The Theology of Catastrophe

We have just had two more catastrophic fires in California, the Woolsey Fire near Los Angeles and the Camp Fire north of Sacramento.  Both fires have wrecked devastation on so many people; there are so many heartbreaking stories there and also ones of remarkable good fortune.  The fire in SoCal had this special quality about it: it affected many homes of the very wealthy and big names in the pop culture of our country.  What caught my attention was the content of what some of these people were saying.  Like, “The fire just barely missed my house…thank God.”  “God is good.  We didn’t burn down.”  Ok. Understood.  This is a sentiment that is commonly heard in such situations. It is ok as far as it goes, but it also opens up a profound theological and spiritual problem which people tend to ignore because they simply do not have the spiritual resources to deal with it.


Consider this obvious “problem”:  Your house doesn’t burn down and you proclaim “God is good. Thank God.”  Your neighbor’s house burns down; he/she loses everything.  Is that evidence for the fact that maybe God is not good, or more precisely he is “good” here and “not so good” there?  We want to give credit to God for saving us, for defeating our cancer, for keeping the fire away, etc., etc. ; we are hesitant about “giving God credit” for the destruction or sickness or loss that might afflict us.  In such cases mostly we partake of a kind of theological/spiritual sleight-of-hand in order to get around the problem–it’s called pop religion and it is in a very real sense “schizophrenic theology.”  Or we may simply ignore this problem, realizing that we could never resolve this issue, or we just stay silent, which is an honest position and maybe the best one in most cases.

Let’s consider now the deeper implications of all this.  In the 18thCentury in Europe there was a catastrophic earthquake in Lisbon in which thousands upon thousands of people were killed. For many thoughtful people this raised the question of theodicy, how could a good God allow such a thing to happen. It led to a crisis of faith for many. Many years ago Thomas Merton published a journal of reflections called Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander where he pondered Karl Barth’s approach to Mozart. Barth, a great Protestant theologian, was challenged by Mozart, a Roman Catholic of sorts, who lived during the time of the great Lisbon earthquake, and Barth was amazed at Mozart’s response to all the questioning around him.  Here is at length the quotation from Karl Barth that so engaged Merton:

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. Why is it that this man is so incomparable? Why is it that for the receptive, he has produced in almost every bar he conceived and composed a type of music for which “beautiful” is not a fitting epithet: music which for the true Christian is not mere entertainment, enjoyment or edification but food and drink; music full of comfort and counsel for his needs; music which is never a slave to its technique nor sentimental but always “moving,” free and liberating because wise, strong and sovereign? Why is it possible to hold that Mozart has a place in theology, especially in the doctrine of creation and also in eschatology, although he was not a father of the Church, does not seem to have been a particularly active Christian, and was a Roman Catholic, apparently leading what might appear to us a rather frivolous existence when not occupied in his work? It is possible to give him this position because he knew something about creation in its total goodness that neither the real fathers of the Church nor our Reformers, neither the orthodox nor Liberals, neither the exponents of natural theology nor those heavily armed with the “Word of God,” and certainly not the Existentialists, nor indeed any other great musicians before and after him, either know or can express and maintain as he did. In this respect he was pure in heart, far transcending both optimists and pessimists. 1756–1791! This was the time when God was under attack for the Lisbon earthquake, and theologians and other well-meaning folk were hard put to it to defend Him. In face of the problem of theodicy, Mozart had the peace of God which far transcends all the critical or speculative reason that praises and reproves. This problem lay behind him. Why then concern himself with it? He had heard, and causes those who have ears to hear, even to-day, what we shall not see until the end of time—the whole context of providence. As though in the light of this end, he heard the harmony of creation to which the shadow also belongs but in which the shadow is not darkness, deficiency is not defeat, sadness cannot become despair, trouble cannot degenerate into tragedy and infinite melancholy is not ultimately forced to claim undisputed sway. Thus the cheerfulness in this harmony is not without its limits. But the light shines all the more brightly because it breaks forth from the shadow. The sweetness is also bitter and cannot therefore cloy. Life does not fear death but knows it well. Et lux perpetua lucet [light perpetual shines] (sic!) eis[upon them]—even the dead of Lisbon. Mozart saw this light no more than we do, but he heard the whole world of creation enveloped by this light. Hence it was fundamentally in order that he should not hear a middle or neutral note, but the positive far more strongly than the negative. He heard the negative only in and with the positive. Yet in their inequality he heard them both together, as, for example, in the Symphony in G-minor of 1788. He never heard only the one in abstraction. He heard concretely, and therefore his compositions were and are total music. Hearing creation unresentfully and impartially, he did not produce merely his own music but that of creation, its twofold and yet harmonious praise of God. He neither needed nor desired to express or represent himself, his vitality, sorrow, piety, or any programme. He was remarkably free from the mania for self-expression. He simply offered himself as the agent by which little bits of horn, metal and catgut could serve as the voices of creation, sometimes leading, sometimes accompanying and sometimes in harmony. He made use of instruments ranging from the piano and violin, through the horn and the clarinet, down to the venerable bassoon, with the human voice somewhere among them, having no special claim to distinction yet distinguished for this very reason. He drew music from them all, expressing even human emotions in the service of this music, and not vice versa. He himself was only an ear for this music, and its mediator to other ears. He died when according to the worldly wise his life-work was only ripening to its true fulfilment. But who shall say that after the “Magic Flute,” the Clarinet Concerto of October 1791 and the Requiem, it was not already fulfilled? Was not the whole of his achievement implicit in his works at the age of 16 or 18? Is it not heard in what has come down to us from the very young Mozart? He died in misery like an “unknown soldier,” and in company with Calvin, and Moses in the Bible, he has no known grave. But what does this matter? What does a grave matter when a life is permitted simply and unpretentiously, and therefore serenely, authentically and impressively, to express the good creation of God, which also includes the limitation and end of man.

