Sunday, 17 January 2010

Not a riddle to be solved . . . the Haiti earthquake

Like many of you I have been following the increasingly terrible news about the earthquake in Haiti. Clearly, when confronted by such events, the first thing to do is simply to act in some practical way to help and I'm sure many of us will contribute to the current Disasters Emergency Committee (DEC) appeal. But in the immediate aftermath we naturally begin to reflect upon the event in philosophical and theological ways. We must be grateful that our reflections today are not occurring in extremis. We shall return to action at the conclusion.

It is not, of course, only our own age that has undertaken such a reflection. In the Stoic Seneca's (c. 4 BC-AD 65) ninety-first letter he memorably reflects upon how he thinks we should respond to the terrible fire that completely destroyed Lyons sometime in the 60s of the common era. We think, too, of the 1755 Lisbon earthquake which sent the whole of Europe into a profound period of reflection upon the possible meanings of such horrific events. Remember that Voltaire's (1694-1778) famous novel "Candide" was written in part as a response to this earthquake in which many were struggling to see how is could be possible that "all is for the best in the best of all possible worlds". Many people thought it had to be the best of "all possible worlds" because, of course, an omnipresent, omnipotent, omnibenevolent God had made it. In more recent times , for example, the huge Tsunami triggered another round of such reflection across the world.

The primary religious question that comes up in our own European and North American culture at these times has never been more succinctly and powerfully put than by Voltaire's contemporary, David Hume (1711-1776) in his summary of what he called Epicurus's "little riddle":
    
"Is God willing to prevent evil, but not able? Then he is not omnipotent. Is he able, but not willing? Then he is malevolent. Is he both able and willing? Then whence cometh evil? Is he neither able nor willing? Then why call him God?"

It should come as no surprise to hear exactly this argument played out during the week on a number of radio programmes and in the papers. But if we continue to insist on placing horrific natural disasters side by side with simplistic expressions of the reality the word "God" might refer to then, inevitably, such riddles arise which seem to require answers.

But we don't necessarily need to accept the world-view which gives rise to these kinds of riddles and invests them with such bewitching power. We can begin to look at and respond to the world in a different way and my tentative comments today centre around the word "riddle."

It appears that, in 1942, John Maynard Keynes made some comments which were recorded by the mathematical physicist Freeman Dyson who is famous for his work in quantum field theory, solid-state physics, and nuclear engineering. Apparently Keynes said:

"Why do I call Newton a magician? Because he looked on the whole universe and all that is in it *as a riddle*, as a secret which could be read by applying pure thoughts to certain evidence, certain mystic clues which God had laid about the world to allow a sort of treasure hunt to the esoteric brotherhood . . ." (cited in Ethics without Philosophy by James C. Edwards,  p. 235).

It is hard to over-emphasize how deeply this picture of how we come to understand the world has rooted itself in European and North American culture and it has encouraged us all, since birth, to think almost exclusively that the appropriate way to proceed in all human endeavours is to "understand how things in the broadest possible sense of the term hang together in the broadest possible sense of the term" (ibid p. 235). This may be summed up by saying that we have often seen the world as a riddle, and our responsibility is, somehow, to solve it (ibid p. 235). We have also too often allowed ourselves to think that our moral and ethical responsibilities in this matter can be resolved by involvement in a religion that is also concerned to solve this riddle.

But is this world (with or without God) actually best thought of, and lived in, as if it were a technical riddle to be solved? Perhaps some people will always think it is but it is clear that one can approach the world very differently.

Instead we can, for example, begin to approach the world with an attitude of loving regard. As Edwards notes, "a feature of [such]love is that it never literalises any perception; love is always ready to go deeper, to see through what it has already seen" (ibid p. 236). He goes on to say:


"From the perspective of loving attention, no story is ever over; no depths are ever fully plumbed. The world and its beings [which includes us] are a miracle, never to be comprehended, with depths never to be exhausted. Thus the sound human understanding is essentially a religious response to the Pathos [impressiveness] of existence, not a magical or superstitious one. It is a response that makes sheer acknowledgment, not control, central" (ibid p. 236).

Looking at the world with loving-regard we do not find an answer to a riddle but, if Edwards is right - and I'm inclined to agree with him - we are, instead, brought face to face with sheer acknowledgment. But such an acknowledgment is not merely an act of final and hopeless surrender to some brute, static, natural fact for remember in what Edwards thinks this acknowledgment consists: namely that the world so regarded offers us a kind of 'disclosure' that it and its constituent beings are a miracle, never to be comprehended, with depths never to be exhausted.

Even if you only catch a glimpse of what it is Edwards is (and I am) trying to show that will be enough to place you on the uncomfortable and frightening boundary between, on the one hand, the safe world of detached theories (which can only see the world as a series of riddles - of a technical kind - to be solved) and, on the other, the world of engagement and service in which you might be fully incarnated in Nature open to the risks of life, its miracle and its infinite depth.

