Sermon in the wake of Sandy

November 1, 2012 § 1 Comment

Events like the recent hurricane provide dramatic examples of how life can fundamentally change and of how it can do so quite suddenly. Half of the people on my Facebook feed are posting pictures of kids in Halloween costumes, political arguments, and sports commentary; the other half are posting pictures of downed trees, flooded streets, and ruined interiors. It is heartbreaking to watch.

And we have the problem of why: Why was New York City affected? Why was New Jersey hit so hard? And why were we spared?

It does not take long, of course, for the bad theology to show up: a firebrand preacher suggests that the new law regarding the freedom to marry in New York must be the reason for the hurricane, and an orthodox rabbi chimes in to agree: yes, this is an example of God’s wrath.

Such arguments, of course, are genuinely misguided. To begin, I think that they have the wrong idea about same-gender love relationships. I think that New York was exactly right to enact that law.

But even if they had given a reason other than the marriage law, this kind of theology fails on the basis of its own logic: for example, it does not fundamentally explain why God would want to unleash such destruction over such a large area, most of which was outside of the presumed-to-be-offending state.

No, when you start thinking in those terms things quickly become grotesque.

And it is for this reason that most thinking folks recoil from the suggestion that God would send a hurricane that created extensive damage in eight plus states in order to punish the majority of voters of just one of them.

But alternate versions of this bad theology are also proposed from time to time. They seem less problematic because they appear to work on a smaller scale: God sent X in order to… test us, or mold us, or punish us, or teach us. Or something.

The appeal of this kind of theology, of course, is that it provides us with an illusion of control. Even if it means that we must accept bad outcomes, such as the devastation of innocents, this theology is enticing because it gives us the power over these events. If our sin caused it, then it must mean that we could stop sinning and thereby cause it to stop. Or, if this event was to teach us, then perhaps we could cause it to stop by absorbing the lesson. Or something.

As it happens, this is the week in which we read the puzzling narrative of the binding of Isaac, and we are left with many of the same kinds of questions. Why does God test us? What causes God to choose Abraham, for example, and what causes God to choose Isaac? Why is Isaac bound, yet then spared?

We could, of course, retreat from these questions and answer that these are simply aspects of God’s mystery. But that’s not such a satisfying response, really; that’s just dodging the question.

So, then, what else can be said? One of the Talmudic responses to the question ‘why was Abraham chosen?’ is to emphasize how it might quiet the fault-finders and the naysayers: as Nehama Leibowitz writes, “The evil part of man, the evil-mindedness of fault-finders both from Israel and the nations demands to know why Abraham served to be chosen of God. Wherein lay his merits, his devotion and self-sacrifice? R. Yose b. Zimra regarded the story of his sacrifice of Isaac as the Torah’s answer to that question.” According to this line of thinking, the binding of Isaac was indeed a test of Abraham, conducted for the purpose of establishing his worthiness in the eyes of others. In other words, Abraham is tested so that his detractors would be silenced.

And you can see a similar logic applied in some of the theological responses to natural catastrophes like hurricanes: Perhaps God intended to test us to demonstrate something. Perhaps God intended to show us or someone else some kind of lesson. Perhaps God was bestowing some kind of badge of honor in the form of our suffering. Or something.

But that is still not a very satisfying answer, is it?

Maimonides, on the other hand, identifies a different kind of test in his Guide of the Perplexed: “…Abraham did not hasten to kill Isaac out of fear that God might slay him or make him poor, but solely because it is man’s duty to love and to fear God, even without hope of a reward or fear of punishment. The angel, therefore, says to him ‘For now I know,’ etc. (Genesis 22,12), that is, from this action, for which you deserve to be truly called a God-fearing man, all people shall learn how far we must go in the fear of God.”

In other words, the command to sacrifice Isaac was a test of motives: the test was to determine whether Abraham would respond out of reverence for God rather than out of a fear of punishment. And Abraham clearly passed that test.

But if this logic is applied to the case of the hurricane, then what would that kind of theology look like? We might conclude that perhaps this event allows us to demonstrate our finer qualities, and it provides an opportunity to learn something about ourselves in the process.

But of course, such concepts create objections: but why must it be necessary to suffer first? What makes the test necessary in the first place? And why must the tests be so difficult, so wrenching, so hurtful? Would it not seem that God is unduly malicious in distributing these tests?

In other words, we are back to our original question: why?

Why is it that some people have all of the contents of their lives swept away in a tidal current, while others maybe a few miles away still have power and phone service and all of their stuff? Can we claim that one family was wicked and the other virtuous, and that’s why they had very different outcomes?

Let’s pull that apart and look at it for a moment.

First: We cannot conclude that the family that lost everything must have been wicked, for we know too many counter-examples to believe that is the case. We all know really good people who have suffered greatly.

