Chris Trotter is a political commentator associated with the Labour Party in New Zealand. He is also a Christian. The following are his reflections on the recent earthquake in Christchurch.
WAS GOD PRESENT in Christchurch on 22 February 2011? It’s a question many New Zealanders have wrestled with over the past month, and the tragedy which engulfed Japan on 11 March has given it added urgency.
Officially, we’re a secular nation, yet Census data confirms that more than half of New Zealanders retain a belief in God. That belief is sorely tested by natural disasters. If God was present in Christchurch on 22 February, why didn’t He prevent the earthquake?
But, in posing this question aren’t we separating God from the natural world? Seating Him on a divine throne beyond this earthly realm? Requiring Him to demonstrate his mastery over his own creation by, in this case, countermanding the movement of the earth’s tectonic plates?
Yes, we are. But we can hardly be blamed for doing so. Because, when all is said and done, this is the view of God we have inherited from the Bible. He is the maker of heaven and earth and if it pleases him to command the sun to stand still, or the oceans to o’ertop the world, then it will be so. He is Jehovah, “I am that I am”, the God Charlton Heston (in the role of Moses) invokes when Pharaoh’s army traps the Israelites against the margins of the Red Sea.
“Behold His mighty hand!”, Charlton cries, and low, the waters of the sea are parted.
There are, of course, plusses and minuses to the Jehovan conception of divinity, as the celebrated author, C.S. Lewis, well understood.
In The Horse and His Boy, one of his Chronicles of Narnia, he makes it clear that his own rendering of the Jehovan God – the golden lion Aslan – is not a pet to be called for and dismissed at our convenience. On the contrary, he is an altogether dangerous being. As one of Lewis’s characters indignantly observes: “He’s not a tame lion!”
And, yet, it was to a rather tame deity that the Dean of Christchurch Cathedral, Peter Beck, appeared to be appealing in the aftermath of the earthquake. In answer to the question: “Where was God on 22 February?” he responded:
“God is in all these people. God is in the midst of all this. God is weeping with those who weep. God is alongside those who are finding the energy to just keep going. God is in the people who are reaching out and seeking to sustain one another. God is about building community, about empowering people.”
And, when a journalist demanded: ‘Yes, but where was God was when offices pancaked and burned and hundreds died?’
“Well, we live on a dynamic, creating planet that’s doing its thing. For whatever reason, our forebears chose to build this city on this place. They didn’t know we were on this fault line. God doesn’t make bad things happen to good people. We make our own choices about what we do.”
Doing its thing?! What exactly is the Dean trying to say? That the natural world is a conscious entity? That it has its own volition and (God save us!) its own agenda? And did Cantabrians, thanks to the poor choices of their “forebears” simply find themselves in this “dynamic, creating planet’s” way? And was Jehovah, in fulfilment of some hitherto undisclosed self-denying ordinance, required to turn his face from the imminent suffering of Cantabrians and keep his mighty hands in his pockets?
If so, then God has a rival – a divine competitor in the omnipotence business. And the Dean is in flagrant breach of the Nicene Creed, the first article of which states, unequivocally: “We believe in one God, the Father Almighty, Maker of heaven and earth”.
Perhaps the Dean should return to his Bible and ponder the God that spoke to Moses from the burning bush. The God that gave man counsel from the whirlwind, and moved before the Children of Israel in a pillar of fire. Perhaps he should consider the God that laid Jericho low and sent fire from heaven to consume Sodom and Gomorrah. A red God, a wrathful God, a jealous God. The God that was ready to drown the whole world. The God who, when his son, nailed to a cross, cried out “Father, why have you forsaken me?”, remained silent.
Shock and awe. These words have been sullied by the Pentagon’s bloody hands. Yet it is only in those moments when all our human conceits are battered down and laid to waste that we, shocked and awestruck, come close to understanding Jehovah as the authors of both the Old and New Testaments understood Him.
Was God present in Christchurch on 22 February? Oh yes, He was there. And He is with us always. Beyond our questions; beyond our understanding; beyond our judgement.
Not a tame lion.
This essay was originally published in The Press of Tuesday, 22 March 2011