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"A Theological Response to Natural Suffering: A Case Study of the 1999 Earthquake in Taiwan"

By Pan Ju-ta

Contents

Introduction

The September 21, 1999 Earthquake

Basic facts about the 921 earthquake

The mental hurt of people in the 921 earthquake

The statistics of other significant earthquakes

Fundamental question about the cause of earthquake

Theological response to natural suffering

Basic problems about the suffering

Different responses to the problem of suffering

Buddhism
Dualism
Natural law and the misuse of free will
The punishment of God
The result of universal fall of human beings
Creation in process
Submission to the totally other

Analysis of different perspectives

Hume`s question of evil
Different types of solutions
The approach of offering future hope

Conclusion

The Application of Theological Response to the Victims of the Earthquake

Works Cited

Books

World Wide Web

Introduction

In his book, The Sacred Canopy, Peter Berger asserts that ``Religion has played a strategic part in the human enterprise of world building,`` and `` implies the farthest reach of his ( man`s) infusion of reality with his own meaning.`` (Berger, 1967, 27) Thus, theology, another term for religion, is the foundation of human sense of the meaning of life and closely related to our daily life.

The 921 earthquake occured on September 21, 1999 that caused the most serious damage in Taiwan since 1935. Besides the 921 earthquake, there have been many other earthquakes and typhoons in Taiwan that have caused a great deal  of loss of lives and properties. How do these people sense the meaning of the suffering in their lives? How does theology give them the appropriate answers  to help them to deal with their suffering? These issues are the ministry of theology.

The purpose of this project is to examine natural suffering through the understanding of the earthquake and the various perspectives of the suffering and its relationship with the Ultimate Reality, God. The goal is to identify an appropriate explanation of natural suffering and to help those suffering to heal, undergo personal transformation, and start new lives.

The September 21, 1999 Earthquake

Basic facts about the 921 earthquake

At 1:47 on the morning of September 21,1999, Dr. Tsai, the president of Puli Christian hospital, drove on the road back to Puli. Twenty seconds after he passed a tunnel, he felt the vibration of the highway. When he turned his head, he found the tunnel he had just passed had collapse, and the crack of the road before almost made him loose control of his car. It was a strong earthquake that slammed the central area of Taiwan. The earthquake was measured 7.3 on the Richter scale.

During the earthquake, the people of the entire island felt the shaking of earth beneath them and the building for a few minutes. In Nanto, the area of the epicenter, almost all of the buildings collapsed. In Taichung, a close metropolis, many buildings collapsed or bent. For the rest of the night, all the people in Taiwan were in the terror from numerous aftershocks. According to one citizen`s description, although the building she lived in was not damaged, her family slept in their car all night for fear that their home would collapse in the next aftershock.

The earthquake brought great damage. (Some internet shows the pictures of the damage in this earthquake: http://www.hello.com/~farms; http://www.photosharp.com/earthquake/earthquake-hospital.ntm; http://www.lctc.edu.tw/ntml/921) The collapse of numerous buildings caused thousands of people to be buried under the rubble. Hundreds of thousand people had no place to sleep and could not buy food or drinking water. They could not get money from banks because of damage to electrical systems. But government and social institutions quickly mobilized relief efforts. Rescue teams searched for survivors amidst the rubble. Foods, tents, and drinking water were sent to the victim areas. But people still needed to face the sorrow of losing beloved ones and friends, the loss of their homes, the inconvenience of living in tents fpr a long period of time, the horror of the next aftershock, and the sense of powerless.

According to official statistics, this was Taiwan`s biggest earthquake since 1935, causing the death of more than 2,300 people, injury to more than 8,500 people, temporary homelessness of 100,000 people, and the wreck of more than 6,000 buildings. There were also the problems of mental hurt to the people in the victim areas.

The mental hurt of people in the 921 earthquake

Horror of the earthquake: After the earthquake, many people continuously live in the horror of the possibility of another earthquake coming. A woman in Taichung said that after the earthquake, when night arrived, she and her husband would be in a situation that they never contemplated. They could not even read, they could not even watch television. For a period of time, all they could do was watch the light and wonder whether there would be another earthquake. According to amedia description, many people in the victim areas found it difficult to fall asleep and had nightmare when they did. And when they were awake, they were anxious and refused to sleep in their own home. (www.yam.com.tw)

Sorrow of losing the beloved person: Many people lost their relatives and friends in this earthquake. The sudden lost of beloved ones caused many people to expereince deeply sorrow and despair. Besides, some people felt guilty about why they could not rescue their beloved ones or their beloved died because they may have done something wrong, so they blamed themselves.