Not only that, but also: if only wicked people experienced catastrophe or got sick or lost everything we would not think it necessary to extend help, visit the sick, or donate to such causes. But we know better. We know that awful things can strike wonderful people. Or even mediocre people.

So, what can we say about the other option? If we were to conclude that the family who lost everything must be virtuous, than perhaps this loss was a test of their faith, or a test of their mettle, or a sign of their great strength, or a test to teach them or others that they have the power to overcome such obstacles.

But that theology breaks down too: then why should it be necessary at all? Why the suffering?

What if those who were tested in this manner would rather that this test be passed to someone else, thank you very much? What if the catastrophe is not considered to be a desirable route to sainthood, but merely the catalyst in the creation of an interminable list of decisions regarding which things are to be salvaged and which are to be scrapped? And what if the person tested buckles under the weight of it, or is proven to be only marginally virtuous?

There is also, of course, the naturalistic option: we could explain such events as the natural unfolding of world events. There is no need to ascribe such things to God; we can simply point to factors such as global warming and changes in weather patterns. We might perhaps take it as a warning that we should take seriously the threat of rising seas. These responses are indeed rational.

But we are back to the problem of God again: where was God in all of this? What purpose does it serve to have a belief in God, if that God is impotent in the face of disaster?

It is this kind of thinking, in fact, that drives people to conclude that there is no point to worship, and no value in religion.

So let me reframe this discussion, in the hope that we might find a more fruitful way to proceed.

First, I think that we must necessarily assume that there is chaos inherent in the structure of the world. This is both a theological and scientific statement: when we look at the substructure of the world around us, we find a surprising amount of flux. This kind of uncertainty is what allows for new, creative growth: something new and surprising and novel may at any time arise because the world is not rigidly deterministic. Not every outcome is predetermined; in fact, most are not. There is chaos in the system. That chaos is also a source of disarray, of disease and of disgust.

When a child gets cancer, it is that same chaos at work. The wondrous process of cells dividing and recreating themselves goes awry and creates outcomes not at all desirable, and potentially deadly.

So there is chaos in the system. How should we then proceed? Does this mean that God is not in charge?

It means that God is not controlling the small details of your life, at least not on the micro scale. You are the one who decided the way you came to this place; it is not God then deciding that you must arrive safely – though I wish it were possible that such things could be assured: for example, I would like to draw a protective circle around my son to keep all possible harm distant from him. It just doesn’t work that way. We have no guarantees.

So why should we invoke God at all? Why not adopt a view like that of Spinoza, who argued that God was nature in the process of being nature – nothing more, and nothing less?

There may indeed be chaos in the system and all sorts of unforeseen outcomes, but that is not the same thing as saying that it is all totally random. That is not the same thing as saying that it has no meaning. That is not the same thing as saying that there is no concern ‘out there’ for you both as an individual and as one of many human beings.

Rather: there is something inherent, deep within us and yet all around us that is vibrantly real, unseen but powerful, a different kind of energy than the ones we can normally detect with our senses. It is that energy that convinced the ancients that God was an overflow of goodness or intellect. It is that energy that causes the little hairs on the back of your neck to stand up when you know, somehow, that you’re not alone in a situation that just a moment ago felt so lonely. It is that energy that somehow is present in a real way in key moments, unspoken and mysterious, but very much there. It is that energy that surges when you do what is right, as if it were to take delight in that very thing, as if there was nothing more important in the whole dazzling universe as that small moment in time, when the sunlight dances on the leaves and you think to yourself: yes, this, all of it, is good. Yet that energy somehow also transcends time and place and feeling, running deeper than mere emotion.

It is that energy that announces the very presence of God.

So, yes, we should be rational and investigate precisely how our western lifestyle has contributed to climate change. We should indeed be open to the possibility that this storm has its causes, some of which may be attributed to human activity. We should use our intellects to create methods of coping with these events and methods of preventing the damage and strategies for rebuilding.

But we should also be open to the possibility that we can encounter God, even in the daily mundane world, even in the extremes of catastrophe on a grand scale. Stand still for a moment and listen: God is not in the fire, or the earthquake, or in the hurricane, but in the still small voice, in the quiet murmuring. Listen.

Copyright 2012 Kari Hofmaister Tuling

§ One Response to Sermon in the wake of Sandy

  • Larry says:

    Another reason is that knowing the will of God is hubris and not only bad theology but mean spirited politics. And here’s the proof. This past summer there were terrible fires in Colorado Springs and surrounding. Colorado Springs is home to Focus on the Family. One could argue that the fires were God’s wrath against their agenda but of course that would be cruel. And did you not notice God’s wrath at the Republican’s national convention? Surely God sent a clear message against their platform removing an entire day from their event. But that would be silly. Two can play at surmising God’s intent. It’s worth noting that only one type of theologian does. The use of natural events as divine messages is worse than sloppy theology. It is a usurpation of God’s role above and beyond the world we perceive..

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