Saturday, January 30, 2010

Lessons From Haiti: What About God?

Two weeks ago today I posted a short piece about the disaster in Haiti, pointing out that this catastrophic event is not a "natural" disaster but, rather, a man-made one. In the intervening weeks, many blog posts and newspaper articles have been written about this ongoing catastrophe. Maybe it's just me, or perhaps indicative of what I choose to read, but I have been struck by how many of these posts and articles ask: what does this disaster tell us about God?

is it about the tragic events in Haiti that has generated such heated argument and debate over the nature of God? Is all this discussion traceable to one outrageous statement by a thoughtless televangelist, or is there something more about this particular disaster that has generated such agonizing and soul-searching and theologizing? Are we finally waking up to the truth? I ask this with some degree of trepidation, because I truly hope that we are.

Most of the posts and articles I've read have pointed out the obvious: the earth quaked "because" two tectonic plates rubbed up against one another and got momentarily stuck. The implication, or even the direct statement, is that nature is "morally neutral," as if we know this for a scientific fact, and that God had nothing to do with it.

But this isn't a scientific fact. We really don't know whether nature acts outside the influence of a deity, or if nature is a manifestation of the divine. To say that nature is morally neutral is to make a statement of belief.

This point can be nuanced, however, to satisfy folks on both sides of the atheist/theist divide. Richard Dawkins writes about the force of nature that led to Haiti's earthquake as "sin-free and indifferent to sin, unpremeditated, unmotivated, supremely unconcerned with human affairs or human misery." I don't know how he, a fellow scientist,
knows this. There is no scientific evidence that proves the forces of nature are "supremely unconcerned" with me or my misery.

Dawkin's statement is one of belief, not a statement of scientific fact. It is not even supported by any particular theories of science. Dawkins believes in a religion (and atheism
is a religion) and has made an entire career out of trying to get people to believe that science supports his beliefs. I fully defend his right to believe whatever he chooses, but using false characterizations of scientific fact to "prove" those beliefs puts him in good company with all our creationist brethren.

Rabbi Rami Shapiro makes essentially the same point as Dawkins, but notice how different his language choice is: "...the universe exists according to some unbreakable rules. On earth one of these rules has to do with plate tectonics: when plates shift earthquakes and tsunamis happen. There is nothing conscious or deliberate about this. It is not a punishment, a precursor to some greater blessing, or a sign of just how awesome God can be."

The Rabbi goes on to explain his own theology that God is Reality itself, manifesting in many ways: "My God is the God of Job, the whirlwind that needs no protecting, and whose revelation is always in the form of haunting questions rather than comforting answers." Although we may not agree with the Rabbi's theology, we know when he is making a statement about science, and when he is making one about his beliefs.

So, in trying to draw lessons from the ongoing disaster that continues to plague the people of Haiti, I return to the point I made two weeks ago: this earthquake became a disaster not because the earth moved, but because of Haiti's enormous social and economic problems, including a lack of modern building standards. The real lessons from this disaster are not about God, but about us.

The truth is that humankind has not applied the lessons we should have learned from the 2004 tsunami in the Indian Ocean that killed over 200,000 people who were caught unawares due to the lack of a tsunami warning system, the 2008 earthquake in China that killed 80,000, also largely due to poor building construction methods, the disaster associated with Hurricane Katrina that is also mostly attributable to social and economic factors, and many other disasters in so-called "undeveloped" areas of the world that most people in the US and Europe paid little attention to.

This was a man-made disaster, not a natural one. We seem to be spending a lot of time arguing about something not much different from how many angels can dance on the head of a pin while the winds continue to blow and beneath the surface, the plates continue to move, geological forces continue to build, and we move toward another situation where more people will die. Another earthquake or tornado or hurricane
will happen, but how will we respond?

God is waiting for our answer. And, yes, this is a statement of belief.

