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Earthquakes and the objectivity of the world

By Peter Sellick - posted Wednesday, 5 January 2005

I remember the earth quake in Perth in 1968 that sent us all running from the building. What had previously been taken for granted, the solidity of the earth, was shattered even if the damage was slight except in a country town in the wheat belt close to the epicenter.  It is one thing to know that the ground beneath our feet is not as solid as we thought and another to contemplate the devastation to the north of us as the media unravels the extent of the human tragedy. We now know that whole villages and substantial towns no longer exist, their inhabitants swept away and the buildings leveled.

The Lisbon earthquake of 1755 is significant in that it was used as evidence by those thinkers in the radical Enlightenment for the absence of an all powerful and beneficent god and the resulting liberation of human beings to be their own masters.   The logic is irrefutable and is nailed home when so many die as in the recent catastrophe: the world is objective, events occur in nature that run directly across the aspirations of human beings. We do not have a privileged place in our world.  This argument results in what has been called protest atheism. In our despair we shake our fists at a god who has turned his back on us and does not deserve our belief. 

But we do not need thousands to die in natural disasters, all we need to do is to visit any largish children’s hospital and see the doomed child at play. We live in an uncaring universe. When we die it will continue on its way without thought of us. Any idea that it was created for our felicity must be nonsense, for each wonder to which we may point is countered by a monstrosity. To believe in the anthropic principle, that the world was created to serve us, in the face of so much suffering, is absurd, indeed it is narcissistic, even infantile.


There are many in our society that accept this analysis and many more who say they believe in a personal god but whose belief is similar to their belief  in the existence, say, of the Mayan civilization; it has little effect on their lives and certainly does not involve Church membership. Both groups, the self proclaimed atheists and the lip service theists fall back on common sense and social mores to order their lives and both may be described as practical atheists. Both groups are capable of living admirable lives and of participation in society. If they lack anything it is the critique of common sense and social mores that come with the gospel and hence a vulnerability to intellectual fashion and the idols of the age. They have settled down to what has been called “normal nihilism”. For some, the absence of a critique of the self produces another kind of narcissism, that of the modern individual. It seems that naïve religion that sees the self as the centre of the universe, produces a similar outcome to that of classical atheism: the isolated self who is incapable of seeing the other.

Then he looked up at his disciples and said: "Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God. Blessed are you who are hungry now, for you will be filled. Blessed are you who weep now, for you will laugh. (Luke 6:20, 21 NRSV) 

We are all in some way religious in that we believe in something, be that progress or pleasure or prestige or power. The thing about the poor and the hungry and those who mourn is that all of this is taken away. They are stripped down to what is essentially human.; creatures in need of food and shelter and vulnerable to the most heart-breaking pain of loss. This is why the microi, the little ones, have a privileged place in the gospel, because they have nothing between them and the stark reality of human existence.

The rich, on the other hand, have options - they are insulated from this reality, or at least they think they are. But this insulation, while being comfortable for them, blurs their view of the objective, of what is real in the world. This makes them the least privileged as far as the gospel is concerned because they are removed from the truth: that they too may be swept away in an instant. The little ones, the poor and hungry and mournful are able to see what is before them in the person of Jesus while the rich do not. This is why the former are promised that they will inherit the kingdom and will laugh. Remember that the kingdom in the gospels is always an earthly reality and may not be transferred to the afterlife.

One of our problems is that we have been taught to see religion as an instrument that we may use for our benefit rather than a force over and against us. Again, this betrays our true atheism because we think we deal with God and not the other way around. We think that if we had faith we could look upon the agony of the world and be consoled, even if that entails such distortions in thinking and such special pleading that the whole edifice threatens to tumble around our ears. Beware the ordained who prick this balloon on a Sunday morning! True religion is not about false comfort but is, rather, a revealing of the truth, even if that truth is unpalatable. This should be the end of narcissism and the end of us behaving like  jilted lovers when our projections onto the world are shown not to hold. True religion opens the door to maturity. It makes us poor and hungry and mourning by destroying all of the things we place between us and a cold universe. It is only then that we may be open to the truth.

This is what happens in the gospel. A true and good teacher and friend comes among us and does not go to the rich and influential but to the fishermen of Galilee, the prostitutes of the city, the tax collectors who collaborate with the occupying Roman army. These are the microi  the ones who are most able to see who he is. These are the villagers whose homes and family have been swept away. They find themselves close to the ultimate reality that we in our security would hide from. His ministry continues as a living offence to religion and the way we pad out our lives. This enrages us because we feel the control slipping from our grasp, because “the world has gone after him”. Such is our fear of exposure we react with violence and murder him. But by doing so we find that his figure on the cross becomes a testament of his message to us: this is what man is, abandoned, dying in a cold and uncaring universe. “A thousand angels watching and not one stirs a wing.”


I know that this does not sound like good news. In fact it seems to confirm the conclusions of protest atheism. If the death of God movement taught us anything it was that the personal god who looks down benignly on us from above is a childish figment of our imagination. The crucial question is whether this is the end of the Christian view. Has it failed the test of human experience, especially post the holocaust and closer to home in the devastation to our north? Does Christianity have a future once the old man in the sky has been pushed off his throne?

We may answer this in the traditional way by talking about salvation. The gospel saves us from self-delusion and narcissism to see our lives as they truly are, creaturely, vulnerable and ordered unto death. The only thing that softens this is the love we find in the neighbor. The neighbor, in the gospel, is not primarily an object of responsibility, although he is that as well, but a promise of fulfilled life. It is only when the delusion that we are lords of the earth is shaken from us, when we become like the poor, the hungry and those who mourn, that we can open ourselves to the person next to us and live in true community with him. This is how the world is saved. What dictator could sustain his brutal behavior once the gospel has stripped away his delusions of power? What corporate mogul could go on robbing the shareholders after they have come to see themselves in the terms of the microi? It is this realisation that brings peace to a warring nation or a marriage. When all of the idols fall in the face of the crucified and risen one and we are left with the truth about ourselves and the world, and we are given the promise of clearly seeing the person next to us, we and the world are saved.

Does this help us when we see the footage of bloated corpses and hear the stories of lost loved ones? The eclipse of God has left many to revere nature but nature is here shown to be mere mechanics, a shift in the earth’s crust and thousands die. We should think again when we wish for something to soften the tragedy. No amount of murmuring about God’s plan or musing about something good coming out of it will help. Any attempt to do so is an insult to those who suffer. Being transformed into the microi tears down our defenses to tragedy and the only thing we can do is feel deeply and act resolutely. What sort of humanity would we be if we could be comforted? What has happened is simply awful and our only response can be a groaning that has the characteristics of prayer.

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About the Author

Peter Sellick an Anglican deacon working in Perth with a background in the biological sciences.

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