Earthquakes, Droughts, Tsunamis and God

We humans don’t have the mental capacity to conceive of something as expansive and magnificent as God. But we want to have some divine concept to grasp on to so we’ve done the best we could—we’ve created our ideas and mental images of God. And because we are unable to conceive of God but are very familiar with ourselves (the highest form of life we know) we created mental models of God that are heavily anthropocentric (human-centered). And so we created a paternal God in our own image.

This paternal God model, like our own fathers, 1) is very concerned about us, 2) wants us to be “good” and 3) will punish us if we’re not. It’s been passed down, generation by generation, for thousands of years largely unchanged, to us. For example, people of ancient times believed that:

  • when we become ill, we have done something to offend God.
  • when there is a drought, God is punishing us.
  • when there is an earthquake, God is showing his rage.
  • When there is a volcanic eruption, God is trying to kill us.

Of course now we have modern science which tells us that we get ill from bacteria or viruses, that earthquakes are caused by colliding tectonic plates, that volcanic eruptions are caused by an upwelling of magma in the earth’s crust and that drought is caused by climatic variations. None of these events has anything to do with a vengeful God.

Much of the Third World doesn’t yet believe this way because they haven’t been exposed to modern science. But surprisingly, many Americans, including some of our most prominent religious leaders don’t believe it either.

For example, Pat Robertson ascribed the Indian Ocean tsunami to God’s retribution for the misguided ways of the (heathen) people of the region. Likewise Franklin Graham ascribed Hurricane Katrina’s devastation of the Gulf coast as divine payback for the debauched ways of the people of New Orleans.

I like to think I am beyond this. Yet despite all my spiritual “work” I have noticed this tendency still clinging within me. The other day I lost my temper and swore, taking God’s name in vain. I immediately noticed a guilty feeling and took the time to examine it. Sure enough, it came from a distant, hazy belief imbedded from my childhood that God gets angry with me when I take his name in vain. Old programming is so difficult to break.

I rationally know that God does not “care” about the behavior of human beings. Our moral values have evolved as a way of furthering our species, nothing more. At the conscious level I try to avoid taking God’s name in vain, not because of divine retribution, but because it  is considered crude by society. And when I slip, I try to view it as feedback that I have lost my equanimity. But I also know that there is some emotional release that comes when we utter things that are frowned upon by society, which is why the practice continues.

The climb out of ignorance is a long one which takes constant, lifelong vigilance. It is an ongoing process that continues generation after generation and never ends. Old habits die hard. Where are you in this process?

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#1 Jim Best on 01.26.08 at 10:51 pm

When my wife was ill with Lou Gehrig’s disease, we had to look at what that meant to us. Was she being punished? Did she do something wrong? Or did I? What we came to over the next year was to realize that sometimes bad things happen. It is not about what is happening to us as much as what we do with it. We were much more proactive after that, rather than victims. I see strong echoes of that from your article above, and your book.

#2 John on 01.26.08 at 11:16 pm

A powerful teaching Jim, especially for a family dealing with terminal illness and death. We humans take things so personally and love to bee victims. Yet this offers powerful lessons and growth for those willing to look deeper, as you point out. Thanks.

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