Saturday, October 15, 2005

Disasters shake the faithful

From: The Sun

If God is good, why do terrible things occur?

That's a question people of various faiths wrestle with often, especially during times of crisis. Lately, there has been no shortage of colossal tragedies hurricanes, floods, earthquakes, landslides.

Only a month after Hurricane Katrina blasted the Gulf Coast, landslides buried about 800 people in Latin America, and the death toll from the magnitude 7.6 earthquake in Pakistan was around 40,000 as of Saturday, with that number likely to rise.

But the real question, say some Christians, Muslims and Jews, is not whether God is smiting the world but whether humans are smiting God.

"God has sent us to this earth. We should respect nature, ourselves, human beings,' said Shahana Samiullah, a 41-year-old Rancho Cucamonga Muslim woman who emigrated 15 years ago from Karachi, Pakistan.

Like many religious people, Samiullah finds hope in recent natural disasters.

"Some people start questioning their faith why God causes so much destruction and why people who are innocent are the victim of that,' she said. "To me, it strengthens my faith in God. In the midst of all that is happening, there are miracles that are happening. People are surviving. Like the man I heard about who survived 27 hours in the rubble.'

That man was Umer Mushtaq, a 17-year-old Pakistani rescuers found along with about 25 others living beneath the rubble of the 10-story Margalla Towers, according to news accounts.

"I never lost hope, as I had full faith that God Almighty will save me,' Mushtaq told the Gulf Times, a daily newspaper in Qatar.

A natural disaster is, for many, the ultimate test of faith. For others, it is dramatic validation that either God doesn't exist or that he is a sadistic supreme being.

In the past year, humanity has been rocked by a tsunami-spawning earthquake, two monster hurricanes in the U.S. Gulf Coast and the massive quake in Pakistan. In 2003, Southern Californians fell into their own hell when wildfires raged from Ventura County to eastern San Diego County, including the San Bernardino and San Gabriel mountains.

"If there was a God, how come he let all that happen?' Tom Cotton, 51, of Pinion Hills asked while finishing a burger at a Carl's Jr. in San Bernardino.

"If it's his plan,' Cotton said, scanning the restaurant as if he was going to curse, "he's sure got a messed-up plan.'

God only knows what that plan might be.

"If God is wiser than we, His judgment must differ from ours on many things, and not least on good and evil,' C.S. Lewis, the Christian philosopher and children's author, wrote in "The Problem of Pain.' "What seems to us good may therefore not be good in His Eyes, and what seems to us to be evil may not be evil.'

Lewis begins the book by stating that when he was an atheist, he, too, believed God was either cruel or a farce.

"If you ask me to believe that this is the work of a benevolent and omnipotent spirit, I reply that all the evidence points in the opposite direction.'

But later in life, Lewis came to believe in God, and Lewis' understanding of the root of pain changed from a godless cosmos to the Garden of Eden.

In the story of the fall of man, God is not to blame. Humans are.

"We have sown the seeds of our own suffering,' said Philip A. Amerson, president of Claremont School of Theology, a United Methodist seminary.

The initial seed was when Adam and Eve disobeyed God, sin entered the world, and humans were sentenced to lives of suffering, according to the book of Genesis, a text shared by Christians, Muslims and Jews.

Man has sown many seeds since then, Amerson said, by abusing the environment and encroaching on dangerous environments.

Religious texts don't define building homes in the San Bernardino Mountains as sinful, but development disrupted the forest's natural fire cycle.

The structures that collapsed in Pakistan and India-controlled Kashmir were built in dangerous earthquake zones.

New Orleans lies below sea level, nestled among the Mississippi River, Lake Pontchartrain and the Gulf of Mexico.

When the tsunami wiped out parts of Southeast Asia, a Muslim stronghold, some fundamentalist Christians said God was smiting the sinful. Although that thinking was en vogue in antiquity (think Sodom and Gomorrah), it has fallen out of fashion.

Many local religious leaders said disasters are not God's way of punishing the sinful but are his way of testing the faithful.

"We can either choose to ask the questions: 'Does God exist? Is God evil? Does God punish us?' Et cetera, et cetera. Or we can realize God is testing us and we can decide how we respond to that test,' said Jay Sherwood, spiritual leader of Adat Re'im, an independent Jewish congregation in Rancho Cucamonga.

In our response to that test are "the seeds of our own hope,' said Amerson. "Through opening space for democracy, through welcoming the stranger, through supporting those who are suffering, through feeding the hungry, clothing the naked we are sowing the seeds of hope.'