This was posted by Fr Frank Breen, a Maryknoll priest, shortly after the Haiti earthquake:
Plate tectonics have been around for at least four billion years and they have been indispensable for enabling the evolution of the huge diversity that we have on our planet.
As the continents move around on top of the molten material below them, different genera and species evolve along very different lines on each continent. Life-shattering incidents, such as the K-2 asteroid collision 65 million years ago that led to the extinction of almost every species of dinosaur, do not destroy all forms of life on earth because of biodiversity. Plate tectonics, which have as unfortunate side effects, earthquakes and tsunamis, have been one of the indispensable elements that have made planet earth a very rare planet with complex animal species and an intelligent species (I am referring to homo sapiens here, in case he thought I was talking about ants or cows), and perhaps the only planet in our galaxy or universe with such species.
We have already discovered over 400 planets revolving around stars within 1000 light years of our own solar system and so far, none have given evidence of the many circumstantial but extremely fortuitous elements that planet earth has been endowed with. (Or what is the word we should use here: ‘blessed with’, or ‘graced with’? Those who have a mechanistic understanding of God may prefer religious words regarding the evolution of earth; I prefer not to use words implying supernatural causes of natural events.)
If Henry thinks that the Haiti earthquake or the Indonesia tsunami were bad, he should have been around about 4.2 billion years ago when earth collided with another planet almost as big. That planet left behind its molten core on earth, and began revolving around earth. We call it the moon. The moon does tremendous things to help earth evolve and maintain biodiversity, such as its instrumentality in tidal forces, which 500 million years ago helped evolve aquatic species to gradually become land based species, over a period of millions of years. The moon also helps stabilize the earth’s tilt and rotation, keeping earth a stable planet that life can live on and continue evolving greater biodiversity.
There are many other things we can learn from science. Before asking simplistic religious questions, we should understand science.
What is the religious question? Scientists have known for some time that an earthquake was due in Haiti, an area called a Zone of Fire. So why were so many Haitians living, schooling and working in buildings that could not withstand an earthquake? Poverty is of course, one obvious answer, maybe corruption another. There is enormous corruption in Kenya. When an earthquake strikes Nairobi (actually I don’t know if Nairobi is in an area prone to large earthquakes), and many buildings fall down, will people blame God, or more rightly blame the corruption that enabled so many people to live in poorly built buildings?
Regarding earthquakes: there is a 99.7 percent chance that a big earthquake will strike southern California in the United States sometime in the next thirty years. In other words, it is definitely going to happen. God will not cause this earthquake. Have Californians built buildings that will withstand this huge earthquake? Only time will tell.
The ethical questions for Kenya are: how can we eliminate corruption from society? How can we make inroads into the ever-growing poverty that is ruining the social fabric in Kenya? How can we make politics responsive to the needs of the countless numbers of average Kenyans? Is growing inequality in Kenya a major factor in the facts of increasing poverty, entrenched corruption, and unresponsive, insensitive politics?
Another religious question concerns life and death. Is death bad? All life in fact depends on death. Food comes from organic material that has died. Without other species dying, our species can not live. (There are many questions regarding how humans obtain food, such as overuse of chemical fertilizers and pesticides, overuse of fossil fuels in growing, processing, and transporting food, and humane or inhumane methods of raising animals for human food. But I will not address these here.)
Life and death is broader than even this. Galaxies that go out of existence give life to new galaxies. It is the same with stars and solar systems. Our own solar system will go out of existence in about five billion years, in probably a supernova explosion. This will give life to new solar systems that are beginning at that time. (Not biological life, but the atoms and molecules of all the physical elements, which may eventually evolve into biological life on some other lucky planet.)
What meaning does the death of 50,000 to 100,000 Haitians have for us? If it does not bring about the resolve of the international community to enter into a full and caring partnership with the Haitian people to create a new society on that island, the poorest nation in the western hemisphere, then their deaths will have no meaning.
If the international community provides not only relief and medical care, and homes for orphans, but also a true re-structuring of the economy of that country, of its social fabric, of its politics, then maybe we can say that somehow the earthquake was some form of mysterious way in which we humans were being called to repentance and to God-like action.
Once we are talking about mystery, we have no answers. A mystery is something that can not be known. God is Mystery. God’s ways are unfathomable.
Atheists will see what they want to see. They will be scornful, derisory, and cynical. Believers will see the hand of God calling us to repentance, to compassion, to solidarity with the poorest and to hear the Word of God, and Act on It.