Tom Honey on God and the tsunami

I have been a parish priest in the Church of England for more than twenty years. For most of that time I’ve been grappling with questions about the nature of God. I’m very aware that when you say God, most people within and outside the church, still have a picture of a celestial controller, a policeman in the sky who orders everything and causes events to happen. He will protect his own people and answer the prayers of the faithful. In the worship of our church the most frequent adjective when we address God is ‘almighty’; but I have become more and more uncomfortable with this common perception of God over the years. Do we really believe in the male boss that our liturgies proclaim?

Of course there have been thinkers who have suggested a different way of looking at God. Exploring the feminine, nurturing side of the divine being. Suggesting that God expresses herself or himself through powerlessness. Acknowledging that God is unknown and unknowable. Finding deep resonances with other religions and philosophies as part of the universal search for meaning. These ideas are well known in liberal academic circles, but clergy like myself have been reluctant to air them, for fear of creating tension and division in the church community and upsetting the simple faith of traditional believers. I have chosen not to rock the boat.

Then on December 26th, just two months ago an underwater earthquake triggered a tsunami of massive proportions. Two weeks after the tsunami, Sunday morning 9th January. I found myself standing in front of my congregation, intelligent, well-meaning, thoughtful Christian people. I needed to express, on their behalf our feelings and our questions. This is what I said.

Shortly after the tsunami I read a newspaper article, written by Rowan Williams, the Archbishop of Canterbury, about the tragedy in Southern Asia. The essence of his words was this: the people most affected by the devastation and loss of life do not want intellectual theories, about how God can let this happen. “If some religious genius did come up with an explanation of exactly why all these deaths made sense, would we feel happier, or safer or more confident in God?”

If the man in the photograph holding the hand of his dead child was standing in front of us now, there are no words that we could say to him. The only appropriate response would be compassionate silence and practical help. It isn’t really a time for preaching or theology, but for tears.

This is true, and yet we are here, semi-detached from events so far away, with our faith bruised, and we want an explanation from God.

Some have concluded that we can only believe in a God who shares our pain. In some way, God feels the anguish and grief, and physical pain that we feel. In some way the eternal God can enter into the souls of human beings and experience the torment within. And if this is true, it must also be that God knows the joy and exaltation of the human spirit. A God who weeps with those who weep and rejoices with those who rejoice.

This seems to me both a deeply moving and a convincing restatement of Christian belief about God. For hundreds of years the prevailing orthodoxy, the accepted truth was that God the Father, the creator, is unchanging and therefore cannot feel pain or sadness. The unchanging God feels a bit cold and indifferent to me. I wonder if you agree.

The devastating events of the 20th century forced people to question the cold unfeeling God. The slaughter of millions in the trenches and in the death camps, caused people to ask, ‘Where is God in all this?’ And the answer was, God is in this with us, or God doesn’t deserve our allegiance. If God is a bystander, observing but not involved, then God may exist, but we don’t want to know about him. Many Jews and Christians now feel like this, I know. And I am among them.

So we have a suffering God. A God who is intimately connected with this world, and with every living soul. I very much relate to this idea of God. But it isn’t enough. I need to ask some more questions, and I hope they are questions that some of you want to ask as well, some of you.

Over the last few weeks I have been struck by the number of times that words in our worship have felt a bit inappropriate, a bit dodgy. On Tuesday mornings we have a Pram Service for Mums and their pre-school children. Last week we sang with the children, one of their favourite songs – The Wise Man Built His House on the Rock. Some of the words go like this “the foolish man built his house upon the sand…….and the floods came up……and the house on the sand went crash”. Then at a funeral there was the familiar hymn “We plough the fields and scatter”. In the second verse comes the line, “the wind and waves obey him.” Do they? I don’t think we can sing those words again.

So the first big question is about control. Is God in control? Does God order each moment? Does God have a plan for each of us? Do the wind and waves obey him?

From time to time one hears Christians telling the story of how God organised things for them, so that everything worked out alright. Some difficulty was overcome, some illness cured, some trouble averted, a parking space found at a crucial time. I can remember someone saying this to me, her eyes shining bright with joy, as a wonderful confirmation of her faith and the goodness of God.

But if God can or will do these things, intervene to change the flow of events, then surely he could have stopped the tsunami happening. A local god who can do little things like parking spaces, but not big things like 500mph waves. That’s not acceptable, and we must acknowledge it. Either God is responsible for the tsunami, or God is not in control.

After the tragedy, survival stories began to emerge. The man who surfed the wave. The teenage girl who recognised the danger because she had just been learning about tsunamis at school. Then there was the congregation who had left their usual church building on the shore to hold a service in the hills. The preacher delivered an extra long sermon, so that they were still out of harm’s way when the wave struck. Afterwards someone said God had been looking after them.

