Building on Bedrock

Posted by Jenny on Nov 21, 2011 in View Point |

In 2011, a great many Australians have faced the full force of nature’s fury and many are still picking up the pieces. Across this normally dry continent we have faced searing fires (in the west) and (in east) incessant rain, raging floods, summer storms and powerful cyclonic winds. It was not so long ago that dams across the nation were almost empty and drought ate away the life blood of rural communities.  This “sun burnt country” is truly the land of “flooding rains and sun burnt plains”. Even as Australians continue the hard grind of rebuilding, hampered in many cases by further rains and political controversy, our Kiwi cousins across the Tasman faced heartbreaking loss of life, homes and businesses as Christchuch has been devastatingly shattered by a second and then a third major earthquake.  It is not that these are the worst disasters that have shaken our planet – as the earthquake and Tsunami in Japan and major flooding in in Pakistan, the USA and Thailand reminds us. Many disasters have taken more lives while each day thousands to hundreds of thousands die largely unnoticed in our neighbourhoods and across the world due to road accidents, suicide, preventable diseases, pestilence, grinding poverty, famine and war. Yet no matter how ubiquitous disaster is, being participants in such extreme events is bound to be disturbing.

Like the passengers and crew of the Titanic, we can so easily be lulled into a sense of security based on our relatively comfortable lives and our belief in human ingenuity and invention. And it is truly amazing what humans have achieved in building cities, taming nature, exploring the world about them and pushing the boundaries of creativity and knowledge.  Yet disasters, especially natural disasters, have the power to shake us out of our normal routines and smug complacency.  When nature strikes in our own back yard, when we ourselves are caught up in its furious diatribe or we see our family and friends directly affected, its impact goes deeper and darker.  We suddenly feel small and powerless in the face of nature’s fury. Our lives become hostage to our preparedness, to the community’s response, to freak circumstances and to incredible forces beyond our control.  What took years to build – the empires, homes and lives; the things we gather and things we cherish are destroyed in an instant.  Lives and livelihoods are overwhelmed. Even those on the fringes of disaster are shocked. Numbed, they watch family, friends, neighbours and fellow citizens caught up in nature’s indifferent might.

Natural disasters undermine our modern belief that we control our lives, that we can build our future to be whatever we want it to be, that we live in a basically stable, ordered and fair world.

As the flood waters begin to recede, the winds abate, the earth stop shaking and the sun begins to shine, we humans take stock and the questioning begins.  Why did this happen?  Is anyone to blame?  What could have been done to prepare us for this moment that was not done?  What could have reduced the toll on buildings and lives?  How and where can we rebuild? And, on a more existential level, how do we cope with our feelings of uncertainty and danger?  What really matters to us? Why are we here?

These are not easy questions with simple pat answers yet they go to the very heart of what it means to be human – to how we live our lives in this place – this beautiful, amazing, lively, restless blue-green ball spinning around a fiery sun in the vastness of star spangled space. Wrestling with these pressing questions in the context of recent events, we can answer them on at least two levels: the practical and the existential or more simply put on the human and the spiritual.

On a practical level we ask to what extent are humans responsible?

In the midst of overwhelming natural disaster, humans often feel swept away by the chaotic unpredictability of the moment.  Yet the fact remains that we do have the power to mitigate or (in some cases) to prevent the extent of the destruction. We are not completely powerless in the face of disaster.  There are aspects over which we have some control, even responsibility.

We choose to live or to remain in areas prone to natural disaster. There are good reasons for this such as access to resources, trade, water, land, community and strong historical, ancestral and/or spiritual ties to the land.  Even if the task of uprooting and resettling was easy or possible (which it often is not), where can we go to escape the drastic disruptions and powerful forces of this restless planet? Australians would be hard pressed to find a place to live that could not be potentially threatened by storms, floods, cyclones, drought or bushfires as the beginning of this year have demonstrated. On a minor scale we can avoid building on obviously flood prone areas, or beach front properties exposed to the full force of cyclonic winds or amidst bush land at risk of wild fires.  In the end, however, we have to choose our “poison” – the risks we are prepared to live with to build the lives to which we aspire.

Knowing the dangers we can prepare for them at an individual and community level. This includes long range planning, building codes and practices, water management, emergency management plans, effective warning systems and communication, boarding up and bunkering down.  In the event of disaster we can choose to respond – to help each other, to act courageously, generously and with compassion or to be indifferent to or even exploitive of our neighbours’ plight.  Finally, we need to acknowledge that human activity – at a local and at a global level – impacts on the world we live in.  Deforestation, global warming and climate change all can directly affect or exacerbate such events.

