I can’t remember whether it was before or after I had first been exposed to the theory of plate tectonics that I noticed when looking at a globe at how perfectly the coastline of South America fits into that of Africa. It makes so much sense now that it feels like something I almost knew by instinct. Of course the fit is not accidental. It arises from the fact that South America and Africa had not long ago by geologic time (about 250 million years) split apart to form the Atlantic Ocean, an ongoing process that is directly tied to the ring of volcanic fire around the Pacific and of course to the recent Japanese earthquake, and the Sumatra earthquake, and countless others before it.
Supercontinent explains plate tectonics and how the earth’s continental plates are continually converging and diverging, conversely forming supercontinents and then the separate land masses such as we see now. The less-than-super continents of today are about halfway through the process of reconverging into a new supercontinent, a process that will take about another hundred and fifty million years or so to complete. After which time, the new supercontinent will split apart again to form some future land mass that future generations (of humans?) will nominate anew.
There is really nothing remarkable about plate tectonics theory. It is eminently sensible. Evidence of its verity bubbles, oozes and sometimes violently explodes to the planet’s surface in the mid-Atlantic rift; in volcanoes surrounding the Pacific, and in any number of other places where plate meets continental plate. It is one of few of the big scientific theories (e.g., relativity, evolution) supported by ample real-time empirical evidence (literally mountains of it) that enforce its basic tenets at every turn.
So, it makes for a less than compelling subject for a book. There is no argument to advance because there is no argument, thus after detailing the history of the theory’s development and what it means, the balance of the book’s 270 pages are mostly superfluous.
But the notion of a fluid earth with continental plates drifting across its surface not unlike wood blocks floating in a vat of boiling water is one that should never be forgotten when trying to understand the big questions about this universe, this earth and the life upon it. Plate tectonics and the evolution of life on earth are intricately intertwined. The magnificent diversity of flora and fauna on earth is a direct result of environmental variation and isolation provided by the ever-shifting continents. Evolution by natural selection of adaptively advantageous traits needed gradually varying environments with isolated breeding populations to works its magic of changing, e.g., apes, by stages, into humanoids and ultimately, humans. Without the boiling cauldron of the earth’s core fueling the continual drift of continents, life may have reached stasis at the single cell, or even have not arisen at all, which should be enough to conclude that the earthquakes and volcanoes, though oft-times tragic to humans caught in their wake, are necessary if life is to continue its majestic evolutionary dance through the eons.
Which brings up the theological angle to the Japanese earthquake. The director of my daughter’s Christian (Presbyterian) school sent out a prayer for Japan:
Father in heaven, you are the absolute Sovereign over the shaking of the earth, the rising of the sea, and the raging of the waves. We tremble at your power and bow before your unsearchable judgments and inscrutable ways. We cover our faces and kiss your omnipotent hand. We fall helpless to the floor in prayer and feel how fragile the very ground is beneath our knees.
O God, we humble ourselves under your holy majesty and repent. In a moment,in the twinkling of an eye?we too could be swept away. We are not more deserving of firm ground than our fellowmen in Japan. We too are flesh. We have bodies and homes and cars and family and precious places. We know that if we were treated according to our sins, who could stand? All of it would be gone in a moment. So in this dark hour we turn against our sins, not against you.And we cry for mercy for Japan. Mercy, Father. Not for what they or we deserve. But mercy.Have you not encouraged us in this? Have we not heard a hundred times in your Word the riches of your kindness, forbearance, and patience? Do you not a thousand times withhold your judgments, leading your rebellious world toward repentance? Yes, Lord. For your ways are not our ways, and your thoughts are not our thoughts.
Grant, O God, that the wicked will forsake his way, and the unrighteous man his thoughts. Grant us, your sinful creatures, to return to you, that you may have compassion. For surely you will abundantly pardon. Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord Jesus, your beloved Son, will be saved.
May every heart-breaking loss,millions upon millions of losses, be healed by the wounded hands of the risen Christ. You are not unacquainted with your creatures’ pain. You did not spare your own Son, but gave him up for us all.In Jesus you tasted loss. In Jesus you shared the overwhelming flood of our sorrows and suffering. In Jesus you are a sympathetic Priest in the midst of our pain.Deal tenderly now, Father, with this fragile people. Woo them. Win them. Save them.And may the floods they so much dread make blessings break upon their head.O let them not judge you with feeble sense, but trust you for your grace. And so behind this providence, soon find a smiling face.
