Reflections on an earthquake

It is no wonder that ancient people saw gods in nature. The expanse of the stars; the power of a thunderstorm, earthquake or volcano. The awesome beauty of a waterfall.  The power of nature was worshiped and the ancients tried to appease the gods as a way to control the power of nature. Nature was equated with God.

Then Judaism saw God as the creator – the maker of the natural order – the one who gave humanity the abundant earth, and the heavens. Christianity also affirms God as creator. But statements over the past decade by evangelical Christians bring a new twist to this.  They portray God using and directing creation so it becomes a means of punishment or warning to an errant humanity.

With the devastation we watched play itself out on the northeast coast of Japan and the innumerable people who lost their lives, their homes and/or their loved ones the question is raised again. “Did God cause this to happen?”

If we think about the beginning chapter of the book of Genesis we find Adam (humankind) and Eve in a lush garden that is quiet and peaceful, provides all that they need. The only risk is listening to the snake.  This is, I believe, not a look back but an image of what human beings desire. A world of plenty that is without risk. Here the world God provides is known and under our control.

After poor decision making in Genesis Adam & Eve are escorted from that garden and an angel with a flaming sword (a volcano) guards the entrance preventing a return. In the Old Testament there are descriptions of God that sound like volcanic activity.  Ancient peoples equated God with the forces of nature. Nature was worshipped and sacrifices made to appease the nature gods to bring good weather, harvest and quietude.

When God was seen as the creator of the natural order, and not nature being the god itself, prayer and sacrifice were made to God in an attempt to bring favorable conditions or to forestall disaster. Even in the 21st century we still do that. We pray to God for rain or protection from hurricanes – this says in some way we think God does pull some or all of the strings.

But this image creates more problems than it solves. We will find, if we think about it and examine it, that describes a capricious God who decides who will be killed and in what way by these disasters.  One is taken and another survives… with no apparent reason.  A God who kills the innocent to scare a nation into conformity or to punish guilty a percentage of the populace is not a God worthy of being believed in or worshipped.

What we observe through science is that creation is living. We are not all that is alive in the universe. Stars form, mature and die. The earth itself is living – it moves, stretches, grows and changes. And that living creates effects on all that live on the earth. The creation is alive and changing even as we are alive and changing.

A Catholic priest, scientist and philosopher Pierre Teilhard de Chardin spoke of all of the universe being created in the beginning and then living and growing until everything came together in a oneness with God – which will be the endpoint where everything will be part of God and live in God forever.

Creation is one of God’s finger prints. We can see and know the handiwork of God by looking at creation. Creation is not God and when some part of creation (volcano, earth quake, flood, hungry polar bear or croc) threaten human life it is not God’s decision, God’s action or fiat that causes it. The laws that govern the inanimate creation, and the choices made by humans and creatures create the situations that result in human harm.

Human decisions & action sometimes result in people being a victim of natural disaster. In 1985 I visited California for the General Convention in Anaheim. I took a tour of the area and at one point our guide pointed up a wide valley with large homes built out on stilts on the sides of the valley as far as we could see. “Do you know what this is, he asked? It is the San Andreas Fault.” Thousands of homes would be destroyed and people killed when an earthquake hits there because of the choice to build homes right on and out over the fault. But people choose to build over and along a known fault line, in flood plains and on beaches where waves can destroy. People choose to take risks large and small where nature is concerned.

People having heard a tsunami was head for the US were out walking on the beach Friday and in a danger zone taking pictures. Should God be blamed for their being swept away?

“Act of God” is primarily an insurance technical term for “we refuse to indemnify this…” rather than a theological description of reality.

Where is God in creation?  Behind it – holding it is existence – loving it. But not being the puppeteer pulling the strings to making everything happen as it does.  It is a messy answer – not neat and tidy and with a natural place to point in blame.  But as theologian Walter Brugemann told a class at the University of Notre Dame “You have to deal with the God you’ve got, not the God you want” And the creator God we’ve got is not a control freak.





About don

The Rev Don Hill is an Episcopal priest, rail fan and writer. He and his wife the Rev. Dr. Nancy Woodworth-Hill are currently Co-Pastors of St Paul's Episcopal Church, Jeffersonville IN, in the Diocese of Indianapolis. They also work as parish consultants in Appreciative Inquiry, strategic planning and spirituality development for parishes and vestries.
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