China Bridge (神州橋樑)_2010/May

Neither masters of natural disasters nor passive victims

There have been so many natural disasters in the first few months of 2010 – are they signs of the end of the world? Not necessarily! We humans might continue to exist for ages and ages to come.

Volcanoes in China

Volcanoes are not among the things people think of when someone mentions China. Yet China has over 20 volcanoes. Baitoushan (白頭山),on the border of North Korea, had a sizeable eruption as can be seen from a thick layer of frozen lava surrounding Lake Tianchi (天池) at the summit. When did the fireworks occur? Geologists say maybe as early as 950 AD, or as late as the year 990. A clan or two of hunters might have perished, but the forests of northeast China were sparsely settled back then and no one recorded the explosion.

Smoke was seen off the east coast of Taiwan in 1795 and, again, by a few ships in the mid-19th century, but there was no loss of life. If a dormant underwater volcano erupted today, that would be big news. Without photos of the ash plume and tear-filled interviews of those whose lives had been disrupted, even a volcano is not newsworthy.

The problem of physical evil

What good are natural disasters? Volcanic ash fertilises the soil and earthquakes push land upwards. This counteracts soil erosion, which slowly washes land into the sea. Earthquakes keep land above sea level. Yet such answers are of little comfort to the survivors.

Theology distinguishes moral evils, such as robbery and murder, from physical evils such as violence in nature, where no one can be blamed. The Catechism of the Catholic Church contains pages and pages about sin, yet only a few paragraphs on physical evil, because moral evil is “incommensurably more harmful” (n. 311).

The Book of Job deals with innocent suffering. The Catechism cites Job nine times, but only twice in relation to evil and God’s plan. Job 36:26, “Behold, God is great, and we know him not,” is quoted in n. 223 in support of God’s greatness. We are called to serve God even though our understanding is limited.

Yet we can learn something of the Almighty from studying the universe. “Our human understanding… can understand what God tells us by means of his creation, though not without great effort and only in a spirit of humility…” (n. 299, cf. Job 42:3).

The Catechism looks more to the New Testament. God permits evil “in order to draw forth some greater good” (n. 412). This is a problem that can only be solved by faith in Christ, who alone is the conqueror of evil (n. 385).

Good but limited progress

The early and medieval ecumenical councils were held in societies which changed so slowly as to seem static, destined to endure until the end of the world. By 1870, when Pope Pius IX and 800 bishops gathered in Rome for Vatican I (1870-1871), change was in the air. Indeed, the political upset of the unification of Italy led to that council closing after less than nine months. Both social and political changes were associated with revolution and anti-clericalism.

Not even the Protestant Reformation had posed such a comprehensive threat to Tradition. The hierarchy went on the defensive. Church authorities favoured the restoration of a more secure era and revived the teachings of St. Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274) from the glorious days of the High Middle Ages.

Pope John XXIII summoned Vatican II (1962-1965) to “open the windows of the Church and let a little air in.” With some vocal exceptions, the 2,680 participants praised human progress. For the first time, the phrase “signs of the times” did not refer to omens of the impending end of the world, but had an optimistic meaning.

The Church is in the world, not outside the world or against it. The second preposition in the document titled The Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World is significant. The Latin title is Gaudium et Spes (G&S), from the opening words meaning “joy and hope.” G&S focusses on “the joy and hope, the grief and anguish” of all people, not just Catholics. The preface reviews the great transformations in the world of the 1960s and finds many things to celebrate. Both human “mastery over nature” and ability to create a better political and social order are “meant to promote human dignity” (G&S, n.9).

However, hard questions remain. “What is the meaning of suffering, evil, death, which have not been eliminated by all this progress?… What happens after this earthly life is ended?” The Church finds the answers in Jesus Christ, the Lord and Master, the “centre and purpose of the whole of human history” (G&S, n. 10).

Eclipses, the original disasters

Disaster comes from the Greek for bad star. From the dawn of history, people believed that events in the heavens caused most of the good and bad luck of both people and nations on earth.

