Love, Grief, and Hope: Emotional responses to death and dying in the UK
Madeleine Pennington and Nathan Mladin’s report examining emotional responses to death and dying in the UK. 27/11/2023
Nick Spencer reviews Mark Dowd’s latest book My Tsunami Journey which tackles the ancient question – Where is God in a suffering world? 23/08/2022
“Save me, O God,
for the waters have come up to my neck.
I sink in the miry depths,
where there is no foothold.
I have come into the deep waters;
the floods engulf me.” (Psalm 69.1–2)
Of making many books on the problem of suffering, there is no end. When the global publishing industry has been reduced to a single department at Google, housed in what used to be the stationery cupboard, there will still be books published explaining how (an allegedly good) God could allow such pain throughout his creation. It is, to be frank, the only problem, and its depth is unfathomable.
That being so, it is a brave writer who sets out on this path today, so well–trodden, so steep, so lost in the mists, and from which no traveller has ever returned victorious. Is there really anything fresh to contribute here?
Mark Dowd is a Dominican friar turned journalist who has presented a number of acclaimed religious documentaries (not an easy genre, still less a popular one). One of these looked at the impact of the 2004 Boxing Day Tsunami and his new book charts and reflects on his journey. (I couldn’t quite work out why it had only now been published, though the delay doesn’t matter very much).
It seems strange to have to summarise the tsunami, so seared is it on memory of those who were slumped in front of Christmas TV that year. But, nearly two decades later, there will be many readers who have only a fleeting idea of what happened, and less of the horror it induced.
At around 8am local time on 26 December, there was an underwater earthquake about 100 miles off the western coast of northern Sumatra. At a magnitude of 9.1, it was the third most powerful earthquake ever recorded and, lasting nearly 10 minutes, the longest. The entire planet vibrated by about a centimetre and the quake was detected as far away as Alaska. The ensuing waves spread through the Indian Ocean, reached landfall heights of 30 metres in places, and killed about quarter of million people. We ate leftover turkey and watched in helpless horror.
Dowd, staying at his parents’ house, was struck by a remark from his father, like him a lifelong Catholic. “God could have stopped that.” Dowd had an answer, but his father was not impressed. The conversation ground to frozen silence. A few months later, his father passed away suddenly. The dispute was left hanging.
In the meantime, and with astonishing rapidity, Dowd had managed to secure a commission from Channel 4 for a 100–minute documentary on the disaster, which would involve him travelling to Indonesia, India and Thailand, all badly affected by the tsunami, and exploring how its victims reconciled their faith with the tragedy. Mourning himself, this was to be an exploration of suffering from the inside.
It is this that distinguishes Dowd’s “quest for God in a broken world” from the many other, often excellent, treatments of this subject. All too often, the problem of pain is examined in theory, in principle, from the outside. But suffering, like the Colosseum, looks different from within. It’s one of the reasons why C.S. Lewis’ A Grief Observed is more affecting and effective than his (nonetheless acute) Problem of Pain. Dowd, himself a grieving and struggling figure, spent time listening to Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, and Christians about how they squared this impossible circle. Empirical, attentive, multi–faith, uncertain: Dowd’s journey is characterised by virtues that are too often absent in theodicies that set out confidently to justify the ways of God to man.
The results are instructive and defy easy summary; after all, not all co–religionists respond the same way. Dowd meets two Hindu women who lost family members, one radiant with peace, another curdled by grief. Nonetheless, there are patterns. “If God has taken away my family, then maybe it just means it is time for my family to die”, a young Muslim tells him in Indonesia. “Such children [who died] could well have done wrong in a previous life,” argues a Hindu professor at Tamil Nadu University. “Death is your best friend… he is a companion who will never leave you,” assures a monk in a Buddhist temple.
God’s absolute sovereignty, the ‘justice’ of reincarnation, the abnegation of desire, the willingness to transcend the commitments of this life: the ideas will be familiar from many a Religious Studies textbook but spoken amidst the torrid wreckage of one of history’s ‘greatest’ natural disasters they take on an authentic, bewildering, sometimes inspiring, sometimes maddening quality. This is how the faithful have squared the circle, not as a means of settling an intellectual argument – Dowd’s questions about whether the disaster has left people doubting the existence of God are commonly greeted with incredulity and pity – but as a way of keeping alive and keeping going.
His quest ends with a helpfully timed conference at the Vatican Observatory, convened by the Center for Theology and Natural Sciences, dealing with ‘Scientific Perspectives on Natural Evil’. Dowd attends and engages with many of the thinkers – Nancy Murphy, Christopher Southgate, Philip Clayton – who will be familiar to readers of this topic. Their arguments, from both a scientific and philosophical point of view, are highly erudite and sophisticated. Materially creative and destructive forces are necessarily two sides of the same coin. Life is preserved by its capacity to recognise negative stimuli (aka pain). A world without tectonic plates would effectively be universal marshland, inhospitable to any life other than the simplest. A frequently interventionist God would render impossible the reliable causality necessary for order, freedom and morality. And so on and so forth.
These are good arguments; about as good as you will get on the topic. They don’t fully persuade (me) if only because their success seems to come at the cost of the classical conception of God. The God that such theodicies nudge us towards is rather less free than normally imagined. ‘His’ creative potential is repeatedly circumscribed by what is possible. He is also rather less involved in his creation than believers have usually posited. “God cannot step in and transform bullets into flowers some of the time they leave pistols… as human beings could not use their God–given freedom on any sound ethical basis in such an inconsistent world.” Perhaps so, but presumably that does away with the idea of an interventionist God altogether. By this logic, surely any miracles risk destroying the basis of freedom and justice. Easier to have a God that stands aside, in favour of nature’s processes, all the time. Theodicy’s God ends up looking suspiciously deistic.
To be clear, I don’t have better arguments than those Dowd hears at Vatican Observatory. As I said, the intellectual problem is unfathomable. If there is a tension between reason and faith here, so be it. More to the point, even if the intellectual problem were solved, it would make precious little difference to those searching through the mud and water for the bodies of the drowned children. Suffering is not really an intellectual problem.
So it is that Dowd’s final chapter wisely shifts the camera away from the conference hall and back to the bloody reality that has occupied most of the book. This time it is the blood of Calvary, of doubting Thomas’s digital probing, and of ‘ordinary’ saints and martyrs that occupies him. It’s an appropriately gritty end to his journey in which he concludes that “faced with suffering, those who respond with selfless generosity arouse in us, in our deepest human dimensions, a sense of awe, a sense of wonder.” (emphases original) Whether that is enough for those who want to retain belief in God in a broken world is open to debate.
Nick Spencer is Senior Fellow at Theos
My Tsunami Journey: the quest for God in a broken world is published by Resource publications
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Nick is Senior Fellow at Theos. He is the author of a number of books and reports, including Magisteria: the entangled histories of science and religion (Oneworld, 2023), The Political Samaritan: how power hijacked a parable (Bloomsbury, 2017), The Evolution of the West (SPCK, 2016) and Atheists: The Origin of the Species (Bloomsbury, 2014). He is host of the podcast Reading Our Times.
Posted 23 August 2022
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Theos researches and investigates the intersection of religion, politics and society in the contemporary world.