Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Of Mice and Earthquakes

Yesterday I read another interesting reaction to the Haitian disaster which contrasted Pat Robertson's quite markedly. Reflecting on the notion that "earthquakes don't kill people, buildings kill people", the blog went on to repent of complicity in the oppressive capitalism that contributes to and even exploits the systemic weaknesses of the countries like Haiti. In the face of tragedy, instead of casting blame, it accepted it, and for that it can be appreciated.

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
An' fellow-mortal!

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.


Brett Gee 英 明 said...

Good insight, Jon. I've started to follow this blog over the last week and its really nice.

I like your "music reviews" and am too a Joel Plaskett fan.

I met a man who studied there in Scotland and he conveyed that it was quite an experience. I hope you are having a great time as well.

Tony Tanti said...

Great post Jon. I don't have much to comment on it but I want you to know that this blog continues to a place that I come not only because you're my brother but because it's great to read.

Lorena Ferguson said...

I suppose I’m stating the obvious in saying that our frustration begins at the fall of man. When God formed creation wasn’t His intent for man to rule over nature? In fact He commands it, “and He said to them . . . fill the earth and subdue it.” (Genesis 1:28) I think the real problem begins there, with our inability to do the job we were intended to do. Because we now live in a fallen world, the natural is wild and untamable at it’s core. The created world has become an enemy rather than a friend to us. But we can be at peace knowing that God plans to set things right again. And the natural world wants order restored as much as we do.
Romans 8:19, 22 “The creation waits in eager expectation for the sons of God to be revealed. For the creation was subjected to frustration, not by its own choice, but by the will of the one who subjected it. We know that the whole creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time.”

. . . and thanks for making me think today

Jon Coutts said...

Brett: Welcome. Have we met? Regardless, welcome. I see you are in China, is that right?

Tanti: Thank you.

Lorena: Definitely. one thing I've been wondering about is what this fall actually did. Disparity between nature and man and woman isn't necessarily the same thing as some sort of ruined state. I wonder if the earth would have quaked, and buildings would have been built, with or without the fall. I wonder if what got out of whack was that dominion turning to domination, and the relationship being torn. Whatever the case, we don't seem anywhere close to righting it ourselves. The groaning goes both ways.

Matthew A. Wilkinson said...

Jon, you wrote,
"Why does natural tragedy bother us at all? And what makes the grief and pain so, not only objectionable, but vexing?"

It's the fact that there's no one to point the finger at that makes natural tragedy so incomprehensible. We're up against things we can't control. It can't make sense, and so that just adds insult to injury.

If we could blame Hitler for everything that would almost be nice. It's hard to look for a reason and find none.

But maybe there's no good way to reason your way through tragedy. Suffering is suffering, whether it comes from God or the blind forces of nature.

I don't know.

Interesting post.

Jon Coutts said...

Matthew: I think you're saying what Burns was saying. I haven't posted the whole poem, and I hope I'm getting his meaning right, but it is interesting to me that he ends it wishing he could resign himself like the mouse, but knows he can't, and therefore this is his curse. Not the incomprehensibility, nor the suffering itself, but the fact that it bothers him, and seems always inevitable. It doesn't seem human to resign ourselves to our fate. Nor to be satisfied with our proposed plans for overcoming the nature/human tension either.