Frustration of inability to reconstruction: Many people lost their houses, property, and businesses. They needed to sleep in tents and live inconveniently, without hygienic measures for a long period of time because of the lack of electricity and water, and thus did not know when would be able to rebuild their homes. This situation made the people in the victim areas became depressed, angry and blameful of others.

Theological response in the victim area: The suffering of the 921 earthquake also had a strong impact on the belief and value systems of the people in victim area. In Taiwan, the majority of people are Pureland Buddhists. One of their responses was they must have done something wrong and that suffering was the result of their bad deeds. This leads to the denial of themselves. At the same time, they had the contradictory attitude to Buddha. On the one hand, the suffering forced them to ask for the help of Buddha, but on the other hand, they doubted why they had not been protected by Buddha in their suffering.

There were also some Christians in the victim areas. The sense of guilty, though was rare. But the concept that suffering came from the punishment of God was held by some Christians who lived outside the victim areas. At the same time, the desire to seek  the help of God and the suspicion where is God, co-existed among Christians of victim areas. The earthquake precipitated a crisis of their self-image and their attitude tabout religions, but the crisis might be a turning point for the belief systems of people in the victim area.

The statistics of other significant earthquakes

The damage from the great earthquake was not a single event. Actually numerous natural sufferings caused great harm to the people and the environment throughout the world. There were 15 earthquakes over a 5 magnitude that caused serious damage. They were reported over the past one and half years, including a recent earthquake in Indonesia. (www.cnn.com) These earthquakes affected more than ten thousand people`s lives. In Taiwan, an island that is smaller than Massachusetts in area, there was at least one significant earthquake in the past 10 years. (www.cnn.com/asianow/east-  /9909/21/taiwansig.quakes/index.html.) A question thus arises as to why so many natural sufferings happen.

Fundamental question about the cause of earthquake

Geology can offer an answer. The Eurasian plate overlapp the Philippine Sea plate to the north of Taiwan and sank under to the south, which caused the 921 earthquake. Ecologists reported that over-development of mountains in central Taiwan caused the collapse of the mountains during the earthquake. Engineers pointed out that the inadequate work of constructive companies caused certain buildings to collapse, and many people were buried under the rubble.

But these direct causes of earthquake and damage cannot solve the fundamental questions about natural suffering. Theological questions exist within the human spirit, especially when the natural suffering happen: What causes such natural suffering why do  so many people die? Is there a God who created this world or is there no God? If this world was created by God, why did he create a world with so much natural suffering? People ask, why do I suffer? Did I do something wrong or do I have bad luck? These fundamental and theological questions might be the clues to help people unto such suffering to stop grieve and then to move in.

Theological response to natural suffering

Basic problems about the suffering

The basic mission of theological response is to discover what is the role of God in the natural suffering, and through such discovery, seek to help people who are suffering. In his book, A Loving God and a Suffering World, Jon Tal Murphree offers that there are two kinds of problems concerning suffering. The first problem is ``something acceptable to the intellect needs to be said to help us understand some of the reasons for pain.`` The second is ``something emotionally satisfying needs to be said to help us bear the pain.`` (Murphree, 1981, 9) These two questions are close by related. From the theological perspective, the question of the cause of natural suffering should be addressed first so that it can be used as a foundation for the pastoring question. There are numerous religions and philosophies that offer the answers to the causes of natural suffering. Most of these answers are related to the concept of God.

Different responses to the problem of suffering

Buddhism: Buddhism claims that the existence of suffering is universal. An Individual is in a situation of suffering from birth to death. Buddhism offers some answers about the causes of natural suffering. At first, the general concept of the cause of suffering is human desire. Human beings live in a impermanent world, but have the desire to permanently grasp what we have is the source of suffering.  Thus, if a person wants to eliminate suffering, he/she must ceases his/her suffering. Secondly, the principle of co-dependence offers an explanation of the objective fact of suffering. Buddhism holds kind of casual-events theory of the phenomenon of world. Thus, every events of suffering comes from a cause. The natural suffering also comes from a co-dependent principle of nature. Thirdly, the concept of karma-samsara with a co-dependent principle offer an explanation that human suffering comes from individual karma. The bad deeds of a past life causes the present suffering. Fourthly, for innocent people who suffer in natural suffering, the explanation of human karma is extended to the former life. If a person did not count any bad deeds, the cause of  karma must come from his/her former life. In the Buddhist explanation of natural suffering, there is no place for God. All the natural suffering is a combination of cause-effect law in nature and the personal deeds of present or former life.

