How Do We Comprehend Natural Disasters Like Earthquakes and Tsunamis?

This essay below that Fr. David Hudson sent along is timely. I have a small parish now which means that after the Divine Liturgy we always have a discussion about any topic that people want to talk about. Today we had the question: How do we make sense of the tsunami in Japan? It wasn’t the sermon and after the necessary caveats (“I am a priest, not a theologian,” “this is my opinion” and so forth) I laid out how I saw it.

I began with St. Paul in Romans,

For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared with the glory which shall be revealed in us. For the earnest expectation of the creation eagerly waits for the revealing of the sons of God. For the creation was subjected to futility, not willingly, but because of Him who subjected it in hope; because the creation itself also will be delivered from the bondage of corruption into the glorious liberty of the children of God. For we know that the whole creation groans and labors with birth pangs together until now.

If the creation that is subject to bondage, that is, if the entire creation experiences the corruption that entered the world when Adam fell, and awaits a freedom that will occur when mankind returns to God, then isn’t the opposite true as well? Won’t mankind’s descent from God subject the creation to greater corruption and disorder? There is a relationship between man and the rest of creation, some mysterious (hard to know) interrelationship woven into the very fabric of God’s creation where mankind’s faithfulness or unfaithfulness to God affects everything.

I used AID’s as an example. Is AID’s a punishment from God? No, I don’t think it is. Is there a relationship between AID’s and behavior? Does creation itself contain a mechanism of sorts where moral probity and sobriety have a salutary effect on even the materiality of our bodies, or dissipation a destructive effect? Is virtue and vice related to the harmony and disharmony of nature? Yes, I think it is. The scriptures certainly indicate such, particularly the Proverbs.

If correct, you could say that these events may indeed be a judgment from God but that is a conclusion I am reluctant to draw because most people don’t see any relationship at all between virtue and creation. Or, if they do, they see it in juridical terms, that is, the tsunamis and so forth are sign of God’s unquenchable wrath. We sin, Zeus sends down lightening. The nature of the creation in other words, particularly it’s relationship to man and God, doesn’t factor into the reasoning at all. God isn’t Poseidon churning up the oceans because He is angry, but if we are not careful that is exactly how many people (including many Orthodox given their inculcation of the precepts of popular Christianity) will perceive these words to mean.

One further point although one I did not make this morning: This is a far cry from the nature as goddess ideology that informs (and organizes) much of the thinking of the environmental movement. There the creation is a kind of mysterious force, irrational, something be feared, perhaps even worshiped. When you see nature personified, when the impersonal forces are personalized, when the destructive forces of nature are posited as the Judge, when nature rather than God is revered, watch out. That approach lingers at the edges of neo-paganism.

The essay follows.

Metropolitan Teofan of Moldova and Bucovina

The earth is broken up, the earth is split asunder, the earth is violently shaken (Is 24:19).

The earth has been shaken again to its core in the Land of the Rising Sun, and has behaved violently, resulting in despair for humanity. Millions of victims of the earthquakes and overflowing waters in Asia, of the hurricanes in America, of the spread of AIDS in Africa, the floods in Romania and all Europe in recent years, and now of the merciless earthquake in Japan forces us to reflect on the causes of these disasters. What has happened, really, in the depths of the earth, on the earth, in the waters and in the atmosphere? Who is responsible for all these things?

We believe and we declare that man, assigned by God to be “priest” and servant of creation, is responsible, through his deeds, for everything that happens in nature.

Nature is the friend of man, not his enemy. However, when he seeks only his own interests, man upsets the balance established by the Creator in the environment. The consequence of this attitude lacking in peaceful and respectful communication with nature is its transformation from friend and ally to enemy. “Here in the Balkans,” said St. Nikolai Velirimovich, “something of the ancient respect for nature is still preserved. We still see the custom where the peasant makes the sign of the Cross and says ‘Lord, forgive’ when he wants to chop down a tree, mow hay, or slaughter an animal. The peoples who have declared war on nature… have brought numberless evils on themselves. The person who severs friendly relations with nature, severs them at the same time with God.”

