After the Earthquake

[Sermon given at Evensong in the Chapel of Trinity College, March 6 2011.]

On All Saints Day, November 1st 1755, the city of Lisbon was destroyed by an earthquake. Tens of thousands of people died in the tremor and the following tsunami and fires. The impression the Lisbon earthquake made on European intellectual history was parallel to its physical impact. Philosopher Susan Neiman suggests that the history of western thought took much of its subsequent shape from reflection on these events and on the problem of evil and suffering they raised; as she says, “the eighteenth century used the word Lisbon much as we use the word Auschwitz.”

Voltaire, Jean-Jacques Rousseau and Immanuel Kant were all deeply influenced by the horror of the Lisbon earthquake, and wrote at length on what it said about the nature of the world. At a time when there was no existing conception of seismology, and an earthquake might well have been regarded as the result of divine intervention rather than of the makeup of the earth itself, the questions ranged across what we would now regard as quite different ways of thinking about the event; so Kant, for instance, began not only to develop his thoughts about the mystery of discerning any divine purpose, but speculated on the natural causes of earthquakes, making in the process a real contribution to the emergence of seismology.

These two strands of enquiry, of the meaning of things and of the mechanisms behind them, have become more and more separate realms of reflection. In the recent past the Harvard palaeontologist Stephen Jay Gould defended this separation, speaking of science and religion as “non-overlapping magisteria”. He was right to insist that religion is not what its most vociferous current critics suggest in dismissing it; that is, it is not a form of or alternative to scientific explanation, although in pre-modern times and in some contemporary settings it has functioned as that as well. Rather religion is a way of seeking meaning in events, persons and objects; and meaning cannot be reduced to knowledge of the way things have happened.

Yet Gould may overstate the point; for while science and religion have distinct concerns, their interests do at least intersect. Religion and science are both concerned with the lives we lead as embodied beings. If we cannot bring awe as well as curiosity to the natural world, we are the poorer; and on the other hand if we cannot subject the intellectual and ethical dimensions of faith to scrutiny as we learn more about the world in which we seek to craft our lives faithfully, we are also impoverished.

Lisbon is far away, but Christchurch is not. These events are particularly disruptive to our peace of mind, not merely because of their geographical proximity and cultural affinity, but because the victims are members of our own world, a world that we are meant to be able to control. But this control is an illusion; 200 people may have died in New Zealand, but last year 316,000 died in the earthquake in Haiti. The natural sciences have shed more light on seismology, but not yet enough to prevent a Christchurch earthquake; they have probed more intimate mysteries of the human person such as were involved in the discovery of penicillin, but not so as to remove the fundamental question of suffering and mortality.

And our dilemma as embodied beings who live in a world where earthquakes and floods take place has taken on an additional dimension; for while we may still be shaken by the threat of natural disaster, at this point in history nature may have more to fear from us than we from her.

So, more than in the past there is a deep affinity and parallelism between the ambiguity of human life, with the inescapable reality of suffering and mortality that accompanies seamlessly the indescribable joys of live and love, and the state of nature itself, where beauty and terror exist, and which is vulnerable as well as threatening to us. These questions are not merely those of a quest for meaning, but also of a quest for survival.

The biblical story of the great flood, whose end is told in the first reading tonight, assumes the pre-Kantian view of disasters as the direct result of divine intervention, cosmologically speaking. It offers a happy ending of sorts, more poignant today perhaps in Kerang or Toowoomba than in some other places, assuring the reader of an ultimately benign creator. Yet scripture itself offers other perspectives; the Book of Job famously considers suffering as mysterious, and counsels a wisdom of acceptance, rather than untoward optimism.

In the Letter to the Romans from which we also heard this evening, St Paul depicts the created order itself as experiencing a yearning or struggle for redemption and fulfilment parallel to that in human life. “The creation waits with eager longing…groaning in labour pains until now…” Paul does not view the world as a contained system in which God occasionally intervenes as for Genesis, nor even as mysteriously reflecting the will of an inscrutable creator to whose good purposes we should resign ourselves, like Job; rather he acknowledges the reality of a world in which suffering takes its place with joy, but puts that ambiguity in the perspective of hope. For Paul, God is not the answer to the question of cosmic origins, but to the question of the cosmic future; God is not offered as explanation of our state of being, but offers us a view of life lived in hope. Although it is not Paul's subject in the few lines quoted, it is the cross of Jesus, God’s willingness to enter into this ambiguity and to undergo death, which serves to offer us the key to living and believing this hope.

Faith is, then, not refusing a scientific world-view in favour of a pre-modern one. It is in essence a lived attitude to the world; a world whose workings are revealed to us by science, but whose beauty and terror, power and fragility, must be apprehended by faith and confronted in hope.


  1. Anonymous2:30 am

    A week after this post, as the disasters mount, ‘explanations’ that invoke the Mayan calendar, astrology, or, inevitably, tell us ‘it’s God punishment for ….’ call for theological words which admit complexity and ambiguity – so I appreciated reading this.
    Coincidentally, last week I saw Creation (the 2009 ‘biopic’ based on a novel about Darwin’s decision to publish On the Origin of Species), a film which was quite interesting in some ways but theologically frustrating. It placed a thoroughly contemporary overlay on questions such as the morality/effectiveness of ‘civilising’ indigenous people and of the benefits of emotional release as way of dealing with grief, but treated questions of theodicy (illustrated by the ‘wastefulness’ of evolution, predation in nature, and (particularly) the death of Darwin’s ten year old daughter) as a bare choice between either an irrational theism in which God is crudely omniscient and omnipotent, or a rational but bleak atheism. The vacuum left by the film invited more contemporary theological responses along the lines of those you mention, and I particularly thought of Moltmann’s ‘crucified God’ and the argument of Polkinghorne, Peacocke etc. that God works through and in evolution.
    Also in this sermon Romans 8 comes up, and it’s often cited as a ‘green’ text, yet the idea that nature needs to be set free from its ‘bondage to decay’ can be seen as biologically naïve, failing to accept the degree to which life is, physically speaking, entirely predicated on death (life < food < plants < soil < dead/waste matter). The passage seems (especially in light of the earlier part of the chapter exalting spirit over flesh) to be making what today we might see as an ecologically objectionable assertion that the material world remains degraded until such time as it is transformed, a position which also seems to run counter to Christianity’s other and opposite tendency to affirm the bodily (the Incarnation, Eucharist, the Church).

    Deborah Guess


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