In primitive Buddhism the ways to eliminate the pain of suffering. First includes accepting the reason for suffering is what the victim should be treated because of his deeds of former lives, or secondly, accepting that  the suffering is a fact because according to the co-dependent principle it must be happen because it is destined to happen. Since the sufferings are destined to happen, why don`t we accept the facts of suffering so as to eliminate the feeling of pain. The problem is that most people who are in suffering do not have such wisdom to deal with suffering by themselves. The other possible solution is to offer a hope for the victim through the concept of Samsara. Since the life of death is not over, start a new life in his next life, the sorrow of loosing beloved might be reduced. The Pureland sect in Mahayana Buddhism offers the third solution, i.e., their belief in the help and comfort of Boddhishava and Buddha is a sort of  God-image and outward help.

Dualism: The second answer to the cause of natural suffering involves dualism, which involves the notion that the universe is the domain of a struggle between the two mighty forces of good and evil. Its chief example in religion is found in Zoroastrianism in ancient Iran. Zoroastrian claims that the creation and all good come from Ahura Maxda, the wise Lord, but at the same time, there is noncreated spiritual force working against Ahura. This is the source of all evil, including moral and natural. The world, although itself a good creation, has become the battleground of good and evil, and the good will finally overcome and destroy the evil. Dualism offers an explanation that the anomic phenomenon, including natural suffering, are from the evil source.

Dualistic elements are also found in the Shaivic belief in Hinduism. Shiva, one of three important deities in Hinduism, is both creator and destroyer. He shows his benevolence at one time, but reveals his terrifying characteristic at other times. In Shaivic belief, natural suffering can be ascribed to the destructive acts of Shiva. Unlike Zoroastrianism, which distinguishs the power of evil and good from two different ultimate sources, Shaivic belief puts both good and evil on the same God.

The most important dualism in Western religion is Gnosticism. Here, dualism is understood as one between spirit and matter. The material world was created by negative forces that were identified by Christian Gnosticism with the divinity of the Old Testament. Since the good divinity did not create the material world, the natural suffering cannot be accounted as the imperfection of good divinity. Gnosticism claims that the meaning of redemption is to return spirit, human true home.

Natural law and the misuse of free will: In his book, A Loving God and a Suffering World, Murphree holds the concept that there is no purpose in natural suffering. It is the result of casual law. (Murphree, 1981, 43~46) He claims that God created this world and established natural law. All the natural events causes suffering such as earthquakes and floods. Natural laws are morally neutral, without good or bad. Although they sometimes bring damages, they also bring good for nature itself and human beings.  For instance, although floods are thought as bad, the Nile river floods in ancient Egypt were thought of as good for soil fertility. Besides, usually it is not natural events that are most responsibile for causing sufferings, but the free will  of human beings that causes most sufferings. A distinction of natural evnets and natural suffering should be made here. The natural events caused by natural law does not necessarily cause damage. Usually, the misuse of human free will causes or increases suffering. To some degree, this distinction maintains both the goodness and greatness of God.

But Murphree claims the imminenet presence of God by the people who are in suffering. On the one hand, he denotes that God shows his compassion the suffering of people through the death of Christ. On the other hand, he also denotes that God stands in the side of the victims and helps them to walk through the sufferins. Thus, although in this perspective, the greatness of God is not completely satisfied, the goodness of God is strong emphasized.

The punishment of God: The fourth opinion is that the natural suffering results from the punishment of God for human sin. In his book, Evil Suffering and Religion, Brian Hebblethwaite observes that this concept is popular in primal religions. (Hebblethwaite, 1976, 19~20) In his book, African Religions and Philosophy, John S. Mbiti notes that in the concept of African religion ``the misfortune and calamity has come from God but as a punishment caused by their (human) misdoing.`` (Mbiti, 1999, 203) Besides, the Hebrew Bible (the book of Deuteron) and the New Testament Bible reveals that traditional Jewish belief holds that human suffering comes from the sin of individual or his ancestors.( Lk. 13; Jn. 9:1~12) The solution of ceasing God`s wrath is to seek reconciliation with God through repentance, to make sacrifice or through atonement.  This concept might be reasonable for explaining the suffering that is obviously caused by the bad deeds of people, but it is difficult to explain the suffering caused by nature.