Eclipses were the most eye-catching and fear-inducing sign in the sky. Solar eclipses were worse that the lunar variety. John Milton (1668-1674) wrote: “In dim eclipse, disastrous twilight sheds on half the nations and with fear of change perplexes monarchs.” In China, people said, “There cannot be two suns in the sky; there cannot be two emperors on earth.” Two rivals fighting for the Dragon Throne were a national disaster which always entailed many fatalities.

After New China was founded, there was a partial solar eclipse on 18 March 1950 and a total solar eclipse six months later, on September 12 – bad omens! People whispered that the new dynasty (sic) would only endure briefly. In response, Chinese newspapers explained the science of the moon’s shadow occasionally touching the earth and denounced astrology as feudal superstition. Chinese news media never expose capitalist superstition or (God forbid) socialist superstition.

The Chinese phrase (天災人禍) tersely blames both heaven for causing a disaster, and people for mishandling the aftermath. On the contrary, the government deserves credit for promptly sending rescue workers and relief goods to a remote corner of Qinghai (青海) after the deadly magnitude 7.1 quake on March 14. Buddhist monks also went to the scene to pray for the dead and to comfort the survivors. Catholics in the mainland sent help and the diocese of Hong Kong took up a second collection in parishes here.

Capitalist superstition?

When she was a teenager, the family of Ayn Rand (1905-1982) had to leave Russia because of the Bolshevik Revolution. This left her with a bitter distaste of socialism and all forms of collectivism. She later wrote in praise of the independent, risk-taking capitalist who did not rely upon anyone else for help. Relying upon charity, or government assistance, creates dependency while destroying human initiative.

Today, Rand’s disciples call themselves Objectivists, claiming to be free of ill-considered sentimentality and religious delusion. They are dead set against the welfare state and big government. People become better by looking out for themselves instead of interfering in other people’s business, thus selfishness is actually a virtue.

On 26 December 2004, a magnitude 9.2 super-earthquake off Sumatra sent tsunamis crashing ashore across southeast Asia, killing about 230,000 people. As the world mobilised humanitarian relief efforts, a pro-Rand website briefly achieved international attention by urging people, “Don’t help the victims.” In response to global condemnation, that website issued a clarification the next day. However, the retraction did not stop a blogger from writing, “Objectively speaking, altruism is evil, especially collective altruism.”

Could this be a capitalist superstition? Both religious believers and humanists see this as extreme selfishness, pushing healthy individualism to a pathological degree.

Scientific superstition?

When the Soviet Union was beginning to industrialise rapidly, M.N. Pokrovsky had unlimited optimism. He wrote in 1931: “In the future, when science and technique will have attained a perfection which we are as yet unable to visualise, nature will become soft wax in man’s hands, which he will be able to cast into whatever shape he chooses.”

Squeezing warm wax is one thing; laying hands on molten lava is another. There is no technology on the horizon to prevent volcanoes from injecting ash high into the atmosphere. Travellers stranded at airports last month used many adjectives to describe their days of going nowhere, but perfection was not one of them.

Radar expert and science fiction writer, Arthur C. Clarke (1917-2008), claimed, “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” Yet isn’t belief in the power of magic a mark of feudal superstition?

Clarke also wrote, “Maybe our role on this earth is not to worship God, but to create him.” He did not have faith in God or in the power of prayer. Instead, he had unlimited faith in science and technology. People keep making new discoveries in science and inventing new products, therefore one day we will create heaven on earth – and not just on earth. Eventually our descendants will become like gods, able to travel across the universe and do whatever they can imagine.

Small red stars will continue to shine for ages and ages. On the last page of Profiles of the Future: An Inquiry into the Limits of the Possible (1962), Clarke admired our distant descendants: “They will have enough time, in those endless eons, to attempt all things and to gather all knowledge … no gods imagined by our minds have ever possessed the powers they will command.” This quote is certainly optimistic, but is it scientific?

The way to find out is to wait a billion years and see. In the meantime, we need to focus on today. Our ability to predict natural disasters remains painfully limited. It seems impossible to prevent certain kinds of disasters. The good news is that religious believers and atheists can cooperate in disaster relief. Whether or not humans will ever be masters of the universe, we at least do not have to be passive victims on earth.