Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Where Was God?

For a week we've been listening to the tragic news and seeing the horrific images of the earthquake in Haiti that may have caused as many as 100,000 deaths, untold injuries, and the almost total destruction of the capital city of Port-au-Prince. Aside from the lunatic Christian preacher Pat Robertson, no one seems to be asking: Where was God?

I long ago discarded any belief in an omnipotent and omniscient supreme deity who knows all and controls the fate of the universe. To think that such a patriarch (for God is almost always masculine) with a long white beard exists is absurd. If the word "God" is meaningful at all, it must be in a metaphorical sense (for example, the divine might symbolize the "highest good" in our thoughts, intentions, aspirations and actions). A god that intervenes, however, who hears and responds to our prayers, can only be the creation of projection and wishful thinking. In Haiti, when a lucky few are pulled from the rubble several days after the city came crashing down, grateful relatives thank God for answering their prayers and the rescue is invariably termed a "miracle." If God can be praised for the miracle of saving one or two, then He must also be condemned for the senseless murder of thousands, particularly the young innocents in Haiti who never got a chance at a decent life while growing up in one of the world's poorest countries.

Natural disasters, like the Haitian earthquake and the 2004 tsunami, pose a special challenge to philosophers and theologians. What is the meaning of suffering, particularly the suffering of innocent children? If God is all-powerful and knowingly permits such suffering, then he must be evil. Deists try to escape from this conundrum by claiming that humans cannot understand the mind of God and that all that happens does so for divine reasons. As Liebniz said, this must be "the best of all possible worlds." Muslims consider whatever happens the will of Allah, to which we must submit rather than intellectually understand. Unfortunately for Christians, there is only one lifetime with no possibility for the slaughtered innocents to get a second chance at life. Buddhists at least get innumerable rebirths, but then they do not believe in a personal God whom they can blame or absolve for evil, but only a impersonal Dhamma (eternal law) which governs all existence.

What does it take to shake the consensus of belief in a benevolent God? Just such a challenge occurred on Nov. 1, 1755 when an earthquake and tsunami destroyed most of Lisbon, Portugal. It was estimated to have been 9 on the Richter scale (compared to the 7 quake in Haiti) and many think the death toll was in the tens of thousands. Felt as far away as Finland and North Africa, the Great Lisbon Earthquake shattered the religious certainties of Europeans and was much discussed by Enlightenment thinkers like Voltaire and Rousseau. Some think the paradigm-changing effects of huge disasters are similar to such unnatural events as the Holocaust and 9-11. The destruction of Lisbon was the result of people living in cities, wrote Rousseu, who used it as evidence for his back-to-nature, noble savage, philosophy. For Voltaire, the Lisbon quake disproved the optimism of Liebniz and he devoted his humorous masterpiece of sarcasm, Candide, to demonstrating the futility of looking for divine benevolence. One of the disasters the protagonist witnesses in the book is the Lisbon quake. There is no point in looking for the hand of God, Voltaire concludes. In the end, all we can do in the face of suffering and evil is tend our own gardens.

"God" is a most useful concept when one needs to cast blame or point fingers. John Wesley, the Methodist founder, attributed the Lisbon tragedy to "sin," to "that curse that was brought upon the earth by the original transgression of Adam and Eve." Televangelist Pat Robertson, who has said that God caused Hurricane Katrina because of legalized abortion in America, told his viewers after the earthquake that Haiti was suffering because it "swore a pact with the devil" to break free of French rule in a revolution that achieved independence in 1804. "Ever since they have been cursed by one thing after another," Robertson claimed. The late Christian evangelist Jerry Falwell once announced that "AIDS is not just God's punishment for homosexuals, it is God's punishment for the society that tolerates homosexuals." Russ Limbaugh, never one to summon God to assist his overblown ego, said that Obama will use Haiti for his political advantage by improving his standing with "the black community, in the both light-skinned and the dark-skinned community, in his country." And on his radio show he said that he wouldn't trust that money donated to Haiti through the White House Web site would actually go to the relief efforts. He said Americans don't need to contribute to earthquake relief because they already donate to Haiti through their income taxes. The White House spokesman called Limbaugh's remarks "stupid" and even George Bush, who said during his time in office that God spoke to him, defended Obama's relief moves. The problem with attributing either miracles or disasters to God is that he's not talking, and such arguments are unprovable, in this world at least.