The result of universal fall of human beings: The concept that suffering comes from personal sinful deeds is corrected by some Christian theologians to the claims that Suffering is the result of the fall of universal human beings. It is not the direct evil deeds of specific person that causes the punishment from God, but the fall of human cause the universe, whether nature of human society in a sinful and chaos state of the world. Karl Barth is one of the theologians who holds this concept. In his book, Evil and Theodicy in the Theology of Karl Barth, R. Scott Robbin summarizes Barth`s concept of the suffering as follows. ``1. We have rejected the Schattenseite of  creation and therefore all suffering is a result of the fallen state of creation, 2. all suffering must be therefor attributed either directly or indirectly to sin, and 3, God is either active (positive will) or passive (by permission) in all suffering in the world.`` ( Rodin, 1997, 277) Whether the story of the fall in the Bible is a fact or not, this world is in a state of alienation from God, and thus, causes the existence of moral evil and natural evil of this world. This concept still cannot completely offer an answer.

Creation in process: Hebblethwaite posits that creation is an on-going process leading to future hope. ( Hebblethwaite, 1976,53~54) He asserts that there is a direct process of creation called higher level creation. God gives the universe a basic structure and basic law. He also addresses the matter in his direct creation the power of reproduction. There is also an indirect process of creation called lower level creation. In the lower creation matter with God`s given power reproduce other creature according to the structure and law God provided. Therefore, creation is ongoing process toward a perfect future. However, the indirect process necessarily involves the possibility of accidental malfunctioning. The existence of natural suffering is not a direct act of God, but rather, is a by-product of process creation. Suffering does not come directly from the creation of God, but is an accidental and unpredictable event in the process of creation

This concept maintains the good of God and does not impair his omnipotence. However it needs to have presupposition of an expectation of the progress and perfect future of this world. Is it possible to show convincing evidences that the universe is moving toward a better future?

Submission to the totally other: In his book, The Sacred Canopy, Peter Berger mentions a concept of ``submission to the totally other ``in the monotheist religions. In this concept, God is ``radically transcendenlized, that is, posited as the totally others who can neither questioned nor challenged, who is sovereign above any human ethical and generally nomic standards.`` (Berger, 1990, 74) This perspective is found in the Book of Job. At the end of this book, after the manifestation of God in the whirlwind, Job confesses his own nothingness before the sovereign power. This concept forms the basic attitude of Islam and extreme Calvinism. According to this concept, there is no need to explain why there is natural suffering, and why God lets people suffer in earthquakes, for example, this is submitted to God`s supreme will.

This perspective is easy to skip the ontological problem of the cause of suffering objectively. However, this concept maintains the power and sovereignty of God, but gives up His goodness. Besides, this concept cannot help people who are suffering if they do not have the same experience of the manifestation of God as Job. Furthermore, if God is a totally other, what is the hope for people who are suffering? Berger notes that this concept ``would be hard to sustain for most people.`` (Berger, 1990, 75)

Analysis of different perspectives

Hume`s question of evil: David Hume advances the typical problem about the existence of evil and its relationship to God. Millard Erickson responds to the problem of Hume: ``If God is great, then he is able to prevent evil from occurring. If God is good, he will not wish for evil to occur. But there is rather evident evil about us. So there exists three conflicts: the goodness of God, the greatness of God, and the existence of God.`` (Erickson, 1985, 412) The problem Hume notes is clearly a theological problem in the theological response of the existence of natural suffering.

Different types of solutions: The various perspectives listed above can be analyzed based on four types of perspective for solving this problem. The first type is, there is no God, the typical perspective of primitive Buddhism. Primitive Buddhism gave up the concept of Brahman in early Hinduism and claims that human beings need to solve the problem of suffering through eliminating ourselves from the suffering and attaining enlightenment. But a subsequent development in Mahayana Buddhism cannot avoid shaping the image of Boddhishava and Amibudha to represent a kind of image of God.

The second type is the perspective that maintains the greatness of God, but eliminates the goodness of God. The typical perspective is ``submission to the total other.`` This perspective strongly defends the absolute will and power of God, but renders the goodness of God to a mystical unknowing

The third type attempts to defend the goodness of God, but eliminate the total power of God. Dualism is the typical perspective. This perspective holds that there are resources of evil that is beyond God`s control. Therefore, God might have compassion to eliminate suffering from people, but he cannot deal with it. Thus, God `s power is limited.

The fourth type attempts to defend both goodness and greatness of God in nature, but claims the imperfection of God`s creation. There are different explanation for the reason of imperfection of God`s creation, including the creation in process, later the corruption of the universe, and the human misuse natural law. Although these perspectives make a more convincing defense of both God`s greatness and goodness, they cannot establish the claim of God`s total power because of the fact of imperfection of creation and the corruption of human beings.

