Mark Dowd: “My journey after the tsunami: the search for God in a broken world”


In an idyllic setting for a family reunion over Christmas, it couldn’t have been better. The picturesque village of Grindleford in the hills of the Derwent Valley in the Peak District. It was December 2004 and after a glorious day of hiking on snow-capped peaks, the Dowd family listened to the Boxing Day BBC 1 evening newscast. Corpses dragged out of the mud. Cars and houses crushed by a natural phenomenon that few of us had heard of. Buddhist monks are turning their temples into industrial-scale mortuaries. This was the beginning of the carnage that was the Indian Ocean tsunami which claimed the lives of almost a quarter of a million people.

When the news ended, my ashen-faced father spoke the words that changed my life forever. “God could have prevented that,” he said. I repeated these words to the Head of Religious Programs at Channel Four the next morning. By the end of the day he had secured £250,000 for a two-hour television special in which I would endeavor to tackle the question that has haunted us all since the book of Job: why would a loving God create- Is there a world in which the virtuous suffer at the hands of horrible diseases like Covid 19, earthquakes, cyclones and tornadoes? Was it the best God could do? Why couldn’t we just have the good bits and be spared the bad ones?

The defense of free will is not without its problems, but if humanity abuses its freedom, then murder, rape, and even genocide are far less difficult for me to reconcile with a benevolent Creator than the so-called ” natural evil”. Thus, the journey that followed, spread over seven weeks, led me to meet Muslims in Banda Aceh, Indonesia, Hindus on the coast south of Chennai and Buddhists on the Thai coast. We met people like Fadil, in Sumatra, who lost nineteen members of his family on his brother’s wedding day, but who told me that his faith and trust in Allah was now stronger because he had nowhere to turn. “This is my test,” he said, clutching a battered copy of the Koran in the mosque where the huge tsunami wave had swept him away. In contrast, Poonghuzali who lived in a hastily erected corrugated iron hut just inland from the Tamil Nadu coast told me how she lost her husband and two children. “I hate God, because all these years I made offerings faithfully and God couldn’t protect me and my family.”

All the usual explanations have been offered by the many gurus, imams and clergy: that God allows suffering to improve our character, that God is unknowable and incomprehensible, so the question is meaningless. I’ve also been told that maybe it’s divine punishment for sin (Really? Babies dying of leukemia? Try that on the parents.) Or a Christian favorite: It’s all in the fall. The laws of nature were irrevocably mutilated when our ancestral parents turned against God. Except that death, disease and the elimination of species predates Homo sapiens. Humanity’s status as complex life depends on the very processes at work in evolution that cause such occasional suffering and distress.

I was coming back from the Indian Ocean with still so many unanswered questions. And then, a clap of thunder. Three months before our scheduled documentary transmission, there was to be a symposium on “Scientific Perspectives on Natural Evil” in none other than the Vatican Observatory at Castel Gandolfo, the pope’s summer residence just twenty miles south. -east of Rome. A week-long gathering of some of the world’s greatest personalities, getting to the very heart of my investigation. Coincidence? Or the divinely inspired television manna from heaven? Anyway, I called Fr. George Coyne SJ who led the Jesuit community at the Observatory and sealed our visit with the cameras.

On our first full day of filming, we attended a session given by Professor Nancey Murphy from Uller Seminary, California. She quoted a New York Times article on “crustal recycling”. “If we have mobile crust, we’re going to have earthquakes, and if we have underwater earthquakes, we’re going to have tsunamis,” she said. “But if we didn’t have a moving crust, basically the whole surface would be smooth and given the amount of water there, it would be swamps everywhere. So you could have basic life forms , but certainly not complex creatures like us.” Just when the tectonic plates were thought to be agents of the devil, we were told that their movement was regenerating the earth’s surface, plowing up minerals and ores needed for agriculture. Other examples of nature’s positive/negative ambiguity abounded. The mosquito, yes, transmitter of malaria and other horrible diseases, but also arch pollinator and decisive presence in the food chain of nature. Hurricanes and cyclones, unquestionably destructive to man, but whose heat and energy transfer properties were essential to maintaining a global balance. “It’s all in the Scripture,” Father Coyne said. “Unless a grain of seed dies and falls into the ground, I tell you, you cannot have new life.” Among those gathered it was not unanimous, but there was broad consensus for a view of the natural world that echoed this image of the Hindu god, Shiva, where multiple arms denote interconnected aspects of the Divine. Creation and destruction are not separate entities belonging to warring forces in the Universe. They are two sides of the same coin. To ask God to create a material world devoid of asperities would be to demand that two and two equal five. Nature’s lamp casts an inevitable shadow. God cannot accomplish what is logically impossible.

