China Bridge (神州橋樑)_2008/Jul

Earthquakes, cyclones and other natural disasters

“Fools rush in where angels fear to tread,” is one of many familiar quotes from Alexander Pope (1688-1744). After prayer and reflection, wise people may utter a few words about a hard problem or a painful situation, but there is never a shortage of thoughtless individuals who will say the first thing that comes into their heads. This column is being written several weeks after the May 2 cyclone that struck the Union of Myanmar and the May 12 earthquake in Sichuan. The following paragraphs may contain the most foolish, or, more charitably, the least adequate thoughts ever to appear in China Bridge. However, if this had been rushed into print a month earlier, the faults would have been even more glaring.

Confucius more reticent than Cardinal Zen

A disciple once asked Confucius about the afterlife. He replied tersely, “Not yet understanding life, how can you understand death?” (未知生焉知死 Analects 11) The sage never claimed to have the benefit of any revelation about life after this earthly existence. He suffered a number of setbacks and disappointments in life. On one occasion he felt overwhelmed and lamented: “Heaven is destroying me!” (天喪予 Analects 8) Yet he managed to pick himself up and keep going.

On Monday evening, on June 2, Joseph Cardinal Zen Ze-kiun, the bishop of Hong Kong, led around 1,400 people at a Mass in the cathedral for the victims of the earthquake in Sichuan. They also prayed for the dead in Myanmar. Our bishop began his homily by referring to the early chapters of the Book of Job. Job first lost his material possessions and children. His friends came to visit him but did not recognise him in his sickness. Before saying anything, they first mourned with him in silence. Today, we also need to be able to mourn before we can voice any words of comfort.

The benefit of asking “why?”

Children are persistent in asking “Why?” For example, a little girl once asked, “Daddy, why is the sky blue?” Every time the father gave her a simple answer, she asked: “Why?” Finally he gave her a technical scientific explanation with a string of big words. She asked: “What?” He smiled and replied, “Young lady, you will understand when you are older.”

It is good that some children never fully grow up. They keep asking “Why?” Their probing leads to new scientific discoveries, new inventions, new ways of running a business or a country and also to a greater understanding of the faith.

In the Middle Ages, St. Anselm (1033-1100) defined theology as “faith seeking understanding.” We believe. We desire at least a slightly clearer picture of what we believe. We’ll never be fully able to explain God. At some point we have to stop and say, “Because that’s the way it is!” But theologians are curious to see how far they can proceed before coming to a dead end. In explaining natural disasters, that is not far at all.

“Why” in the sense of “for what purpose?”

The question “Why?” often refers to the past. What prior conditions set the stage for this event? Yet people also ask “Why?” as they look to the future to learn what aim is being fulfilled, or what purpose, or what final cause is being served. Since the time of Galileo (1564-1642), science deliberately does not speculate about final purposes. This freed researchers to concentrate on regularities between observable, measurable phenomena and led to great progress in pure and applied science.

For example: Why in the world are there violent storms and earthquakes? Meteorologists can accurately describe evaporation and rainfall, wind direction and air pressure. Geologists measure one vast plate of rock creeping past another, as slowly as fingernails grow, until something snaps underground.

They can explain in mathematical detail WHAT is happening and HOW a storm or an earthquake develops, but we are not satisfied. We ask: “For what purpose do hurricanes and earthquakes occur?” Then the scientists are silent. It does no good to ask them about the purpose or goal of anything in nature. They are not trained to answer the question, “For what purpose?” That is not part of their job description.

Providence and the scandal of evil

Theologians are brave enough to go on record and talk about natural evil. The Catechism of the Catholic Church asks “…why does evil exist? To this question…no quick answer will suffice…There is not a single aspect of the Christian message that is not in part an answer to the question of evil” (n. 309).

It then asks the same question which atheists and those in mourning also ask: “But why did God not create a world so perfect that no evil could exist in it? With infinite power God could always create something better.” The answer given is that creation is still journeying towards perfection: “With physical good there exists also physical evil as long as creation has not reached perfection” (n. 310, both emphases in original). The Catechism devotes far more space to moral evil, meaning the harm that comes from free choice.