The analysis of various types of theological response demonstrates that the attempt to solve the contradiction of the fact of both greatness and goodness of God and  the existence of evil seems impossible. However, the fourth type in the theological response through the rationally ontologicalconcept offers a more convincing argument Among these three perspectives, the perspective of natural law and the misuse of human free are convincing and more helpful to defend the greatness and goodness of God. 

The approach of offering future hope: In helping people who are experiencing  natural suffering, except offer an explanation of the cause of the natural suffering, the explanation should also offer a convincing expectation to those in suffering. (Hebblethwaite, 1976, 105~106)

Among three perspective on the fourth type, the perspective of creation in process builds its future hope on evolution any progress of the universe and the expectation of a perfection state for God`s creation.  In Barth`s perspective of general corruption of human beings, he offered a hope of the reconciliation of human beings through the atonement of Christ. (Robin, 1997, 250~253) Since the suffering of nature comes from the fall of human beings and alienation from God, the only hope of the recovery of the nature is in the reconciliation of God and human beings.

Except seeking a future expectation that this universe will growing better, people in the suffering need to experience a imminent help. Although there is no direct connection with the perspective of natural law and the misuse of human free will, Murphree offers some concepts for helping people cope with the suffering. (Murphree, 1981, 122~123) One of them is the fact that Christ shared the suffering of people. God assumed a physical body in Christ and experienced the suffering of death on the cross for every person. The suffering of Christ reveals God`s caring for suffering of people. Except the imminent presence and compassion of God, Murphree also mentions an expectation of eternal happiness. The suffering of Christ brings the salvation of eternal restoration of nature and human beings.

Conclusion

According to the analysis above, the perspective of ``natural law and human free will`` stands a proper explanation of theological response of natural suffering. First, this perspective offers a consistent and reasonable explanation for the cause of natural suffering. Second, in helping people who are in suffering, there is necessary to claim the existence of a personal God and his greatness and goodness. Although there is no perspective that can completely defend both God`s greatness and goodness, the perspective of natural law and human free will is the opitimal way to defend both characteristics of God among the perspectives noted above. Third, this perspective claims a message of God`s presence and compassion to the people who are suffering. Fourth, as some other perspectives, this perspective also offers a hope to people who are suffering.

The Application of Theological Response to the Victims of the Earthquake

It has been almost one year since the 921 Taiwan earthquake. Numerous works of reconstruction keep on going. A great deal of money has been spent to rebuild schools and resident houses. But human mental and spiritual reconstruction are more important but more difficult than physical reconstruction. Theology can make a significant contribution to helping victimes of earthquake walk through the shadow the suffering.

First, excludes the sense of human sense of guilty through offering a reasonable explanation of the cause of this suffering. Both religions, Buddhism and Christianity, have a tendency to blame the earthquake on bad deeds of people. This claim does not offer healing of the heart of people, but rather, deepens their mental hurt. Excluding the sense of guilty through making an appropriate explanation of the cause of earthquake is the appropriate way to heal the mental hurt of people. Second, sends a message the compassion of God or Buddha to the people in suffering. When people ask where is God in the suffering, the appropriate response is that God is on their side and cares for them. This response can help people to sense that he/she is not alone and has not given up by God the Ultimate Reality. Third, encourage religious and other social institutions to give practical help and concern to the victims. Practical help from others is the way of realization the compassion of Ultimate Reality. Fourthly, denotes a future hope for the victims. People who are suffering need to believe that they have both physical and spiritual hope. On the one hand, they need effective help to rebuild their lives. On the other hand, they need eternal hope to become the motivating power to help them heal. The latest 6.3 magnitude earthquake that happened on June, 11, reveals that there are a lot of natural suffering continuously happen and result in great harm.  I pray that my people get the comfort and revive in every suffering.

Works Cited

Books

Berger, L. Berger. 1967. The Sacred Canopy. New York: Anchor Books.

Erickson, Millard J. 1985. Christian Theology. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Book House.

Hebbleethwaite, Brian. 1976. Evil, Suffering and Religion. New York: Hawthorn Books, Inc.

Mbiti, John B. 1969. African Religions and Philosophy. Johannesberg, South Africa: Heinemann.

Murphree, Jon Ral. 1981. A Loving God & a Suffering World. Downers Grove, IL: InterVasity Press.

Robin, R. Scott. 1997. Evil and Theodicy in the Theology of Karl Barth. New York: Peter Lang.

World Wide Web

http://www.sina.com.tw

http://www.cnn.com/ASIANOW/east/9909/21/taiwan.sig.quakes/index.html

http://www.yam.com.tw

http://www.hello.com/~farms

http://www.photosharp.com/earthquake/earthquake-hospital.htm

http://www.lctc.edu.tw/ntml/921

 

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