The exploitation of nature by modern technological society is, in general, recognized as responsible for some natural disasters. What is not realized sufficiently, however, is the truth that everything which takes place in nature is an extension of what is happening in the heart of man. An attentive and responsible analysis of the history of mankind reveals the fact that holiness or sin in man affects the entire creation, influencing it for good or evil.

When man lives a clean lifestyle it brings joy and pours out blessings on the universe. When man fills his life with God, the creation in its totality is enlightened and serves man without any reservations. This is the explanation of the fact that the tree branches bend toward a saint when he passes by, and why poisons become harmless for a person with a holy life (Luke 10:19), and why animals cease to be wild in the presence of a person who has achieved inner peace. This truth, transposed to the level of an entire people or of human society in general, directly results in nature manifesting itself in a peaceful way, without convulsions.

In contrast, when sinfulness becomes widespread it extends evil into the heart of creation and this comes back on mankind, in consequence, in the form of earthquakes, floods, diseases, drought, etc. Just as nature is receptive to goodness, modesty, faithfulness and spiritual beauty in man, it is also not impassive in the face of the evil, vanity, and the luciferic claims of superiority manifested by human beings. Neither storms nor deadly lightening, nor clouds of locusts, nor merciless floods take place randomly. They are the extension of the storms, the agitation, the spiritual drought, the unbelief, and the earthquakes which take place in the souls of people and among and between people. “The earth dries up and withers,” the Prophet Isaiah warns the sinful people [of Israel], “the world languishes and withers… the earth is defiled by its people; they have disobeyed the laws, violated the statutes and broken the everlasting covenant. Therefore a curse consumes the earth; its people must bear their guilt” (Is 24:4-6). “The earth is broken up, the earth is split asunder, the earth is violently shaken… so heavy upon it is the guilt of its rebellion…” (Is. 24:19-20). Living in the spirit of this biblical conception, the peasants of the Romanian village of yesteryear used to seek to discover what great sin had been committed among themselves when some plague or other came upon their fields, their animals, or themselves.

Are not the disasters which have so powerfully shaken up our human life really a reflection, a reverberation in nature of the devastating evil within us? As a reaction to everything that has happened in the wake of the floods [in Europe], the decision has been made to construct higher and stronger walls and dams, to stop, in the future, the fury of the waters. These actions are welcome and absolutely necessary. Yet are they enough? Aren’t we really applying the same logic as the people after Noah’s floods? They decided to build the Tower of Babel. In our days, just as then, no one is talking about the need to raise inner walls to stave off the fury of hatred, of division, of the disintegration of the family, and implicitly of the nation. There is no talk, or maybe a little feeble talk—as though we are ashamed—about the raising up of educational and legislative walls to protect us from the soul-destroying and body-destroying fury of sins against nature, of abortion, of pornography.

The earthquake in Japan and other disasters caused by the elements of nature are also a warning to humanity to turn their faces back to God.

Through the Church, the world is offered the possibility of inner renewal through faith in the Incarnation, Death, and Resurrection of Christ. The earth, the waters, the atmosphere, wait “in eager anticipation”, in the words of St. Paul the Apostle, to be “liberated from [their] bondage to decay” and to our sins (Rom. 8:19-21).

We must receive Christ God into our souls, so that He might be born in us and save us. Otherwise, who knows what disasters we will suffer in the future?

Every tender smile directed to the stricken of this world, every attitude of forgiveness for the one who has wronged us, every comfort for a ravaged elderly person, every newborn child, every prayer for “those who love us and for those who hate us,” every experience of God’s presence in our lives is transformed into blessing for us, for others, and for the entire creation.

Comments

  1. Any variation on the “this is a punishment from God” theme is less than helpful. That is the implied basis of what the EP was saying with his Jeremiads against nuclear power and this is what is coming across in the essay noted above. I will believe the prophet who claims it is a punishment from God when he does so before the event. Otherwise, I think Christians should keep quiet and try to help those in need.

    I do think Bentley Hart’s book “The Doors of the Sea” at least posits a traditional Christian view that doesn’t have to assign every outcome to the sovereignty of God.

  2. Isaac: A “traditional” Christian view that doesn’t have to assign every outcome to the sovereignty of God? I am not sure about that…

    God has an exhaustive foreknowledge of everything and we know from the Scriptures that the Apocalypse is hanging over the whole world.