Sunday, January 24, 2010

Meeting God at the Coffee Shop

I saw him at the coffee shop. I'd just placed my order and was waiting, when I turned and there he was, sitting at a table, staring out the window at the buses on the gray, rain-splattered street.

He was dressed like many of the street people in the neighborhood: a tattered shirt and jacket piled on in rumpled layers, gloves full of holes, a slouchy hat. He sat quietly, one arm resting on the table, a cup of coffee near his elbow.

I couldn't see his face, as his back was turned to me, but I was mesmerized by the unhurried sense broadcast by his slouched shoulders. His posture communicated a clear message: he had nowhere to go and nothing much to do, in sharp contrast to the other people in the shop, bustling office workers in search of their morning coffee.

I wondered about his family, whether his parents or siblings knew he was sitting there, alone and apparently homeless. I thought about my own children, both young adults and, at that moment, both unemployed and facing uncertain futures. It was December, 2008, and all over the world the economy had left lives and businesses in tatters. I wondered if my own children would, one day, be sitting at a table in a bleak coffee shop, a cold cup at their elbow, with no work and no home.

My thoughts were rather desperate: I would have to intervene, I needed to go to them, now, save them from the possibility of a life on the streets. I was overwhelmed at the magnitude of the troubles in the world, but I knew my compassion was not enough. I didn't really know how to protect my children from all the dangers in the world, and I certainly didn't know how to help the man sitting at that table.

The unease stirred up by this cascade of despair aroused something else, and the truth hit me so hard I momentarily forgot who I was. I was flooded with a strange and sudden insight, a sense of knowledge deeper than any I've ever received from a book or lecture: this man whose face I could not see, was, indeed, somebody's child. And he was loved.

In that moment, I knew this man was loved as surely as I know that I love my own children. I had heard, for years, people saying, "God loves you," and I'd nodded along, perhaps because I wanted it to be true - but until that moment, I never really knew it. The kind of faith I achieved that day in the coffee shop was not the result of a decision on my part - I had been grasped by truth, accosted by it, actually, and the source of my sudden and intense faith was the homeless man at the table.

I can now say with the kind of faith that Paul Tillich describes when he writes: "Faith is the state of being grasped by an ultimate concern," that we -- all of us -- are intensely loved by God.

In that moment of deep vision, I knew that this man had been launched into his life by a source that had never intended the pain and suffering which had marked the man's short life. The only intention had been to give him the pleasure of experiencing
life, and the source of this man's life loved the man the way I love my own children - as adults, capable of making choices and deserving of my trust in their abilities, but always and forever loved, simply because they are my children.

I think a lot these days of our brothers and sisters in Haiti, and others around the world, who suffer and are in despair and I remember that man in the coffee shop. Sometimes terrible things happen, and sometimes those terrible things are the result of poor choices, our own or other people's -- but at other times they happen for no reason at all. This does not mean that we are not loved, nor does it mean that the one who gave us life does not suffer along with us in our despair.

Like the man in the coffee shop, we were all given, at our birth, the ultimate gift of life and part of that gift includes the chance to experience all the pain and suffering that is part of being alive. The man in the coffee shop showed me, just by sitting at his table, what it means to be a child of God. And what I learned was this: nothing is required of us, not even that we accept or know this truth. The love is always there, even, or especially, in those moments when we cannot feel it.

Saturday, January 16, 2010

Haiti: NOT a Natural Disaster

Scientists who study disasters would agree that this week's earthquake in Haiti was not a natural disaster but, rather, a man-made one. While the initiating event was "natural," the factors that have turned this 7.0-magnitude geological event into a catastrophe are entirely human, and can be reduced to one word: poverty.

In 1983, less than 5 miles from my parent's home, an earthquake of nearly the same magnitude, a 6.9, struck beneath the peak of Mount Borah in Idaho. It was, and still is, the largest earthquake in Idaho in recorded history, but I doubt many of my readers have heard of it. The population there is small and spread-out, but property damage, even in this sparsely-populated region was over $12.5 million. There were deaths: two children, killed by falling debris as they walked to school in the nearby town of Challis.

