Posted: April 1st, 2011

God Only Knows

By, Fr. Mark Sietsema

What can we say as Orthodox Christians about the earthquake and tsunami in Japan?

"God Only Knows"

MIT is a unique and wonderful place. One of the unusual features of my grad school was that it was the only place I ever heard a college professor say, "I don't know." Only at MIT were the faculty willing to admit the obvious-that there are limits to everyone's expertise. I admired them for that quality, unique in my academic experience: though they were at the top of their profession, those professors might have been the most prideful were actually the most humble. Their "I don't know" was a mark of true intellectual maturity.

Now as a priest I think often of those professors. Theologians tend to be another group who can't bring themselves to utter the words, "I don't know." And yet when it comes to the mysteries of God, is there any more true statement for a human? In the aftermath of catastrophes like the earthquake in Japan, a lot of people become amateur theologians. They start tossing around big, important questions about the meaning of such events. And because they act like theologians, they forget how to say, "I don't know."

What does it mean that 20,000 people are suddenly dead or missing?

What does it mean that the best-prepared country in the world nevertheless suffered horrific damage from the forces of nature?

What does it mean that one nation's disaster threatens to poison the rest of the world with radioactivity?

Sometimes, though the only honest, humane answer is, "I don't know."

Some have been suggesting that the earthquake was payback for Japan's attack on Pearl Harbor. To me that seems like a huge stretch, and a self-centered one as well. I'm a patriot, but I don't think the whole world is run according to how things work out for the U.S. We lost fewer than 3000 lives at Pearl Harbor; the death toll in Japan could rise to 20,000. Where's the fairness in that equation? That line of reasoning makes God out to have the morality of a Mafia loan shark.

But if we're going back to World War II to find reasons for "divine retribution" on Japan, I would think that what their army did in China would be more noteworthy. In Nanking alone 200,000 people died in a massacre. If the earthquake is punishment for that, then God's a pretty lax disciplinarian. But if God is ignoring Nanking and avenging Pearl Harbor, then God's a worse bigot than Archie Bunker. I trust that no Orthodox theologian, professional or amateur, would spout such a theory.

Some armchair theologians see the earthquakes in Japan (and Haiti and Chile and elsewhere) and say: "It's a sign that the end of the world is near! Didn't Jesus say that before the end comes, there will famines and earthquakes in various places, and you will hear of wars and rumors of wars; nation will rise against nation and kingdom against kingdom. Look around you! Isn't this all being fulfilled in our time???"

Well ... I don't know. I do know that the greatest Orthodox Bible scholar of all times, St. John Chrysostom, said that those prophecies of earthquakes and wars and rumors of wars, etc., were all fulfilled in the events leading up to the destruction of Jerusalem by the Roman army in the year 70 A.D. All those Bible verses that the fundamentalist preachers like to quote? Those things happened already--at the end of the age (the age of animal sacrifice, that is, not the end of planet Earth). No well-read Orthodox theologian, professional or amateur, should be keeping a checklist of end-time prophecies. When is Christ coming again? I don't know. Nobody knows. So said Christ Himself.

I found it interesting that the governor of Tokyo suggested that the earthquake was an expression of tembatsu, "heavenly discipline" in Buddhist theology, because Japanese politics are tainted with egotism and populism. I don't know. Is that how it works? Egomania and demagoguery bring down the wrath of God? Then it's time to start evacuating Washington, DC immediately.

It's almost too easy to find in someone else's disaster a reason for God's wrath, isn't it? The Lord Jesus had something to say about that little human foible. You can read about it in Luke 13. The two big news stories in His day were that Pontius Pilate massacred some Galileans when they were offering their sacrifices and that the tower of Siloam collapsed, killing eighteen people. Jesus asked his audience, "Do you think the people who died were worse sinners than anyone else? No. So you need to repent, or you will perish some day too." The Lord's point is clear: don't go poking around in someone else's rubble trying to find the explanation for why this happened to them. Worry about yourself and what you deserve.

