For all that, however, it gave me pause to wonder: Why do we feel that in the face of these natural tragedies someone must be blamed?
Some blame God. Some blame the victims. Some blame themselves. Some blame tectonic plates shifting and thus come closest to avoiding the blame game altogether. But I suspect that even the most ardent naturalist still feels like some kind of wrong is at play, and looks to improve upon the situation, and thus implicitly blames yesterday's lack of tomorrow's progress.
Something is wrong. It is our to wonder what.
Yesterday was Robert Burns Day in Scotland--a night for eating Haggis and reading poetry. And all this was in the back of my mind as I pulled out our Golden Treasury of Scottish Poetry at supper and read Robbie Burns' To A Mouse (since one of my sons was reciting a verse from it in class that day). The poem was occasioned by Burns' accidental disturbance of a mouse's nest while ploughing a field in 1785. In it he cries:
I'm truly sorry man's dominion
Has broken nature's social union
An' justifies that ill opinion,
Which makes thee startle
At me, thy poor, earth-born companion
The poem goes on to lament the various inevitabilities to this clash of humanity and nature, and continues:
But, Mousie, thou art no thy lane
In proving foresight may be vain;
The best-laid schemes o' mice an' men
Gang aft agley,
An' lea'e us nought but grief an' pain
For promis'd joy!
I was surprised to come across that famous line, and even more surprised once my wife and I figured that in its completed form it says "the best laid plans of mice and men don't oft agree."
That's the problem of nature, isn't it? We are not at peace with each other. Whatever joyful promises which nature seems to hold, they are dashed by grief and pain.
But that's not where the poem leaves it. One might expect Burns to declare some final hope, or to settle for a contented, make-the-most-of-it attitude. But he does neither. Instead he addresses the mouse, enviously:
Still thou art blest, compar'd wi' me;
The present only toucheth thee:
But och! I backward cast my e'e,
On prospects drear!
An' forward, tho' I cannot see,
I guess an' fear!
The problem of natural evil is often put only to the theist, and only in theist terms. Why does a good God allow suffering? It is not a question to be avoided. But the question can also be posed another way: Why does natural tragedy bother us at all? And what makes the grief and pain so, not only objectionable, but vexing?
I am not sure of Burns' particular worldview, but he voiced a common concern: Whatever the problem between humanity and nature, we wish for it to be reconciled.
It doesn't appear that Burns thought he should expect such a thing, and so wished the nagging wish were gone. But, like it or not, we aren't mice but human -- and as such it behooves us to wonder.
In a song declaring non-belief in God, when Joel Plaskett comes to a line about buildings that collapse he brings the music to a pregnant pause. One might dare to call it a sacred stop: For in such moments we might wrestle it out with God.
What I have found particularly compelling as I've been drawn into this wrestling match is that in Christ not only do we learn to hope for a reconciled creation, but we also have someone to who can and does take to himself our grief, our longing, and even, incredibly, our blame.