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Saturday, January 01, 2005

The quest for easy answers

Last night, someone shared with me about a missionary who was supposed to be going to Sri Lanka last month, but somehow because of visa complications, they couldn't go. He went on to say that if he had gone, he would have been caught in the Tsunami, and might even have lost his life. Apparently, the visa problems just got sorted out last week and he is going to go in a few weeks. "What a marvellous divine intervention," this Christian brother added.

I was uneasy with what I heard. I didn't know how to respond. I am not sure why so often some Christians often put more value to one missionary who seemed to have miraculously escaped death and disaster than tens of thousands of "heathens" who have not. I know perhaps he did not really think that to be the case. However, I still feel uneasy that we tend to rejoice at the suggestion that God has intervened in one life, because it leaves the nagging question, "Why didn't he intervene in the lives of the other tens of thousands?"

Why is it that Chrstians sometimes tend to be quick to give thanks to God for whatever "good" thing shining in the midst of darkness and tragedy? Many Christians also are quick to point to verses like Romans 8:28 "All things work for the good to those who love the Lord" and sometimes in their eagerness to embrace the "working for good" part, they are quick to give thanks for the "good" and seem to gloss over the pain, suffering, groaning and moaning of the moment. I think there are times when we need to hold our peace, and just shed a tear or two in silence as we struggle with the realization that there are just no easy answers to the hard questions.

Earlier on, my wife had asked me, "What is the role of God in all this that has happened in Asia?" I had suggested to her that God is suffering together with those who are suffering. She pressed on, "If some parents had lost all of their children but another's child escaped, can we thank God that He saved one but not the other? Can we say that God is working for the good that He has taken the children of one set of parents but not the other?"

My wife likes to ask hard questions. I remember feeling just a tad irritated by her questions last night, although I hope I did not show it. I don't know why I was irritated. Maybe because even though I knew there were no easy answers, I so wanted there to be so. How I wish I could just come up with a formula, or a tightly argued philosophical treatise and offer it to quell all doubts and questions. But, I had to admit to my wife that I didn't know the answer.

Reading what the Archbishop of Canterbury wrote in the Daily Telegraph helped me to deal with the uneasiness somewhat:
"Making sense" of a great disaster will always be a challenge simply because those who are closest to the cost are the ones least likely to accept some sort of intellectual explanation, however polished.
I think there is a tendency for humans to want to deal with pains, sufferings and disaster like we deal with any other thing in life: to conquer it. Perhaps it comes from the human need to "subdue" the earth, following the divine mandate given to us at Creation (Gen. 1: 28). Perhaps, it comes from the spirit of the scientific revolution, when humans came of age of sorts, and we got this false hope of overpowering nature, controlling it, and taming it finally via the supposed panacea of all human ills - scientific knowledge and applications.

Whatever it is, when we are rendered impoverished and helpless by the forces of nature, or by the irrationality of the stark reality of the world - we seem to be disturbed to the core. We want to overcome it by a retreat to either a "bald naturalism" where we try to force all of life to fit into a particular model of explanation, or we appeal to a supernatural absolutism, where we try to anchor the uncertainties of life to some sort of foundationalism. However, either of the approaches leads to blind alleys. On the one hand, a bald naturalism denies a whole range of reality that just cannot be made to fit into the reductionism that seeks purely naturalistic explanations and on the other hand, supernaturalist absolutism denies the stark reality of the vagueness and uncertainties of life by forcing a strictly black and white answer to every question.

That is why I like the humility the Archbishop showed in his article:
The odd thing is that those who are most deeply involved – both as sufferers and as helpers – are so often the ones who spend least energy in raging over the lack of explanation. They are likely to shrug off, awkwardly and not very articulately, the great philosophical or religious questions we might want to press. Somehow, they are most aware of two things: a kind of strength and vision just to go on; and a sense of the imperative for practical service and love. Somehow in all of this, God simply emerges for them as a faithful presence. Arguments "for and against" have to be put in the context of that awkward, stubborn persistence.
His conclusion also rings so true:
What can be said with authority about these terrible matters can finally be said only by those closest to the cost. The rest of us need to listen; and then to work and – as best we can manage it – pray.
Read the rest of his article here.

P.S. We can still help. If you have not given to the relief effort yet, or even if you have done so, but can still donate more, please allow me to encourage you to read on in my blog for a few good efforts that are right now bringing much needed help to those who are suffering. Go here for some ideas or scroll to the end of this post for some links to many relief agencies who are helping currently.