    All the things that He created are meant to be good but the capability of evil increases should the creation reject God.

    Any evil that exists in this world serves the greater good of God. God has the ability to stop evil, but what the greater good would then be : passive complacency? God has the ability to stop evil, yet He allowed the evil of Communism. This is how we know today about their irrational malice and we can infer who their master is. We are not here to stay and “the sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared with the glory which shall be revealed in us”.

    • James the Thickheaded :

      “Any evil that exists in this world serves the greater good of God.”

      Sooooo….. while I think I know what you mean here, the territory is so treacherous that it almost sounds as if we pause for a moment on this, that the way to get more of the greater good of God going on is to add to the evil… because it serves the greater good of God. More than that, it almost sounds as if evil were part of God’s plan to turn everything to good. And that’s surely not what you mean.

      I think the problem of evil involves a little more nuance to this… in that God can find and position us so that we have a shot at turning evil events to our good if we choose… but we have to choose still… and that choice of ours is where God is working from these events. It doesn’t mean that he turns bad things into good, but that he cares more about our hearts and turning them to good even if the circumstances themselves do not or cannot change… as often they do not.

      I think the problem of evil also involves the problem of free will and divine providence… and whether what God “allows” is the same thing as what God wills. I think the idea that we can actually sort these things out ignores the fact that we cannot formulate a hypothesis nor test something of this sort… so it is beyond reason’s ability to resolve… and we find ourselves looking for answers beyond our grasp. Does it really take an earth quake for this to happen? Do we not notice it in the disappointment over a child’s limitations, failures and disappointments? and heartbreaks in so many simpler things? or do we simply have to have gigantic scale to notice anything?

      • I believe a better way to say it is that in the midst of the mess we create, there is God making a way out of what seems to be no way. He has an exhaustive foreknowledge of everything; He knew we’ll keep messing up and He has the plan to straighten out everything. I do not know the detail of the plan :( , but I trust Him.

  3. The earthquake in Japan and other disasters caused by the elements of nature are also a warning to humanity to turn their faces back to God.

    There is a category of people often called by others “conspiracy nuts” while they call themselves “truth seekers”. They claim that fish and rare whales, displaying signs of ‘burning’, have been found beached in southern California, Mexico and other places just before earthquakes. Again, couple of days prior to Japan quake, whales and dolphins beach themselves near Sendai.

    On March 6th of 2011, 50 Melon Headed Whales were beached in Kashima, Ibaraki Prefecture approximately 60 miles south west of this weeks 8.9 Earthquake’s epicenter off the coast of Japan.
    http://www.japantoday.com

    Beached Whales, a warning of New Zealand’s Devastating Earthquake?
    http://www.allvoices.com/contributed-news/8270591-beached-whales-a-warning-of-new-zealands-devastating-earthquake
    See also:
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YSubC55KI2c&feature=related

  4. We don’t build houses on the banks of rivers that flood because we know better. Now we keep records and we know just where the worst case boundaries are even for floods that come every 100 years. People suffered and property was destroyed until we learned what we needed to learn relative to where it was safe to build houses. Likewise for hurricaines now– we know where they are going to hit and how bad it will be long enough in advance to get people out, leaving only property at risk.

    Truth is we don’t know much about where and when an earthquake will occur and how bad it will be when it does.

    Maybe the ‘fall of Man’ has more to do with being in ignorance than ‘divine sendings of adversity’. If we had our act together, these natural events would be the object of tourism and not fear. “See the Tsunami from a safe place, scheduled for 4:15 next Jan 16– tickets going fast!!!”

  5. Just as a side note, that may emphasize your point, Harry…

    We have an idea of where the worst groupings natural disasters will occur, including earthquakes; however, whether earthquake, flood, or tsunami, we tend to live with the risk and challenge our odds. That’s why cities like Cinci, New Orleans, and San Fran will always be built and rebuilt. Although the governments and science fields know better as a whole, most people do display ignorance as individuals.

    • Still there seems to be some knowledge gained and made into action. Not always of course, but some. For example opposition to state sponsored insurance programs to rebuild homes built where flooding is expected. I notice the much discussed ‘lower ninth ward’ of New Orleans is not being actively rebuilt whether for home or commercial use.