We live in an imperfect world, a fallen world, where God permits natural and human-made disasters to happen. One day God will create a new heaven and a new earth, and wipe away every tear from our eyes (Rev. 21:1,4). But in the meantime, all creation groans and is in agony (Rom. 8:22).

Perhaps the religious minority that says the least after any natural disaster are New Age devotees of the earth goddess. Mother Nature does not care if people live or die.

Actions speak louder than words

There is a time and a place to analyse a disaster, but the first priority is to rescue people, next provide food and shelter, and the third step is to help them rebuild their lives.

Help was quick to arrive in Sichuan. The disaster brought out the best in people. China’s premier, Wen Jiabao (温家寶), the army, the Red Cross, volunteers from across the Mainland, from Hong Kong and beyond, all made heroic efforts. Atheists, Buddhists, Daoists, Christians and Muslims worked together in the disaster zone and overseas donors included people of other religions.

In Hong Kong, there were some letters to newspaper editors about “Why does God permit such disasters? There is no God!” A generation ago, the media had little or nothing to report after an accident or a natural disaster inside China, but occasionally commented on overseas calamities to “prove” the point that God does not exist. It is ironic that more people outside China than inside now cite natural disasters to argue against God. How times have changed!

The Second Vatican Council (1962-1965) debated the link between human effort and the plan of God. The Gaudium et Spes (Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World), gives upbeat evaluations of scientific and material progress, as well as human intelligence, conscience and freedom. But “the mind is at a loss before the mystery of death,” which raises “anxious queries” about the future. Confronted with the loss of a loved one, Christian faith looks to Christ’s victory over death and the resurrection gives us hope “that they have found true life with God” (n. 18). Catholics pray for both the living and the dead.

Gaudium et Spes next looks at atheism and the reasons for its spread. Some of the blame admittedly lies with the failures of Christians. The Church “teaches that hope in a life to come does not take away from the importance of the duties of this life on earth but rather adds to it by giving new motives for fulfilling those duties” (n. 19).

Catholics join people of different beliefs in working for the common good. God knows to what extent we will succeed in this world. “We know neither the moment…nor the way the universe will be transformed.” But we cannot sit back and wait passively. “Far from diminishing our concern to develop this earth, the expectancy of a new earth should spur us on” (n. 39).

Living with uncertainty

While a flood gives warning of its arrival, an earthquake catches everyone by surprise. Although there were reports of bees and toads behaving strangely before the Sichuan quake, science is not yet able to “connect the dots” and issue a forecast.

A generation ago, there was some optimism about being able to foresee a big quake. Now the field is marked by frustration. The next huge earthquake may strike next month or three years from now in this or that part of the world, yet nobody can safely bet where or when. Deep layers of rock are too complex. When and where they will buckle depends on minute details, hard to measure and harder to calculate.

In both the mathematical and everyday use of the term, storms, volcanic eruptions, droughts and earthquakes are “chaotic.” Natural disasters are fearful reminders of how little control people have over life and death.

People respond negatively to uncertainty by going to palm readers and psychics. On the one hand, the Catechism condemns all types of divination, because they “contradict the honour, respect and loving fear that we owe to God alone” (n. 2116). On the other hand, fortune telling does not save lives. Not a single survivor of the earthquake has said, “I’m alive now because my astrologer told me to take a walk outdoors on the afternoon of May 12.” How many of the deceased consulted a fortune-teller within a week prior to the quake?

A positive response to danger is to prepare by sturdy construction, evacuation drills and by stockpiling food, water and medicine. Disaster preparation saves lives. Jesus told a parable about wisely building a house upon rock, not upon sand (Mt. 7:21-27). He also said, “Fear is useless. What is needed is trust” (Mk. 5:36).

Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us sinners, now and at the hour of our death. Amen.