Earthquakes and Motorcycles

Hundreds of Turks died last week in an earthquake measured at 7.2 on the Richter scale.  Buildings collapsed and caught fire.  Workers desperately dug through the rubble to save lives, including a two week old baby.  The future for tens of thousands of people was permanently altered, one way or another, in the blink of an eye.  For someone in the wrong place at the wrong time, there is no more future.

Life is fickle.  I remember a parishioner who survived a motorcycle accident.  He was a young man, friendly, with a red beard, who ran into a cow at night on an unlighted patch of road.  Somehow, his neck wasn’t broken.  At my next church, there was another nineteen year old in a motorcycle accident.  He ran into a horse on an unlighted patch of road and instantly died.  (This is why mothers tell you to never ride motorcycles.)  One lived and one didn’t.  Why?  How did a two week old baby survive the earthquake in Turkey, but not other family members in the same building?

A lot of Americans say God has a plan.  At another funeral, this time for a child crushed in a tractor accident, the most common explanation offered by family friends was the will of God.  God wanted the little girl in heaven; she was needed for higher things.  The mother didn’t appear consoled, ingesting numerous sedatives, but there is a sizable portion of the population who believe God has a purpose for everything.

It’s a view firmly rooted in the Bible.  Every disaster is God’s fault.  Who flooded the earth and drowned humanity?  God.  Who dropped a fireball on unsuspecting Sodom?  God.  Why did the pharaoh tell Moses “no,” and cause a series of monumental plagues?  Because God made him.  Why was Judah conquered by Babylon and the city of Jerusalem ransacked?  Because God wanted it to happen and authorized Babylon to do it.  Why did Jesus die?  It was God’s idea.

Even if God is always killing things, there’s comfort in believing somebody has a strategy.  There certainly doesn’t seem to be one, otherwise.  The most saintly person I ever knew died of malaria she contracted while working as a missionary in the Sudan.  That was her vacation from counseling alcoholics and drug addicts back home, many of whom lived longer than she did.

I’d like to think her death was part of a grand divine scheme for ultimate universal perfection, but then I also have to believe everything else has a purpose, too.  The Holocaust, the Cambodian genocide, the Twin Towers, Glen Beck, and my first marriage are all part of the design.  God is behind it all.  And that I can’t accept.  My first marriage was my fault, not God’s.  And if one thing can happen outside of God’s will, than anything can.  In fact, if one thing can happen outside of God’s will, then all bets are off, because everything is on its own.  It’s called a chain reaction.  The cat is out of the bag.

On the honeymoon connected to my first marriage, my wife and I shared a day-long trail ride in Texas with a Texan who liked to tell tales.  He related about a friend of his who did an experiment in human nature, capturing a bob cat, stuffing it inside a suitcase, and leaving the case beside a road, just to see what happened.  A car stopped, naturally. someone grabbed the luggage, they took off and travelled about fifty feet, before the doors flew open and people exploded screaming in every direction.

Life is like that.  Your imaginary plans can change at any moment for an infinite number of unimaginable reasons; sometimes bobcats do get loose in cars.  Let’s face facts.  We can’t predict the next five minutes in any completely honest fashion.  Donnie Darko’s jet engine might fall through the roof.  It happened to a lawyer in 2010.  An asteroid landed in his waiting room, agreeably arriving when the office was closed.

We don’t like those facts, however, and generally trudge forward in the illusory belief that the next five minutes will be like the last five minutes, or within a narrow range of probability.  It’s a type of faith, really.  The car approaching me on the road won’t suddenly veer off course and hit me head on because that’s not what usually happens, except for when it doesn’t, and it wouldn’t happen to me anyway, because it’s not on my list of goals for the day.

The unpleasant reality is that life is a crapshoot.  Asteroids do appear; ask the dinosaurs.  We might get diagnosed with cancer tomorrow.  Our fortunes can change overnight.  I know, because it’s happened to me.  Nothing is guaranteed.  The idea that God has a plan for me and you is a reassuring myth, but simply isn’t true.

For many people, of course, doubting that idea is equivalent to lacking faith.  We want to believe there’s a good reason for the death of a loved one, or that the world has a destination.  Even Einstein said that God doesn’t play with dice.  How can we question the idea that God is in charge?

On the other hand, how can we possibly think God is?  If God is in charge of this mess then the object of our common worship is a master of Grand Guignol, a puppeteer with the morals of Zeus, only incompetent.  I used to think God made me stub my toe; I don’t anymore.  It happens when I ram my toe into something, and it hurts like hell, and makes me invoke God’s name, but not in the way of an explanation.

When you think about it, what kind of faith does it take to believe God is going to make you the winner in the end?  People who believe God has plans also see themselves on the right side of those plans.  If we’re going to have faith, we’re going to make sure it pays off.  Forget this world; we’ll get paid off in the next.  God said so.  How many people would still sign up if the preacher promised them nothing?

Faith seems more like faith, to me, if we’re not guaranteed anything.  Who has the right to feel assured of an eternal paradise?  Certainly not me.  I’ll commend my spirit to God, when that time comes, and rely on her good judgment.

Similarly, faith isn’t a way to escape the randomness of life.  Devoutly religious people die everyday in airplane crashes, car wrecks, drone attacks, marketplace explosions, and falling down stairs.  And, when it happens, it doesn’t mean God wanted them.  It means shit happens.  That is an axiom of life; I’m sure it’s in the Bible somewhere.

To my understanding, God doesn’t rescue us from anything.  The world, and all contained therein, is in our hands, and we can blow it up if we choose.  Our lives belong to us; God won’t stop you from eating a second donut or strapping on dynamite.  Instead, God is willing to suffer the vagaries of life along with you, if you’d like the company, whatever the self-inflicted problems and arbitrary tragedies might be.  For all the Christians in the crowd, that is the meaning of the cross, shorn of all the triumphalist fantasizing.  Christ didn’t die for humanity because God is in charge of everything.  Christ died because God isn’t.

About Bucky Dann

I teach religion, sociology, and psychology at Southwestern Community College in the Smoky Mountains. I have worked in the United Methodist ministry and in the substance abuse field. I possess a Masters of Divinity, a Masters of Philosophy, and a PhD in the sociology of knowledge.

3 Responses to “Earthquakes and Motorcycles”

  1. I used to believe in the things people say when someone dies: “It’s God’s will…” blah blah blah, although there were times I didn’t quite “get it.” {For example when my Grandpa died alone in a hospital on Christmas Eve, I found it difficult to believe that this man who loved family Christmases and who hated being alone at any time would have “wanted it that way” or “was waiting to spare us the pain of being with him” or “was called by God.” My Grandpa–not a Christian man–never would have wanted to spare us anything. He was more likely to have wanted the whole family gathered round and mourning–loudly.}

    When I went to work for an organ donor organization and I saw the many and varied ways people die and the many and varied family situations they leave behind, I realized just how random life–and death–can be.

    I have long had trouble swallowing the idea that God has hands in the mess of human life, that he would bestow blessings upon one person and take them away from another, that those who suffer are somehow not worthy. That children are abused and hungry and suffer and die as part of some grand scheme.I like your statement that “God is willing to suffer the vagaries of life along with you, if you’d like the company…” There is an idea I can find comfort in–that whatever we suffer through, God stays with us.

  2. great thoughts from a fisherman at heart.

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