      In our town, a low lying island often flooded near the river is no longer being kept as a golf course and is now a park.

      So, there appears to be some energy to avoid larger versions of ‘spitting into the wind’.

  6. For your consideration:
    “Talking To Children When Bad Things Happen,” at
    http://www.theologic.com/oflweb/raise-em/badthings.htm
    where I say:
    “Every evil, and every natural disaster that has happened throughout history, is the result of the human ignorance or disobedience to God’s teachings. This may surprise us, and be hard for some of us to understand. But there is a spiritual connection between human sins and the natural order of the world. Science can not show or explain this connection.”
    Protodeacon Nicholas Jannakos

    • I believe sin is more than ignorance and disobedience to God’s commandment. When Adam and Eve disobeyed God, in their disobedience, submitted themselves (and their descendants) to Satan instead of God. God gave the Law through Moses so that we might see our desperately sinful condition and became aware of sin. The “working definition” of sin is: “Sin is a conspiracy of man’s mind with the devil, against God’s Law”.

  7. Michael Bauman :

    We have to have a reason for everything? Since when. The quest to comprehend ‘everything’ can be an evidence that we have abandoned the quest for union with God and our salvation.

    We have to control everything (inherent in some of the comments)? No!

    We pray, we grieve, we help knowing that nothing we do will be sufficient so we pray some more.

    • Not one in a billion was uncovered from nature’s secrets. As God’s wisdom does not have any boundaries, neither will it have one onto the ages of ages, since limitless is the Creator’s wisdom, indeed.

      • Does a really amazingly pious, humble and prayerful person still have to tie their camel?

        In my experience, the more we know about nature the less we feel the need to ‘control’ as we make fewer suffering-causing mistakes in relating to what it is.

        There is a vast space between understanding and controlling, often the more we can manage of the former the less we feel the need for the latter.

    • The creation law is what prophet David refers to: Heavens tell of God’s glory and the making of His hand is heralded by the sky. How? By their spherical arrangement and by the immense distance among them; by the interstellar space, which takes billions of light-years to cross, by the movement of the celestial bodies, of the solar system, and of the planets, with such measure and precision that it boggles the minds of the greatest astronomers in the world.

      What did Isaac Newton say – the great English astronomer, who for thirty years had been an atheist and when he discovered the “law of universal attraction” and saw that each planet will attract a smaller one and will not let it get away, or break or move irregularly in the celestial space. He put all his equipment on the table and exclaimed: Great are Thou, oh God, and wondrous are Thy things and no word is enough to praise Thy wonders! Elder Cleopa

      • The prophet David knew about light-years?

        • The prophet tells what God, through the Holy Spirit, inspired him to say. The message he delivered is : Heavens tell of God’s glory and the making of His hand is heralded by the sky.

          Later on, while observing the movement of the heavenly bodies, scientists had started to understand what the prophet meant.
          The elegance and complexity of the nature, the complexity of our own bodies are a reflection of God’s existence and His language. The prophet did not say anything about DNA but, while studying the the 3.1 billion letters of the human genome (our own DNA instruction book), some scientists started to see in it a reflection of God’s plan.

  8. Christians have a few options in these situations. They can say an event like this is a harbinger of the “end times”, they can say it is a sign of God’s anger and his punishment of human sin, or they can say nothing and do what they can to relieve the suffering caused by these events, thereby showing themselves to be the followers of a man who did not come to judge the world, but rather to demonstrate his solidarity with humanity by subjecting himself to suffering. The first two options involved abstract speculations. The last option involves tangible works of mercy.

  9. Life Of St. John (Maximovitch)The Wonderworker

    Man of Prayer
    When the coming of the communists, the Russians in China were forced once again to flee, most through the Philippines. At one time 5,000 of the refugees were living in an Internaltional Refugee Organization camp on the island of Tubabao, located in the path of typhons.

    When the fear of typhons was mentioned by one Russian to the Filipinos, they replied that there was no reason to worry, because ” ‘your holy man blesses your camp from four directions every night.’ They referred to Vladika John, for no typhoon struck the island while he was there.”

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