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Tsunami: where was God?

02 November 2006


The problem of suffering has long troubled the TV presenter Mark Dowd (above)  a former Dominican friar. Prompted by the effects of the Boxing Day tsunami, he set out to film a journey of understanding

IT couldn’t have been a more serene setting: Boxing Day in the Derbyshire village of Grindleford, a Peak District landscape peppered with picture-postcard stone cottages and cattle huddled together on the hillsides of green frosty fields.

But with a Christmas Day dinner to walk off from the day before, I left my parents at our rented cottage and set off on a six-mile hike. The serenity of my Boxing Day was soon in monumental contrast to events taking place half a world away in the Indian Ocean.

On my return, I found my father staring at the first images, filtering through on the TV news, of the carnage caused by the tsunami. "What have those people done to deserve that?" he said.

I went quiet. It was hardly the time to mention the book of Job, and say that there was nothing new in the suffering of the innocent. It felt like a nightmare had returned to haunt me. Ever since I had trained to be a Dominican friar, in the 1980s, this question for me had been the big one: natural disasters and the supposed lovingness of God. It was a topic of conversation I had always dreaded would crop up in pubs with sceptical friends.

Too many times I had mouthed unconvincing answers about life’s "inscrutable mysteries". In the days after the disaster, I decided — for the first time in my life — to try to tackle the issue head-on.

The TV graphics accompanying all the coverage gave me an idea: the tsunami had affected millions of people from so many different faiths — how did they all deal with this seemingly intractable issue? Channel 4 bought into the idea immediately, and, before I knew it, a 15,000-mile journey was under way to ask the question: "Tsunami — where was God?"

My first stop was Indonesia, the biggest Muslim country in the world. In its battered city of Banda Aceh, at least 130,000 people died. Here I met Fadil, a young man who had been celebrating his brother’s wedding on 25 December 2004. When the wave struck on the following morning, 25 people clambered on to a truck to try to escape the raging waters, but the van crawled to a halt outside the local mosque, and then the tsunami did its worst. Fadil was the only member of his family to survive.

Almost inconceivably, Fadil says his faith is stronger now than before. "If God has decided this is the time for my family to die, then who am I to stand in his way?" he said. "The link I have with God now is 100 per cent. God was testing me."

In Islam, the notion of test — bala — is absolutely central. Sura 29 of the Qur’an states boldly: "Do men reckon they will be left alone if they say, ‘We believe,’ and that they will not be tested?" Testing is indiscriminate: it comes to the wicked and virtuous alike.

I did not meet one person in Aceh province whose faith appeared to have wavered. From orphaned children to university professors, a common theme emerged: a resigned stoicism, almost fatalism. Questioning God’s ways is tantamount to human failure.

When I raised this with our driver, Wirra, and told him that Christians are brought up to think that God is Love, he looked confused. "No," he said: "this is the source of your problems: first and foremost, God is omnipotent." He seemed to be saying: if your imagination of God is not too small, then suffering cannot be a problem, since his ways are ultimately unknowable.

I left Aceh province with a bitter-sweet feeling: an envy at people’s unshakeable faith, yet a sadness that this would never do for me. All my life I have been intellectually curious, and in me was a restlessness that the Islamic show of strength failed to satisfy, however impressive in its own terms.

On I went to India, my first venture there, and a Hindu culture in Tamil Nadu. At least in Aceh, one could share the vision of an overarching creator God and the prophets, but with Hinduism I was on alien territory.

About 15,000 people died off the Indian coast. One of them was Dinesh, an angelic four-year-old boy. I had expected to find his mother, Ramayee, distraught and inconsolable. Nothing prepared me for her sunny optimism. "Children are like God," she said with a smile on her face. "Since his death, I now see him in the faces of other children. God has given and God has taken away, but God has gone to God."

"God has gone to God"? Whatever did she mean by that? She was referring to the Hindu belief that "God" is the supreme reality present in all living creatures, and that our souls are neither created, nor indestructible. Life is an endless cycle of creation and destruction, and there is no one to blame for the pain and suffering of life: it’s all an inevitable part of the ebb and flow of the cosmos.

I found Ramayee amazing. So often in the West, after a calamity, the "Why me?" factor sets in, a feeling that one has been singled out for special treatment or punishment. It’s understandable, but it does betray an excessively egocentric vision of the world. In India, the sense that one plays a tiny part in the huge fabric of the creation story seemed to give people a huge advantage when coming to terms with their grief.

