Friday, January 15, 2010

Geological fault

We did not feel the quake in Haiti, although we kept our eye on the sea during the few hours these islands were under a tsunami alert. Our thoughts go out to our Haitian next door neighbors in New England, Paul and Marguerite, who have friends and family on the island, and of course to the Haitians themselves, who among their many other miseries have the misfortune of living on a tectonic plate boundary.

I saw this photograph on the internet just after I posted my Paul Gauguin musing yesterday. Somehow it reminded me of another famous Gauguin work, The Yellow Christ, a crucifixion scene with pious Breton women kneeling at the foot of the cross, painted in France in 1889. What possible connection could I have felt between the scene of utter devastation and sadness on the left, and the serene image on the right?

Color, yes, but something else.

It is perhaps the most unique aspect of Roman Catholic Christianity -- the predominant religion of Haiti -- that the central image of that faith is a suffering man, accompanied often by the Pieta, the suffering mother holding her son.

Of all the mysteries to which religion responds, the thorniest is surely undeserved suffering. The earth groans and thousands perish. A mosquito bites and a child dies of malaria. A hurricane roars across an island -- and another, and another -- and the hillsides slump into the valleys, carrying away whole villages.

We call it the problem of evil. How can a just and loving God let such things happen? From time immemorial we have created stories and myths to explain what almost certainly needs or requires no explanation. The image of Christ on the Cross and the Pieta at least acknowledge that undeserved suffering is part of the world.

The notion of cosmic indifference is new -- a product of scientific inquiry. We are still getting used to it. It solves the problem of evil by erasing the idea that so-called "acts of God" are willful acts of a divinity. Everything we have learned about nature suggests that we are on our own in a vast universe that cares not a fig whether we live or die. The crust of the Earth moves -- it always has, and always will -- and those who live on plate boundaries suffer. Which replaces the problem of evil with the problem of good: How do we learn to love more earnestly our brothers and sisters who suffer through no fault of their own?