So the next question is about partiality. Can we earn God’s favour by worshipping him or believing in him? Does God demand loyalty like any medieval tyrant? A god who looks after his own, so that Christians are ok, while the others perish. A cosmic us and them, and a god who is guilty of the worst kind of favouritism. That would be appalling, and I would have to hand back my membership. Such a god would be morally inferior to the highest ideals of humanity.

So who is God, if not the great puppet-master or the tribal protector of Christians? Perhaps God allows or permits terrible things to happen, so that heroism and compassion can be shown. Perhaps God is testing us, testing our charity or our faith. Perhaps there is a great, cosmic plan that allows for horrible suffering so that everything will work out in the end. Perhaps, but all these ideas are variations of God controlling everything. The supreme commander toying with expendable units, in a great campaign. We are still left with a God who can do the tsunami and allow Auschwitz. Almighty God is just incompatible with loving God.

In his great novel The Brothers Karamazov, Dostoevsky gives these words to Ivan, addressed to his naive, devout younger brother Alyosha, “If the sufferings of children go to make up the sum of sufferings which is necessary for the purchase of truth, then I say beforehand that the entire truth is not worth such a price….we cannot afford to pay so much for admission….it is not God that I do not accept. I merely most respectfully return him the ticket.” Or perhaps God set the whole universe going at the beginning and then relinquished control for ever, so that natural processes could occur and evolution run its course. This seems more acceptable, but it still leaves God with the ultimate moral responsibility for human behaviour and natural processes. Is God a cold unfeeling spectator?……or a powerless lover, watching with infinite compassion things God is unable to change?…..Or is God intimately involved in our suffering, so that God feels it in his own being.

If we believe something like this, we must let go of the puppet-master completely, take our leave of the almighty controller. Abandon traditional models. We must think again about God. Maybe God doesn’t do things at all. Maybe God isn’t an agent in the sense that we are all agents. Early religious thought conceived God as a sort of super human person, doing mighty acts all over the place. The God of the Old Testament fought for his people, drowned the Egyptians in the Red Sea, wasted cities, and wiped out the enemy down to the last woman and child. The people knew their God by his mighty acts.

But what if God doesn’t act? What if God doesn’t do things at all? What if God is in things? The loving soul of the universe. An indwelling, compassionate presence, underpinning and sustaining all things. What if God is in things? In the infinitely complex network of relationships and connections that make up life. In the natural cycle of life and death, the creation and destruction that happen continuously. In the process of evolution. In the incredible intricacy and magnificence of the natural world In the collective unconscious, the soul of the human race. In you and me, mind and body and spirit, in the tsunami, in the victims. In the depth of things. In presence and in absence. In simplicity and complexity, in change and development and growth.

How does this in ness, this interiority of God work? It’s hard to conceive and begs more questions. Is God just another name for the universe, with no independent, external existence? I don’t know. To what extent can we ascribe personality to God? I don’t know. In the end, we have to say “I don’t know”. If we knew, God would not be God.

To have faith in this God would be more like trusting an essential goodness and benevolence in the universe, and less like believing a system of doctrinal statements. Isn’t it ironic that Christians who claim to believe in an infinite, unknowable being, then tie God down in closed systems and rigid doctrines?Faith in God demands the huge step of saying, “despite all appearances to the contrary, I trust that there is a loving presence, but I will live without knowing.”

How would one practise such a faith? By seeking the God within. By cultivating my own inwardness. In silence, in meditation, in my inner space, in the me that remains when I gently put aside my passing emotions and ideas and preoccupations. In awareness of the inner conversation.

How would I live such a faith? By seeking intimate connection with your inwardness. The kind of relationships when deep speaks to deep. If God is in all people, then there is a meeting place where my relationship with you becomes a three-way encounter. There is an Indian greeting ‘namaste’, accompanied by a respectful bow which roughly means, ‘that which is of God in me greets that which is of God in you’.

How would one deepen such a faith? By seeking the inwardness which is in all things. In music and poetry, in the natural world of beauty, in the small ordinary things of life, there is a deep indwelling presence that makes them extraordinary. But it needs a profound attentiveness, and a patient waiting. A contemplative attitude, an awareness of my own infinite value, and a generosity and openness to those whose experience is different from mine.

When I stood up to speak to my people about God and the tsunami, I had no answers to offer them. No neat packages of faith with Bible references to prove them. Only doubts and questions and uncertainty. I had some suggestions to make – possible new ways of thinking about God. Ways that might allow us to go on, down a new and uncharted road. But in the end the only thing I could say for sure was I don’t know, and that might just be the most profoundly religious statement of all.

Go to his website by clicking the title and you can watch his talk and follow the interactive  transcript.

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