ESSAY ONE: From Universe to Multiverse
(READER's NOTE: Officially, the word multiverse means several universes existing simultaneously. It is sometimes used to refer to the possibility that other universes existed before the present one, and others may succeed it. I use the term with BOTH meanings in mind).
Towards the Big Bang
As we move into the 21st century, String theory has gained substantial credibility through the development of the Landscape of String Theory (check out several webpages), initially inspired by Lee Smolin and popularized by Leonard Susskind of Stanford (USA)
In late February, 2010, northern Chile was rocked by an earthquake measuring 8.8 on the richter scale, one of the most severe ever recorded. It happened around 3.00am, in the dead of night, with people at their most vulnerable. It left about 1,000 people dead and caused extensive damage to property.
Earlier that year, January 2010, the island of Haiti experienced a major earthquake, 7.0 in magnitude. Nowhere near as strong as that of Chile, yet resulted in the death of 230,000 people. In 2005, a quake measuring 7.6 hit Kashmir in Pakistan, resulting in the death of an estimated 100,000 people; a quake of similar strength hit Northern Japan around the same time, with no known human casualities. Finally, in 1991 the island of Guam was rocked by a violent tremor, 8.0 on the richter scale; quite a lot of property was damaged but there were NO human casualities.
How does one make sense of these figures - and ultimately make sense of earthquake activity? What is the logic whereby 230,000 die as a result of a 7.0 strength earthquake (Haiti), but only 1,000 die from a shock of 8.8 (Chile), and the latter struck in the dead of night when everybody was much more vulnerable. Some earthquakes happen deep underground, while others vibrate more on the surface, leaving behind different degrees of destruction. But there is one factor, which more than any other, makes a difference: the quality of buildings. We know how to construct earthquake resistant buidings - they had them in the island of Guam in 1991 (where nobody died from a 8.00 earthquake) - and that can make all the difference when it comes to human casualities.
The Question of Meaning
Both Haiti and Chile are strongly religious countries, in which people turn to religion for answers when faced with calamity. Why is God doing this to us? Is God punishing us for some sin or waywardness (voiced by Indoesian Muslims after the 2004 Tsunami)? Or is it more a case of God allowing the earthquake without intentionally wishing it? In which case, why couldn't an all-powerful, omnipotent God choose another option? What kind of God are we dealing with? A strangely capricious Divine figurehead?
Scientifically, an earthquake is described as a shifting of the tectonic plates. These are large plates of rock, beneath the earth's mantle, forever changing, and in that process, shaping (and reshaping) the earth we know today. Tectonic literally means "pertaining to building." The shaping or building however has implications for the evolution of every life-form that exists on earth today.
As the plates move, they clear way cluttered debris and reconfigure earth's potential for new possibilities of creative evolution. Earthquakes are ESSENTIAL to the healthy functioning of the earth body. In fact, without earthquakes no life at all would exist on earth; ours would be a dead inert planet.
We cannot - and must not - get rid of this paradox. If we do, we get rid of life itself. So, is God responsible for the paradox? I will answer YES, and go on to suggest that this is a timely reminder to us humans that we must cease trying to create God in our own image and likeness. The divine creativity is paradoxical and it needs to be that way to uphold the novelty and freedom upon which all life flourishes. Otherwise ours would be a deterministic universe; many among us would like it that way because WE would know where exactly we stood with things, but we would lack the freedom and creativity upon which "the fullness of life" flourishes.
Without an appreciation of this paradox, and its central role in the becoming and flourishing of all creation - we will not be able to make sense of suffering at any level - including that of the human. Suffering belongs to the paradox. The discerning question then becomes: how do we differeniate between meaningful and meaningless suffering. What is the suffering that is necessary to the paradox, and what is not? And to what extent do we humans contribute to meaningless suffering, precisley because we don't take the paradox seriously?Many of our religious theories - especially around sin, salvation, and redemption - are attempts to get rid of suffering instead of cultivating a spirituality in which we learn how to befriend suffering in a more meaningful way. For many of us - Christians included - that is quite a daunting task.
I conclude by highlighting two aspects of the different spirituality we will need if we are to make sense of earthquakes, and live more meaningfully amidst the several forms of suffering that affect our lives today. We need to change our awareness - our consciousness - in quite a drastic way. This will impact significantly on our understanding of faith. And secondly, we need to take justice-making far more seriously; in fact, it will need to become a core element of our daily faith.Firstly, the contemplative awareness: This I will illustrate by a well known story of the Morgan fisher-folk, living on the South West coast of Thailand, who on the morning of Dec.26th. 2004 noticed that the familiar sea-waters had receded far beyond their usual limits. Things felt off kilter. Nature was not at ease.
These primitive people – with no formal schooling or education - spend their entire time fishing and live in simple hovels along the coastline. Fish is their daily diet; fishing their life-long occupation. They looked intently upon those receding waters and upon the fishes leaping anxiously. They consulted their elders and in union with them quickly reached a collective decision: within hours they intuitively knew that massive waves would break upon their shoreline.
They gathered their meagre possessions and headed for the hills. One the way they met a group of Western tourists, some of whom ridiculed their story. But a few took them seriously and accompanied them to further heights. Thanks to those Westerners we have inherited this amazing story. Those who dismissed and ridiculed their silly tale walked right into the eye of the storm and lost their lives. The fisher-folk and their accompanying visitors were totally safe!
By any set of standards this was a brilliant piece of discernment -and I use the term discernment in it's full Ignatian meaning. What a different world it would be if more people would use this gift of the contemplative gaze!
Which readily brings me to the second point of the commitment to justice-making. Japan frequently experiences quite severe earthquakes, yet we rarely hear of human casualities. Why not? Because Japanese law requires all city buildings to be earthquake-resistant. And the Japanese have the technology, money and resources to implement this legal directive.
The people of Kashmir (2005) and Haiti (2010) do not have earthquake resistant buildings. Why not? Because they are too poor to afford them. And why are they so poor? Ultimately, because we humans have devised international systems of politics, power, and economics that insist on dividing humanity into rich and poor. In a world of justice and equality, the people of Kashmir and Haiti have every bit as much a right to earthquake resistant buildings as the people of Japan or the Island of Guam. The central problem is that our world-system is fundamentally corrupt when it comes to justice and equality.
All of which brings us back to the religious questions: Who or what killed 230,000 people in Haiti in January 2010? It was NOT the earthquake, and it was NOT God. It was GREEDY HUMAN BEINGS - who refuse to share justly and equally the resources of God's creation. It was humans blinded by power and self-aggrandizement who could not see as the Morgan fisherfolk could see, and could not deliver justice because they are trapped in destructive power games.
The people of Haiti cry out to God, but God is not the problem; greedy humans are the problem! And its not up to God to resolve the dilemma. Humans have been endowed with the wherewithal to befriend the earthquake. We can do it in USA, Canada, Japan, Malasyia, and even in the Island of Guam (a colony of the USA). And we have the economics and technological wisdom to do it all over the planet - in the name of divine justice.
It is a HUMAN responsibility - not a DIVINE one. The divine rescuer is a delusionary myth. We have been endowed with all the graces and resources to rescue ourselves. Let's face that reality and get on with it.