Friday, March 18, 2011

Thinking about God

I love it when people try to connect religion and science.

Whenever there is a natural disaster there are always those who announce loudly that it is the will of God or that God is punishing us. Jon Stewart points out that there are those who are just as quick to proclaim miracles. Either way, it seems people can't help but imagine that God is acting directly in their lives.

Scientific American blogger Jesse Bering writes about why people make that connection; in essence, experiments seem to show that once we hit a certain age our brains are more likely to interpret random occurrences (a picture falling, or lights flickering) as signs of supernatural existence. (You can read the article in its entirety here.) I'm not saying there's isn't a God, if you know me or have ever taken a class with me, you know I am quite vocal about my belief in God -- just that not everything that happens is because of God's direct involvement.

It's not surprising that people see God acting in their lives. It's tempting to look for signs from God everywhere -- it's how our minds give meaning to what otherwise seems meaningless. Attributing things to God gives us a sense of power in an uncertain world. If we view natural disasters as punishments and miracles as rewards, then we have the illusion of control. If we know what God wants and we know what the consequences are, then we believe we can influence everything in the world.

It is tempting to think that we can control the uncontrollable ... and incredibly self-centered. We aren't the center of of our world, jus as the earth isn't the center of the universe.

Bering's article is a reminder that while we may be "wired" to see signs everywhere, we are not required to do so.

Sunday, March 13, 2011

God is not in the earthquake

The earthquake in Japan yesterday and the tsunami that followed it were devastating. Here in California we are not strangers to the destruction caused by earthquakes — though our thoughts are with the people of Japan, for many of us the destruction was a reminder that what we were watching on our TVs and on the web could also happen here.

The world can be a scary place. As much as we understand about earthquakes, we are far from being able to predict them. So what do we do? We prepare our emergency kits and try not to let our fear paralyze us.

For many of us, there are questions. “Where is God in all this?” “How can God allow such destruction?” Unlike the man-made tragedies in Africa — tragedies that organizations like Jewish World Watch are able to address and fight — there is nothing we can do to stop earthquakes or tsunamis.

As always, we seek answers in our tradition and in our holy writing. In the Book of Kings we read about Elijah. He is standing on the mountain before God:

And Adonai passed by. There was a great and mighty wind, splitting mountains and shattering rocks by the power of Adonai; but Adonai was not in the wind. After the wind — an earthquake; but Adonai was not in the earthquake. After the earthquake — fire; but Adonai was not in the fire. And after the fire — a still, small voice. (I Kings 19:11-12)

God is not in the earthquake or the tsunami; God is the still, small voice that compels us to reach out and help others, that offers comfort in our darkest hours.

The Talmud teaches that there is a blessing to say after an earthquake or tsunami, acknowledging the continuing and awesome power of creation, even in the wake of tragedy:

Baruch Atah Adonai Eloheinu Melech ha’olam
osei ma’asei vereisheet.
Blessed are You, Adonai our God, Creator of the universe, who reenacts the works of creation.
Earthquakes and tsunamis are just part of the way the world works. We acknowledge God as the creator of the forces of nature that are at times awe inspiring and at times destructive. 

The Jewish Federation is absorbing all administrative costs when you donate to help support relief efforts in Japan - click here for more information on how to donate.