The morning paper arrived bearing a stark headline: DEVASTATION, and below it a grim photograph running from border to border down to the fold. The photo was an elevated view of a three-story building, its brick façade ripped away to reveal a block of rooms on the top two floors with their furniture unaccountably still intact, like the inside of a doll’s house. The building’s flat roof was strewn with debris, much of it apparently from a neighboring structure with its roof half torn away to reveal steel girders beneath. In the foreground was a wooden structure with what looked like an enormous piece of sheet metal siding crumpled over the top of it. Off to the right was a parking lot littered with more debris and fallen trees. This was no war zone but a city neighborhood less than an hour’s drive from my home in southern New England. A tornado had struck late the previous afternoon, a rare occurrence in this part of the country. Nineteen communities in all were damaged by savage winds, thunderstorms and hail. It was a shocking display of nature’s brute force, the type of devastation that is sometimes referred to as an act of God.
Where did we get the idea that God wreaks havoc on his own creation? It probably goes back to a time when the forces of nature were poorly understood and thought to be the work of the supernatural. People still think God has a hand in natural phenomena or at least can protect us from nature’s ravages. Nearly every religion believes that God is omnipotent, if only because otherwise we would find ourselves totally at the mercy of the elements. Of course, the alternative leaves us totally at the mercy of God almighty – a fearsome prospect in itself, as Job discovered.
After complaining bitterly to his friends about his treatment at the Lord’s hands, Job is called to account. “Where wast thou when I laid the foundations of the earth?” old Jehovah demands. “Who hath laid the measures thereof, if thou knowest, or who hath stretched the line upon it? Whereupon are the foundations thereof fastened, or who laid the corner stone thereof? When the morning stars sang together, and all the sons of God shouted for joy? Or who shut up the sea with doors, when it brake forth, as if it had issued out of the womb?” And so on in this vein for several chapters until Job, who has already been stripped of nearly everything he holds dear in life, finds himself devastated anew.
The human race has harnessed the almost unimaginable power of the atom but remains as vulnerable as ever to the depredations of nature. This was nowhere more starkly dramatized than in the recent earthquake and tsunami in Japan, which destroyed a nuclear power plant and threatened for a time to spread radiation over a wide area. This disaster suggests we still have a long way to go in gaining mastery over the elements, perhaps because we are approaching it the wrong way.
There is an episode in the New Testament that, if properly understood, may point the way toward true dominion – rather than domination – over nature. In the story, Jesus and his disciples are crossing the Sea of Galilee in an open boat when a storm blows up, threatening to swamp the boat. The disciples waken their master, who is asleep, and cry out for him to save them. He rebukes them, saying, “Why are you afraid, O men of little faith?” Then he rebukes the wind and the waves, and the sea grows calm. The disciples are astonished, asking one another, “What sort of man in this, that even winds and sea obey him?”
What sort, indeed? It is not enough to say that Jesus is the Son of God and therefore can work his will over creation. We are all created in God’s image and given dominion over creation, according to the Book of Genesis. So what sets Jesus apart from the rest of humanity? The answer is contained in Jesus’ rebuke of his disciples. Why are you afraid? he asks. We have forgotten our birthright and imagine ourselves tossed about by the rough seas of life, and as long as we are afraid we will continue to feel menaced by circumstance. “Man is God afraid,” Maurice Maeterlinck once said. If we manage to overcome our fear, what remains?