Possum Theology

January 4, 2005 — Leave a comment

dead possumTim Bednar has recently posted an interesting article asking why bloggers in the Emergent world haven’t been writing on the questions raised by the Tsunami apart from fundraising and political implications. Tim writes:

We in emergent circles advocate discussing theology and how it applies to life–I’m surprised that few have blogged about meaning and theology in the aftermath of such a natural disaster. Maybe I’m just comparing this tragedy to 9/11 where we blogged endlessly to find meaning after 9/11 easily blaming it not on a religion but on “fallen nature” or something of that sort.

Tim raises a good point, one that identifies part of the reason for the silence in comparison to 9/11. The nature of the attack, and the fact that evil was perpetuated by other humans, made it easy to go down the traditional “fallen nature” road. “Natural” disasters, like the Tsunami, or the Florida hurricanes, or the explosion of Mount St. Helens are much harder to deal with, because they raise difficult questions on the nature of God. It’s especially true for those with a Calvinist heritage, for election and non-selective death and destruction don’t easily mix.

Jason Clark and others have recently posted some excellent theological responses from the other side of the Atlantic — articles by Rowan Williams and N.T. Wright. Both of these articles eschew the convenient and easy answers to these disasters and express the pathos that we all feel in the midst of this tragedy. “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” the psalmist cries (Psalm 22). In the midst of a death toll that’s become numbing, and for those who are trying to survive the horror, these words are certainly appropriate, and there are no easy explanations where God was in the midst of the storm. Yet, the Psalmist doesn’t end with his anger with God. “Yet you are enthroned as the Holy One; you are the praise of Israel. In you our fathers put their trust; they trusted and you delivered them. They cried to you and were saved; in you they trusted and were not disappointed.” The Psalmist understood that there is room to both question God, but at the same time to remember that God has been faithful in the past and that God will see us through into the future. One of the reasons that we concern ourselves with alleviating the suffering is to incarnate that reality to those who suffer, to have faith for those who have been so traumatized that they can’t have faith anymore.

I haven’t said much about the disaster because frankly there is only so much that can be said. When it comes down to it, we don’t understand why this happened. We can attempt to answer until we are blue in the face, but in the end most theories don’t reflect the reality that 150,000 folks are dead and that the suffering continues. The world, for whatever reason, is a dangerous place. The eschatological hope (that we are working to bring to reality) is that someday those dangers will cease.

Back in seminary, I was in a discussion group dealing with these questions around the time that Hurricane Mitch hit Central America and killed 10,000 folks (a number that was mind boggling to me at the time). We wrestled with the nature of God and the question of why. We were pondering these things when a though came to me. “From our perspective, as humans,” I said, “death seems to be the ultimate tragedy. But what it the problem is not with God, but with our perspective. From our perspective, the loss of 10,000 seems horrible. But what if there was another perspective that made this not as horrible as we think.”

My brain continued to work in a Pagittlike fashion as I thought out loud. “Look, from our perspective, the death of a possum on the road isn’t that big of a deal. When I drive in from West Georgia, I probably see 10 dead possums along the way, and no one is particularly concerned about their death. From our perspective, the death of these possums isn’t a big deal, just another possum that got in the way. BUT, from the possum’s perspective, the senseless slaughter of brothers and sisters by these large animals on those hard paths demands a response.”

Folks chuckled. A guy across the room murmured, “Yeah, walk into the light…” and we all laughed at the connection between human near death experiences and possums frozen in the headlights, unable to move out of the way.

This possum theology sounds ludicrous, and perhaps it is. Yet the Bartian mystery of God is most certainly active in dealing with these disasters. We can’t explain them. They confront our humanity and mortality. They remind us that we aren’t nearly as in control of the elements as we might think, and that our perspective in understanding is limited.

The response for us comes just as it did with the writer of Psalm 22, or for Job as well. “God, we don’t understand…” we say, “…but we need your help.”

And God’s reply, again and again in the scriptures, is the same: “Be not afraid for I am with you.”

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