Armchair theologians can be terribly insensitive when trying to explain the deaths of thousands. Pat Robertson had his own explanation for the earthquake in Haiti; Jerry Falwell knew why the World Trade Centers were destroyed. They both remind me of the attitude of Joseph Stalin, who once said that "A single death is a tragedy; a million deaths is a statistic." The human soul can't process the sadness of so many deaths, and so instead of grieving, the mind shifts its analytical gears into overdrive. After a certain amount of death, we stop seeing people's faces and we start thinking in terms of abstract numbers. There are no feelings attached to numbers, and so you can say anything you want, ascribe any theory you can dream up.

We have a problem, of course, whenever we encounter mass deaths like we see in the tide of corpses washing ashore in Japan. This cuts to the very heart of our idea of a personal, loving God who is concerned with the details of the life of each one of us personally. Because that's what Christ taught us, that God has the hairs of each one of us numbered, and that He who looks after each tiny little sparrow cares all the more for every human being formed in His image. When so many of God's children die together--the good with the bad, the young with the old--does that not challenge our belief that God is concerned with individual lives?

The Bible itself asks this very question. In Genesis 18, Abraham stands outside of Sodom and Gomorrah and dares to question divine wisdom. "Will you sweep away the righteous with the wicked? What if there are fifty good people left?" Or 45? Or 40? Or 30? Or 20? Or only 10? Don't those ten lives count for something in the heavenly balances?

The answer of the Bible is that, yes, even one righteous human counts for a great deal ... as does even one unrighteous human. We are left, then, with a great paradox: as Christians we affirm the value of every human life--no matter how young or old or virtuous or sinful (or born or unborn). And yet at the same time we cannot devise any moral calculus that helps us accept the sudden snuffing-out of such tremendous value multiplied by thousands upon thousands. No human sense can be made of it, which is to say that no one can justify God's action on human terms.

Not that some Christians haven't tried. In ancient times, some wannabe theologians suggested that the weather is controlled by demons, thereby letting God off the hook for natural disasters. Or does it? Saint John Chrysostom preached a series of sermons against this idea. Basically, if you believe the Bible, it's clear enough that God has plenty of say in the weather. When it comes to cold fronts or tectonic plates or relative humidity, blaming demons still doesn't take God out of the moral equation. Better just to say "I just don't know."

But those words come so hard for some of us. Even when faced with the mystery of the divine will, we still can't say simply, "I don't know why." We have to put a pious twist on our ignorance. There is an old saying that gets bounced around when we see some person in misery: "There but for the grace of God, go I." How humble! How un-self-righteous! What great solidarity this saying shows for the suffering!

Or does it? Someone has pointed out that when you say, "There but for the grace of God go I," you are at the same time also saying, "There, by the grace of God, goes someone else." I think we can all see that "I don't know" is a great improvement on that sentiment.

There is this deep-seated human belief that to name something is to control it. If only we can label a disaster by its reason or purpose, well, then maybe we can somehow make sure it never happens to us. This belief is irrational, but it comes from the very heart of our fears about the world and our lack of power. When we say, "I don't know," we admit to others-but more importantly, to ourselves-that we are not the master of our fates. We can still be the captains of our souls; but this requires the spiritual maturity to accept our powerlessness and to trust in God.

In a world full of ignorant answers to deep questions, what is the best Orthodox Christian response to what happened in Japan? It is the truly humble, truly honest, truly humane answer, "I don't know. God only knows." That's the correct answer with the mouth. The even more correct answer is the one with the hand, holding out a gift to help one's fellow man bear up under his burden in time of tragedy.

I learned through Dan Skorich that a number of Orthodox Churches were destroyed in the earthquake. Our parish is collecting funds to give to the Inter-Orthodox Christian Charities, who will give our money to the Orthodox Church of Japan to help their parishioners in dire need. It is not too late to contribute. Please send your check to the church office (made out to Holy Trinity Greek Orthodox Church), and make it clear that you are giving this donation (on top of your regular stewardship) for Japan relief.

May God's blessings be on the people of Japan, and on all of us who reach out to their brothers and sisters on the other side of the world.

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