But that only triggered more questions, questions that I would throw out to the esteemed delegates in a day or two. If a loving creator cannot create a material world without some element of pain and suffering for complex, sentient creatures made in the image of God, then why create at all? This is essentially the crux of the famous exchange between Ivan and Aloysha in Dostoyevsky’s classic The Brothers Karamazov. On a huge balcony overlooking the majestic Lake Albano below, I interviewed Philip Clayton, philosopher of science at the Claremont School of Theology. He was a man who had struggled for years with this very question of why God would push the button and create a material universe.

“I would like to imagine a divine who stood in front of this button and cried and somehow, at the last minute, he felt that it was better to have us than to only have the divine in the eternal void”, he told me. “That God pressed this button and created creation hints at a mystery we do not understand. It hints at a resolution we only hope for: God will only be God if the result is much better than what we Let’s see around us that it would make things better, but I can only say that as a wish and a hope and not as a piece of knowledge.

Clayton told me after our on-camera conversation that a chance meeting was crucial to his continued faith in God. But just as I was about to interrogate him, he was taken to a meeting. Sixteen years later, putting all of this to press for a forthcoming book, something inside me prompted me to contact him and spell out exactly what he had alluded to in the fall of 2005. So at 6 a.m. local time in California, he met me. on Zoom to talk to me about going to Germany as a student, living the life of Riley, and losing her faith. He had studied philosophy and basically “the arguments for God didn’t stack up”. Then he received a phone call from an old parish associate named Bobby who was precariously on top of a nearby mountain. He was mentally ill and was on the verge of committing suicide. Clayton rode like tap dance on his motorcycle and talked him out of it. It was his Road to Damascus experience. “I had no choice but to respond. It only made sense if there was a God. And then with that level of realization, I came to the conclusion that whatever I said, I fundamentally believe in God, in some sort of reality-grounded being that I can’t escape.” I told him that any decent human being would have done what he did, regardless of his view of God, but Clayton is adamant that it awakened in him a deep sense of “ultimate reality.” “. He stopped using the word “God”. He knows he is simply referring to “UR”. It was his moment of Epiphany.

I ended this Channel Four documentary by standing under that huge cross in Westminster Cathedral and offering hope that a crucified God would meet us in suffering and swear it wouldn’t be his last word. It was fine as far as possible, but it felt a bit like “jam tomorrow” in Resurrection. Seventeen years after this film aired, I know I’m more attached to the Incarnation as an indicator of the eternal mystery of why a benevolent Creator fashioned a world that inextricably blends rainbows and excruciating pain, huge sunsets and crippling cancers. If matter is inevitably ambiguous, then the Incarnate Word inhabits that focal point in the face of Janus to live a short existence that mixes total love without judgment with unbearable pain and early death. Jesus is the meeting point of matter and spirit, the meaning and the answer to all of history.

When my dad showed those shocking images of the tsunami on TV and said ‘God could have stopped that’, I was at a loss for words. There is no trivial answer, no easy formula answer and as the philosopher DZ Phillips wisely wrote, “it is easy for us intellectuals to add to the evil in the world by the way we let’s discuss”. But after thinking long and hard about this thorniest question, and Voltaire would hate me for saying it, Leibniz was probably right. It is, surely, the best of all possible worlds, because any God who had other feasible options that involved less suffering and pain and continued to move forward with the Universe we observe would be at rightfully in the dock.

I still stare darkly through glass, but these days it’s a little easier to say those words, “Lord, I believe, help my unbelief.”

“My Journey to the Tsunami: Searching for God in a Broken World” by Mark Dowd is published by Resource Publications, courtesy of WIPF and Stock.

Keywords: Tsunami, Mark Dowd, My Tsunami Journey: The Search for God in a Broken World

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