That’s the positive, but in India, and also latterly in Buddhist Thailand, what I failed to come to terms with at all was the "k" word: karma.

Karma is nothing more and nothing less than a rigorously operating moral law of gravity. There is no such thing as coincidence or chance in this view of the world. One’s prospects are determined by the sum total of one’s thoughts and actions: you reap what you sow. Good karma (pure thoughts, generosity, and selfless actions) results in beneficial states of life later. The opposite is true with bad karma.

To my Western way of thinking, the notion of karma became increasingly hard to stomach once reincarnation was brought into the equation. At its most poignant, belief in karma had parents rationalising the loss of their children as due to bad actions in previous lives.

That is precisely how Walappa, a 26-year-old from southern Thailand, explained to me the loss of her two young daughters, Orawan and Orapan. "They’re paying the price for their previous existence," she said. She went on, most significantly, to say: "If I didn’t think about it like this, I wouldn’t be able to move on, to let go." Human beings are very bad at dealing with random events, I thought.

In Thailand’s Buddhist culture they were able to ditch the faith dilemma completely. Buddhist culture effectively denies the search for "God". Some Buddhists were more aggressive than others on the God question, and denied God’s existence outright. Others simply shrugged their shoulders and smiled: "You get yourself tied up in terrible knots, you Christians, on this ‘loving God’ thing. Why don’t you just agree with the Buddha, who told us that we can’t prove it one way or the other; we should stop trying, and devote our time and energy to helping those who suffer?"

All very well; but, for Christians, that love and energy can flow from the vision of a personal God who has redeemed the world. The question, as I neared the end of my odyssey, was whether this was a vision I could still assent to.

As I went on to interview Christians about reconciling faith with the issue of innocent suffering, I, like many other thinking people of faith, found that the answer was still a resounding "yes".

At a Vatican-sponsored conference on God and natural evil, one delegate after another spoke not of tsunamis and tornadoes as "intrinsic evils", but as the unavoidable by-products of processes that are necessary for human life. What often works beautifully for the equilibrium of the system is often harsh to those at the cutting edge. Earthquakes, for instance, involve seismic movements that force land above water; they renew the mineral resources of the earth’s crust, and make large areas more fertile for us. Tornadoes and hurricanes, meanwhile, involve a complex transfer of heat and energy which keeps the planet in some kind of overall harmony. I’m not sure it’s "punishment" of "bad karma" if you get in the way of such events: it’s simply a fact of life.

Philip Clayton, a physicist at Claremont University, California, was raised by atheist parents, and came to faith in the middle of his academic career. I put to him the Dostoevsky question from The Brothers Karamazov: if God can’t create without the suffering of even one innocent creature, then why bother at all? Surely we wouldn’t have "pushed the button" in such circumstances? Clayton’s answer is worth quoting, because in his words are contained, I believe, the domain where intellectual browbeating ends and faith has to take hold.

"I would love to imagine a divine who stood before that button and wept — and, somehow, at the last minute felt that it was better to have us than to have only the divine in eternal emptiness. You and I would probably not push the button. That God pushed that button and made creation hints at a mystery that we don’t understand. It hints at a resolution that we can only hope for. God will only be God, if the outcome is something so far better than what we see around us that it would make it all right.

"But I can only say that as a wish and a hope — not as an item of knowledge."

If the suffering of innocents is the biggest block to faith, is it a mere coincidence that God’s calling-card to us is an image of his incarnate suffering on Calvary? It is not a total "answer" that ends all discussion and doubt, but for the first time in my life — at the end of this extraordinary tsunami journey with tales of despair, resilience, and sacrifice — I think I no longer dread those possible conversations in the pub.

There were some Christians who convinced me not by their words and reasoning, but by the simple aura of who they were. And I have little doubt now that the aura that emanated from them was born of a deep-rooted security that had the crucified Lord at the very centre of their living existence.

Tsunami: Where was God? Christmas Day, 7.50 p.m., Channel 4.


Faith under pressure: in the refugee camp Akkarapetti in Nagpattinam District in the state of Tamil Nadu, southern India, Poonghuzali and her only surviving daughter, Vimala, are surrounded by photographs of the rest of their family, all of whom were swept away in the tsunami

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