Manifestations of the Living Earth
Trent Gilliss, online editor
“Why, then, turn to a God who seems to be absent at best and vindictive at worst? Haitians don’t have other options. The country has a long legacy of repression and exploitation; international peacekeepers come and go; the earth no longer provides food; jobs almost don’t exist. Perhaps a God who hides is better than nothing.”
The closing paragraph from Pooja Bhatia’s op-ed in today’s NYT courses with the pain of helplessness and suffering brought about by the recent earthquake that decimated this small island country. Bhatia’s questioning of God’s possible vindictive participation, or His absence, in nature’s destruction of human lives is a classic theological question.
Five years ago, the massive tsunamis that killed thousands of people, and displaced thousands more living in the low-lying areas of the South Pacific and Indian Oceans had struck. This question of “Where was God?” was being asked by many. We attempted to get at this issue with our show on the morality of nature — by looking at the history of seismic activity and its impacts through the field of Earth Sciences.
To this day, Jelle de Boer’s account of the Great Lisbon Earthquake of 1755 sticks with me, particularly his assessment of the aftereffects of the event and the musical tradition of fado. You can hear the show in the audio player above (or download here). Obviously, we can’t answer the theodicy question. But, hopefully, these scientific perspectives can both challenge and illuminate such religious questions as you read the latest news in Haiti.
The traditional view of God the Creator is untenable now.
—Professor Ellen van Wolde, an Old Testament scholar at Radboud University in The Netherlands. She claims the first sentence of Genesis is not an accurate translation of the Hebrew verb “bara” in the context of the Bible and other creation stories from Mesopatamia.
Translations of the Bible are debated and challenged all the time. In the case of the Creation story in Genesis, it’s often about the tense of the verb “create” and God’s role in the process that’s up for grabs. In a previous post, I compared three versions:
First, the New Revised Standard Version of the Bible:
In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth,
And from Fox’s The Five Books of Moses:
At the beginning of God’s creating of the heavens and the earth,
And now from the Tanakh:
When God began to create heaven and earth—
She says that the “bara” should not be translated as “to create” but “to spatially separate.” The impact of such a statement challenges the very notion that God created something out of nothing — and that humankind’s understanding of the story has been wrong for thousands of years.
Trent Gilliss, online editor
Darwin and Creation
Andy Dayton, associate web producer
This is the trailer for Creation, a biopic about Charles Darwin that recently made a splash at the Toronto International Film Festival. I noted the movie earlier in September partially because of the debate surrounding it. The film was having trouble finding a U.S. distributor, and its producer Jeremy Thomas stated it was “too controversial for religious America.”
The film starts after the death of Darwin’s 10-year-old daughter, Annie, and focuses on the period where he wrote his seminal book on the theory of evolution, On the Origin of Species. According to the film’s synopsis, “Darwin is torn between his love for his deeply religious wife and his own growing belief in a world where God has no place.”
This made me think of Krista’s conversation with Darwin biographer James Moore for our program “Evolution and Wonder.” At one point in the interview, Moore says about Darwin:
Always, I believe, until his dying day, at least half of him believed in God. He’d said he deserved to be called an agnostic. But he did make the point later in life that, “When I wrote The Origin of Species, my faith in God was as strong as that of a bishop.”
I’m interested to see how Creation’s account of Darwin’s life compares to Moore’s: does it reflect the same understanding of Darwin and his struggle, or is it a slightly different story?
And, it looks like I won’t have to cross the border to find out. A few weeks ago the film was picked up by Newmarket Films for U.S. distribution. Interestingly enough, Newmarket was also the distributor for The Passion of the Christ — perhaps they’re well-equipped to handle a potentially controversial film.
God Has a Sense of Humor, Too
Krista Tippett, Host
In our interview for next week’s show, the very thoughtful scientist/author Jon Kabat-Zinn has intriguing and provocative things to say about the pressures and possibilities of aligning our “Stone Age minds” with 21st-century digital realities. But he also says: “This is far too serious to take too seriously.”
