Some theological reflections on the hurricane disaster along the Gulf Coast of the United States …
As I keep delving into the history and teachings of Shin Buddhism, I keep coming up with what -- to me at least -- are astonishingly similar perspectives....
And as I have struggled over the past two weeks with the hurricane disaster in the United States, primarily in and around the city of New Orleans but far more widespread than that, I keep finding these commonalities. And of course no matter where we were when Hurricane Katrina struck, we all experience our "hurricanes" -- in our personal lives, in our families, neighborhoods, nation, between and among the nations -- and they too leave their share of destruction and debris, and sometimes outright despair, in their wake.
Monotheistic faiths have trouble with the problem of evil and suffering, because at the relativistic (as opposed to Absolute) level of things human reason cannot possibly reconcile God’s omnipotence and goodness on the one hand, with the fact of suffering and evil on the other hand. The problem goes by the fancy name of “theodicy” and it really all comes down to trying to address these two questions: (1) If God is all-powerful, but let this terrible thing happen anyway, then can God really be so “good” after all? AND, (2) If we insist that God is still good, but this terrible thing happened anyway, then is God really all that “powerful” after all?
For Christians – and perhaps for Shin Buddhists as well – those questions can be answered only in “other dimensions,” as it were. They must be taken up (or down) into the Absolute, and there alone will they be resolved. But on the human and relative level, our limited reason just rams headlong into reason, concept careens into concept, words plow into words – everywhere you look, koanic crashes abounding :-) -- and there is no final answer. At least not where we live; not on the relative level of ordinary four-dimensional human existence.
So I didn’t find myself wrestling with why the disaster happened, since sooner or later that plunks me right back down splat in the middle of theodicy. And I’ve been there and done that and don’t intend to do it again (if I can help it). There are no answers there.
No, what I found myself wrestling with was simply: where was God during the disaster? And where is God in the aftermath today?
And my Christian faith tells me something very much like what I suspect Shin Buddhist faith tells you: the Compassionate One is in the midst of the disaster, suffering with the victims. I have a wooden carving (Mexican, actually) of the head of Jesus wearing the crown of thorns and so presumably during His crucifixion. He is looking off to one side, His eyes are frantically open, and great brown wooden tears are streaming down His cheeks. This is the Suffering Servant prophesied by the prophet (Isaiah 52:13 – 53:12). This is Emmanuel – God with us, God suffering with us, God weeping with us. He does not give any answers to “theodicy.” He gives Himself to be with the victims. He is the victim (Matthew 25:31-46).
Christian faith offers a resolution to unjust, unprovoked suffering and evil; but that resolution lies in the direction (and the utterly new dimension) to which another fancy word points – and that word is “eschatology,” the doctrine of the “last things.” And that’s only available to us, in this relative mundane existence of ours, by way of the most intense symbols and metaphors imaginable (the Book of Revelation et al); and it’s not my purpose in this blog to dig into that. I have no idea how these things will resolve in the Absolute, in the eschaton, let alone here and now, today. I have no idea whatsoever “why” these things happen. In fact, if one of my parishioners asked me why this happened, I would be wise to answer the “why” of New Orleans and Hurricane Katrina with a meteorological analysis; with just a weather report of sorts. Of course that only skims the surface of things; but for the most part that’s all we have in this relative world: the surfaces. But as we cross those surfaces, if we listen closely and deeply (as Christians, but I definitely hear this in Shin Buddhism as well in the concept of "deep listening") then beneath the surface of events we also will discern hints and rumors of a Heartbeat ... beating for each of us, as Shinran knew, as if we were the only one, the only child it has.
For now, in this dimensionality, we have the Suffering Compassionate One at our side, inside the victims – or perhaps, as the Christian mystic Meister Eckhart put it, outside the victims. By that Eckhart meant that whatever slams into the victim goes through Him first. He takes, as it were, the first and most severe hit.
Where was God in New Orleans? God was among the tens of thousands of people completely overlooked by the disaster-planners, who brilliant folks who figured everyone had a car or at least cab and bus fare to get out of town. They forgot the poor. They forgot Jesus. I suspect they equally forgot Amida Buddha.
Where was God in New Orleans? God was among the tens of thousands waiting in line, more than a week later, for the next buses out of town ... only to have the rich and largely white occupants of a Hyatt Regency Hotel suddenly put in front of them in that line. They butted in line in front of the poor. They butted in line in front of Jesus. And I suspect they equally butted in line in front of Amida Buddha.
Why do I say this about Amida Buddha, and about Shin Buddhism? Well, I'm a "newbie" as they say in cyber-lingo; I'm just learning about Pure Land faith. But here's why I say it:
Something happened before the beginning of beginningless time (I think I’m paraphrasing the sutras correctly here?): when the Compassionate One vowed to reach out to any and all of us foolish suffering beings, and be with us in whatever form or manner to which we could relate, and walk with us through – and ultimately beyond – the sorrows and griefs of this transitory samsaric existence. That happened, even if it was in "mythic" time and "mythic" dimensions (which are no less real for being mythic); and later on, it continued to happen, to work itself out, in mundane relative history. It continued to happen by means of the dogged, gutsy determination of a Honan and a Shinran, and disciples beyond them, that the glorious saving power of the glorious Amida Buddha will not be the sacrosanct preserve of the elite. It will not be limited to the Hyatt Regency rich butting in line in front of the poor. It will be for all of us poor foolish folks.
If I want to know where God was, and is, in New Orleans … If I want to know where Amida Buddha was, and is, in New Orleans … it certainly seems to me I could do a whole lot worse – I could miss the point of this life one whole heck of a lot more widely and wildly – than looking into the eyes of the victims. And after I do that, and I see Jesus there -- see Amida Buddha there -- then I must move my hands and feet to whatever act of compassion or simple act of mercy might be lying there within my grasp.