Sure enough, every time we get some big disaster, especially when there are multiple disasters happening at the same time — like fires, floods and hurricanes, not to mention a pandemic — I hear people start to kick around the term “biblical,” as if to compare these events to the locusts, the frogs, the river of blood and the other plagues of the Bible.
On the one hand, I think it’s a short-sighted, self-centered way of looking at things. I mean, we’ve always had floods and fires and earthquakes and storms and avalanches and volcanoes and mudslides and … you name it.
From the tsunami that wiped out the inhabitants of the North Sea Islands 8,200 years ago to the sandstorms that destroyed entire villages in Norway in 3,500 BC to the 300-year drought in the Mediterranean between 1,200 to 1,400 BC to the eruption of Mount Vesuvius, which buried Pompeii in the first century, to the Antioch earthquake, which killed a quarter-million people in Syria in the sixth century, to the Shaanxi earthquake of the 16th century, which killed 830,000 people, to the Yangtzee River flood in 1931, which killed 4 million people, and right on through to the hurricanes Andrew, Irma, Harvey and Katrina.
There has probably never been a time in the 12.5 billion-year history of this planet where we have not had ongoing natural disasters, so to think that our time is different and that we are suddenly witnessing divine intervention seems egotistical.
On the other hand, as anyone who has ever been refused reimbursement for a canceled plane flight knows, we do often refer to these events as “acts of God.”
There’s an inherent contradiction there, however. Airline companies refuse to pay because they claim the event was random and entirely out of their control, whereas in the Bible, acts of God are never random, or as Einstein said it, "God does not play dice with the universe." The plagues and other demonstrations of divine might are always unleashed as retribution for sin.
Throughout the majority of human history, people have viewed disasters and other misfortune through the eyes of providentialism. If something “bad” happens, it’s because God, or the gods or the spirits are displeased. So, people came up with all sorts of tricks and rituals, conventions and interventions to try and appease the higher power.
As science became more sophisticated, we began to see things a little differently, and we expanded and refined our conceptions of cause and effect. For example, maybe the reason the town flooded is not because God was angry but because it was not very smart of the people to build the dam up above the town.
Society, today, is marked by polarization.
There’s a fascinating and also disturbing split among people, not only politically and socially, but also in terms of what we’re willing to accept responsibility for and regard as evidence of divine providence.
Take earthquakes, for instance.
In the Boomer Sooner state of Oklahoma, the frequency of earthquakes increased from less than two each year during the 30-year period from 1978 to 2008 to several hundred a year over the last 10 years, a period that just happened to coincide with a huge increase in the oil drilling technique known as hydraulic fracturing and the injection of wastewater deep into the ground.
Scientists and environmentalists point to these earthquakes, or to droughts or rising temperatures, or rising waters or disappearing species as evidence that we have abused God’s glorious creation or, for the less religious, this beautiful being we call Mother Nature. All this stuff that’s happening is the price we are paying. There are others who refuse to place the responsibility for these things on humans but who are perfectly happy to blame all sorts of disasters on abortion, feminism and homosexuality.
I guess I’m somewhere in between, where I don’t consider all the various calamities as acts of God, but neither do I consider the natural disasters to be simply natural and apart from human folly.
As the passengers on the airplane in the movie exchanged information and begin to realize their predicament, there was total silence...
Ron Colone can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
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