There is almost too much to cover here. While the sentiment embodied in the prayers is admirable, logical inconsistencies in its theology abound. A theology that believes God to be omniscient, omnipotent and omnipresent and good in all times and all circumstances can not also have that same God somehow subject to the vicissitudes of nature, or alternatively, commanding nature in a calculated way to destroy human beings. The imagery of a god with an “omnipotent hand” and “smiling face”, while stirring, is simple anthropomorphizing, which we humans love to do, ever and again creating God in our own image, but no human has ever had the attribute of infinite existence, never mind the others. But I’ll mainly disregard those theological conundrums and focus my criticism on this: If God is all those things as I just described and as Christians claim to believe, God necessarily caused this earthquake by the efficient operation of his will; a will that also is the cause of plate tectonics that, by turns, is also how the Japanese geography and people came to exist. An all-powerful, all-knowing, all-present God is necessarily the cause of everything in the universe. It seems that Christians believe that God is irrational and unpredictable, allowing this earthquake so perhaps he can then show mercy on the Japanese? The Judeo-Christian God contradicts himself at every turn, and humans have only themselves to blame for his irrationality and unpredicability, which he must employ to keep them enthralled and credulous at his might. But the infinite intelligence at the core of God’s being that infuses and connects every speck of matter and energy in the universe with every other is necessarily eminently logical and sensible and rational. We know enough of its (i.e., God’s) creation to conclude by inductive reasoning that every effect has a cause. We are not always able to ascertain the immediate causes of effects, but when we can, we never discover effects that magically arise without cause. Rationality is the essence of God. There was nothing at all irrational or unpredictable about this, or any other earthquake. The earthquake does not reflect God’s impotence in the face of evil, or his irrational and emotional nature, but reflects the ordinary operation of God’s will in the universe.
Here’s my prayer for the Japanese (and others):
I pray that the Japanese understand and acknowledge that this earthquake is good, like everything else in the universe is good, because God is good; and that they understand this does not represent God’s wrath because God is not human, no matter how much anthropomorphizing carries on, and is not subject to human emotions like jealously, wrathfulness, vindictiveness, etc.
Though man can never completely understand God’s purposes, or its (I use “it” instead of “he” when discussing this profoundly non-human entity called God) strategies for achieving them, he can find tranquility in knowing the nature of God’s attributes, foremost among them that God is good and is the immanent cause of all things. The trick for humans, and the path to blessedness, is to try so far as is possible to see things as God sees them, i.e., to try to understand how something we see as evil is not evil from the perspective of a being infinite in every realm. Falling short of fully understanding God’s perspective, as we always must, forces resort to belief, but not in God the magician. It forces belief that God is just as we imagine it–good in all times and all circumstances and the immanent cause of all things–and just because our meager intellect can’t often grasp wherein lies the goodness, does not mean that it is not always there.
William Safire of the New York Times wrote a piece titled “Where is God” in 2005 after the earthquake and tsunami hit Sumatra. In it, he attempted and failed to explain how a loving and good God, as Judeo-Christian theology characterizes him, would allow, nay even cause, the biblical Job to suffer loss after loss for the sole purpose of winning a bet with the devil. The idea of there being a God in heaven so vain as to toy with a human for his own amusement is an attribute which we project onto God from our own hearts. The anthropomorphic God of human attributes that arose with the ancient Hebrews (along about Exodus in the Bible) replaced the several pagan gods that often acted worse than mere humans, with a more efficient single God of unlimited power, presence and knowledge that still could not rise above human character flaws. It’s as if the Hebrews created a God that behaved as they imagined they would behave if ever granted such munificent power, presence and knowledge, which is why Job is inexplicable and can never be satisfactorily explained according to the tenets of Judeo-Christian theology, and why Safire’s piece doubtlessly provided little solace to either believers or non-believers. It is only when we understand and internalize God’s true nature (incidentally, as the Hebrews originally described it in Genesis–a being infinite in every realm) that we can understand that what we see as tragedy, God sees as good, and we have neither the power nor the authority to question God’s purposes. When our intellect fails us, we must simply accept and believe.