The dilemma of senseless suffering is raised to high art in Dostoevsky's epic novel, The Brothers Karamazov. There Ivan Karamazov, the rationalist, talks with his younger brother, the monk Alyosha, and explains why he rejects a world that contains any suffering permitted by God, where peasant children can be torn to death by dogs at the whim of a feudal landlord. In a sense, the nihilist Ivan agrees with Robertson and says in "The Grand Inquisitor" story he tells his brother that the church has made a pact with the devil to protect its followers from the burden of free will. "So long as man remains free he strives for nothing so incessantly and so painfully as to find someone to worship," the Inquisitor tells Christ who has come back to earth in Seville during the time of the Inquisition when heretics were burnt at the stake. In response, Christ kisses the Inquisitor on his "bloodless, aged lips" instead of answering him and is allowed to disappear into the city while the church remains in the control of the priests. "We shall triumph and shall be Caesars, and then we shall plan the universal happiness of man," the Inquisitor trumpets. At the end of Ivan's parable, Alyosha, the spiritual soul of the novel, kisses his brother, indicating to me that in a world where God is helpless before innocent suffering, only the possibility of selfless love, freely chosen , can suffice.

That hopefully is what is happening right now in Haiti as dozens of countries around the world send assistance and aid to prevent starvation, provide medical help for the wounded, and begin rebuilding the infrastructure which, in this case, means from the ground up, since all basic services, never good to begin with, are now in ruins. If the old benevolent God no longer exists, perhaps humans with compassion and kindness towards the victims of human suffering are the "hands of God." Unfortunately, disasters also attract predators eager to make a profit from the misery of others, as Naomi Klein points out in The Shock Doctrine which I am just beginning to read along with other members of the IDEA Group. Citing stories after Katrina and the tsunami as evidence, Klein calls these "orchestrated raids on the public sphere in the wake of catastrophic events, combined with the treatment of disasters as exciting market opportunities, 'disaster capitalism.'" Rather than freeing the market from the state, she finds political and corporate elites merging to "trade favors to secure the right to appropriate precious resources previously held in the public domain." The hand of disaster capitalism, pioneered by the late economist Milton Friedman and his neocon followers can be seen in Pinochet's Chile as well as in Iraq, in China after Tianammen Square and in Yeltsin's Russia, in addition to Thatcher's Britain after the Falklands War, and in Asia in the wake of the financial crisis of 1997-8. In all cases, the mantra is: privatize, deregulate and cut social spending. Obama's administration, of course, will handle things differently. Or will it? "U.S. Mulls Role in Haiti After the Crisis" reads the headline of a story in the New York Times today. Obama says that the U.S. will be there for the long haul. Some are already warning that the "shock doctrine" will used as an excuse to take control of Haiti's resources. Others are citing the long history of U.S. involvement in Haiti which is largely responsible for the country's chronic instability and poverty (Tracy Kidder calls it a "Country without a Net").

The Haitians are a very religious people and practice faiths as varied as Catholic Christianity (80 per cent of believers) and vodou which can be traced back to the African homeland of slaves who were taken there to harvest sugar cane. On the television news shows, many could be seen in fervent prayer, kneeling down in the rubble-strewn streets. I don't know how many raised their fists in anger at God or Loa, the primary vodou deity, demanding an explanation for the destruction of their country and the deaths of their friends and relatives. It was an equal opportunity earthquake, leveling churches and hospitals, government buildings and schools. Even the homes of the wealthy (rich Americans, like the late Ahmet Ertegun, founder of Atlantic Records, had vacation palaces there) were flattened. I'm sure no one felt singled out by an angry god. For most, the fantasies of their faiths probably gave them some comfort. A meaningless death is much harder to take. The children have gone to a better place where they don't have to suffer the degradation of poverty any more. I wouldn't want to take that from them now. Marx was right; religion really is an opiate for the masses, a drug that anesthetizes our pain while blinding us to the truth. It's not God that will save us but other human beings who will provide compassionate care when the walls come tumbling down and who won't demand that we sell out our future to the disaster capitalists.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Read The Shack by W.Young. God is where he/she always is - with each of his children.