So there are things we can do that can mitigate and protect us against the full force and destruction of even in once in a century events.  But two facts remain. Firstly, people being what they (or we) are often don‘t prepare adequately, may cut corners and may even exploit the situation for perceived gain (whether by corrupt skimping on building codes or taking advantage of those still dazed by the disaster’s impact).  Secondly, even with the best foresight, communications, planning and timely action, lives may be lost, buildings and infrastructure destroyed and livelihoods disrupted.  Nature is too powerful to be completely tamed and it has a way of throwing curve balls at us (like the horrific “inland tsunami” that devastated Grantham and other communities in the Lockyer Valley).  Essentially, it comes down to the fact that we live on an unstable and violent planet that often takes the human life it nurtures.

On an existential or spiritual level, why is the world we live in unstable?

Which brings me to the existential question of why? Why do we live in a paradoxical world that gives promise of life and beauty and then snatches it away in one chaotic, seemingly senseless instant? There are many possible answers and no consensus on this unsettling question.

The Materialist response

The materialist answers that, as the material universe is all there is, there is no ultimate answer to this question. This amazing, complex and beautiful world we live in, with all its wonders, is ultimately the result of deep time and blind chance.  The universe blasted into existence from a miniscule quantum singularity for unknown reasons and by an unknown cause.  Over vast eons of time, it has expanded and evolved through time and chance from the simplest components into increasingly complex entities (stars, galaxies, planets, microorganisms, simple multi-cellular organisms, complex plants and animals, Homo sapiens, an integrated and interacting biosphere, complex interacting cultures etc). One day in the future it will either collapse back into a singularity or more probably continue to expand until all useful heat and life has been irretrievably extinguished. While even the simplest human being has a brain of amazing complexity, we are here by mere chance, life is ephemeral and the only value and purpose it can have is those we choose to give it. We live on an uneasy, violent planet because of the physical constants of the universe – humans are a product and victims of this world. At best we may- in time and for a time – create our own environment and gain greater levels of mastery over nature through science and technology. At worst we should enjoy life while we can (“eat, drink and be merry”) for tomorrow we die.

While there is a grandeur to this vision (as C S Lewis noted), I find it profoundly unsatisfying and full of un-provable assertions and unsatisfying presuppositions. The materialist boldly claims that there is no other reality apart from the material because they insist that reality can only be known by means of the material – thus begging the question.  They cannot really explain why there is a universe, why this universe is ordered (following laws of physics), the origin and source of consciousness and reason, the origin of complexity and beauty particularly as it obtains to the origin of life and the origin or nature of the stuff that makes us human – our love for beauty, music, art, laughter and humour, our creativity, our sense that the world should be fair, our need for love and purpose, our longing for something beyond our material existence.

The Eastern Spiritualist response

While the West in recent centuries has discounted the validity of anything outside or above the natural (the supernatural), the East has traditionally tended to discount the material. Hinduism and Buddhism inherit a similar world view – that all life is caught up in an interminable cycle of birth and rebirth fueled the law of karma.  So at one level, the events that happen to us both good and bad are direct consequences to our actions in the our past lives both good and bad.  Karma is inexorable – for every past good action is rewarded and every past bad action is punished in exact measure by an impersonal, intransigent, uncaring law. At this level, the grief and distress caused by natural disasters as well as more every day unfortunate events are a result of our past actions in past unremembered lives – we get what we deserve.  On another level, most streams of Hinduism and Buddhism claim that the material space-time world we live is an illusion and that the only reality is spiritual - an impersonal Being (Brahman) or existence (Nirvana) – in which the illusion of personal identity is erased.  Thus either the illusion of personal separateness (Hinduism) or the hook of desire for wealth, love, safety, health, significance, identity (Buddhism) imprisons our consciousness in this world of suffering. Hinduism advocates different spiritual techniques and different paths (of devotion, duty or denial) to escape illusion while Buddhism counsels mindfulness and the giving up of all desire and attachment to this life.  At this level concepts of “right” and “wrong”, “good” or “bad” are merely a matter of perspective, two realities in constant and unending tension and dynamic balance with each other.

Elements of this view of reality do resonate with me – in particular that it is often our desires that cause us pain and detachment protects us from it. The concept of karma is rather neat (everyone gets what they deserve, disasters happen because of past moral failures), yet it is inexorable, inescapable, unpredictable and ultimately unexplainable (why should an impersonal universe be moral especially if ultimately good and evil have no intrinsic meaning?).  The concept of karma may ease my feelings when observing others suffer (even fostering a lack of compassion or justifying gross inequities as in the caste system in India) but it gives little comfort to those overwhelmed with disaster to believe it is the result of something done in countless past but unremembered lives.

While I might well seek to detach myself from this world to avoid the emotional impact of suffering, at a more profound level, such a strategy fails to explain to me the awesome beauty and joy of life, the profound need humans have for the personal, the possibility of forgiveness and grace.

