Searching for meaning in disaster

Michael Cook
19 January 2010
Reproduced with Permission

Is there a meaning to Haiti? 200,000 dead; 1.5 million homeless; the chaos of looting and raping, hunger, thirst, disease. The randomness of the deaths -- children, an archbishop, a head of United Nations operations, slum dwellers, police. The Haitians were already living in one of the poorest, worst governed nations in the world. Now they have to struggle with the worst humanitarian disaster ever faced by the UN. Why?

The view taken by most of the media seems to be that you have to be either loopy or stupid to venture an answer. Admittedly, there was some justification for that after the aged evangelist Pat Robertson told his Christian Broadcasting Network that Haitians are a people accursed because they had made a pact with the devil to win their freedom from the French in the 1790s. Idiotic, callous and stupid were some of the kinder responses. A very different interpretation was given by Hollywood actor Danny Glover. His view was that the disaster happened because the world failed to reach a pact on global warming. Nutty and obscene, said bloggers.

Surprisingly, some Christian spokesmen were unprepared for the question. The Anglican Archbishop of York, John Sentamu, told the BBC he had "nothing to say to make sense of this horror". Well, to tell the truth, he had plenty to say but none of it made a scrap of sense.

Not surprisingly at all, Christopher Hitchens, press officer for global atheism, said that it had no meaning whatsoever:

"It's idiotic to ask whose fault it is. The Earth's thin shell was quaking and cracking millions of years before human sinners evolved, and it will still be wrenched and convulsed long after we are gone. These geological dislocations have no human-behavioral cause."

The proper response, he believes, is neither prayer nor blasphemy, but but nuts and bolts stuff like donating to a worthy charity (he suggests Non-Believers Giving Aid), liberating Haitians from witchcraft, and reducing their numbers by setting up more family planning programs.

A similar reaction comes from Andrew Brown, a British science writer for The Guardian:

"the only proper responses to an earthquake are manners, or style; and kindness: immediately helping the wounded in the ruins, and neither philosophising nor planning an auto da fé."

Refusing to philosophise about disaster is the stock-standard response of theological sceptics. The master of this is the 18th century French writer Voltaire whose "Poème sur le désastre de Lisbonne" and novel Candide ridiculed Divine Providence as an explanation for the cataclysmic Lisbon earthquake of 1755. This had flattened the city in a minute and a tsunami a few minutes later killed thousands in Portugal, Spain and Morocco. As in Haiti, death came for believers and unbelievers alike. It was the feast of All Saints and congregations were buried under the rubble of their churches. There is no meaning to tragedy, writes Voltaire. "Il faut cultiver notre jardin", "we must cultivate our garden" and not ask pointless questions like "why?"

But isn't refusing to ask questions deeply anti-intellectual? Humans are the only beings in the universe that seek meaning in their lives; inquiry, be it scientific or theological, is what sets us apart from animals. The very earliest works of Western literature -- Gilagamesh, the Book of Job, the Iliad -- are attempts to discover what why the gift of life is so often accompanied by pain and ends in death. Furthermore, if you deny that there is meaning in natural disasters, there can hardly be meaning in the disasters we wreak upon each other. Were the deaths of a million Cambodians bereft of meaning? of four million Congolese? of six million Jews? of 40 million Russians? -- to cite only a few calamities in recent times. If they were utterly senseless, must we not concede, too, that there can be no hope whatsoever of justice? And, if so, what point, really, is there of striving to right wrongs, heal wounds and console survivors?

If people truly believe that there is no meaning, most of them will end up reacting as callously as US shock-jock Rush Limbaugh, who advised listeners not to contribute to Haiti appeals: "we've already donated to Haiti. It's called the US income tax," he said.

The problem for atheists is that the search for meaning always leads to God -- to God who weighs our all-too-brief lives in the scales of eternity, but hidden behind an impenetrable veil of mystery. That's why they cut question time short, like a politician at an uncomfortable press conference. To use the language of philosophy, they arbitrarily limit their spirit of inquiry to efficient causes and ignore final causes.

The problem for Christians is that definitive answers to our suffering come in the afterlife. It would be more convenient if we could publish them gloatingly on tomorrow's New York Times op-ed page, to the discomfiture of scoffers, but that is not the way God works. Even Christ on his cross posed the anguished question, "Eli Eli lama sabachthani?", "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?" Dogmas do not give cookie-cutter answers and Christians of every generation have wrestled with suffering and death. Sometimes their answers ring of blasphemy, as in King Lear -- "As flies to wanton boys are we to the gods; They kill us for their sport". Sometimes they are optimistic, as in T.S. Eliot's "Little Gidding" -- "And all shall be well and / All manner of thing shall be well". But their questions are all the bolder because they are sustained by the hope that eventually they will know the answer. Without that hope, no wonder Mr Hitchens thinks it is idiotic to use the brains God gave him.

So what is the meaning of Haiti, then? I am not game to venture an answer as to why the wretched of the earth have been swept away and we, the chardonney and latté set, live on to download our iPhone apps. But it has always struck me that the Christian God does not deal with souls by the gross, but one by one, tenderly, all 200,000 of them. Divine Providence does not mean that we shall never suffer, but that having suffered, we shall be loved. One of the best expressions of that comes in Thornton Wilder's Pulitzer prize-winning novel The Bridge of San Luis Rey. A monk in 18th century Peru sees five people plunge to their deaths when their rope bridge snaps and hurls them into a canyon. Why them? Why then? He spends six years in research and concludes that "each of the five lost lives was a perfect whole" and that each had been ended by "a sheer Act of God." The novel's celebrated conclusion is:

"But soon we shall die and all memory of those five will have left the earth, and we ourselves shall be loved for a while and forgotten. But the love will have been enough; all those impulses of love return to the love that made them. Even memory is not necessary for love. There is a land of the living and a land of the dead and the bridge is love, the only survival, the only meaning."

In any case, amazing as it seems to the American and British journalists trudging through Port-au-Prince, Haitians are sure that there is a meaning to their suffering. As Rosena Roche, whose husband died in the quake, told the Washington Post, "I still have faith in God," Roche says. "I want to give glory to God."