Sunday, 3 January 2010

Shifting Plates and "Where was God?"

Over the Christmas break I watched again Mark Dowd's "Tsunami - Where Was God?" on Channel 4, a sensitive and wide ranging documentary on differing religious responses to the Tsunami in 2004.

In trying to come to terms with a belief in a God that could let such disasters happen Mark tried to question a Muslim geologist about the geological need for massive earthquakes that can cause tidal waves that then create so much suffering. He repeatedly asked the same question in different forms - is there an alternative design for the earth that God could have come up with that didn't require such violent outbursts that kill thousands? Is it possible, as a geologist, to think of an earth that is designed in such a way that negates earthquakes and volcanoes? If God created the earth and all that goes with it, why build into the system earthquakes that can wipe out thousands at one stroke? But no matter how he asked this question the same answer came back - the earth is designed so that catastrophes like this happen to force us to see our sin and teach us about our wrong ways - teach us a lesson.

Many, including myself, find this attitude hard to understand, but Mark's question is deep and profound because it goes right to the heart of what we are.

In short, the answer to Mark's question is no, there doesn't seem to be an alternative design - as far as we can tell one of the major reasons why there is life on this planet is because of the movement of the earth's tectonic plates.

(For those who need a geology brush up on what plate tectonics means there are many youtube videos and wiki type sites - but basically the earth's surface is made up of rigid plates that "float" on a hot fluid like mantle causing the plates the grind, crunch, slide over and under each other creating earthquakes, volcanoes, mountain chains, deep ocean ridges, island chains etc).

If we didn't have plate tectonics to recycle the earth's crust, bring new material to the surface, release gases into the atmosphere, build mountain chains and form deep basins that could be filled with water then the great diversity of life would not be present and could not have evolved. Everything about our shifting, changing planet creates niches and opportunities for life to take hold. It also forces change, driving species evolution and adaptation. Stability does not create burgeoning life - change, and often violent change, does.

Fascinating isn't it that pure energy on a scale we can barely imagine, is constantly at work in this astonishing universe, and on this particular planet in this little solar system, that phenomenal energy heaves around slabs of crust and creates the right conditions for life. But life doesn't come cheap and easy, it comes as a result of great forces and instability - life is a resilience born out of fragility that we see all around us in the natural world.

Rare Earth by Peter Ward and Donald Brownlee describes the role of plate tectonics and the maintenance of life, it is a wonderful and insightful book that lays out the scientific reasons why life is so uncommon, "maybe we really are alone" says the strap line. And perhaps so because no other planet in this solar system has tectonic movement - and no life that we know of.

It is a pointer to the fact that God didn't design the universe for our comfort and prosperity; deeply embedded into its very fabric is energy that produces creativity and destruction, violence and quiescence, burgeoning and collapsing. For me this has nothing to do with teaching anybody any lessons and has everything to do with a God that defies our imagination and leaves us gasping with incomprehension at the audacity of a creator who has set in motion something so spectacular.

And we humans have to fit in where we can and recognise with humility what we are - beadlets of life born out of resilience and evolutionary drive - and with a capacity for greatness. We have to accept that a cooling earth will crack and shake, that volcanoes will erupt, that meteorites will bombard, that continents will shift, and we humbly acknowledge that is what it is to be a human on planet earth, with all its tragedy and horror as well as beauty and magnificence.

For nearly all our evolutionary history humans have been fighters for survival against changing climates, natural disasters, ferocious predators that want to eat us and against other creatures that vie for our resources. For all our hunter/gatherer existence (99% of the time we have been fully modern humans) we would have been only too aware of the fragility of life and the forces for good or ill that were a natural part of life on earth. Today most in the comfortable West are fed, warm and housed with little understanding of the earth we live on - but we still have the instincts to fight for survival - the adrenalin to fight or flee, the fear of the dark and of spiders and snakes, and the desire to understand forces beyond our control. And this legacy leaves us with a body that is ready for action but too often with too little to do - we find ourselves being warriors without a war. And therein lies many of our problems I suspect.

So Mark - thanks for a fascinating programme but the horror of the tsunami is not retribution for sin, it is a painful demonstration of the real place we humans have on this cooling, dynamic earth - and a reminder that not everything is arranged for us. The alternative scenario is a very boring creationist model where God waves a wand and ping! all is as it appears now - and then we run into real trouble when we try to understand disaster, because only a God of retribution could make a beautiful earth turn round and bite.

And thank you for a question that brings to the surface so much we rarely discuss about the very nature of humans and life on earth.


  1. What astonishing insights Mary. I come again and again to the Book of Job - the voice of God speaks out of the awesome power of nature, challenging human reason and defying our demand for answers by pointing to the wonder of the creation of which we are part.

  2. Thanks Tina - Interesting isn't it how reason and logic interplay with mystery in such a tantalizing way. The universe obeys rules that we only know a small amount about, yet the origin of the universe is far from logical. As one eminent astronomer asked once - "why did God create all this? Was it just to blow our minds?"

  3. Thanks, Mary, you are full of insight. Similar questions: why is childbirth so painful, why do people get ill, why is there more pain in my little finger than pleasure in all my senses put together, why do I seek happiness in a world ruled by blind laws of nature? And the greatest mystery of all, why do I persist in believing in love despite endless disappointments? India's great poem of philosophy, the Vedanta Sutra, begins, 'Now is the time to enquire into Truth.'

  4. Hi Ranchor - thanks for this and for these big questions. When my 2 boys keep asking me endless questions all day about every conceivable topic I have realised how often I say "I don't know!" It seems I know less now than when I was a child...