Even living in the privileged west, (my) life is often filled with difficulties, disillusionment, roadblocks and the painful loss of cherished loved ones.  However, I cannot escape the conviction that it is when I feel the most deeply, when I love the most sacrificially, when I care the most strongly, I am the most human and the most alive. Gautama Buddha supposedly said that it is harder for women to be find enlightenment (Nirvana) because giving birth ties them more strongly to this life of illusion. Yet for me, being a mother has been one of the most profound and one of the most challenging experiences of my life that, despite the difficulties, has given me a much deeper understanding of myself, of love, joy, grace and life and, I believe, of the heart and reality of God.

Alternative Spiritualist Response

New Age or Alternative spiritualities seek to combine the wisdom of the east and indigenous cultures with Western worldview in a search for personal fulfillment and wholeness.  It is a diffuse, eclectic approach that tends to cherry pick techniques (meditation, crystals, reiki, astrology etc), concepts (reincarnation, karma), symbols (rainbow, stars) and values (environmentalism, nonviolence) to suit the individual.  Its followers give various explanations to natural disasters and painful events from harmful human activity that exploits the environment, to environmental disharmony, to the planet (Gaia) righting the balance, to karma, to a solipsistic idea of scripting (that “I” script my life to happen according to my unconscious spiritual needs).  Yet it’s lack of intellectual rigueur, its emphasis on personal preference and its almost fanatical focus on personal fulfillment, its tendency to see suffering as the fault of the sufferer do not appeal to me.

Theistic Response

Theism (primarily represented by the faiths that more or less draw from the Bible) validates both spiritual and physical reality.  The theist believes that an eternal, infinite, personal, loving God created both the spiritual world and the material, finite space-time cosmos and the beings that inhabit it. He creates the earth as a good, fruitful and bountiful environment and he creates humanity to be guardians over the creation (to care for it and to benefit from it).  Yet (at the dawn of time) there is both a spiritual and human rebellion against God’s rightful rule which puts the whole world out of kilter with a good God. In deciding to trust in their own wisdom and will for the future, the relationship with God was fractured. It is this fracture in reality that explains the presence of evil and suffering – both on a human and on a natural level.

The story, however, does not end there as the Book unfolds God’s plan to restore both humanity and creation back into relationship with him – to restore and even go beyond its original harmony and beauty.  For Christians (unlike other people of the Book), Jesus of Nazareth as God incarnate is at the centre of this plan of restoration and it is through faith in him that we can become part of the story.  However, we are still in the middle of that journey so we still live in a world out of kilter with God.

Thus the Christian response to natural disaster and suffering in this life is complex and nuanced.  Natural disasters result from a world in rebellion, they can be seen as punishment for wrongdoing yet there is not always a direct relationship between evil and disaster.  Wrong doers often apparently go unpunished while the innocent suffer.  The worst things sometimes happen to the best people.  And at times bad things just happen. This is in part because actions can set in motion a chain of events of wide ranging effect.  Rather than constantly intervening (especially when his help is neither sought nor appreciated), God often allows events to take their course (within certain prescribed limits). Eventually, all wrong doing will be dealt with given time and eternity.

However, the God of Abraham, Moses and Jesus is not indifferent or removed from our plight.  He listens to those who turn to him for help and helps at times subtly and, at other times, in astounding ways.  More than this, he works in the middle of disastrous situations and redeems them for good as he did with the death of Jesus, God-Son, on the cross.  If we give him our lives, he takes all the elements of our life and like a master weaver expertly combines the light and dark threads to make a glorious tapestry (though his design will not be completely understood until the pattern is finished). Nor does he remain aloof to human suffering and pain.  Rather, he enters into our pain, walks with us and carries us through the angst and anguish. This is seem most supremely in the incarnation, when the Son (eternal God) genuinely entered the human condition by becoming a human being, living a life of goodness and controversy and willingly enduring one of the most painful and humiliating deaths ever invented so that we might be restored to a relationship with the triune God.

The Christian answer to natural disaster and human suffering is not without its tensions and its imponderables. There have been times in my life even in recent times when it has been sorely put to the test.  Yet it has sustained me and continues to sustain and steer me through pain and anguish.  It provides both comforts and challenges, gives serenity and stimulus to act.  Life is not without meaning or responsibility, nor is it fatalistic.  And by no means is it just about me and my spiritual fulfilment.  Rather it is an adventure, in which we partner with God to make a difference, to act compassionately and to live in boldly.

Jesus challenges us to build our lives on the bedrock of faith – in God’s goodness and love and his plan to of restoration of a fractured world through the life, death and resurrection of his Son.  He says, “I’ll show what it’s like when someone comes to me, hears my words, and puts them into practice. It’s like a person building a house by digging deep and laying the foundation on bedrock. When the flood came, the rising water smashed against that house, but the water couldn’t shake the house because it was well built.” Luke 6:47-48 CEB

No matter what the force of the wind and waves, no matter how hot the fire, not even death itself is a match for the Creator of more than a hundred billion galaxies, of the vastness of space and of time itself.


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