The Lisbon Earthquake

February 26, 2012
Rev. Dr. Victoria Weinstein

There is no single fact about religion that keeps more people away from spiritual community than this: how can you people worship a God who permits such suffering in the world? For the Unitarian Universalist, it is too easy to say, "Well, we don't. Lots of us don't even believe in God, so it's cool." But that isn't enough. Because what people are actually saying when they say, "How can you worship a God who permits such suffering in the world," is, "I'm in pain. I don't see the point of trying to find meaning and hope in this broken world where so much is wrong. I don't want to affiliate with an institution that gathers around that purpose. There's too much evil. You people are whistling into the wind. You're doing this old thing that doesn't matter any more. " Responding, "I go to church for community" also isn't enough. It does not suffice. Community can be found many places, let's be honest. We are here for a deeper purpose than just being part of a community. We are part of a certain kind of community here: first of all, a demanding community of engagement, and second, one that makes a claim that we are not whistling into the wind when we contemplate the nature of the holy. A community that claims that there is meaning to life, and to death. There is, as the author of the book of Ecclesiastes wrote, "a time to every purpose under heaven."

Here is what we have been handed by tradition. Whether or not we believe in God today, we come from this tradition. Religion reporter and radio host Krista Tippett explains, "The German philosopher Gottfried Leibniz coined the term theodicy - from the Greek, meaning ‘the justice of God'- in 1710. He argued that evil in the world does not disprove or minimize the essential goodness of God's creation, which would always outweigh the bad. Despite the reality of suffering, he proclaimed, this is the ‘best of all possible worlds.' But then in 1755 one of the deadliest earthquakes in history hit the city of Lisbon at 10:35 on the morning of November 1, All Saints Day. Something like thirty thousand people died in the first six minutes alone, many of them crushed in mid-liturgy under the collapsed roofs of packed churches." Krista Tippett, Speaking of Faith, 81)

The best of all possible worlds overseen by a benevolent God? It mostly doesn't seem so. But guess what? While you or I may reject this theology, somewhere, deep within our spiritual DNA, I promise you that we still retain the sense of needing and wanting an explanation for the outrageous suffering in the world. We may not look to the heavens and shake our fists at God when tragedy strikes, but we still want to understand WHY. Why did this happen? How could this happen? Why to me? To my child?

Think of those who had to totally revise their notion of why natural disasters happen after the Lisbon earthquake, taking into account the worshipers dying under the rubble and concluding that wow, we must have had it wrong. It makes absolutely no sense that God would strike down those in the act of worship! Think of the inner turmoil that caused, that inner earthquake, that seismic shift between former certainty and current doubt. That is where we live, our tradition, in the state of doubt, making a home in ambiguity. We understand that for a religious tradition to have integrity it has to constantly examine received truths and new revelations, hold fast to some conclusions, and accept that others do not stand the test of time or experience and will be rejected. However, lest we forget: the point of this faith is not just to identify what we are rejecting, but to find ideals and convictions to which we can hold fast.

It is not easy to reject a worldview, a perspective on reality that you spend an important portion of your life absolutely believing. Some of you have done it in your lifetimes. In the Western world, as Tippett reminds us, it happened in a big way in the 18th century, as theologians and philosophers started dismantling the world view that God was large and in charge and human beings helpless before His wrath or blessing. The Scientific Revolution was underway, providing rational explanations for such phenomenon as earthquakes. Gently mocking Leibniz's conviction about the benevolent God and goodness always outweighing tragedy, French philosopher Voltaire wrote his brilliant satire Candide, giving the naïvely optimistic character Dr. Pangloss Leibniz's phrase, "All's for the best in this best of all possible worlds!" Pangloss and his protégée Candide suffer horrible atrocities: military coups, public burning of heretics, swindlings, and all manner of degradation. And yet through all of it, they desperately cling to their worldview: "All's for the best in this best of all possible worlds!"

In the 21st century, we are no longer that naïve. All is probably not for the best, even though this may be the best of all possible worlds. We certainly love this world. And so far it is the only one we habitate, and know, and must find a way to survive on. Science has explained a lot, although, science, like religion, is not one philosophy but many, and there is not consensus among scientists either about their methods or their conclusions. We are beginning to know in this century know that science can no more explain everything than capital religion can. Furthermore, science was never meant to help us find meaning in all of it - that was, and still is, the key point of religious and spiritual life and community.

