This is a repost from the Chicago Tribune’s “The Seeker” Religion blog, written in the aftermath of the devastating earthquake in Haiti (2010). Unfortunately, the Oklahoma tornados (May 2013) are one more example we didn’t need.
It can be comforting to imagine that we are the center of the world. That is, until the world crushes us indifferently like an elephant stepping on an ant.
We do not need another catastrophe on the scale of Haiti’s/Oklahoma’s agony to challenge our trust in cosmic providence; we have seen enough examples through the human experience. If a personality or pantheon intentionally caused or passively allowed this to happen, they do not care about us. Indeed, the persistence and pervasiveness of human suffering might teach the opposite lesson of religious faith: not that someone up there must like us, but someone must be out to get us!
For the more Humanist-inclined, there is no mystery to human suffering. A large, complex and unintelligent universe functions whether or not we or our loved ones are happy or sad, alive or dead. The earth’s tectonic plates are neither evil nor good; they simply function. Sometimes we enjoy fantastic mountain views, and sometimes we are crushed by falling buildings.
Many organizations are striving to help the victims of this latest disaster, and supporting them as you choose is an important step. Rabbi Tarfon (1st century CE) said memorably, “You are not required to finish the work, but you are also not free to desist from it.” In other words, we may never succeed in stopping suffering, but we should still do what we can. That is our test – facing disaster without a net.
Natural disasters like the tragedy in Haiti/Oklahoma are tests, but they are not tests of religious faith; they are tests of our humanity. The universe will not intervene for our benefit, just as it did not intentionally cause our suffering. If lives are to be saved, we people must save them; cities are only rebuilt by human effort. We respond to human needs with the power of human deeds.