Where Was God?

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Maybe we treat the story of Noah and the Ark too much like a fairy tale: line up the animals, imagine the growling and squeaking of the beasts all together—and brush right past the part about this festive convention occurring because everyone other than righteous Noah and his family had drowned. The story holds the promise of the rainbow, but that does not ward off the painful search for meaning every time man's negotiations with the land and sea and air appear to have collapsed, as they have so often in the past year or so.

Mystery does not sit well with us, nor random tragedy, nor helplessness in the face of a ruthless wind, so we place our trust in better sensors and protocols and reinforced concrete and roofs designed to rebuff the gale. The cataclysm of Katrina has been blamed on everything from SUV drivers to coastal developers to the Army Corps of Engineers, in a strange rite of reassurance: if man has the power to cause these calamities, maybe he would have the power to prevent them. The speed with which the commentariat moved from covering an actual storm to a political one—hurricanes don't kill people, inept bureaucrats kill people—suggests which subject is more comfortable discussing. Somehow human nature, even at its most disturbing, is less scary than Mother Nature at her most murderously cavalier, thousands dead in a single deep breath.

Then there is the response of those convinced they know God's Politics and are just as intent on seeing the guilt assigned. An ultraconservative Israeli rabbi declared that Katrina was retribution for U.S. support of the Israeli pullout from Gaza. Louis Farrakhan of the Nation of Islam called Katrina judgment for the Iraq war. The Christian Civic Group of Maine noted that the hurricane struck just as New Orleans was planning a huge gay-rights festival. A Kuwaiti official said, "The Terrorist Katrina is One of the Soldiers of Allah." There was, in other words, broad agreement in some far-reaching quarters that Katrina represented God's punishment, just no consensus on the sin.

Even as the political debate split between those who focused on who was to blame and those who moved straight to What Must Be Done?, so did the spiritual debate as well. You can reliably expect, as the initial shock of a disaster passes, a revival of the familiar question, Why God Lets This Stuff Happen. The survivors often say God saved them—how many baby girls will be named Katrina?—but if he chose to save the living, did he choose to kill the lost? It is an occasion for atheists to remind believers of the flaws in the case for a benevolent God, and even the most mainstream pastors acknowledge that at times like this they are pressed for answers about how a loving God lets hateful things happen. "Of course, this makes us doubt God's existence," declared the Archbishop of Canterbury after the Asian tsunami, before calling his country to deeper prayer. The search for answersis part of the natural journey of faith; it is a mystery beyond our understanding, or a part of a larger plan, or the price we pay for free will, or God's tap on the shoulder, calling us to attention and mercy.

With the deepest sympathy for those who are suffering, you still have to wonder why this debate erupts so violently every time the winds howl and hurl water out of their way; God whispers as well as shouts, and mystery comes in all sizes. On any given day in between, an innocent child somewhere is struck by lightning or disease or drowns in the soft frozen river or starves in the drought-wracked desert. Do we only wonder why God lets people die en masse but are content not to ask so long as they die quietly, one at a time? Or wonder how we are called to help only when the need is so pressing it squeezes us out of our very chairs?

For those who are one or more steps removed, if there is a pressing line of spiritual inquiry right now, maybe it's less "What is God trying to say?" but rather "What does he want us to do?" The evangelist Billy Graham called Katrina "perhaps the worst tragedy America has known since the Civil War." But he added, "It may be the greatest opportunity to demonstrate God's love in this generation." And indeed last week, even as the remains of the dead were being gathered and the living were trying to catch their breath at last and the President called for a national day of prayer, help poured in from all sides—offers of rides, housing, food, job counseling, baby clothes, tents, from as far away as Australia. Hindus worked with Baptists working with Methodists alongside Muslims, and perhaps out of a common effort comes some new understanding as well.

You could call it one of God's great blessings that for most of us, whole days, weeks, years can pass without an event that poses such a challenge to faith. But that's not a reason to dwell in complacency rather than active commitment once the seas have calmed and the winds have died down and you are left with the rainbow and the invitation to wonder what it really means.