I make this interposition here, before turning to chaos, because in the music of Mozart—and I wonder whether the same can be said of any other works before or after—we have clear and convincing proof that it is a slander on creation to charge it with a share in chaos because it includes a Yes and a No, as though orientated to God on the one side and nothingness on the other. Mozart causes us to hear that even on the latter side, and therefore in its totality, creation praises its Master and is therefore perfect. Here on the threshold of our problem—and it is no small achievement—Mozart has created order for those who have ears to hear, and he has done it better than any scientific deduction could.”

(The quote is of course from Barth’s great work, Church Dogmatics(Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 2004), 297–99.  But I found it on a very thoughtful, reflective blog by Jason Goroncy–many thanks for sharing this quote with a wider public!)


Well, this is one approach to the problem stated above; something that helps us not to rationalize or trivialize the situation but to transcend its opaqueness and allow ourselves to live within the Divine Mystery and to live beyond all the rational calculations we tend to make about the “meaning of life.”  But there are also other approaches and here I just want to point to one other approach, not unrelated to the above one but still significantly different in its expression.  Now we shall turn to Islamic mysticism for help.  And here also I was helped by a lecture that Merton gave to his community of monks about Islamic mysticism, the Sufis.  Here are a few key quotes from that talk.

Let’s begin with this:

“Ibn ‘Arabi says: ‘If it were not for this love, the world would never have appeared in its concrete existence.’  In this sense, the movement of the world toward existence was a movement of love which brought it into existence.  And not only the movement of the world into existence, the coming of everything into existence is an act of love, the development of everything is an act of love.  Everything that happens is love and is mercy.  Not that it always appears to be that way, very often it appears to be just the opposite.  But everything that happens is love.  And of course the ones in Islam who emphasize this the most are the Sufis….”

“The opening of the Quran…is a kind of fundamental prayer which they say all of the time, which sort of contains everything.  So I’ll just read that, ‘In the Name of God the Merciful, the Compassionate’….  God as Merciful or rahman, is the basic mercy in which everything is grounded; God Himself as the ground of all being is Mercy itself.  And then the Compassion of God is in events.  It shows itself in His intervention in particular events here and there….  ‘In the Name of God the Merciful and the Compassionate, Praise belongs to God, the Lord of all Being, the All Merciful, the All Compassionate… the Master of the Day of Doom’(Judgment/Accountability).  That is to say He is at the end of the line…we forsee our total extinction in Him, and after the Day of Doom we live only in Him.  You see, after the Day of Doom, the realm of Mercy as ground persists and the ground of Compassion and events ceases, but the Eternal Mercy goes on. ‘Thee only we serve… Guide us on a Straight Path, the path of those whom Thou hast blessed….’  The Straight Path is the…path of Islam….  What is the Straight Path?  How do you know where the Straight Path is?  For Islam it is very simple.  The straight path is purely and simply What Is.  Everything that is is willed by Allah, and whatever is, that’s it, that’s the straight path.”