We need a new theology for our times, one that is not naïve, but one that is not hopeless and despairing. We need a theology that supports our faith claim that just the act of searching for meaning, just the act of loving and remaining committed to the world - is holy. To say that nothing is divine, nothing is sacred, is to shut down a profound human instinct and commit spiritual murder against our species. I think that line of thinking can only lead to more existential crisis, more objectification and exploitation of the Earth and its people, and ultimately to annihilation.

Something I wish I was brave enough to say more frequently: "Just because a religious idea has not been proven to make you or me personally happy does not mean that it is invalid." Constructing a meaningful theology can never happen if I insist on testing every idea against my personal comfort and happiness. If I do that, what I am saying is that all things holy must be oriented toward my personal happiness. Which is like saying that I am literally at the center of the universe and there can be no greater purpose on earth or in heaven than to keep me happy and comfortable.

I remember the first time I saw an image of the Hindu Goddess Kali, Mother Kali. She is scary stuff. I am aware, even as I speak of her, that one is not even supposed to invoke her name without proper protection and so I want to put it out there: Kali Ma, have mercy on us, who seek to understand what you might mean for humans, how you might help us achieve wisdom about our human condition. She is seen in Hindu iconography as a dread goddess, wearing a necklace of skulls and standing barefoot on bloody corpses. Her hair is raven black, long and wild, as her eyes are also wild. Blood drips from her mouth. She is the polar opposite of the only goddess figure who remains actively worshiped in the traditional Western church, Mother Mary. Virgin, maternal, tender, comforting - and she is worshiped with great devotion and love by Hindus. Also worshiped by Hindus is Shiva the Destroyer, the most powerful god in their pantheon. He has many guises: creator, preserver, and transformer.

When I first became acquainted with Kali and Shiva, it occurred to me that I might have a much richer experience of life if my sense of the holy included creation and destruction, chaos and order. I began to be able to be present to the dreadful aspects of life once I began to see them as part of a sacred cycle of life-birth-death-creation-destruction, rather than through the Western linear understanding, where all is blessing until we are exiled from the Garden like Adam and Eve, shattered by our punishment. My introduction to creator-destroyer deities in Hinduism and in other faith traditions helped me to read our Western religious tradition with more appreciation for the multiple aspects of the holy, and ultimately re-shifted my experience of life so that I have come to take things much less personally. The question, "Why me?" or "Why them?" never occurs to me any more. There is nothing on earth or under heaven that cannot happen to any of us. Bodies are fragile, accidents happen, timing can be terrible, tragedy is a real part of life, evil is a human potential just as surely as is goodness, frontal lobe brain damage apparently can turn humans into sociopaths, and over the course of our lifetimes, we will all eat our pound or so of dirt.

On the cosmic level, stars are born, stars explode. Planets come into being, and then get hit by an asteroid. Om nama shivaya. "There is now, living in New York City, a church-sanctioned hermit, Theresa Mancuso, who wrote recently, "The thing we desperately need is to face the way it is." (Dillard, 19) The interplay between the terrible and the divine is the subject of Annie Dillard's book For the Time Being. This little book, which I have read and re-read dozens of times, is a cheerful compendium of the violence, filth, chaos and freakishness inherent in the natural world, where Dillard intersperses anecdotes about the brutality of nature and human nature with religion's attempts to make meaning of it all. She writes, "We lose the people we love, we lose our vigor and we lose our lives. Perhaps, at best, God knows nothing of these temporal accidents, but knows souls only. This God does not direct the universe, but underlies it. The more we wake to holiness, the more of it we give birth to, the more we introduce, expand and multiply it on earth, the more God is ‘on the field.'"

All those people gathered for worship that November morning in Lisbon in 1755, crushed together by the rubble of a church. They owe us no apology for their faith, for their belief. We owe them our apologies for assuming that, could we interview them today, they would renounce their worldview and laugh at their own stupidity, their naivete. We don't know that they would. Maybe some of them would choose it again, to leave life while in the act of praising life, while in the act of sharing awe and reverence in a community of fellow humans, in the act of contemplating the holiness at the heart of being. We need a theology that not only makes sense when we are personally comfortable and happy, but that helps us to find meaning in all of it, creation, destruction, chaos and order, and all the complex realities that we are heir to in this best of all possible worlds.

Finally, will it not be enough,
After much living, after
Much love, after much dying
Of those you have loved,
To sit on the porch near sundown
With your eyes simply open,
Watching the wind shape the clouds
Into the shapes of clouds?
Even then you will remember
The history of love, shaped
In the shapes of flesh, everchanging
As the clouds that pass, the blessed
Yearning of body for body,
Unending light.
You will remember, watching
The clouds, the future of love.