Faith difficult to reconcile
MARTIN VAN BEYNEN
Last updated 11:07 26/03/2011
As we sat on the patchy grass in Hagley Park for the National Christchurch Memorial Service last week I wondered about a number of things.
I wondered why Henare Rakiihia Tau, upoko runanga, Ngai Tuahuriri, should choose possibly his largest audience and a hot tiring day to give perhaps his worst, most tedious and most rambling speech. I felt ashamed for him and ashamed for his runanga.
But mostly I wondered about God and what exactly we thought we were doing by directing so much of the service to a nebulous, supernatural entity who obviously meant very different things to different people.
Don't get me wrong. I thought it was a powerful and meaningful service and if people went away feeling stronger and comforted, then it was well worthwhile.
The Dean of Christ Church Cathedral Peter Beck said he hoped the service and prayers would be a "vehicle" for people of all faiths and even for those, like me, with no faith.
It must be a wonderful thing to really believe that God takes an interest in all that happens to us and Jesus has "prepared a place" for us in his "father's house" as St John's gospel would have it.
The solace and resolve that religion can provide and which continues to sustain countless millions throughout the world is one of the best arguments I can see for religion. And as long as it does not degenerate into intolerance, violence and discrimination, who am I to criticise beliefs, be they Christian or animist or scientologist.
But while I can see how the heart yearns for a greater power, which takes life beyond the struggle of sophisticated primates in a pointless universe, the head seeks a better explanation.
A natural disaster makes God a natural focus. It is not like a war where we can blame the nasty, vice-ridden human race for all the ills that wars inflict on combatants and civilians.
If you believe in an interventionist God, who listens to prayers and supplications and who has bestowed on humanity life's various truths in the form of written works based on the oral teachings of holy ones, then natural disasters present something of a problem.
The words "Your will be done on Earth as it is in Heaven" from the Lord's Prayer, which was uttered at the service, seem to suggest an all powerful God who not only rules the universe but is also listening to each and everyone of us.
Of course the fact a deadly earthquake happens does not prove God's existence either way.
God, for instance, could be an entity who has set the laws of nature in motion and taken no further part or role in the consequences. On the other hand, God could be a capricious, vengeful being who gave the Earth's plates a little nudge to cause despair to those who lived above them.
Or the all powerful being might have had good reason to inflict violent death on people, as the ancients believed when they thought lightning represented the anger of the gods.
God, and this is the argument most often used by religious people who know the above explanations sound less than convincing, is so fundamentally beyond our understanding and intellect that all we can do is follow the religious and moral impulse in all of us as the way to the truth.
Yet another God is one who takes no credit or responsibility for the world but who is waiting at the end of the line to reward those who have earned it.
Whichever way you look at it, the various ideas are hard to reconcile. If God is a loving interventionist who listens and protects, why would he allow an earthquake to take innocent lives? If God is not an interventionist or human- connected entity what is the point in prayers of praise and veneration? If God is unknowable and beyond our intellectual grasp then what makes us think we are on the right track with our humble pleas and supplications?
You could argue it doesn't matter if it all doesn't make perfect sense. At times like these we fall back on traditional beliefs and rituals. There are no "atheists in a foxhole" as the much quoted phrase goes. So much for all the scientific advances and learning and discoveries, many, of course, the work of profoundly religious men who wanted to know God by learning about his creation.
When it comes to moments when life is reduced to the fundamentals of life and death, we look for hope and consolation anywhere we can get it.
But as I sat in the heat on that dusty field listening to all the fine words delivered by hymns and prayers, by those whose lives must be closer to God than mine, I wondered if the same questions ever occurred to them.
And there is this: if the dread we feel is "the sense of being dragged headlong into an apocalyptic future", as American journalist William Langewiesche described the feeling of Americans after 9/11, then it's interesting we should look for solace in another great unknown which our rational selves must always struggle with.
- The Press