What kind of world this is …. A reflection by Guy Consolmagno, OSB
Does God control every atom? Or does he observe but not intervene? The Asian earthquake has left many people puzzled, but science shows he plays by the rules…
It is all a part of a much bigger theological issue, one that affects scientists and indeed the whole modern world view that searches for God in a universe governed by cause and effect. How does God act in the world?
Quantum effects aside, we do live in a world of cause and effect. Radioactive elements in the Earth decay, giving off heat, which drives the convection of rocks in the Earth’s interior. Dragged along by this convection, the Earth’s lithosphere is in constant motion. The down welling slab of the Indian plate below Indonesia makes room for the mountains being formed elsewhere in the sea floor. That motion provides Earth with its oceans and atmosphere, builds its mountains, recycles its surface materials, refines minerals into rich ores, provides the environment for oil deposits and coral reefs. Within those reefs, we can see evidence from shifts, in the way the coral has grown, that the down welling has never proceeded completely smoothly. Earthquakes, and subsequent massive ocean waves, erupted from Sumatra in 1797, in 1833, in 1861. A hundred and twenty years on, the name Krakatoa still sends shivers up our collective spines. People died then, too.
We can believe in a God who controls on a string every atom, every event, deliberately setting up life and tragedy. Such a God would indeed be a God immune to our sense of cruelty.
Another possibility is a God who observes, but does not intervene: the Deist God of the eighteenth century, who set up the laws of the universe, wound up the spring, and let it loose to run independent of any further effort on his part. We can deny the existence of any God at all. Or we can deny the reality of those tragedies, and continue living as if we ourselves were immortal.
None of these are gods that, upon prayer and reflection, I can accept. But they are not mere straw men I’ve set up for a Jesuitical argument. They are gods that all of us believe in, some of the time; some of us, all of the time. And so we rail at God when our love affairs go bad, our politicians lose elections, our business dealings flop. But my experience as a believer, as a scientist, as a human being, is that the situation is far more complicated – and confusing.
The laws of entropy are relentless. The universe, it appears, is fated to a gradual heat death as all energy dissipates itself into a uniform, featureless, ever-expanding ocean of cold. But meanwhile, on the surface of the Earth, plants take sunlight and use a variety of unlikely chemical reactions to reverse entropy locally, making flowers … and weeds. Savagely ripping that vegetation from the earth, bugs and bunnies populate the fields. Amazing in their own beauty, they are fed upon by the beautiful and majestic predators of the Earth: the birds, the mountain lions, humans …
Humans … who are free to act for good or evil, capable of consciously creating beauty and ugliness. Humans whom, beautiful or ugly, we mourn when they die. Why do we mourn them? Because we find them worth mourning. Is death, then, but a natural part of life? Part of God’s plan? Are pain and mourning the price we pay for being alive? As Christians we are faced with the final contradiction: our God came to Earth, lived a life of pain and mourning and death, precisely to proclaim an end to death itself.
God does play by the rules. He set up the thermodynamics that give us mountains, earthquakes, tsunamis; and yet those same laws of physics and chemistry allow for a human brain capable of calculating thermodynamics, and of understanding – albeit, imperfectly – how to recognize, and avoid, the dangers of living on the Earth.
That God respects cause and effect, and is reliable enough for us to be able to understand his universe with confidence and some comfort.
But that same God also does intervene in individual lives. The New York Times described how one young mother in a small Indonesian village fled for safety in the highlands, carrying her child, because she “heard a voice” telling her to flee. The mother next door, apparently, heard no such voice. We hear the survivors’ stories; we never hear the victims’. God is present; and we don’t understand. But we are capable of knowing that we don’t understand. That is the strangest mystery of all. From 1/23/94
A Time for All Ages: Where God hides, is where God resides
This is a Sufi story, taken from the wisdom teachings within Islam… One day, after all these years, God had finally had it with all the world’s religions! God complained that each of them knew a portion of the truth, but practiced it badly — often ending in prejudice, violence, and even wars…. So God gathered all the wise ones in religion together quickly- its seems that there are very few of them- And he said, how can I hide from all those who think that they know me?
Given that these wise ones knew about our modern science, one said, “we should hide you in far space, where no one can find you”… But another wise man objected, saying, “that it will only be a matter of time and technology until humanity launches a space ship that will find God out there”… So they continued to think… One wise one blurted out, “What about in the depths of the ocean?” But one of the others said, “no, the inventors and pioneers will find God there, too!”
Finally after a long time, the oldest and wisest one stood up and she said, ” I know where to hide God!” And all the others turning to her, asked, “Where?” “We will hide God where few, people would ever bother to work hard enough to find God, or once found will hold God up for others to see… We will hide God inside every person’s heart.”
And up on hearing this, God smiled.
From the collection of Sufi Story by Idries Shah
Arise and Awake! Behold and Bless
This is a Hindu story and its modifications, first taught to me by the Marharishi Mahesh Yogi….
Jai was a Hindu student who eagerly sat at the feet of his Guru, or wise teacher… One day, Jai asked, “Since we cannot control the weather, or if it is light or dark, how is it that you will repeatedly remind us to look to this day, and to check and see if the sunrise has happened to us?”
“Ah, my boy”, the Guru answered, “the lessons of wisdom and caring come to us daily, even if we recognize them not. Every moment of our lives are moments and opportunities to extend love, peace, and empathy to one another….
Therefore, the sun does not truly rise, unless we see with our eyes, our sister or our brother walking toward us, and we greet them with respect and compassion. For it is in our looking and in our greeting, that we first offer them joy, peace, and assistance for their day…”