It is really only in people who allow the momentum of their loving-regard to carry them over into incarnated, Christ-like loving service in the Natural world that we can begin to see at work what we have for centuries called 'God'. In their loving-regard for, and their selfless service to the 'other', all theological and philosophical riddles simply seem to dissolve.

None of what I have just said (written) makes what has happened and is happening in Haiti any better or less horrific. However, what I have just offered you might contribute to changing the way we respond to such events.

We can choose to continue to face them holding to a world-view which thinks it can *only* understand the world by pulling it apart, analyzing and cataloging it, and by splitting it into the Natural and the Divine, the sacred and the secular. But when the world presents herself to us in events such as the earthquake in Haiti alongside the horror there also rears up enervating and debilitating riddles that make Nature merely blind and brute and which destroys any enlivening and inspiring conception of Divinity. Holding to such a view we can still act but it becomes the heroic if utterly admirable action of the hopeless.

On the other hand we can face these same events in a way that tends to keep Nature and the Divine, the sacred and the secular together. If we do this then the consequences of an earthquake present themselves, not as a dreadful riddle to be solved, but as a call to respond to all those people caught up in the aftermath with loving-regard and service and to push on lovingly into the infinite depths of existence itself.

In such loving service none of our old riddles are solved but it seems there is good evidence that some kind of  'answer' to life is found (it is an 'answer' only insofar as it remains a deed and not a theory) and we are enabled to go on again trying our hardest to improve, not only our own lot, but that of all people.

The horror remains before us all, and unimaginably so for all those in Haiti. My heart goes out to them and my love is sent - as will some of my money - and it goes, not because their plight presents me with an unanswerable riddle (the consequences of which I must assuage) but because I trust implicitly in those people who, by their commitment to loving-regard, will incarnate a Divine yet wholly natural love in the heart of our world.


"We know love by this, that [Jesus] laid down his life for us - and we ought to lay down our lives for one another. How does God's love abide in anyone who has the world's goods and sees a brother or sister in need and yet refuses help? Little children, let us love, not in word or speech, but in truth and action. And by this we will know that we are from the truth and will reassure our hearts before him whenever our hearts condemn us; for God is greater than our hearts, and he knows everything" (I John 3:16-20 NRSV).

4 comments:

Yewtree said...

This is a brilliant blogpost, Andrew. My comment turned into another blogpost.

Mike Killingworth said...

Yes indeed.

When you talk about the answer being in action and not a theory you echo Buckminster Fuller's "God is a verb".

Well, I don't think any of us are going to regard the Haitian disaster as a call to take up the primitive Communism of the first Christians alluded to in the quote from 1 John.

Nor am I so sure about contributing to the DEC appeal. Why not campaign instead for our taxes to be raised pro tem? Isn't Government supposed to act in the name of the people?

The answer to that may lie partly in a sense of unease that we live in a functional society and Haitians don't. I daresay Christianity has an equivalent of the Eastern religions' "undeserved merit/unmerited privilege" but my theology isn't up to it!

I wonder if I might not appease the spiritual desolation this causes better by committing time to lobbying politicians into effecrive preventative action - Haiti suffers hurricanes as well as earthquakes - rather than tossing £10 or £20 into a pot of which perhaps £1 or £2 reaches a desperate Haitian.

What might that action be? Well, I could write to my American friends to suggest that they write their Congressman to invite Haiti to join the USA. That way, at least, it might be able to store enough aviation spirit at its airport(s) against the next time.

I don't say that's the right thing to do - just that it's an alternative to the quick and easy assuagement of a cheque.

Naomi said...

Mike,

you write "Nor am I so sure about contributing to the DEC appeal. Why not campaign instead for our taxes to be raised pro tem? Isn't Government supposed to act in the name of the people?"

Possibly; it would be one way of addressing disaster; it might in the long run be successful. But the nature of governments is such that while the campaign was being organised and mounted, debated, cricised, supported, condemned, time would pass. The one thing that the dying and starving of Haiti do not have is the luxury of waiting for major shifts in external government policies.

I take your point, but I do not want to risk waiting around while such a change is worked upon - or not. In spite of "the quick and easy assuagement of the cheque" I have contributed and shall continue to to contribute to the DEC appeal. There is nothing to prevent any of us from lobbying politicians and governments for a radical change of policy for the future, but somehow aid has to be got to Haiti now.

Andrew James Brown said...

Thanks Yewtree both for your kind comment here and also your own follow up blog. Thanks also to Mike and Naomi for their comments. I'm with Naomi on the matter of contributing to DEC and also being politically active in order to affect some change in our political and social structures.

Warmest wishes to you all.

A