Wednesday, January 20, 2010

From Port-au-Prince to Lisbon

It is difficult for me to believe that there is an intelligent person alive who has not posed the “God question”—that is, “Does God exist?” One of the conveniences of answering that question in the negative is to avoid a second and harder question: How can the God in whose existence I find myself compelled to believe allow the horrors and evils I see about me on every side? Whether you ponder this on the local level (the homeless mothers, the crack babies, the suicidal schizophrenics, the hopeless alcoholics, you name it) or on the cosmic (the Ukrainian famines, the Auschwitzes, the Rwandas and Darfurs, the killing fields of Cambodia, you name it) God would seem to have a good deal of explaining to do.

Leibniz coined a fancy word to denote the attempt to reconcile a good God with the moral and material evil in the world: theodicy. Most of the examples I adduced allow one small loophole, since they are related to human agency and therefore perhaps to human motive. This could conceivably justify removing the responsibility from divinity to humanity. Stalin was a bad guy. Hitler was a bad guy. Pol Pot was a bad guy. Those guys in Rwanda—they were bad guys. But this evasion, even if partially plausible, cannot apply to natural disasters like floods and earthquakes and tidal waves. There is a specific legal term for such catastrophes, chosen precisely to show their independence of human agency, and therefore human indemnity. They are called “acts of God”. This is a phrase that frequently makes an appearance in the small print of insurance policies, usually to the detriment of the policy holder.

I was overwhelmed by “theodicy anxiety” the moment I first heard about the Haitian earthquake. You may have been, too; but in this instance the circumstances in which I first learned of it were also decisive. I was sitting with my son Luke in a very agreeable bar in Lisbon. It was my first visit to that charming city. I was sipping a delicious latte thing and eating one of those scrumptious miniature custard pies, the name of which I never learned, which are a Portuguese specialty. Across the screen of a television set in the corner flashed half-decipherable images of horror. The half-decipherable voice of a Portuguese announcer spoke in a garble of plural sibilants of the mounting toll of the dead—was it a thousand, or thousands, or a hundred thousand?

If there is such a thing as “intellectual” or “historical” déjà vu, that is what I experienced at the moment of learning the news from Haiti as I sat in Lisbon. For in the mid-morning of November 1, 1755 a terrible earthquake struck Lisbon and numerous other places in Iberia and north Africa. That was a major Roman Catholic feast day—All Saints’ Day, the day for which Hallowe’en (All Hallows’ Eve) is the preparation. It was a so-called day of religious obligation, meaning that the faithful were morally obligated to attend Mass. Hence the huge, heavy baroque churches were, many of them, full to capacity when the quake struck. The loss of life within these temples was stupendous, but hardly more so than in the residential quarters. Fire rapidly spread among the ruins, immolating a large if unknown number of those trapped in the debris. Large numbers desperately sought safety in the open squares at the dock-front, or even in the large number of ships always to be found in the busy docks of this great commercial city. Thousands of them were snuffed out in an instant by the tidal wave that followed the quake.

The Lisbon earthquake of 1755 may be said to have effected a decisive shift in European intellectual history. Many preachers, then as now, seemed willing to justify God by ascribing to him a fit of choleric vengeance that would have embarrassed a self-respecting devil. Almost all religious commentators ascribed the event to God’s displeasure at sinners, though the identity of the specific sinner varied according to the preacher’s inclinations. Some even managed to turn the disaster to the purpose of sectarian polemic. “It is remarkable,” said one English clergyman, “that some of the Priests of Portugal have (as we are informed) taken the Advantage of the Superstition of the People to insinuate, that this dreadful Calamity was a Judgement of Heaven upon them for the great Lenity that had been exercise towards the Protestants since his present Majesty came to the Throne.”
The ruins of the Opera House by Jacques Philippe Le Bas

Such foolishness could not satisfy the philosophers, who could find in the event nothing to encourage or even allow philosophical optimism. Voltaire famously wrote a poem about the earthquake in which he asked the obvious question. If Lisbon had been destroyed for her wickedness, why were people still dancing in the streets of Paris and gambling in the casinos of London? Voltaire was not an atheist. There were very few atheists in the Enlightenment. But the earthquake seemed to confirm that the watchmaker God, having created the intricate mechanism of the universe, had retired from its daily supervision.

Presume not then the Deity to scan [wrote Pope]
The proper study of mankind is man.

In a famous page of his autobiography Goethe (born in 1749) tells us of the disturbing impact that the news of the Lisbon earthquake had on his childish faith. He was hardly alone.

A painted "Allegory of the Earthquake" by João Glama Stoberle (xviii century)

Religious belief, like the thoughtful rejection of religious belief, is mainly a private matter requiring in a modern, pluralistic world, a good deal of tolerance and civility. Ordinarily I abstain from comment on other people’s religious beliefs. But recent remarks of the “evangelist” Pat Robertson to the effect that the Haitian earthquake is but the latest of many unhappy results of a pact made between the Haitian nation and the Devil are so outrageous, ignorant, and in the most literal sense insane as to require comment. Pat Robertson is a senile blowhard whose self-appointed “ministry” is an embarrassment to every thinking Christian of my acquaintance. His remarks would have doubtless remained in the dark void into which they were uttered had they not been discovered by some incredulous Internet detective and rendered viral. Thus in some mischievous way they have been valorized by a medium that loves its religious freaks no less than freaks of any other genre.

The danger now is that somebody might confuse Pat Robertson’s lunacy with an actual “Christian” response to the Haitian earthquake. That response, imperfect though it may be, is visible not merely in the faith of many Haitians but in the vast fund-raising effort and practical relief efforts undertaken by the churches throughout the world. I may have mentioned a brilliant refrigerator-magnet prayer my daughter found somewhere: “Lord, save me from your followers!” It was designed precisely for the likes of Pat Robertson who, alas, are rather numerous in the United States. Thoughtful religious skeptics can hardly take comfort in this reality. If you have any doubt that Christianity is a divine institution the mere fact that it continues to exist despite the best efforts of some of its prominent “leaders” should dissolve them.

There is a famous half-line in Virgil that succinctly expresses a fundamental truth about our human condition: sunt lacrimæ rerum. There are indeed tear-drops in things. It is not the only truth; for things have their smiles and even their belly-laughs too. Often enough there are tears and smiles. But the devastation in Port-au-Prince, like than in Lisbon more than two hundred and fifty years ago, is an event so tear-stained as to challenge any comfortable metaphysical certainties. And the instant communications of our world hardly allow, at least at this moment, the kind of philosophical leisure accorded to a Voltaire. The only possibly adequate existential response is a thoughtful investment of human empathy and generous material contributions in aid of whatever inadequate means of remediation are available. If you want to see the evidence of divine love in the world, you may have to perform some of it yourself.

My inevitably rather blurry photographs come from the remarkable book of essays put together by Helena Carvalhão and Gonçalo Cordeiro: O Grande Terramoto de Lisboa: Ficar Diferente (Lisbon, 2005).