will not rearrange the world to suit us. It is our task to figure out what truly and eternally suits us and then work in the world to make that happen. And what truly suits us is usually not what short-term economic or political expedience calls for.
Because we believe that God’s love will endure beyond death and destruction, we can look upon them with sadness, but also with hope.
Father William Grimm is a Tokyo-based priest and publisher of UCA News, and former editor-in-chief of Katorikku Shimbun, Japan’s Catholic weekly.