No comments are really possible to all this–it is profoundly and breathtakingly clear and beyond all commenting, but a few thoughts here might be helpful.  First of all that distinction in Islam between God’s Mercy and God’s Compassion is, I think, very significant and helpful.  Compassion is associated with particularity and ongoing events; this is the basis of our petitionary prayers when we seek the help of God.  We are also invited to show compassion to our neighbor as Jesus taught us, etc.  However, there may come those times and situations where we have no sense of any kind of compassion either from God or from our neighbor.  The true Sufi is not lost here; he/she knows that all, absolutely all that is, is grounded in and manifests the Mercy of God.  The doctor may tell me that I have cancer; it is the Mercy of God.  I may not be able to explain any such thing, and in fact according to the Sufis my only “window” into this mystery is through utter perplexity and bewilderment, not through rational analysis.  But of course, and this is a very big BUT, you do not glibly or randomly say such things to people who are suffering and who are not spiritually prepared to receive such a word.  Here again is Merton:

“That is the sort of thing which works beautifully if you’re a mystic.  But short of mysticism, it can get you in plenty of trouble.  If a person starts rationalizing about the thing, starts figuring it out wrong…starts saying things about it that are …produced by those that do not come from total submission to this thing in a completely spiritual way, then we…can find ourselves rationalizing all kinds of things that shouldn’t be.”


Now the average person generally does not have a grasp or a sense of the Ultimate Reality, God, present in all situations and in all moments and in all things.  Generally this is due to the deeply endemic dualism of most of our understanding and vision. We picture God “over there,” ourselves “here,” and “stuff” between us which we try to arrange in some acceptable manner.  The mystics and the Sufis do not see it that way, and here is Merton clarifying the picture:

“The average person, who stands outside the will of God…and looks on,… he does not understand that really everything is willed by God and makes choices, and…he makes his own plans, and he submits them to God.  His idea of the Mercy of God is that, he makes his plans, and then God being merciful to him helps him so that it pans out the way he wants…. The only basic thing that the Sufis say about it is that a man who lives in that realm doesn’t really know what’s cooking….  He thinks that he is able to stand outside of all this, and make plans, and size things up, and then submit them to Allah, and then he and God are going to work things out….  Ibn ‘Arabi says, ‘Those who are veiled from the truth ask the Absolute to show mercy upon them each in his own particular way.’”

Merton continues by getting to the very heart of the issue: “Actually the ground of everything is within me and it is God, and it is within everybody too.  And there’s one ground for everybody, and this ground is the Divine Mercy…. The people of the unveiling, that is to say the Sufis, ask the Mercy of God to subsist in them.  These are the ones who ask in the Name of God and He shows Mercy upon them only by making the Mercy of God subsist in them.  This is a totally different outlook.  It is the outlook whereby the Mercy of God is not arranged on the outside in events for me–in good and bad events–but it is subsisting in me all the time.  Therefore what happens is that if the Mercy of God is subsisting in me–and that goes to say if I am united with the will of God-…if I am completely united with the will of God in love, it doesn’t matter what happens outside, because everything that is going on outside that makes any sense is grounded in the same ground in which I am grounded.  The opposition between me and everything else ceases, and what remains in terms of opposition is purely accidental and it doesn’t matter. And this is…a basic perspective in all the highest religions.”


And one might add that for the Sufis this is the real meaning of purity of heart, that one is able to live with both the positives and negatives of life, the mistakes, the accidents, the ailments, the malice of others, etc., and also the successes, the escapes, the accomplishments, the good fortune, etc., and see them all grounded in the Mercy of God.   You are never then “outside” the Mercy of God, though at times it may certainly not seem or feel that way.  And truly petitionary prayer is not to be scorned or abandoned; it may in fact be the only spiritual resource available in trying times, and it may be an “entrance” into the realization that you are one with the Mercy of God in all situations. But to reiterate, you do not “preach” this stuff to someone who has lost their home or a loved one; most likely they are not in any condition to receive such a message and it would be certainly misunderstood.  It is best to help a person discover that reality in their own heart in their own way and in their own language.  A “spiritual master,” like a heart surgeon, can perform this “operation” with certainty, but I use that term “master” loosely, not in some kind of professional sense.  Mozart did that for Barth, and Mozart for all his musical genius was not a “spiritual” person as that is normally perceived—that’s why Barth was so perplexed about this person’s ability to reveal to his heart what all the big intellectuals and professional religious could not.  Considering the lack of such folk as Mozart, all we can do is help each other along the road to a vision of the Mercy of God in all things and in all situations.