Tsunami, Nature and Perception of God

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The enormous loss of lives and destruction by the Tsunami inevitably raises the question, why? Why do such disasters take place? The scientific answer is reasonably simple. The theological answer is complex and depends upon our own spirituality and understanding of religion.

Scientifically, the Tsunami was generated by a powerful earthquake of magnitude 9 (Richter scale) in the Indian Ocean, off the coast of Sumatra. It was caused by the subduction (Sliding under) of the Indian-Australian plate under the Burma Plate. This is the largest quake in the last 40 years and the fourth largest in the last 100 years. All of these quakes took place at subduction zones, Kamchatka peninsula (1952), Alaska (1957), Chile (1960), and Alaska again (1964).

In mid 1960s Earth Science was revolutionized by the discovery of the plate tectonics, a mechanism that helps explain the formation of mountains and oceans. The Earth’s crust is divided into tectonic "Plates" that slowly move on a conveyor-belt-like circulation of the material below the Earth’s crust. When the plates collide they help mountains to rise and the forces cause major earthquakes. The plates are estimated to have been in motion for at least 3.5 billion years, of 4.5 billion years of Earth’s history. The major earthquake zones are known. The research is at the threshold of being able to predict quakes and warn people about impending disasters.

In richer countries with better facilities for prediction and evacuation, people suffer less. In poorer countries with undeveloped infrastructure and inadequate building designs, they suffer more. It does not follow that God loves the rich more than the poor.

If people were not involved, as in cases of many Tsunamis in the Pacific Ocean, it would not even be called a disaster. Such mind-boggling force of nature would have been termed grand, awe-inspiring and even beautiful.

It is the theological answer that eludes us. God by definition is omniscient, omnipotent and omnipresent. Therefore God knows past, present and future – the laws of nature are God’s design and the universe is God’s creation.

Death is a part of the life cycle. We have trouble comprehending the "untimely" death and suffering of innocent people, particularly children. I do not know the answer.

As a Muslim the only way I can even attempt to fathom it is in terms of the ultimate divine justice that takes into account all the facets of an individual life: the span of life, the gifts and handicaps the person was born with.

The monotheistic religions rationalize the sufferings of this world with the rewards in the afterlife – heaven. The Hindu, Buddhist and other Eastern religious traditions, explain the joys and sufferings of this life with the doctrine of "Karma" – the rewards or punishments from the actions of previous lives determine the next birth.

Religions help seekers on the path towards spirituality. When troubled, we turn to God for solace and inner peace. As we learn more through science, we realize how little we know. The paradox is that each Human life is a mini universe of interactions and memories, yet it is so insignificant in the expanse of the Universe.

The Universe appears even more awe-inspiring with our advancing knowledge. Even the definition of the Universe tests the confines of human language. According to the String theory, there may be many universes. New words are being coined for the super Universe.

According to Doug Ray, a friend, "The problem is our inability to grasp simultaneously the value of human life and its insignificance. I can’t create human life; I should not destroy or diminish it. It is a thing of great value, a gift of God. At the same time, there are many things worth dying for, and to place too much value on my life is a mistake in perspective and probably sinful."

Some see the natural disasters as God’s anger. Anger at whom? Innocent babies as well. Limitations of human language and thought precludes them from perceiving the all encompassing grandeur of God, beyond description. Misunderstanding the allegorical language of scriptures, people often perceive God in their own inadequate images and assign to God their frailties: love, hate, jealousy and anger as we are wont to do to other humans.

Humans are capable of intense love and hatred. We can give our lives for our children, friends and causes. We can kill for the same reasons. It is the perfect justice that eludes us. God is perfect justice.

As a Muslim, I read Quran’s allusion to the referred stories as allegorical and rely on Surah 3, ayah 7. When I see the beauty in nature and am thankful for being able to perceive it; when I see injustice and find the courage to stand up against it; when I learn new secrets of nature and find order in what once was considered chaos; my respect for the intelligence that made it possible is deepened.

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