Earthquakes, poets and God


Glenn Beck of FoxNews horrified and angered many when he suggested the Japan earthquake could be the work of a vengeful God. Most of us vehemently deny such a possibility. 

Beck is merely the latest in a long line of religious zealots to link various afflictions and natural disasters to God's supposed displeasure with humanity. Perhaps the most deplorable was the suggestion in the 1980s that AIDS was God punishing homosexuals.

We react against Beck and the like because we associate such positions with hate and religious bigotry. Yet it is unfortunate if this causes us to resist our instinct for deeper thought about the progress of humanity and our own place within it. 

Moments of calamity are ripe for reflection, for believers and unbelievers alike. For religious believers, science alone does not explain the creation of the earth. Therefore it's unlikely that they will accept purely scientific explanations for the partial break up of the earth in an earthquake. 

In the Quarterly Essay published last week, David Malouf gives a nuanced reading of the position that Beck has bastardised, harking back to the days when religious belief was the norm that reconciled us with fate.

When we were in the hands of the Gods, we had stories that made these distant beings human and brought them close. They got angry, they took our part or turned violently against us. They fell in love with us and behaved badly.

This refers to a pre-Christian theology that was overturned by the all-loving Christian God. But it does reflect a sense that fate was negotiable, as it continued to be within the Christian world view. Malouf says: 'We had our ways of obtaining [the Gods'] help as intermediaries. We could deal with them.'

Malouf's point is that although 'the chief sources of human unhappiness, of misery and wretchedness, have largely been removed from our lives', the result is that happiness remains elusive. Science and economics rule, and we have lost our power to negotiate. He says: 'The Economy is impersonal. It lacks manageable dimensions. We have discovered no mythology to account for its moods.'

And if religion has been displaced, so has poetry. Malouf recalls Shelley's assertion that poets were 'the unacknowledged legislators of the world'. Malouf argues that poets opened the way to institutional change by uncovering new possibilities that were capable of firing the mind.

Actually Malouf is not addressing the past. He is suggesting that poets are perfectly capable of uncovering solutions that could save us when scientists have reached their limits. That could very well be now, given the bleak outlook for attempts to avoid a nuclear calamity in Japan.

Michael MullinsMichael Mullins is editor of Eureka Street.

Topic tags: Mullins, Glenn Beck, FoxNews, Japan earthquake, God's punishment, AIDS, David Malouf, Quarterly Essay



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We poets can also help out when lawyers have reached their limits, or, even better, at the beginning, when lawmakers are trying to identify the values on which laws are to be based.

geoff fox | 21 March 2011  

Earthquakes, poets, and God are the subjects of this piece by Andrew McGowan that are good reading for anyone, and I mean anyone, interested in the subject of earthquakes, poets, or God:

PHILIP HARVEY | 21 March 2011  

David Malouf is a fine fiction writer, but should confine himself to that task and leave theology to the theologians. Both Malouf and the article does not reflect the contribution Augustine and Calvin made to Western thought in dealing with disasters and the issue of theodicy.

Finally, the scaremongering 'Last Days' preachers ignore the general principles of physics and geology which highlight that the earth is cooling and as a consequence, its crust is moving as it compresses. Once again, secondary causes which work within the physical world are dismissed and God is posited as the cause of everything. In so doing, it makes God responsible for evil. Such a god would be (in character) the devil himself.

rob culhane | 21 March 2011  

We poets could help or hinder in the process of writing towards a magnanimous life and lively for us all, if that is at all possible, accepting that there are, but of course, only moments of perfection.

Joyce | 21 March 2011  

"For religious believers, science alone does not explain the creation of the earth." Well I'm a religious believer, and I believe science does, or at least could, explain the creation of the earth. Science does not explain the creation of the universe but given the universe science can explain the creation of the things in it.

Gavan Breen | 21 March 2011  

God may not be vengeful I agree
However if God is not intervetionist where is the value in belief?

I puzzle over this conundrum often as an atheist who indeed relies on the self in difficult situations.

Over time this situation has not been vastly different from when I believed.

GAJ | 21 March 2011  

Those who have monitored Glenn Beck in recent years do not have to be star members of Mensa to understand that he is a man of very limited reflexive thought at the very best and a phoney, dangerous, dissembler at worst. He devoutly takes as his moral mentors Moses, Christ, Abe Lincoln, The Mahatma, Martin Luther King Jr and others in order to validate his own doctrine of American divine manifest destiny and capitalism as the pinnacle of human striving and imaginings. He clearly has no idea just how dangerously subversive these characters are. His 'best of all possible worlds', is starkly contrasted with the worst possible world, 'the new world order,' a conspiracy devised by the UN, Unions, Socialism/communism, an ill defined pan Muslim caliphate - you name it, they're out there and they aim to destroy us! The poor man has no soul, no poetry and his 'logic' bears no intellectual tonnage. He is confusion in search of coherence. 'The poet only asks to get his head into the heavens. It is the logician who seeks to get the heavens into his head. And it is his head that splits.' - C.K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy.

David Timbs | 21 March 2011  

Ah, David Timms, reading your critique another statement came to mind: 'Logic is a promiscuous thing, it transfers itself from one domain to another.' (Anon.) Now I'd better make some lunch.

Joyce | 21 March 2011  

I suspect cartoonists can do the same for us - some of Leunig makes sense of stuff for me sometimes and Alston in the West Australian sometimes makes me cry and sometimes makes me mad, but does help see things a bit differently.

Marie Wilson | 21 March 2011  

I'm a poet and a scientist - my brain does both. I reflect about the progress of humanity and our place within it. My science doesn't "rule" nor does it attempt to, it endeavours to reveal.

Kay Lefevre | 25 March 2011  

Glenn Beck works for Fox news, what do you expect. Having said that, I have been beginning to wonder: floods, fires, earthquakes, tsunamis and now the locusts I encountered on a recent trip out to the country! Poets are certainly ahead of the game and the myth-makers, but there aren't many younger people I know reading poetry, well music and songs are poetry, but do you include Lady Gaga in that? Poetry bookshops are more endangered than Catholic parishes. At last count I believe there were only four poetry bookshops left in the world including Melbourne's very fine Collected Works bookshop in the Nicholas building, 37 Swanston Street.

It would be wonderful if there were more opportunities for young poets to be published because there's a limit to how much Les Murray I can take. Kevin Hart's latest poetry collection, Morning Knowledge, University of Notre Dame Press is excellent.

Roger Horton | 26 March 2011  

I don't take the Bible literally and accept that there are contradictions so statements taken out of context don't bother me. I also think that natural events have natural causes. However, according to the KJV Bible God creates evil.

Isaiah 45:7 I form the light and create darkness: I make peace and create evil: I the Lord do all these things.

David Fisher | 26 March 2011  

Thanks to Roger Horton for pointing out the Melbourne gem - The Collected Works Bookshop. The one who sustains it deserves our thanks. He is Kris Hemmensley, poet and ideal guide to its fine collection of poetry from around the world.

Margaret Woodward | 11 May 2011  

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