The most godly people I know have a sense of humor even about the most important things, and I’m convinced God does too. And that is my far too serious justification for posting two very funny Facebook takes on Passover and Easter, the holiest of holidays being observed simultaneously this week. Be blessed — and enjoy.
The Weird Glory and Terrible Power of Nature
Rob McGinley Myers, Associate Producer
It’s hard not to see life as utterly random and meaningless in the face of disasters like the recent cyclone in Myanmar or the earthquake in China. And this is an issue that comes up again and again in theological circles, referred to as as the theodicy question: How could a just god let innocent people suffer and die?
On our show A History of Doubt, the historian Jennifer Michael Hecht addresses the theodicy question through the Book of Job. To test Job’s faith, God takes away his livelihood, his children, his status, his health, and finally Job breaks down and demands to know how God could do this to him, an innocent man. God appears to Job in a whirlwind and responds with a tirade.
Have you walked in the depths of the ocean? Have the gates of death been opened to you? Where does light come from? And where darkness? Hast thou entered into the treasures of the snow? Has thou seen the treasures of the hail? Hath the rain a father? Who hath begotten the drops of dew? Out of whose womb came the ice?
Hecht gives her wonderful reading of this passage in her book Doubt: a History.
This is how God accounts for himself. He does not say, Here is proof of justice or of my existence; he simply cites the weird glory of the natural world…. [The Book of Job] is not a parable of divine justice. It is a parable of resignation to a world-making force that has no justice as we understand justice. God comes off sounding like a metaphor for the universe: violent and chaotic yet bountiful and marvelous.
Krista explored the same theodicy question with the geologist Jelle de Boer, not long after the December 2004 tsunami disaster, in our show The Morality of Nature. Jelle de Boer pointed out that the horrifically destructive power of earthquakes and volcanoes is actually the same power responsible for bringing water and nutrients to the surface of the earth, therefore making life possible.
So through these volcanoes, over billions of years, this beautiful blue planet has formed, and its watery expanse is what gives life. And so life is directly dependent there on these geological processes…the processes where these plates separate and crack and where they run over each other and crack, and as a consequence of that, magmas form at deep levels in the earth, they are brought to the surface, and they bring not only those nutrients I talked about earlier, but also water. And that is the essence of life.
That magma running under the surface of everything, ready to destroy and remake life, puts a dark spin on something the Jesuit paleontologist and philosopher Pierre Teilhard de Chardin once wrote.
By means of all created things, without exception, the divine assails us, penetrates us, and molds us. We imagined it as distant and inaccessible, whereas in fact we live steeped in its burning layers.
The Gospel, as Done by Mick and Keith
Mitch Hanley, Senior Producer
Yesterday morning I was making breakfast, cleaning the kitchen, and listening to the Rolling Stones’ Beggar’s Banquet, one of my favorite of their albums (includes “Sympathy for the Devil,” “Street Fightin Man,” etc.). This record has a great rendition of the story of the prodigal son, a biblical parable with a message that I have never appreciated, until yesterday.
I have always felt that there should be consequences for the younger son having left, blown all his money, and then comes back to be received into the fold of his family. And what about the elder son who remained there, steadfast and dedicated, his inheritance intact? What message does he receive, other than, ‘You might as well go off and blow your wad, too, because it doesn’t really matter’? Well, OK, so this really isn’t the message.
And yesterday it seems as though I had a eureka moment, long after most of you, I suppose. So, life isn’t fair, right? We all know that; we’ve seen it every day in the news where there are injustices and sometimes no consequences. But for a reader of the Bible, does one wish that God’s love be merely fair with consequences for bad decisions? I would think not. My guess is that we want it both ways: we want justice here on earth and for God’s love to be unconditional. What is wrong with that? But the story is not trying to reflect how it is here on earth, and only how God’s love is — unreasonable, irrational, and that is the beauty of it.
So what are the benefits of remaining on the farm? Or, in another way, what are the benefits of leading a life within the fold of God’s love? I would guess there are many different answers to this question, depending on whom you ask.
I also have to think, ‘What if the younger son went off, blew all his money, and became Buddhist?’ Would he still be “dead” to his father?