The event was truly major, lifting the peak of Mount Borah by at least 7 feet and opening up a huge crack, nearly 300 feet wide in places, that extended the length of the entire valley. And, yet, this earthquake is not considered a major disaster because the loss of life and property was limited. We speak of the severity of disasters using a social scale, because it is really social factors that determine how bad a disaster will be.

In Haiti we are seeing, as we did with Hurricane Katrina, the profound importance of social factors in so-called "natural" disasters. Scientists have known, for years now, the role that poverty plays in creating vulnerabilities to natural hazards. In his book "Disasters by Design," well-known disaster researcher Dennis Mileti summarizes the findings of disaster research and lays out suggestions for using these insights in future planning. It is not at all clear that any of this sound scientific advice is being implemented.

Poverty, associated with poor building construction and a population's ability to withstand conditions after the extreme event, can be considered the main predictor of a disaster's severity. Susan Cutter, an expert on the influence of social factors in disasters, writes persuasively about this in an article analyzing Hurricane Katrina:

"Disasters will happen. To lessen their impacts in the future, we need to reduce our social vulnerability and increase disaster resilience with improvements in the social conditions and living standards in our cities. We need to build (and rebuild) damaged housing and infrastructure in harmony with nature and design cities to be resilient to environmental threats even if it means smaller, more livable places, and fewer profits for land and urban developers and a smaller tax base for the city."

We would do well to heed the wisdom of these disaster-research experts as we think about why the catastrophe in Haiti happened. Those who would point the finger at God as somehow "causing" this, or even those who mockingly ask "Where is your God now?" would do well to consider the central role that humanity itself has played in creating the conditions that made this catastrophe inevitable. And entirely preventable.

Monday, January 11, 2010

The Emergence of a New Religious Landscape

Last month, the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life released the results of its new poll which showed that increasing numbers of Americans are now mixing religious practices. Even more of us are practicing than one religion.

The survey, accurate to within two percentage points, showed that 35% of all American adults attend religious services at more than one place and 24% of these attend services for faiths different from their main affiliation.

I have some quibbles, several actually, with the survey methodology and wish that the questionnaire had been worded somewhat differently. Despite these problems (which I'll get to below) the results of this poll show a remarkable shift in the religious activities of Americans, perhaps even the emergence of a new religious landscape.

In 1962, for example, only 22% of those surveyed reported having ever had a religious or mystical experience; now nearly half (49%) of survey respondents say they have had such an experience. This result is uniform across many demographic groups; approximately half of all Americans, whether they are conservative, liberal, young or old now say they have had religious or mystical experiences.

The demographic uniformity does not extend into all parts of the data, though, and here is where I think the investigators erred in designing their questionnaire.

The survey reports that while 23% of all Americans consider yoga to be not just exercise but a spiritual practice, only 15% of political conservatives are in this group. Nearly one in four liberals (39%), though, agree that yoga is part of their spiritual practice and not just a form of exercise.

Tables scattered throughout the report lump together areas of religious or spiritual practice that do not necessarily have anything to do with one another, calling yoga a "supernatural belief," for example. Also, no mention at all is made of Buddhism, relegating this major
spiritual practice for many Americans to a category known only as "other."

Although the questionnaire itself didn't mislead respondents with strange wording about "supernatural" beliefs, it also didn't explicitly ask about spiritual practices that go outside the survey-designer's apparently pre-conceived notion of what constitutes a religious or spiritual practice.

I think the problem in this survey arises in the way the questions were phrased. The survey asks about "attendance at religious services," as if this is the only way to participate in a religion or have a spiritual practice. I would venture to guess that those of us who consider our yoga practice as central to our spiritual life, would not say we "attend religious services" when we go to a yoga class - or even go to our own mats each morning at home.

I have a bit more to say about this topic, but it will have to wait for future blog posts. Stay tuned!